Queens Row, written and directed by Richard Maxwell, with Nazira Hanna, Soraya Naipour, Antonia Summer, Institute of Contemporary Art, Friday 28th September, 7pm
The great thing about theatre in an art gallery is that anything is possible, and permittable, this at a time when theatre, pretty much the English-speaking world over, has manoeuvred itself into a cul-de-sac of variously Shakespeare, post-Stanislavsky method acting which is sort of the same as saying ‘feeling is truth and truth is feeling, because, like, I feel it’ and tourist flim-flam. Theatre in an art gallery is also fairly certain to be serious, in the sense of having something serious to say, though it can perhaps also be a little unfunny, given that maybe theatre itself is just a little too inclined toward the description ‘giggle factory’.
Queens Row takes a reductive, and serious, approach, breaking the presentation into its constituent parts, speaking without movement, movement without speaking, lighting which fulfils a symbolic role, as well as illuminating the action. To the extent that the audience is involved, it is as listeners, concerned, concentrating, amazed (my response) by the sheer ability of the performers to remember the words, or non-words, the broken sentences, the non-sequiturs, the stories which didn’t really flow, broken into parts, into bits and pieces.
This presentation reminded me of another show, almost 2 years ago, at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts in Brighton, Can I Start Again, Please by Sue MacLaine, in which two women, ticked out as to be suggestive of beached mermaids (so without legs), alternately speak and sign (in a kind of sitting dance) what the other is speaking, though in this case the story is clearer and, though unresolved, has a specific flow.
Richard Maxwell is even braver, making the speakers more mysterious, less the vehicle for a specific story, more abstract, more about words for their own sake, words as an end in themselves.
But the thing with abstraction is, it’s all about being abstracted from the particular. If the person speaking the words isn’t abstracted, that even though it’s just words, if the words come from them, then it isn’t abstract. It’s particular, if you know what I mean. This is a conundrum, and perhaps a problem with theatre in general, in that speaking, or signing, or dancing, if expressive of a particular person, is limited to that person. Theatre, and theatre as art, can’t break free in that way that an objective, abstract piece of physical art can.
There has to be a way out of this problem, though Queens Row perhaps isn’t it. The performers aren’t necessarily acting, nor are they separate from the words they speak.
Luckily, there are other aspects to theatre that this production doesn’t essay. Actors can create collective rhythm, movement, meaning which is separate from each individual and potentially abstract in effect. It would be very interesting to see these devices given the same kind of focus as Maxwell here gives to the spoken word.