It is a thing both odd and discomfiting in theatre, to enter a performance space with so much and little expectation as I did last Friday to see the John Cage circus on Finnegan’s wake. I felt the same slightly taut apprehension as one might experience going to watch a new production of a venerated and canonical work, Shakespeare, perhaps Olivier, in which the tension snaps back and forth between a static sense of the performance as a relic, something owned, a national treasure – and a self-updating sense of process, in which the perception of audience ownership is recalibrated into a current dialogue, in real-time. My worry was, explicitly, that with such exalted and unassailable bastions of creativity as Joyce and Cage, the process of dialogue and inclusion had the potential to go subtly awry.
Since we live now in an age of such entitled audience autonomy, the first hurdle for any director lies in how to tackle the proliferation and discourse of thought around their work. How can you hope to create a sense of present tense if your audience suspect you are trying to outwit them, and are resultantly trying to stay two steps ahead of you? I went to the later of the two performances that evening, so as I arrived I bore witness to the comments of those who had just departed. Sure enough, the Cage cognoscenti were already composing skits at the expense of members of the audience who had ‘missed the point’, while those who had turned up not knowing what to expect busied themselves trading increasingly protracted and less nuanced variations of ‘it wasn’t what I was expecting’.
Standing in the foyer, my sense of resignation and misanthropy, which typically hovers around ‘what’s the point?’ was ticking dangerously towards ‘homicidal’, when a rather charming lady who I have since assumed to be Lore Lixenberg, who directed the piece, came out. She politely asked for our attention, and explained how our allocated seats worked. Consecutive numbers were not necessarily placed next to each other, and once we had found them, there was a chance that a mesostic (a poem in which a vertical phrase intersects lines of horizontal text in the middle of the lines) might be on our chair. If we had a mesostic, we were told, there would be an opportunity to read it aloud during the performance, if we so chose. I entered the performance space thinking of the mesostic form, and why it meant so much to Cage. In a way it represents the perfect intersection of indeterminacy and precision. The mesostic form relies heavily on the chance encounters of proximate words, yet the construction itself is uncompromising. Similarly, there was an element of absolute ordainment and precision in the knowledge that whoever sat on a certain chair would receive a mesostic, but no guarantee that the occupant would choose to read it, or even that the chair would be occupied.
Each of the four walls was lined with chairs, and I took mine, which was on what would typically be the stage, with some trepidation. For the first twenty minutes or so, we were at perfect liberty to wander the space, and if not interact with the performers, then at least co-exist with them. I did not. I sat still and quiet and alert. We watched things and let them lap at the shores of our consciousness, for by that point, barely five minutes in; we were a ‘we’. As an audience we surrendered our autonomy with ease, collectively, like a family – though it did not feel at all like a capitulation. It was subtle and incremental, and the sleepers on the floor – swathed as they were with a long sheet – created a sweet soporific thrum with movements that were at once random and wholly calculated. Minutes, I don’t know how many, passed. We were aware obviously of a general trend which took the shape of increasingly cacophonous momentum, yet still, each coming and going of a performer felt in some way like an isolated episode. I found that intimate, and at times, exquisite. I was put in mind of an essay Virginia Woolf wrote for Good Housekeeping, entitled The Docks of London, in which she catalogues the bizarre phenomenon she observed when watching the cranes at the docks. Initially, she reports, their motion was startling, spasmodic, and unpredictable, though time and patience gave way to something more harmonious and she grew attuned to their rhythm – for rhythm there was. In watching and waiting, she noticed that the cranes achieved an organic cohesion and prosody. The performance ended, but lingered. The silence which followed the climax remained rich and unbroken for many minutes. It wasn’t what I was expecting.
Cage: Circus on Finnegan’s wake will next be performed on 20 February as part of the one-day conference ‘Twentieth Century Collaborations: Cunningham, Cage, Joyce’ hosted by St Hilda’s. Tickets can be found here: http://bit.ly/1em1ufK