Monday 12 March 2018

nothing but theatre (for the time being)

‘And now in the twenty-first century, what we’re calling an age of terror, it would seem for the time being, which is the time of theatre, that the perilous tension is worse, even more ambiguous, with innumerable bodies dying […]. Whatever the reasons for it […] the paranoia is growing, what with tunnelled networks, stateless, like dreadnaughts spreading dread, with conspiracy theories and secrecies, homeland security dubious and everything out of sight. If you really think it over, how does any theatre, by whatever theatrical means, really match up with that, or the pervasiveness of seeming that, in the material world, not virtual at all, appears in actuality – now a perversion of seeming? - to make it nothing but theatre’
(Blau 2006: 243).

In recent days, as another year comes to an end and a new one begins, I have been re-visiting more than a decade’s worth of issues of Performance Research, from ‘The Temper of the Times’ to ‘Lexicon’. Perhaps inevitably this immersive return has stimulated a great deal of reflection: in particular, on performance and theatre (the latter so often constituted as performance’s shameful ‘other’, to be denied or repressed); on the nature of the ‘event’ and the im/possibility of its inscription; and on events in my own life and in the wider world that run parallel to and inform my evolving involvement in the journal and other sites for research, collaboration and purposeful play.

In this time of apparently ‘nothing but theatre’ in the theatres of international politics and war, nonetheless all sorts of other performative events insistently leak into embodied experience and histories from the policed parameters of pervasive and perverse ‘seeming’. The ‘nothing but’ in Blau’s ‘nothing but theatre’ knowingly summons the ghosts of ongoing anti-theatrical prejudice, from Michael Fried to Marina Abramovic (at least until recently with Marina). Like most prejudices, it unwittingly constitutes phantasms of the particular modes of practice being rejected, while overlooking other modes: in this context, other ‘theatres’ hosting their own critique, other economies of representation aware of the disastrous paraphernalia of pretence (‘To Hide, to Show: that is theatrality’, Lyotard 1997: 282), and of the enabling possibilities of playing or flirting with mimesis’s seams and its inevitable compromise. And it is precisely these other theatres in an expanded field of performance, in themselves ‘anti-theatres’, that Performance Research has endeavoured to create critical spaces for. The five essays that follow employ diverse modes of writing (into and after) the event, in order to unfold the ‘nothing but’ and touch on the particularities of some of these other practices, including work made by Boris Nieslony, Victoria, Forster and Heighes, Ernst Fischer, Needcompany, Einar Schleef, Christoph Marthaler, René Pollesch, Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke.

For my own part, in re-reading these past issues I am thrown back on memories of ‘temporary zones of meeting’ (Allsopp) over the past decade that ghost my psyche still; and they track me, dog me ‘in the material world’. Most of them are traces of encounter events in localised, ‘marginal’ contexts – catalytic flarings into appearance of the sublime and unpredictable, the anomalous and interruptive, the polyphonous and contradictory, the untimely in the everyday, the heart-quickening, the disorienting, the irrecuperable, the not-yet-known, the more-than-one, the so-much-more-than-me. If my enumeration of some of them here seems narcissistic, ‘nothing but theatre’, forgive me, my intention is elsewhere, far from ‘me’. As occasions of and provocations to identity and difference, interaction and exchange, the dramaturgies of these active vanishings seem to me to stage performative topographies of hopes and fears, desires and incredulities aplenty. ‘Seized with the promise of alterity’ (Kear), they ‘strike’ me, and prise ‘me’ open to the world. And the proliferative ambiguities, indeterminacies and oscillations of these momentary and momentous razor kites over the ‘mountain of dust’ (Deufert & Plischke) demand the fidelity of an attentive self-in-process.


Bush fires en route to the horses near Perth in Western Australia, the fireball that shot across the road in front of us like a missile and incinerated a small wooden bridge. 

Watching Australian Rules Football at the MCG in Melbourne with Mark M, who taught me to see artistry and choreography - to paraphrase the sports writer Richard Williams describing Zidane, to perceive the ways in which certain playmakers have the capacity to see ‘time and space and angles where we see only confusion’. 

Tracking Pete Goss’s astonishing catamaran leaving Dartmouth for the last time on its first and final voyage, flying jauntily past Start Point in full sail towards the horizon and its fate. 

Squatting with a group of others over a pavement-level grating in Barcelona to glimpse odd fragments of Boris Nieslony’s mysterious and profoundly unsettling actions in an underground space. 

Sliding a block of ice through the streets of Barcelona to Las Ramblas with Gregg and Gary, in an attempt to re-member the river that once ran down to the sea. 

The breakdown into a state of dis/grace finally triggered by Lars Von Trier’s film The Idiots, followed by a month of sub-Blakean wanderings, visions and encounters around Britain. 

Fainting during a question about ethics at the end of a paper on animals and the event of alterity that I had just presented at PSi in Aberystwyth. 

The humbling clear-sightedness and courage of Jane, Tom, Rosemary, as they prepared for death while their bodies were consumed by cancers. 

The ‘shock and awe’ of watching lumbering B52s taking off from a Gloucestershire airbase at dusk, en route to Baghdad to bomb the Iraqi people into ‘democracy’, our every move tracked by a night-vision-equipped soldier on the other side of the perimeter fence. 

Witnessing the extinguishing of a belching fire in an industrial workshop on the outskirts of Exeter during an early morning drift with the members of Wrights & Sites. 

Being herded with other audience members towards our seats by a gaggle of no-nonsense geese before a Théâtre Zingaro show at Aubervilliers in Paris. 

Holding the hand of a fearful friend as together we watched live feed images of the cauterisation of anomalous cells on her cervix on a colour monitor. 

The rolling thunder of the moon’s shadow, the umbra, racing across the Devon countryside along the ‘path of totality’ during the 1999 eclipse - it swept away my legs and knocked me to the ground, literally. 

The excessive responses to the foot and mouth outbreak in Devon, the pyres and mass burials. 

The uncertain pleasures of watching my 78 year-old father playing a disorderly drunk in an amateur production of a play appropriately called Kindly Leave the Stage in the civic theatre in Maidstone. 

Anne K showing me the scar tissue where her breast had been, in her luminous flat overlooking the West Pier in Brighton, not long before she died. 

Admiring the elegance of the way Pina Bausch smoked her cigarette outside the stage door of Sadler’s Wells. 

Playing a tape of a nightingale’s song to a lion in the Zagreb zoo, holding it to its ear on the other side of inadequate looking bars, then smelling its breath as it turned and fixed me with its eyes. 

Standing on top of a vast rubbish mountain near the suburb of Novi Zagreb with Croatian performance artist Damir Bartol Indos, as he conveyed his desire to make a performance right there atop the tip, amongst the methane explosions, feral pigs and gulls. 

Instinctively ducking to avoid a burning barrel bobbing towards me through the packed crowd on the back of a man running blind in Ottery St Mary. 

Hurriedly texting Alan Read and other Londoners on the morning of the London bombings, my mind full of dread-ful possibilities. 

A nocturnal electrical storm over the bay of Castellamare, west of Palermo, burning ephemeral images of coast and sea and sky onto my retina, and my failed attempts to photograph the lightning. 

Instances of the compassion, generosity, violence and pride of Palermo, its palpable sense of loss and possibility; and then the energy expended by so many Palermitans enacting Lampedusa’s paradoxical contention in The Leopard that ‘everything must change in order for things to stay the same’. 

The wide-eyed man in combat fatigues who burst into our living room late one night during Match of the Day, a bloodied kitchen knife held out towards me in his open hand, his jacket blackened with blood from his stab wounds. 

Throwing water over Gary’s torso, steaming in the cold Devon night air, while we sang: ‘Oooh baby baby it’s a wild world’. 

Shivering with Sue in the hide at dawn on the Somerset levels - then the sudden roar of more than six million starlings taking off, the blackened sky, the deafening vortex of this unimaginably complex, surf-like ‘murmuration’, and its gradual dispersal into silence.


In addition, perhaps these fragments and the following texts in this section relate to a performance epistemology of the kind outlined by David George in the very first issue of Performance Research:

‘As an epistemology, performance offers a rediscovery of the now; relocation in the here; return to the primacy of experience, of the event; a rediscovery that all knowledge exists on the threshold of and in the interaction between subject and object; a rediscovery of ambiguity, of contradiction, of difference; a reassertion that things – and people – are what they do’ (George 1996: 25).

However, beyond or beneath the neat knowingness of this analysis, some genuine mysteries remain for me as to why these memories now, and what kinds of performance interventions they seem to invite. To quote the words of that celebrated cartographer of modes of knowing, former US Secretary of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld:
‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are the things we don’t know we don’t know’ (quoted in Zizek 2004: 9).
As Slavoj Zizek points out in his book about Iraq, Rumsfeld forgot to add a crucial fourth term: ‘’the unknown knowns’, the things that we do not know that we know’ (ibid), in other words, the unconscious: ‘the knowledge which does not know itself […] the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not aware of adhering to ourselves’ (ibid: 10). They are uncontrollable because there is no awareness of their existence. Perhaps immersion in certain activities – talking, listening, writing, playing, dreaming, the eruptive event of encountering another, attention to ‘intensities and irritations’ (Primavesi) of all kinds – can generate frictions and short-circuits to unsettle or jolt them a little, to allow us to glimpse their dynamic contours out of our peripheral vision, to know something of them ‘feelingly’. If my engagement in Performance Research as an editor and writer has taught me anything, it is this: perhaps one can learn how not to know fully what one is doing and still keep on doing it, knowing that all sorts of provisional knowledges flicker and take shape, for the time being, and that ultimately the unconscious will always make a fool out of the expert.


Blau, Herbert (2006). ‘Seeming, Seeming: The Illusion of Enough’, in Alan Ackerman & Martin Puchner (eds), Against Theatre: Creative Destructions on the Modernist Stage, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 231-47

George, David (1996). ‘Performance Epistemology’, Performance Research 1:1 (‘The Temper of the Times’), Spring, 16-25

Lyotard, Jean François (1997). ‘The Tooth, the Palm’ [1977], in Timothy Mottram (ed.), Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary Thought, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 282-8

Zizek, Slavoj (2004). Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, London: Verso

This text was first written in January 2007 as my preface to a group of essays on theatre to be included in an anthology about contemporary performance, A Critical Decade: The Performance Research Reader. Some years down the track, it now seems unlikely that the Reader will ever be published, although this text resonates for me still …

Photograph of starlings over Rome by Richard Barnes

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