Tuesday 3 May 2011

Enlightenment through demonstration

And the Horse You Rode In On, Barbican, London

Screwball comedies aren’t renowned for their intertextuality. Mind you, it’s equally rare to find a fart gag in the middle of a staged thesis. Told By an Idiot’s latest is so brilliantly conceived that it just about does both without too much loss. Its outwardly jocular demeanour delights in slapstick and silly voices, but its core is a passionate reflection on revolution drawn out of a pop-cultural mash-up. In fact, it’s almost a call to arms. If And the Horse You Rode In On weren’t so serious, you wouldn’t be surprised if Monty Python’s irascible colonel popped up demanding an end to such silliness.

A number of independently motivated radicals descend on Grace Brothers, the department store of And the Horse You Rode In On. Each is intent on direct action as public spectacle: the phrase ‘enlightenment through demonstration’ runs through the piece like letters through a stick of rock. A student plans to set her dog alight during opening hours. A retired renegade blackmailed into action has his unwitting son deliver a suitcase explosive. Two leather-jacketed Germans, reminiscent of members of the Baader-Meinhof group, sneak in with black bauble-shaped bombs, while Protestant guardsmen kidnap a family of acrobats due to perform for Louis XIV. Meanwhile, Mr Humphries, Mr Lucas and Mrs Slocombe hither and thither and dither around the store.

Each of these activist attempts is drawn from a different cultural source: among them, Hitchcock and Joseph Conrad, Dario Fo and German novelist Günter Grass. In fact, the whole work is peppered with referential asides: one scene deliberately echoes Grusha’s crossing of the bridge in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; another takes place in a cinema showing Bugs Bunny’s encounter with an alien set on blowing up the earth.

If the terrorist has become a cultural staple, Told By an Idiot are determined to chip off the old schlock. Torn from their original settings, these examples no longer seem stock villains. They stop functioning as plot-driving antagonists; those that afford heroes their heroism. This is not to reconfigure the horror of their acts, for this is already at the heart of the cultural bad guy. They are those that would do us harm and undo the workings of our own society. Nor, post 9/11 and the war on terror, do we need reminding of the threat posed by terror. We live it every day in CCTV cameras and quivering threat levels, in suspicious packages and police presence.

Instead, it is to take such acts seriously. Here, their causes gain precedence and their methods become reasonable. In that, And the Horse You Rode In On counters mainstream politics, media and culture that would have us believe terrorism aims only at destruction. In fact, it aims not to maximise pain, but change. It is neither mindless, nor wilful, but a necessary means to an end.

Here, cause is defined by target and Grace Brothers, subtly linked with Louis XIV, is pinpointed for its bourgeois values. Its fineries and haberdasheries seem warped luxuries. Disconcerting disembodied hands line the walls, grabbing at thin air. Its staff smile smarmy Cheshire cat grins; its customers, all with pedigree pups in tow, gorge themselves on cake and cream. It is also definitively British and one cannot help but recall the recent (peaceful) occupation of Fortnum and Mason by UK Uncut. All this is, in other words, an attack on us and it doesn’t seem at all unreasonable. If anything, it doesn’t seem enough by half.

That Mrs Slocombe, her hair a Marie Antoinette bouffant with a patch dyed drapeau tricolore, is reading Brecht’s The Measures Taken further implicates us (and, possibly, the company themselves) for our own armchair-liberalist inaction. We, like the professor shocked to see his theories put into practice, are accused of being ‘radicals at heart’ without much heart. Even as we opine over dinner tables (or on theatrical blogs…) we are as blindly uncomprehending as Bugs Bunny when he asks the alien, ‘Why would you want to blow up the earth?’

In his Director’s Note, Paul Hunter refers to the structure of Pulp Fiction, as various narratives converge on a single point. The truth is that Tarentino’s characteristic neatness is lacking, which weakens the political thrust of the piece. Prone to distraction for the sake of a gag, it swerves between goofiness and ardour. Often a relatively serious scene is dressed up with a wacky device; usually, actors dubbing dialogue over the action.

As such it doesn’t quite stand comparison to the madcap satires of the Theatre of the Absurd. Though it has strong parallels with that body of work, particularly Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers (often translated as The Arsonists), And the Horse You Rode In On lacks the tight focus of something taken to its logical conclusions.

Even so, this is a work that deserves celebration for its vast intelligence and willing attempt to say the unspeakable. And the Horse You Rode In On In On raises a smile even as it raises hell.

Till 14 May 2011

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