Are You Sitting Comfortably?by Katie de Klee / 05.07.2013
Thursday was the first wet day Grahamstown. The rain made the posters heavy and pulled them from the prett-stick on the walls and trees and left them soggy on the road, dissolving slowly as the soles of shoes ground them into the puddles.
The chatter on the pavements was quietened that morning, less ‘where are you off to?’ and calls of ‘Cue for you?’ and ‘have you seen…’ than on other days. But the children, who have painted their faces white and left old KFC buckets for you to tip them in, are still out on the streets, sheltering under shop awnings and trees.
The Monument sits high on a hill that overlooks the town, it is a thick set building; strong looking, like a fortress. On the first floor there is a media room with a row of computers. Members of the press from different publications sit over coffees and programs with their coats still on and the wind moaning in the windows and flapping the flags.
Many times this week I’ve stood on the side of the road with my hands deep in my pockets waiting for a hopper bus to take me up there. Or to take me to a show, or to take me where I can get a drink to warm my blood. I’ve missed three performances waiting.
There are times when theatre can offer you an escape from your day, can make you forget that your shoes are wet and your tummy is rumbling. The Icarus tale of ambition in Birdman tried, and The Snow Goose succeeded to make everyone forgot the world and be a part of theirs on stage. Switching masks to represent characters, the two actors would seem to shed different bodies too and voices, assuming the posture and accent of each individual they assumed.
There are other times when theatre intentionally increases your discomfort.
Having heard that Bitter by Stellenbosch University was in the running for the worst show of the festival I was tempted to see it. When I heard why I was sure that I must. Gratuitous nudity, imitating sex and rape on the stage, actors seeming to eat each others bleeding flesh…
The first time it was performed the rating was 16. Most of the audience left half way through the age restriction was moved to 18. By yesterday, the crowd had clearly been warned, as I had, about what they might expect (through the week as word spreads some audiences grow and some shrink) and though I left feeling shocked, I was quite impressed. And the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Most of the dialogue is in Afrikaans, a language I don’t understand. So the performance, already intended to disruptive and subversive, was doubly dislocating for me. I could tell they were being satirical, but with no understanding of what they were satiring it was hard to tell how well they were doing it.
I can say I think they were brave, and what they did they did it with conviction and that deserves respect. Some of the nudity and the feigned masturbation (spraying coconut milk ‘semen’ all over the audience) and the dildos were a bit self-indulgent, a little immature. But it certainly wasn’t dull.
There is a certain amount of respect people bestow upon theatre. You turn off your phone (or at least you silence it), you try not to shuffle too much, you talk in hush voices and when the performance begins you try not to talk at all. With that respect comes certain expectations, and when those expectations are disrupted no one knows what to do.
When Bleu Remix began we sat like polite children, cross-legged in a circle on the floor. In the centre of the darkened room was a glass box, like a blue tardis, and inside the box was a man: Yann Marussich. Marussich is a performance artist from Switzerland known for pushing the body to its limits, and I believe in doing so he pushes the audience to their limit too. It is the strangest and most challenging show I have seen.
Inside the box Marussich sits almost naked, his skin is completed waxed, his armpits and feet are smudged a strange blue colour and blue paint dribbles from his mouth. He is completely still, apart from the blinking of his eyes and the movement of his Adams apple. Disorientating music is playing.
For the first 25 minutes the audience remain on the floor, waiting, expecting that something will happen. The one person moves and slowly everyone began to move around, to peer through the glass. And still he didn’t move. People began to whisper, then to talk, began to crouch down to peer up at from the underneath of his glass seat. Their reverence began to wane, but no one really knew what to do.
Marussich barely seemed to breath and we had stopped treating him with the dignity of a live man. By now people were looking at their own reflections in the glass, at each through it. 55 minutes and still nothing.
But then in the final five minutes something incredibly strange happened. His whole body begins to turn blue and then blue paint began to sweat from his pores.
Performance art always frightens me a bit; it has a tendency to be too avant-garde, too inaccessible to the layman, too conceptual for the likes of me. But Bleu Remix it is the show I will talk about the most. I imagine I’ll dream about it too, it had such an unsettling impact.
In the Long Table bar intellectual types deconstruct what they’ve seen, while arty students with full glasses edgy their way between the chairs. Some tells me this is the year of absurdism.
Chad, a hopper driver from PE tells me Grahamstown is a ghost town after this week. Though like me, this is the first time he’s visited. Since the middle of the week there have been young people in school uniform in the Village Green; a sign that after we are all gone, there still might be life in Grahamstown.
* Images © Bazil Raubach/NAF unless stated otherwise.