Saturday 30 April 2011

Occult ritual reconstituted

Do What Thou Wilt, Barbican, London

SPILL Festival


About sixty of us have just watched a nude man, drenched in some sort of bitumen-like substance, wrenched upwards through a pentagram of red lasers. As we leave the smoke-filled room, a jaunty accordion starts up over the speaker system; the sort that immediately calls to mind a Parisian café with rattan chairs and marble-top tables outside. It makes a marked difference from the croaks, groans and ‘Hail Satans’ that have preceded it.

In this cheery snatch of music, there’s a note of chastisement. It highlights the bourgeois nature of Harminder Judge’s Do What Thou Wilt. We have, after all, just freely witnessed a mock Satanic ritual of sorts. The accordion, then, asks why. It accuses us of bourgeois bohemianism and, perhaps, hubris. Weren’t we curious, intellectually and aesthetically, in the notion of the event? Wasn’t there a part of us testing ourselves against a supposedly powerful occurrence and its symbols? By implication, Judge might similarly indict the ‘real’ counterparts of his ritual.

In fact, the question of authenticity is the greatest strength of Do What Thou Wilt. Essentially, Judge has done to the occult ritual what Heston Blumenthal has done to traditional fish and chips, that is to say, he has reconstituted it. His materials – lasers, smoke machines and the sort of ‘gunge’ that defined my 1990s childhood – are broadly synthetic. The colours are artificial: nuclear greens and e-number reds. The whole event openly signifies its own contrivance, which is nonetheless defied by component parts. The pentagram through which Judge is drawn is still a pentagram and the words in Rob Glover’s soundscore, which includes preaching form occultist Aleister Cowley and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, invoke the devil in spite of being recordings. How fake, one has to ask, is this? The niggling idea that it’s symbolism and conjury retain their potency.

In fact, the piece is carried by Judge’s canny use of his materials. That one can’t escape the connotations of entertainment and, in particular, stage spectaculars and showmanship further reinforce the slight queasy discomfort of our presence. In fact, it works both ways. Not only does Judge highlight the showmanship within religious, he also draws out the appropriation of religious imagery in culture. Here, the recordings merge with Norwegian death metal and there are moments in Judge’s ascent that could pass for the stadium-rock wire-work. You know, the point at which the lead singer suddenly levitates, throwing his arms and head back Christ-like. We are not, in other words, the only audience under inspection.

Nevertheless, Judge’s act is difficult to distill into its component parts in the moments. One can’t, for example, readily distinguish the various elements of Glover’s score, which meld into a mass of generic darkness. The same goes for Judge’s descent, writhe and ascent: its neat circularity combined with its slowness make it a rather uninteresting watch. Once one has considered the various elements, both the materials and the act itself, one is left with time to kill. As spectacle (and as experience), it simple doesn’t have the elegance, scale or mystery to spellbound us.

Yet, this is not a piece watched for narrative progression. It is simply takes place and is lived through or alongside, witnessed. In that, Judge makes his points with considerable acumen, if not with comparable flair.


Run over.


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Resources


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

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