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Saturday, 18 May 2013

Review: "A Taste of Contemporary Catalan Theatre" at Arcola

The Arcola Theatre is an impressive little place in a distinctly unlovely part of east London. It is bigger than it first appears, the main building housing a large bar room and two studios, while a big top-style tent makes for an innovative space thirty metres down the road. When we arrived, the bar was buzzing with people excitably waiting for the Sons without Fathers, a Chekhov adaptation that looks pretty good.

Unfortunately as it turned out, we were not there to see the Checkhov, but the Sirera and the Soler. Believe me when I tell you that this blog is the first and last time those three names will ever be mentioned in the same sentence again. A Taste of Contemporary Catalan Theatre is an evening of two mercifully short plays which run back to back.

When we entered the tent, the substantial Spanish- (not Catalan-) speaking cohort who were sat all around us could not stop commenting on how guay (cool) the tent was as a setting. By the time the evening had come to an end, the overused word of the moment had changed to aburrido (boring, tedious), and I feel that this Castillian contrast mirrors my own feelings perfectly.

Rodolf Sirera's The Audition takes as its basis a topic which would make for a half-interesting five minute conversation and spins this out to an hour of theatre. A mad marquis has summoned a famous stage actor to his residence. After dressing as and pretending to be a valet while keeping the young and arrogant man waiting for over an hour, the marquis sheds his disguise and challenges the actor to perform a scene from a play that he, the marquis, has written.

The scene is a death scene, and it is the marquis' theory that actors are incapable of acting "correctly", that is to say truthfully, unless they are actually going through the emotions of their character. Empathy or sympathy with the character is not enough. To test this, the marquis has the actor play his role when there is nothing wrong with him, and then again after he has been poisoned and reasonably believes that death is imminent, though not a certainty as the marquis holds a bottle of "antidote".

The actor fails both auditions: the first, because he was simply "acting"; the second because while he felt close to death, because he still had hope he could not feel (and therefore could not act) entirely hopeless.

As a five minute conversation, it may be half-interesting to discuss whether actors can ever really act "truthfully" as if they really were their character, or to discuss whether this even matters. After that five minutes though, surely both parties would agree that there are far more pressing and interesting things to discuss, and move on. Sirera fleetingly examines the attitudes of people towards others depending on social class before appearing to bore even himself and move on without mentioning this motif again, and by the time the actor playing the actor has convulsed for a final time and died you get to wondering whether the object of Soler's exercise all along was to see if he could demonstrate what he was talking about by giving his audience a reasonable fear of death by boredom. The two stage hands who dragged the corpse off a couple of minutes in to the interval garnered a longer round of applause than the play.

In hindsight I suppose that I, as an institution-loving democracy junky, was never going to like Against Democracy. Even so, the sheer crushing awfulness of Esteve Soler's play rather took me aback. Written as seven sketches, this is hysterical leftyism at its most amusing. In the first sketch, an expectant couple make small talk about how poor their local council is at providing parking (no, really) while stuck to a giant spider's web. After the woman's waters break, she ends up giving birth in their car because the traffic is so bad, but unbeknownst to her she has brought in to the world some form of humanivore arachnid which then proceeds to eat both parents alive.

In another sketch, two parents wake their 18 year old son in the middle of the night to tell him that his conception was a mistake, that his years on this earth have been unprofitable, and that they will have to "let him go". Out comes the revolver and he is shot dead.

Later on, Dick Cheney and King Leopold II of Belgium are drinking in a bar, though the barmaid won't serve them as she knows who they are and finally plucks up the courage to call them "scum".

All the sketches rant about capitalism and democracy, and a couple even feature economists. The problem with this play is that while it deliberately tries to shock - the production company's website brags that "the audience’s laughter will soon stick in their throats" - it fails to do so because the arguments and the analogies are so clich├ęd, so endlessly rehashed, that they cause the eyes to glaze over.

As we left the tent, a man behind us likened the experience of watching Against Democracy to "being hit again and again by a sledgehammer of playground morality". If this is award-winning Catalan theatre, perhaps for the sake of the arts alone Catalunya should remain a part of that Iberian cultural powerhouse it affects to despise.

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