Friday 14 January 2011

Beckett in reverse

Kaspar, Arch 6, London

In 1828, Kaspar Hauser turned up in a town square in Nurnberg claiming to have been raised in isolation in a darkened cell. Apparently equipped with no linguistic ability, Hauser could only repeat a single sentence: ‘I want to be a cavalryman like my father’.

Peter Handke extrapolates this further into the abstract. Ryan Kiggell’s Kaspar begins like a broken record: ‘I want to be someone like somebody else was once’. Rolling the syllables together disjointedly, his voice sounds oddly computerised, as if it contains traces of iron.

Unlike Werner Herzog’s film, Handke’s play does not merely retell the Hauser story. Instead, it is a staged treatise on linguistic philosophy: dense and slippery on account of moving at its own pace, rather than waiting for you to catch up. Questions buzz around like flies. Is linguistic ability somehow innate? How do we learn to assign words to things and occurrences? Does inductive application, trial and error based on resemblance, led to error or metaphor or both? Is language our way of conquering the world around us? At its centre is the basic conundrum of the dictionary. If all language is relative, oughtn’t the system collapse into circularity?

Handke’s text is a whirligig of formal logic. Ifs, thens, ands and buts flash past you like passing headlights on a highway. It stretches out like a tangled equation chalked on a vast blackboard. Every X is only a Y; Every this is that, he intones, turning the words over and over, inside and out, as if puzzling out a Rubik’s cube.

In the process, Kiggell graduates from lost boy grappling for meaning to philosophy professor, rocking back and forth in his wicker chair, with a mastery of the apparently meaningless. In a sense, this is Beckett in reverse: rather than descending into emptiness and futility, Kaspar ascends towards it. He overstretches his human dignity to the point of absurdity. Beckett’s agony becomes Handke’s bewilderment.

There’s plenty to chew over, but Kaspar’s satisfactions come after the event itself. During, it’s more than a touch bemusing; complex philosophy poeticised to the point of obscurity. As one of the disembodied voices that mould Kaspar makes clear to us, as much as him, ‘You’re not here to have fun’. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that Handke’s play might communicate more on the page than the stage.

In fact, the stage is acutely missing in Theatre Aya’s production, which plays in a pop-up theatre underneath a railway arch. The space is newly-renovated and biege: an office awaiting inhabitants. As a result, George Moustakas’s production gains a domestic feel, which does Handke’s play no favours. Its central character, its chorus of echoes and its isolated items of furniture belong in the abstract space on the blank stage. Here, with skirting boards and carpet, not to mention irritating pillars blocking sitelines, it all feels too concrete.

That doesn’t help Kiggell, who constructs a character where none really exists. Handke’s Kaspar is everyman and no man at once: he is essentially human. Kiggell’s features suit that. With the clown’s constant look of surprise, they resemble a face inked on an eggshell: dots for eyes, light curves for brows. But his general demeanour is too decorous and poised to stand for us all. He becomes, instead, an amicable bumbler. Along the way, he manages to suggest a legion of familiar modes – Chaplin, Vladimir and Estragon, Pinocchio unstringed, C3P0, Steinbeck’s Lennie Small, Stuart Sherman, Tim Nice But Dim and, later, a faded Kennedy, an old matinee idol or a sozzled politician – but there is nothing base or animal about him. Kiggell’s posture is too upstanding, too upper-middle class, too be simply human. He is too characterful.

Can something be of interest without actually being interesting? Perhaps that’s too harsh. The puzzle of Handke’s play engages and has left my head jangling with riddles, but its certainly one for already interested parties.


Till 6 February 2011


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The Stage
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National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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