Alexandre Singh’s performance piece describes a revolution from the guts
In a production commissioned by the performance art biennial Performa 13 and Rotterdam’s Witte de With, artist and writer Alexandre Singh makes his debut as theatre director with a thickly woven, multi-referential and entertainingly surreal creation myth. The play in three acts pours an abbreviated history of Western thought, from philosophy to science and art, into three hours, while the history of theatre itself and the medium of performance serve as key sources for quotation: here, the mood is modelled on the comedies of Aristophanes, with their brash, often bawdy, satirical components.
The plot is set in a half-formed world on a distant island, divided into Apollonian and Dionysian territories – the former controlled by sculptor Charles Ray, and the latter by the rabbit queen Madame Nesquik. A mysterious being referred to by island inhabitants as Vox Dei is revered by all, as it leaves behind cryptic messages in the form of hairballs floating in milk, which only the educated can decipher. A black cat also lives on the island. Two spirits named Tophole and Pantalingua conspire to prevent the creation of the universe that the hairball “commands” seem to orchestrate, but instead of averting it, they add the element of chaos to the space / time continuum, accidentally bringing about the birth of mankind, the titular Humans, who came into being as perfect sculptures made by Charles Ray, and who also constitute the play’s (slightly annoying) chorus. The neurotic Tophole is Ray’s maladroit apprentice, and his manner and appearance pay homage to Woody Allen. He falls in love with Pantalingua, daughter of Queen N, who is, in turn, experiencing an existential and theological crisis. Projecting their messy emotions on Ray’s perfect sculptures, they teach one statuesque human to void his bowels, leading to the human’s sudden surge of pain at the experience of hunger, emptiness, lust and want. What ensues is the humans’ revolt against Ray, who they slaved for, and orgiastic indulgence in carnal matters and in corruptive power, culminating, inevitably, in murder and injustice.
The superb set design and costumes draw from too many sources to list, but the appearance of the humans post-fall from grace merits particular mention as they’re modelled after grotesque figures straight out of Daumier, Grosz and Dix paintings. Once this connection between material physiology and ideology is established, a material reading can also be applied to Singh’s deployment of the bowel movement as a motor for revolt. It recalls a literal reading of materialism in Georg Büchner’s plays, who, before Marx and Engels, came to the provocative conclusion that the hunger of the proletariat must not be alleviated as it is the only impetus for revolution. The very beginning of body politics seems to originate in the intestines. Or as Francis Bacon warned in 1609, “the rebellions of the belly are the worst.” But revolution, like science, follows its own momentum, unconcerned with its consequences.