Brighton Festival 2018
At times a conversation, at times an assault, on the voyeuristic nature of our social-media society and its obsession with youth and beauty.
There is much to unpack from the latest offering by acclaimed British/German arts collaborative Gob Squad; part devised work, part collaboration, part improvisation, part conversation, but in all an exploration of the complexities of beauty, vanity, morality and the compromises and sacrifices we are willing to make and endure in the pursuit of love, adoration, acceptance, and devotion.
Opening with a labored sketch of the audience, a seemingly simple joke at the expense of the less-than-credible artist “who just wants to get it perfect” and whose drawing of an audience member amounts to little more than a triangle with facial hair, we are lulled into a false sense that this piece deals at the surface level with vanity and beauty. It is a theme which emerges throughout the piece, giving with each new encounter a deeper meaning to this apparently throw-away moment.
Throughout the entirely of this exploration we are introduced to multiple facets of beauty, beginning with the tradition of Ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging, and the idea of space for the analysis of beauty, and our assistance in the “perfection” of nature.
Much like the flowers under the heat lamp, Creation unfolds revealing layer upon layer of nuanced, thoughtful exploration in a series of vignettes, not only of the definition of beauty but of the self-imposed crushing realities of the endless pursuit of youth, veering wildly from theme to theme, challenging the audience to keep pace. Prefaced on the idea that the artists themselves would like to have representative video art installments of their past and future selves, Creation is at once a statement on the aging process, on the perceived gender inequity of the aging process, and also of the subjective, ephemeral, and unquantifiable nature of beauty, even questioning what is beauty, whether it is physical or something more, yet it makes no judgement, instead simply replicating the voyeuristic nature of our social media frenzy. Using elements of multi-media, personal narratives, frenetic pacing, and unfocused staging audiences are forced to choose where to look, creating a remarkable piece of theatre which is shaped not only by the narrative of the performers but by the personal narrative and decisions of the viewer, a bold decision by the company, and a fascinating contrast to the theme which continually “frames” the human art pieces to focus the viewpoint of the spectator.
The Dorian Grey metaphor plays out before us as we see through mirrored frames, which distort the reflection of the viewer as though looking into a pond or perhaps looking through time, but for the audience, when lit we are able to see the older or younger self, seemingly peering back across time even as the viewer sees only their distorted reflection in the mirror. It is an immensely powerful metaphor, as older and younger selves vie for attention in this gallery of living human art.
The third tier of our triangle is acceptance and redemption. Much like the Dorian Grey story of its inspiration, Creation shifts the narrative once more to the moment when artists must face the reality not of their past and future selves but of their present. However unlike the tragic figure penned by Oscar Wilde, in the hands of Gob Squad, our actors’ moment of reckoning offers hope, and recognition of the universality of loneliness and desire for belonging. We return to the metaphor, the triangle, when past, present and future are united. I struggle to quite find the words to explain what we all experienced in that room, because it wasn’t theatre in any traditional sense and in many ways, despite the sell-out audience, and the large cast, the shiny baubles, and props, set dressing, and theatrical devices employed onstage, the entire evening felt very much like a conversation, which starts in one place and ends in one so far removed from its beginning as to seem impossible that we got here and yet, there was nothing arbitrary about the journey. Jarring in its inventiveness and at times questionable in its success, the end result was a masterpiece in unexpected and provocative narration, with a hand so skilled and invisible as to seem spontaneous, yet another parallel to the narrative created by the mid-career, mid-life actors who metaphorically make themselves invisible, even as they reveal their innermost thoughts and fears.
Astounding, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and yet life affirming, one walks away feeling not so much as though we’ve seen something great as though we have, by sharing in this experience, been transformed, and perhaps feeling a little more in love with ourselves, the self we don’t see in the mirror, the flower under the heat lamp. I do not know how to quantify what I saw or experienced, but I was transfixed and transformed by it.