I am literally squirming in my seat. I would get up and walk out – I’m at the end of my row, so it wouldn’t be difficult – but I desperately want to hear how this ends. I’m sitting in a small auditorium and a man onstage is telling a story. It’s about a farmer who is kidnapped and cooked alive. The storyteller is explaining all sorts of interesting things about Farmer Palmer’s feet being sawn off (so that his body will fit in the cooking trough) and the smell of his butter-and-herb-slathered skin as it roasts over the bonfire. The farmer attempts an escape: dragging himself on his stumps to phone for help, leaving a trail of his own heat-softened flesh smeared across the lawn. But inevitably he is recaptured before that last digit is dialled: hefted aloft by his masked tormentor and carried to the dining table. Here Farmer Palmer’s guts are blended to mush with an electric whisk pushed through his skin directly into the stomach. This is the point at which I thought I might have to leave – and also the point at which I most fervently wanted to stay and hear the ending.
‘Visceral’ is a word I tend to overuse, but there may be no better application for it than Story #1: the performance art piece by Greg Wohead and Rachel Mars in which I encountered the grisly tale of Farmer Palmer, among several other, equally post-watershed stories. It is a gloriously delinquent show, based on the unlikely premise of an old episode of Come Dine with Me. For the uninitiated, this is a reality TV show in which four contestants take turns hosting dinner parties. It sits at the gentler end of the reality format but nevertheless bears all the hallmarks of the genre: sneery voiceover, caricatured contestants, engineered social discord. In Wohead and Mars’s mischievous tribute show, we begin by watching almost an entire episode of Come Dine with Me, which then becomes a springboard for a series of macabre stories speculating on the fate of each contestant.
The tales are deliberately implausible and yet morbidly compelling: alien invasions, ménages à trois, the aforementioned gruesome hog roast. They have an addictive quality, like snacks loaded with MSG — we are encouraged to binge now, regret later. And as each story ends, in the momentary lull before the next begins, there is a sensation like waking from a sex dream about someone you know: transgressive, degraded and obscurely triumphant. It is a sensation we choose not to scrutinize, rushing on headlong until the show’s climax forces us to pause and survey the damage. The performance ends where it began, with one last clip from the original programme. Wohead and Mars settle down to watch alongside their audience as the episode winner is announced and the contestants dutifully perform triumph or defeat, throwing small sheafs of cash around the room. Off-screen, the performers are seated at a little table on the stage and feast on legs of lamb, tearing flesh from bone with hands and teeth, eyes glued on the scene before them. A TV dinner designed to disturb.
Story #1 takes four real people and distorts them. Come Dine with Me does the same thing. What are the ethics of such a violation: conceptual rather than physical, forced entry by the imagination instead of the fists? And does our hunger to witness it make us complicit in the act? These are the questions that Wohead and Mars raise very quietly behind our backs, while we’re all too busy having a good time to notice. But even once they’ve shown their hand, there is a sense of reluctance in the audience, a resistance to account ourselves responsible. It was not us who wrote these cruel stories, who chose to perform them, who profited from them. All we’ve done is watch. Surely that can’t be wrong? I left the theatre that night feeling off-kilter, unable to meet my own gaze in the mirror.
There is a sensation like waking from a sex dream about someone you know: transgressive, degraded and obscurely triumphant.
There are lots of ways to frame the relationship between traditional theatre and the wider canon of performance art. You can talk about moving beyond the expectation of character, about abandoning that kind of story altogether. Or think of it like poetry: hard to define but easy to spot, a state declared through the proxies of setting, source, intent. My own rule of thumb is much more subjective: simply check for discomfort. Sitting down (or standing up) to watch performance art, you can safely assume you’re about to feel extremely uncomfortable. This might not be the most enticing description, but give it a chance. There are so many unique shades of discomfort to be discovered, out beyond the padded walls of the comfort zone, each more maddening and compelling and addictive than the last.
How to Come Out Black is a show I saw on the same night as Story #1, and one which takes a diametrically opposing approach to the task of discomfiting its audience. Whereas Wohead and Mars favour sneaking up behind you, Vanessa Macaulay’s How to Come Out Black is a short sharp shock of a show, as direct as a punch to the uterus. Over forty minutes, Macaulay presents a critique of pop culture’s attitude to black women, using her own body as evidence for the prosecution. Her show is structured around a succession of tongue-in-cheek ‘tutorials’, starting with a spoof DIY beauty regime. The slapstick is keen-edged but silly and inclusive, without feeling especially dangerous. Macaulay smears her face with honey and instant coffee grounds, glues strips of kiwi skin over her eyebrows, rubs cut chilli peppers directly on to her lips. Except that last one is not quite so harmlessly slapstick, since the performer can barely talk through the pain. Next she stands in a paddling pool and is doused with two large bottles of Lambrini. She has chosen an audience member to assist with this strange baptism – he is hesitant at first but soon get into it. It is extremely cold in the theatre (a converted warehouse) and Macaulay gasps from shock as the alcohol streams into her eyes, nose and mouth, temporarily blinding her.
The balance between comedy and degradation quickly tips toward the latter, culminating with Macaulay simply twerking in time to a rap montage – for five or ten minutes without pause. She switches positions periodically, the better to mimic the dancers on-screen, eventually settling on all fours with her face tilted up to watch the images jittering, those jelly asses bouncing up and down in rows. At last the stage lights drop to darkness, leaving Macaulay invisible, but the video plays silently on and the performer’s quiet panting tells us she is still twerking – albeit exhausted and shivering slightly in the cool air, her unseen body slick with Lambrini and the remains of the instant coffee.
Emerging from How to Come Out Black, I ran into a friend in the toilet queue. It had been her first ever ‘non-traditional’ performance experience and she was rather shaken up – dazed and buzzing with adrenaline. It’s like that the first time, I told her sympathetically. You’ll know to expect it now. Performance art, basically it ruins you. She nodded and disappeared into a cubicle.
There’s something about live performance, its sense of threat and possibility, which is aggressive and immediate. The atavistic power of embodiment, the sharing of physical space with the performers, restores the full impact of ideas dulled by over-exposure. Like a catalysis chamber, the performance space activates the agents placed within. Activate: to initiate, to animate, to trigger. Yes, performance art is a process of initiation into new consciousness; it is a bringing-to-life for audience even more than for performer; it can and should be provocative and contentious. But also we have activate as in activism – as in considered engagement with the imperfect state of the world; as in refusing to tolerate the intolerable; as in acknowledging the collective responsibility and choosing to make this a personal responsibility. And good theatre accesses a little of all these things. There’s something about live performance, its sense of threat and possibility, which is aggressive and immediate. The atavistic power of embodiment, the sharing of physical space with the performers, restores the full impact of ideas dulled by over-exposure. Like a catalysis chamber, the performance space activates the agents placed within. Activate: to initiate, to animate, to trigger. Yes, performance art is a process of initiation into new consciousness; it is a bringing-to-life for audience even more than for performer; it can and should be provocative and contentious. But also we have activate as in activism – as in considered engagement with the imperfect state of the world; as in refusing to tolerate the intolerable; as in acknowledging the collective responsibility and choosing to make this a personal responsibility. And good theatre accesses a little of all these things.
It is a medium that forces you to be present, defying the impulse to disengage or hold at arm’s length. You come away wanting to do something about it – whatever it is.
Much as I love that feeling of visceral connection, there are times when subtler forms of disturbance are the most compelling. And for understated impact, nothing I’ve recently seen in theatre has equalled Toni Erdmann, the latest film from German writer-director Maren Ade. Billed as a comedy drama, it offers a deceptively simple premise beneath which lurk unplumbed depths of existential despair. A father attempts to reconnect with his grown-up daughter by infiltrating her life in disguise; hilarity ensues. Ines is the buttoned-up management consultant daughter, Winfried her hapless father, and Toni Erdmann his magnificently shambolic, false teeth-wearing alter-ego.
Except what ensues isn’t so much hilarity as a long, meticulous critique of lives emptied of meaning: a portrait of that distinctive unhappiness which is the total absence of joy. It is a film about those terrible moments of insight when you imagine what your younger self would think of you now – how horribly disappointed that child would be, how pissed off, how confused. And it accounts the high cost of choosing, inexplicably, to remain adrift in a void of our own making.
In one scene, we find Ines seated in a nightclub. Her execrable colleague/lover is flirting with other women and dicking around with a bottle of champagne; her father, disguised as Toni, watches from the adjacent sofa. Toni’s expression is inscrutable. It could be feigned tolerance, genuine amusement, benign naivety or weary resignation. None of the options is good. With minimal fanfare, Ines begins weeping: not for herself, stuck in a shitty club with its shitty music and her incredibly shitty boyfriend, but for the presence of her father, sitting there with her, trying obscurely to save her, witnessing (and so making real) a degradation she does not want to admit she feels.
The other time she cries is even worse. She is standing on the balcony of her hotel suite, waving her father off in a taxi. Just minutes previously, she sent him away with a terse pat on the back, standing clenched and implacable through the long, sterile silence before the lift arrived. Yet once the crucial moment to connect has passed, the dammed-up emotions sweep over her – and she sobs for the unsayable, for the deep loneliness that her father has not cured, for the knowledge that even if he could, she wouldn’t let him.
Toni Erdmann is a long film but it feels even longer. Ade keeps us on a drip-feed of absurd situational comedy but this humour never converts into momentum. She cultivates a glacial torpor, consciously withholding the gratification of build-up and release. Just when we seem to reach a crisis, we step forward to find that the cliff edge was an illusion: the ground is still firm beneath us, life shuffles steadily onward as before. It’s probably the least hysterical film I’ve ever seen – and its perpetual state of composure becomes a kind of torture. We come to believe, as Winfried does, that Ines could do with a little more hysteria in her life – a little more of anything, frankly.
Winfried and Ines lack a common language. Faced with this void, each reacts with knee-jerk obduracy, exaggerating the parts of themselves that most irritate the other. And though Winfried is disturbed by what he sees of his daughter’s life – the sterile grind of it, the casual inhumanity – he seems just as lost and miserable as she is. His great creation, the charismatically oafish Toni Erdmann, is born of the desire to bridge the chasm between their lonely islands; and by the end of the film, Toni has indeed brokered a kind of truce. Ines learns to understand her father’s behaviour in the spirit he intends it – no small miracle for any two humans, let alone family. Yet this victory is carefully qualified. Her life is still ring-fenced by corporate loyalties and careerism; her nature has not changed. This film, like a good management consultant, is careful never to overpromise.
Toni Erdmann is being marketed to English-language audiences as a comedy. And yes, it contains scenes that made me laugh like my own father does (inappropriately loud and all in one breath, a huffing hhhhha that pitches your whole body forward and very occasionally requires a firm clap on the thigh, table, or similar). But it is emphatically not a funny film. It is distressing and tenacious and melancholy. Many of my friends absolutely hated it, finding it too demanding and joyless, feeling cheated of a zippy black comedy. But there is something valuable in this frustration, something akin to the power of live art to invert expectation. Not unlike Story #1 and How to Come Out Black, the defiance of the film forces its audience to sit up and concentrate instead of skipping to the end. In times like these, with stories spreading like disease through the trenches, ever so much faster than the speed of thought, and the lines of communication slashed, that is no bad thing.
Story #1 by Greg Wohead and Rachel Mars
How to Come Out Black by Vanessa Macaulay
Toni Edrmann directed by Maren Ade