Wednesday 6 February 2019

the zoo at night: beautiful mutants

 ‘… like all people who feel uncomfortable in an uncomfortable world, you want to make a map. Well let me tell you it is difficult to make a map in splintered times when whole worlds and histories collide’ (1).

It is a little puzzling to revisit the archival traces that linger from a performance that occurred almost a quarter of a century ago, in search of ‘what happened’: working note books, drafts, photographs, some video fragments, drawings, the programme, reviews, photocopied extracts from associated readings (2), and the odd object, including a blue paint handprint on a square of thick, water-stained canvas, a leather Arlecchino half-mask, and a finger-length luminescent peacock feather. It’s puzzling because the work itself and its processes are of course largely irrecuperable from these things, and the stories my cortex hums to me are of uncertain status at such distance in time, closer to fiction, or perhaps dream. The live event slips in and out of focus, some sequences and details still vivid, brightly lit and ‘hot’ in my memory, others largely defused or eroded over time.

However my memory of the place of the event - the New Fortune Theatre - feels remarkably immediate, embodied, animate; and as I write on this winter’s evening in my home in Somerset, England, in an instant I can cross the world and be there again. It’s a place I still feel I know well. Perhaps its clarity and intensity in my memory in part result from having spent a number of years working from an office in the English Department at UWA that looked out directly on to this space; perhaps in part this is the mnemonic residue of all those hours spent exploring its sculptural geometries and volumes, its live zones, sight lines, the movement of light and shadow over its surfaces. In what follows – a reworking and expansion of some earlier reflections on the production co-written with my core collaborator and friend Barry Laing, with extracts from the performance text – my memories of this place, its architectural and affective particularities, its agencies in the making of a performance, are at the very centre. 

                                                                                                David Williams

 The trigger source for the Ex-Stasis Theatre Company’s production of Beautiful Mutants, commissioned by the Festival of Perth in 1993, was Deborah Levy’s novel of the same name. Initially the novel was adapted by David Williams and Barry Laing into a performance text/script, which passed through seven written drafts before being submitted to the company. The sequence of 24 episodes in this seventh draft then became the starting point for the material outcomes of the performance itself, which were collectively devised with the full ExTC company (3).

Beautiful Mutants, Levy’s first novel, marks the beginning of her transition as a writer from theatre to fiction, and its textures (linguistic and imagistic), tonal shifts of register and fluid narrative structure mine and extend many of the attributes of her earlier texts for performance. It is a work of vast imaginative range and depth set in the crumbling world of late 1980s capitalism and commercialism, characterized by one of Levy’s protagonists as ‘the age of the migrant and the missile’. (4) With the scope and dexterity of a cinematic vision, Levy hunts in unexpected places and moves easily among the shadows in the lives and fractured minds of people exiled from themselves, displaced geographically and psychologically: their culture too near for comfort, the land of their dreams sometimes too far to realize. In a world of rampant materialism, competition and consumption, the city – Thatcher’s London - becomes a ‘zoo’, peopled and echoing with squeals of desire, dances of obsession and dreams of flight.
ExTC’s production was gathered around and written into the specificities of the performance site, the New Fortune Theatre at UWA: a schematic ‘reconstruction’ of an Elizabethan theatre, with triple balconies on all sides of a large thrust stage, an audience ‘pit’, and a second open space behind the regular stage – and all open to the sky. The architecture of the New Fortune, familiar to both directors, was instrumental in the conception and development of the work from the very outset. We felt that its multiple zones, framings, layerings, its possibility for something akin to the mobility of cinematic close-up, long shot and depth of field, for montage and fluid dissolves of location (5) could inform and focus the emergent dramaturgy of the performance as a whole. Although we would have limited access to the theatre during the devising process, we tried to conceive of the space as protagonist, material and medium, rather than as passive ‘receptacle’ or container for our imaginings. And secretly we played the game of asking ourselves what it wanted, how it could flare into a different visibility by a shifting of the geometry of attention. Ideally the event could both ‘fit’ with the logics and possibilities of the site and at the same time be in a relation of tension or critical friction with it, the performance’s forms and materials somewhat ‘ill-fitting’ in terms of the site’s received conventions and languages (as we perceived them, at least). So the theatre itself as a particular space-time to refer to, align with, push against, hold present. Ultimately, with a view to being playful in a purposeful way, we sought to defamiliarise the space and make its latent dynamics and potentials active and apparent. To this end, the usual orientation of the space was turned through 45 degrees clockwise, with an L-shaped block of seating placed on two sides and two levels, thereby configuring a ‘new’ performance space privileging proximity, encounter and sensory imbrication, as well as a looking anew/askew on a known space at an unfamiliar angle of incidence, its centre line now running from downstage right to upstage left. In addition, the space usually designated as audience ‘pit’ in the Elizabethan configuration was sealed and flooded with water to a level of over a meter in depth. This pool area, the thrust stage and all three levels of the balconies were used by the performers throughout.

In terms of design, the core components were located in the pool: a metal ‘island’ with hinged struts, allowing transformation from a cage in the shape of cupped hands, a claw or a closed bud, into, say, an unfolding sunflower (see episode 3, ‘The Age of the Great Howl’, below); a bridge – a spine, a trestle of bones – with articulated metal supports, which could also be manipulated; a silk and bamboo structure known as ‘the pupa’, a tubular tunnel that snaked around the lip of the thrust and into the water like some massive grey intestinal tract or larval invertebrate; a network of rope and chain rigging, onto which spectators were invited to tie small handwritten notes of desired release, like prayer flags; and the water itself, able to suggest a tropical blue lagoon, a black lake of indeterminate depth, or a sulphurous burning reservoir. The water offered reflective and scriptable surfaces, mirrorings, doublings, and endless possible dis/appearances, dissolvings and re-makings. In its saturated metaphoricity and material fluidity it was conceived as the unstable space of memories and desires, of buoyancies, rips and drownings – in the words of the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, water as ‘the soul of the mirror’ (6).
In this complex and dynamic space were elaborated the major roles upon which the performance turned. Lapinski, a Russian immigrant conceived on the marble slab of a war memorial, who leaves her home for a foreign land: an ‘island’, another place, an elsewhere. She smokes, conjures the martyrs and ‘love demons’ who haunt her, befriends a Poet, loves a Painter called Freddie, and tells stories. She is a kind of narrator, her voice pervading and animating the space of all the others, their stories enacting her story in turn:

Life is a perpetual to and fro, a dis/continuous releasing and absorbing of the self. Let her weave her story within their stories, her life amidst their lives. And while she weaves, let her whip, spur and set them on fire. Thus making them sing again. Very softly a-new a-gain (7).

In the flat above Lapinski, whose ‘otherness’ particularly confounds him, lives the Revenger. He exists crawling between earth and sky, swimming sometimes, mostly treading water, but burning with the struggle to turn his drownings into dreams. He is frightened and he doesn’t know why, he wakes in the mornings afraid and there’s no one there to tell; but incredulously and comically he is determined to be ‘master of his own fuck-ups’, and most of all amused by his own bitter jokes.

The Poet works on a hamburger production line in a factory on the edge of an urban wasteland – the ‘Meatbelt’, the brown underbelly of the city – with Lapinski and other women, sleepwalkers, blood under their finger nails. Among them is Seashells, a woman who can hear the sea, has visions, and loses her hands to the beast of the machine. In the Poet’s eyes, whole continents flicker as she transports herself, her workmates and the audience across thousands of imagined miles, through borders of every kind, no passports required. She has learnt the art of metamorphosis:
The night shift is nearly over. Soon we will return to each other after our long separation. We will be startled by the distance we have travelled, even though we are standing shoulder to shoulder in the same room. (8)

Freddie is an artist who glories in his own delusional ruminations on Lenin, Freud and Dali. He is a ‘lover’ fragmented by impossible past loves, including Lapinski, who realizes himself in the very moment of his immolation in the voracious lust and flaming mouth of Gemma the Banker. The Banker finds liberation in hatred and destruction. She is ‘love’s arsonist’, a Kali-like corporate raider who loots the city and every possible sexual scenario; ultimately she torches the Zoo in a maniacal, necrophiliac apocalypse of passion and pain.
Krupskaya, Lapinski’s shape-shifting cat, prowls through these stories and spaces, transformed by them variously into a grandmother, a corpse, a blow-up doll, and other shadows and reflections between worlds.

The form of the work emerged from these darkly comic and sometimes violent stories of exile and dislocation, and the possibilities afforded by the performance space. Dramaturgically and scenographically, the intention was to engender a cinematic fluidity that enabled radical jumps in space-time, sudden migrations, interweavings and collisions of discrete image-worlds: a kind of dissident, critical surrealism. The performance posited a cartography of multiple or possible selves using an episodic structure to speak of the pathologies of cultural ‘death’ and the possibilities of imaginal ‘life’, and the transitional spaces between. Conceptually, these transitional spaces were orchestrated as rips, tearings, overflowings, bleedings, ecstasies – formally suture, montage, jump-cuts – in an attempt to articulate an increase in the buoyancy of the imaginal pool we are always already swimming in.

In this context, we conceived of images as polyphonous ‘worlds’: collocatory syntaxes conjoining words, physical actions, music, sound and the rhythmed articulation of space – images as dynamic sites of possibility. The ‘images’ were thought of as the visible/audible/palpable intersections of these sites. In this way we understood the pool as a tabula rasa re-definable under different lighting conditions, revealing its depth or solidifying into an impenetrable, black void. The performers swam beneath its surface, emerging from darkness into the dreams or nightmares of their own stories, disappearing, then re-emerging in the memories of others.
The water, and the metal, wood, earth and canvas of the set and its structures – such as the bridge linking the front of the auditorium to the thrust stage – were ‘playable’. They served as musical instruments and pliable forms. The water deflected, reflected and re-animated sound, light and the performers’ actions. In ‘The Age of the Great Howl’, the bridge, which served as one of the sites for the Meatbelt, was played with iron bars for percussive and melodic effect, alongside pre-recorded sound and the thrashing of water. In episode 21, ‘Zoo Apocalypse’, the water was set aflame – fire over water – as were metal, wood and cloth dispersed throughout the space. The pungent odour of fuel and black smoke mingled with human cries and animal murmurings as the flickering shadows kept time with destruction:

The zoo at night is the saddest place. Behind the bars, at rest from vivisecting eyes, the animals cry out, species separated from one another, knowing instinctively the map of belonging. They would choose predator and prey against this outlandish safety. Their ears, more powerful than those of their keepers, pick up sounds of cars and last-hour take-aways. They hear all the human noises of distress. What they don’t hear is the hum of the undergrowth or the crack of fire. The noises of kill. The river-roar booming against brief screams. They prick their ears till their ears are sharp points, but the noises they seek are too far away. I wish I could hear your voice again. (9)

The spoken words of the script were one of a number of ‘textual’ components embedded in these composite images. For example in episode 17, ‘And All for Babies with Bone Disease’, the Revenger tells stories that collapse time and space while the figure of his father, enacted by the performer who plays the morphing Krupskaya, presides over his demise from a second balcony. Drifting piano music, the hollow sound of drips and a distant helicopter threaten the primacy of the spoken/written words.

In addition, we located a series of speakers in and around the performance areas to allow the soundscapes to ‘travel’ through and around, spatialising the movement of sound within the architecture of the theatre. One of the central audio images which recurred in different guises throughout the performance was of a helicopter with searchlight, circling ever closer, before hovering in the night sky above the space, finally careering out of control and being ‘sucked’ into the water with the performers (see below, episode 24, ‘This Does Not Exist’). The performers enact roles of ‘see-ers’, and the ‘seen’; they are able to transport themselves, but they are policed, living under the watchful eye and scorching light of equally possible repressions.
Finally, the particularity of the theatre space itself introduced a wholly productive unpredictability in two ways. Firstly, the weather became an active component of unfolding image worlds, particularly wind – warm gusts and eddies animating flame, smoke, cloth, hair, sounds - and the occasional summer shower, droplets disturbing the surface of the water as if it were reaching boiling point. Secondly, in all of the performances the theatre’s resident peacocks chose to remain present throughout, exquisitely languorous and bejeweled onlookers, uncharacteristically silent, taking up various positions on the balconies like baroque azure extras quietly performing an-other audience. This porosity in the parameters of space and event, their openness to the uncontrollable dynamics of the context (the allowing in of both a meteorological and animal ‘outside’), seemed to amplify and thicken the resonance of images, giving them further immediacy, body and carry.

David Williams and Barry Laing thank Deborah Levy for her encouragement during the production process. All photographs are by Marcelo Palacios.


The first image of the performance. Soundscape: piano music, a lament, emerging from a sound of sampled water droplets, as the performers who play Lapinski and Krupskaya walk slowly into the space from opposite sides and meet on the bridge. Krupskaya carries an old, battered and threadbare umbrella, inverted above her, like a bowl; a black cloth over her shoulders, like a shawl. She gives the umbrella to Lapinski, who slowly spins it above her head to create her own ‘snow-storm’; from the umbrella white feathers swirl and settle on her shoulders, the bridge and the water below. At the same time, Krupskaya wraps her head in the black cloth, for a few moments becoming the ‘grandmother’, bidding Lapinski farewell.

Both figures then step quietly out of this space, down from the bridge and into the water, as the journey to a foreign land begins. Lapinski moves through the water with the umbrella, looking straight ahead. While she wades, she trails Krupskaya in her wake. She is a ‘corpse’, floating concealed underneath what is now a black shroud: her dead ‘mother’ – a memory, a weight. As Lapinski approaches the metal cage, Krupskaya is released, floating abandoned for a few moments, then re-emerging to dance serenely in the water with the cloth. The umbrella floats nearby, like a monstrous damaged lotus.

A distant dog bark in the soundtrack greets Lapinski as she climbs into her ‘new world’ – an island, a cage. As the music slips underneath, she slowly looks around her at the audience, and begins to tell Lapinski’s story:
LAPINSKI: My mother was the ice-skating champion of Moscow. She danced, glided, whirled on blades of steel, pregnant with me, warm in her womb even though I was on ice. She said I was conceived on the marble slab of a war memorial, both she and my father in their Sunday best: I came into being on a pile of corpses in the bitter snows of mid-winter.

On my fifth birthday, my father stole a goose. He stuffed it into the pocket of his overcoat and whizzed off on his motorbike, trying to stop it from flying away with his knees. We ate it that evening. As I put my first forkful into my mouth, he tickled me under the chin and said, “This does not exist. Understand?” I did not understand at the time. Especially as my mother stuffed a pillow full of the feathers for me, and soaked the few left in red vegetable dye to sew onto the skirt of her skating costume.

At the age of twelve, when my parents died, I was sent to the West by my grandmother. She said it was for the best. I was to stay with a distant uncle. When I asked my grandmother why he had left, she said, “Because he is faithless”.

The ‘mother’ has disappeared into the water, and now reappears in deep focus, walking quietly along a side balcony and off into the distance, a blue light painting the plastic shroud that rustles around her: the memory recedes.

Which is how I came to be here. Where women were rumoured to swim in fountains of sparkling wine dressed in leopardskin bikinis. I unpacked my few clothes, books, photographs, parcels of spiced meat, and wept into the handkerchief my grandmother had pressed into my hand. It was embroidered with one scarlet thread with my name – L. A. P. I. N. S. K. I.

The music has dropped out altogether.

            Exile is a state of mind… 

(1)  The Poet in Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants, Jonathan Cape: London, 1989, p. 16. Republished by Penguin in Early Levy, a volume with her novel Swallowing Geography, in 2014.
(2)  This pool of loosely related materials, reflecting our fascinations at the time and informing our approaches to some degree, include an annotated copy of Ted Hughes’s poem/film treatment Gaudete, sections of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and of Breyten Breytenbach’s Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, two short stories by Gail Jones – ‘The House of Breathing’ and ‘Modernity’ - and essays about the dance-theatre work of Pina Bausch.
(3)  Beautiful Mutants was first performed at the New Fortune Theatre in Perth on 9 February 1993. The project was conceived and directed by David Williams and Barry Laing. The performers were Mandy McElhinney (Lapinski), Felicity Bott (Krupskaya), Barry Laing (‘Duke’, the Revenger), Andrea McVeigh (The Poet), James Berlyn (Freddie, the Painter), Anne Browning (Gemma, the Banker), and Kate Beahan (Seashells). The devising process also implicated the designer Ricardo Peach, lighting designer Margaret Burton, sound artists John Patterson and Andrew Beck, costume designer Bruno Santarelli, and the production manager Mark Homer.
(4)  The Poet in Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants, Jonathan Cape: London, 1989, p. 11.
(5)  Although these are characteristics of Shakespearean dramaturgy, film was our central metaphorical and aesthetic stimulus here for an approach to image making in the theatre.
(6)  Breyten Breytenbach, All One Horse: Fictions and Images, Faber & Faber: London, 1989, p. 14.
(7)  Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Grandma’s Story’, in Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press: Bloomington 1989, p. 128.
(8)  Episode 14, ‘One Body’, ExTC adaptation of Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants.
(9)  Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body, Jonathan Cape: London, 1992, p. 135.

Extract from 'Space as protagonist, material, medium: Beautiful Mutants', by  David Williams and Barry Laing, a longer text with extracts from the performance text, published in The New Fortune Theatre: That Vast Open Stage, Perth, Australia: UWA Press, 2018. Eds. Ciara Rawnsley & Robert White

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