Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Vanishing - but where's the Point?

After the National Theatre of Scotland, and possibly The Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and Pint programme, Vanishing Point might be the most important theatre company in Scotland. Certainly, they are the most consistently experimental group working on a large scale: that I don’t particularly enjoy this outing doesn’t mean that I am ignoring their reach and worth.

Interiors was self-consciously a chamber piece, concentrating on a family reunion. Saturday Night revisits this intimate territory, narrowing down to a brief sequence in a couple’s life. Time is condensed, a technique familiar from Greek tragedy which confused Aristotle into presenting “the unity of time” as a feature of drama, so that significant events – moving in together, the joy of unexpected pregnancy, the rather brutal birth and the decay of affection – are bundled into a single evening. If the finale suggests that the action comes from the memories of a mysterious older woman – she holds the same cuddly toy that the young woman brings into the new house – Saturday Night refuses to admit easy interpretation. The slow intrusion of the uncanny, which climaxes in the invasion of a group of chimpanzees, suggests a horror story about the decline of civilisation. The petty problems of house-keeping, such as a leaking roof, are given an occult, sinister, symbolism. Even the intrusive neighbours seem to be more surreal than naturalistic obstacles to domestic bliss.

The underlying tension between the realism of the couple’s activities and the cosmic implications of the distractions does undermine the play’s immediacy. Coupled with the stunning set – Kai Fisher has repeated his trick from Interiors, of encasing a house in glass, creating a literal fourth wall between the audience and players. The emotional distance between the audience and actors is never resolved. Even the nudity and toilet scenes are given a sterility, and director Andrew Lenton is moving far away from the fashion for immersive theatre, with all its immediacy and complicity.

Pamela Carter’s script has her distinctive, disorientating atmosphere. Scenes and themes merge uncomfortably: the drama of a positive pregnancy test fades into a comic bathroom privacy turn. The distressing birth – a woman alone on the toilet floor – is played out next to the father’s joyful stoner session. Carter’s skill, even shorn of words, is the awkward juxtaposition, of using actors like dancers, shifting from one scene to the next without causality, without progress. It is disjointed, consciously, and unsettling.
Yet Vanishing Point never disappear into raw, aggressive surrealism. The tone is measured, incongruously, and warm. Perhaps this prevents the presence of hostile primates becoming too disturbing, or leaves the periodic intrusions of commentary from the television toothless.

This distance from the performance prevents any real compassion, or engagement, with the character’s dilemmas: in doing so, it recalls the shock tactics of 1960s theatre, without the brutal impact. Artaud, a key influence on The Theatre of Cruelty, advocated a theatre that reminds humanity of those forces beyond Mankind that control it: he also rejected the written word for a theatre of screaming. Without the screaming, Vanishing Point’s theatre is undeniably cruel and pictures a world where the human is no longer in control. Saturday Night is a puzzle, a theatre of death and dream that refuses to shock or scare, but meditates on the absurdity of existence. 

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