A belated reflection on Manchester’s International Festival: ‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramović’…a personal view….

A belated but fascinating theatre review by David…

image from www.citylife.co.uk

Why would you want to observe your own life and death in public in the theatre and take a central role in the performance?

Well; the Manchester International Festival called and off I went to my beloved Lowry – no irony there: when you are a Salfordboy and know what was there before and what the Lowry vision has done for the city, you cannot but love the place.

‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramović’ was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I can say with all due modesty that I have seen a lot of theatre. I am so naïve that when I bought my ticket – no-one else would come with me…did they know something I didn’t…I thought from the title that Marina Abramović was dead.  How wrong I was.

In the late 50’s and 60’s a controversial strand of European theatre emerged called the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’. So controversial that it caused riots in some of the theatres where plays were performed. The high point was Samuel Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ an enormously influential play written in French by its Irish playwright who then translated it back into English for English speaking audiences.  One of the strains that these ‘Absurd’ plays placed on the actors was physical discomfort and pain: buried in sand, standing in dustbins, sitting in the same chairs for hours…. It was a movement which seemed to come to a dead end.

A later development in European theatre has been ‘physical theatre’ which as its name suggests places great physical strain on the actors – I saw an adaptation of Kafka’s short story. ‘Metamorphosis’ where the actor metamophoses into a beetle before your eyes and behaves exactly like one scurrying up walls and across the stage floor…

Where is all this going you may well ask…well; it’s helping me work out what ‘Marina Abramović’ is about…stay with me….

You will know something about the surrealist movement in art and the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the absurd…you will, perhaps, have seen some images of Salvador Dali…if not, there is an exhibition of René Magritte at Tate Liverpool running throughout the summer.

This play draws on the all three: the absurd, surrealism and physical theatre.  If that was not enough it uses a Greek-like chorus, draws on film and photography.

So; 388 words after I started what was it about?

It explores the life of the performance artist Marina Abramović.  It is as though Marina is using ourselves, the audience as a sort of catharsis in sharing the pain she has experienced in her relationships, particularly with her mother and her father.  The play digs deep into her psyche presenting us with visually striking images – some so striking they are still with me – images so disturbing some people walked out; others crazily comic.  The play opens with three corpses on stage with three dogs sniffing around scattered human(?) bones.  Other images so surreal they still make no sense to me: an elephant swimming under water, a triptych film of a man shaving, a film of a single eyelash over an eye – have you seen the opening of Buñuel & Dali’s  Un Chien Andalou?  I closed my eyes on each sequence waiting for something terrible to happen…it didn’t but that was the sense of expectation that was building…

But there is brilliance within….

The whole piece was held together by a brilliant performance by Willem Dafoe, at moments reminding me of Beetlejuice or the Joker in Batman, at others like Winnie in Becket’s Happy Days, buried up to his chest in mounds of newspaper cuttings of Marina’s life, reading extracts dispassionately like Krapp’s Last Tape’. His detached narrative style became a thread which held the whole performance together.  

And then there was the music and performance of the Serbian singer Svetlana Spajić adding a moving melancholic, mournful thread which brought an intensity of passion I have not heard before in the theatre.

…and what of Marina herself?  It strikes me that there is a certain arrogance in a play which invites me to share with her the unremitting pain of her life and death whilst she is still alive; that suggests she feels such a weight of her own importance that the performance ends with a kind of messianic resurrection; that she feels that she cannot stand aside from the drama but must play a part in it herself. Why not it’s her life? No; it isn’t; it’s a play, a representation of a life; it’s not real…and who is the weakest actor in the play, the weakest singer?  You’ve guessed:Marina.  She just couldn’t let go.

I’m glad I went.  Was it performance art or play?  I’m still working it out.

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