Germanic theatre of the bizarre

As the theatre festival continues, I find myself attending plays that I wouldn’t usually consider. That’s the benefit of volunteering. Once the audience is in its seat, the choice is stark – sit outside silently and gaze at Facebook – if there is a sufficiently strong Wifi signal. Or actually see the show.

This evening was at Teachers’ Club on Parnell Square. A pleasant and tastefully appointed venue that as well as the Gay Theatre Festival holds various different events on an on-going basis – such as the Anarchist Bookfair; the Communist Party of Ireland’s AGM; the Vegan Club’s get-togethers – much respect to vegans but I suspect they may be too weak from hunger to party like its 1999 on a regular basis.

Last night’s double bill involved two plays which had no similarity to each other.

The first was a play called ‘Remember Me’ by a Canadian francophone playwright called Michel Tremblay – and was a translation from his 1981 play ‘Les Anciennes Odeurs’ (‘The old stenches’).

It’s set in 1981 but has relocated from Quebec to Ireland, and is a two-hander between a former couple – an English professor and his younger ex – a successful soap opera actor, as they thrash out their relationship and where it all went wrong.

Now it’s a wordy play – oh so many words. And it was a smidge disappointing. The performances themselves were very good – and I have much respect for any actor that can learn that massive volume of text, and still give a decent show. My problem was with the play itself.

It was written at a time when the modern day gay rights movement was in its early years – therefore all the great gay themes of the era were explored in relentless detail – coming out, the importance of being out, how gay relationships are different from straight ones, how parents find it difficult to accept their gay children; how coming out could potentially ruin you.

The problem was that this had been reset in Ireland. Ireland in 1981 where being gay was a life lived completely in the shadows – discussions about coming out simply wouldn’t have happened. Homosexuality was a crime until 1993. In 2016 it seemed strange to present a period piece like this, without putting it into the proper context of the time.

It was all a bit jarring – it sort of reminded me of ‘The Astonished Heart’ by Noel Coward – a play I appeared in some years ago. This was probably the most difficult role I ever played. It was set in the 1930s. Christian is a shrink; Barbara is his fluttering wife; Leonora is her old school chum who arrives after a long absence and has a steamy affair with Christian leading to inevitable tragedy. The version we did updated the action to 2013, and fluttering Barbara was now a man – Baz who is in a same sex marriage to Christian who still has the steamy affair with Leonora.

I played Baz. Well of course I did.

While the idea of updating the setting was a good one, the problem was that the script (and my role in particular) was still written from the perspective of a 1930s housewife, contemplating the scandal and uncertain future a divorce would mean for her. It all sounded a bit unconvincing to my 21st century ears. This play was reviewed – and it was a review of fire and brimstone which singled me out as the weakest link. I still jolt awake with the sweats, on occasion, when I think about it.

The 2nd play was called ‘Sex Maniac: Anarchist Theatre for the Mentally Unhinged’ – a German play.

Well I say ‘play’, but I suppose a more accurate description would be that it was an art installation involving video and performance art.

It was all very modern.

So modern in fact, that old fashioned notions such as a plot or a script were abolished.

Before it began, Herr Direktor issued strict warnings that told us that if anyone was caught filming the performance would be stopped – as the actor’s anonymity needed to be protected. What? What? What?

The set involved the stage floor, wall and ceiling covered in tarpaulin with a video screen at the back of the stage. The naked actor appeared on stage (and on screen simultaneously), and he proceeded to shriek and shout various lines of unrelated text – which appeared onscreen as he uttered them. All were somehow related to the inner workings of his supposedly sick mind. Some props involved were socks, whipped cream; a doughnut (which he pleasured); an apple (which he pleasured); a piece of raw liver (which he pleasured). He was smeared in black handprints. He moved among the audience. He screamed. A lot.

I was the sole occupant of the front row. Every time he ventured out to meet his public I prayed to Dolly Parton that he’d ignore me. I love being on stage, but this evening I was perfectly content to remain a spectator. I think my glittery volunteer badge protected me.

There was a heavy cacophony of loud industrial noise for the finale – which I won’t spoil for you.

It was all mucho bizarro. The audience was a little bit discombobulated. Myself and a fellow volunteer seemed to agree subconsciously about halfway through the show, that this stereotype of Germans having no sense of humour is nonsense, and that this was a dark comedy, and we sat back and chortled our way through the rest of the show.

And strangely enough, as insane as the show was – it was entertaining. Memorable for sure.

I hope the actor and director cleaned the stage after the show was over. It wouldn’t seem fair to leave it to the cleaning staff. Although I suppose the tarpaulin onstage wasn’t just for visual effect.

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