Let’s not kid ourselves: we all knew what was going to happen. We arrived braced and we weren’t surprised. At some point, we’d got wind of Castellucci’s content in his last-minute replacement for The Minister’s Black Veil. Perhaps it was the Guardian feature or perhaps a quick Google search. For me, it came on the tube on Monday night, whilst flicking through my SPILL Festival programme. I paused and re-read the paragraph in question, part of John O’Mahony’s article on Castellucci. A reflex thought escapes before I can stop it: the old cliché of performance art, so often chucked about with passive-aggressive disbelief, springs immediately to mind. ‘What? They’re going to shit onstage?’
Of course, that leads to reactionism both for and against. Haters gonna hate; aficionados gonna afish, capice? In truth, it’s a more balanced affair: half brilliant, half overblown hot air. The overall impression left behind is of a distorted beauty and an intelligent concept later scuppered by laziness and hyperbolic iconoclasm.
Castellucci’s first half works because it is so effortlessly and strikingly ambiguous. In it, an old man repeatedly soils his nappy and his son attempts to clear up the mess. Before he can do so, however, his father has suffered another bout of diarrhoea. Clinical is constantly battling against contagion. Always the same, but always different, the routine wheels through cycles of nonchalance and frustration, shame and mischief, love and hate, tragedy and farce. Poignant though it is, it’s also absurd. One can’t help but think of Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. It’s Tartarean and yet also all-too-familiar; an image of existential anguish. It’s Waiting for Godot if Godot had popped out for some Immodium Plus.
Taken alone, this not only metaphorically portrays an essential image of human existence, it also serves a picture of our own futures. Each of us will be the son. Each of us will be the father. For that reason, the real horror (as opposed to disgust, which is a more pressing and immediate emotion; horror is concerned with the future) comes not from the shit, which we know to be synthetic, but the father’s bottom. Weathered and limp, it is so out of shape that it’s almost unrecognisable as a bottom. This eroded state of degradation awaits us all.
With the use of smell – and, my, what a smell – Castellucci also manages to implicate us in the actual event. The scent catches you off-guard. It’s not overwhelming, but noticeably present; an itch of disgust. Not gut-wrenching, but stomach-churning. Slowly. Like an ice-cream maker. After a while, you catch a hint of its taste at the back of your mouth. Two days later, it still recurs momentarily. In part, this serves as comeuppance, seeming to say, ‘What did you think would happen? Why did you come?’ But it also forces upon us an analogous situation to that of the son: we must, in some reflected way, endure as he does. To walk out, uncomfortable and disgusting though it is, is to admit defeat. It would not in itself be not a selfish act, but it sure would feel like an abstract one.
Nevertheless this scene, naturalistic and hopeless, is heightened by taking place in front of a vast portrait of Christ’s face. Essentially, Castellucci is presenting two images that seem, initially, diametrically opposed: one is absolutely base and unholy, the other equally and oppositely graceful and infinitely good. Castellucci’s stage functions as Large Hadron Collider, slamming together the seemingly incompatible in search of seemingly unreachable answers. He asks us not merely to consider incontinence, but to consider it in theological terms. Each of us must, therefore, attempt to reconcile the two.
The surface tension between Christ and incontinence results in an almightly chemistry. They seem two shirehorses pulling against one another with all their strength. Or else, two van der Graaf generators stirring up an electrical storm. The charge is extraordinary. The two illuminate each other brilliantly. Its as if Castellucci has given us a specific vocabulary with which to consider the action, that of Christian theology. We see it in all sorts of terms: suffering and sacrifice, nappies and loincloths, sanctity and taboo, Sons and Fathers.
All that, however, is obliterated when the action moves to the portrait itself. Beneath the face, skeletal forms appear like parasites under the skin. Slashes tear through its surface and the now-familiar slurry streams down cheeks, until the face is entirely eradicated. Behind it, illuminated bright and stark, is the phrase, ‘The Lord is (not) my Shepherd.’ All that was slippery and multiple is reduced to a single too-too-solid slogan. It is caught between faith and doubt, begging only a single question: ‘Is the game worth the candle?’
If Castellucci intended primarily to raise Pascal’s dilemma, he could have done so more artfully. Indeed, he has already done so more artfully in the first half, which raises the thought as one of many. When stated so unequivocally, however, the whole evaporates. What was complex, full of subtle strains, hints and notes, is irrevocably punctured by Castellucci’s tendency for self-aggrandizement. This is performance as billboard. It uses shit less for its connotations and whispered implications than its immediate effects; its strength, its stench and its shock. In that, an overall spirit is revealed: On the Concept of the Face… sets out to disarm, where it could have served to fortify.