Exquisite Pain

15 Jan

The company presented Exquisite Pain on Thursday evening at Performance Works for the Push Festival. The venue is a lovely small black-box theatre on the Granville Island tourist wharf. The set is bare except for two wooden tables and chairs, set side by side with a space between them. On each of the tables, an identical bottle of water, a glass, an unbound script.

Above each table and slightly offset to the wings, a flat-screen video monitor, reminiscent of Wooster Group shows. On the black upstage backdrop, in blue neon-sign cursive writing, the show title exquisite pain. Performers Cathy Nader and Robin Arthur walk out in everyday clothes (dark, jeans, shirts). Robin begins. His opening narrative is, briefly, the story of the show; he explains that its script is taken verbatim from Sophie Calle’s art exhibition and later book of the same name. Sophie Calle was to meet a lover in New Delhi; he did not show up, and later on the night of his expected arrival, broke up with her over the phone. This was the worst suffering Calle had ever experienced; she decided to tell its story to friends, acquaintances, and strangers as many times as it took for the story to lose its pain for her, and to ask each of them in turn for the story of when they had also suffered the most.

This simple process structures the show. Cathy begins, and speaks for several minutes. As she does so, an image appears on the screen above her. It is of a red telephone, on a white single bed in a shabby hotel. She tells the above story in some detail— the man she (Calle) loved; how he is older, a friend of her father’s; her exchange trip to Japan despite his warnings that he could not tolerate such a long absence; their plan to meet on her way home; the strange telegram handed to her at the New Delhi hotel; finally getting through by phone; the over-the-phone revelation of “another woman”; the break-up.

The red telephone fades to black as Robin then tells his first story, one of the many demanded by Calle of others. Above him, an image of a white bathroom basin, close-up. His story is one of betrayal by a lover, who gave no warning but left a note on the basin. “I didn’t cry but tears were constantly streaming from my eyes…The brutality of the white letter on the white basin.” His slide fades out.
We switch back to Cathy. The same image of the red phone on the shabby white bed appears. She tells the same story, with almost identical phrasing. The phone fades. Robin’s monitor comes up with a slide of a blue convertible. Another story of being left, of losing love, in which the car (once icon of family happiness) now oozes the pain of its loss.

When we return to Cathy and the same red telephone slide recurs, summoning another minute variation in the same story, there are palpable ripples in the audience—some amusement, some resistance, some frisson of recognition of the game. We will be listening, then, to this story for the next two hours, counterpointed with the tales of strangers. This is hammered home by the fact that each narration is prefaced with a date, a time, and a place. Cathy’s begins, like Scheherezade, with a changing count of days: “Five days ago, the man I love left me”. Then, somewhere in there: January 24th, 1985. Or: January 25, 1985, at two in the morning.

Even now, two days later, I can summon the red telephone on my mental screen. Every detail of that photograph, and the room around it, glows in the no-space of my mind as if it were my own memory etched in pain. And in a sense, of course, it is. As the performance flows and weaves its variation-within-repetition, some of the stories (Robin’s varying ones) catch at me, not so much with empathy but as kind of mnemonic devices for my own story. Some flow past, but at other times I catch myself in reverie as they end, realizing I had been replaying my own memory during his speech, checked-out.

From dread of impending boredom (having figured out the game so early on) I move to a cool interest and then to a fascination. As in Quizoola the effect is cumulative; at a certain point I realize that Calle’s narrative/ Cathy’s narration is not just moving its internal deckchairs, but in fact shifting, becoming less shock-laden, more wry. She is moving, slowly, internally, in a tectonic way re-ordering experience through the accumulation of days and their stories. I recognize an everyday truth: the way one narrates pain over time to friends, especially this kind of pain (the break-up), to conquer it. It’s the dramaturgy of lived experience. Storytelling and death seem to be the two sides of this flowing Mobius strip of narration; process that can’t declare itself either comedy or tragedy–to paraphrase Tim Etchell’s comment made in the artists’ talk– because in each (as the classic theatre masks have it) is the seed of the other.

Eventually Cathy is describing the event in short, theatrical terms. (“Time, Place, Scene, Plot”) Somewhere towards the end of this two-hour performance, as she tells the story for perhaps the fiftieth time, she declares: “As suffering goes, nothing special. Nothing worth harping on about.” (We—the audience—laugh. A lot. ) At ninety eight days, she declares (of the episode, and the man “I used to be in love with”) “Enough”. And it is. But it is not (as it well might be) too much. Excess is this performance’s raison d’etre, yet it’s a very quiet, ordinary excess–perhaps “saturation” might be a better word– like when it rains all day.

It seems significant that this performance was adapted verbatim from an art show. (In her article ‘Ping-Pong’, Christine Peters describes certain connections she’s sensed for some time between Calle and Etchells). Somehow visual arts seem like the best way of approaching theatre at the moment. This has been a slowly growing thought for me lately, but I can’t quite say why yet. Perhaps, sponge-like, I’m simply absorbing the current vogue in English performance towards “live art”. Perhaps the fact that I know so much less about visual art than theatre makes it fresher for me, less cliched as a mode of engagement.

Perhaps also because the theatrical audience/ performer contract is so worn-out; or something to do with the space of contemplation, the lack of insistence on narrative, the force of being somewhere in a room while something (perhaps slow or immobile, but anyway just THERE) is going on. The less forced (to re-spin a phrase) quality of the entertainment. The fact that it doesn’t have to be A.D.D –worthy entertaining; that it’s OK to be absorbed in just watching, without having to take a position or understand (yet); without the machinery of theatre, of narrative and all its clunking and whirring gears. There are musics and performances that I would describe as more like visual art, and of course the converse.

What might appear in this space? Is that a theatrical question, or an architectural one? Is that a meaningful distinction even? In any question, the question asks first and foremost for presence, but a presence that doesn’t thereby stake a claim to the authentic. Or should I say, it asks for the moment. What spaces conjure what stories, events, moments, possibilities?

The loving attention to pain (“exquisite pain”) also made me wonder, uncomfortably, why I nurse and cultivate painful memories with so much more care than happy ones. I wonder if everyone is secretly like this, even in relentlessly cheerful America, or if it’s a personal flaw I share with teenage indie bands—if other people are busy archiving their mental iPhoto albums of happy, smiling holidays and times at the beach, and throwing out the painful memories like out-of-focus snaps of someone else’s uncle.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I like Forced Entertainment so much. They chart and probe and take lightly a territory of undecided actions, messy lives, ordinary events. The mysteries of cities and the remains of relationships and take-out dinners. They muck around with real things. The fourth wall theatre has got far too important to bother with this stuff, by and large, even though it’s the invisible medium we swim in every day.

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