Leaving the theatre with no idea what you have just seen but having enjoyed it immensely is perhaps an appropriate response to a production of Antonin Artaud’s To Have Done With The Judgement Of God. Full credit to director Julia Midtgard and Fear No Colours theatre company for bravely taking on the challenge of this outrageous and rarely performed work.
A fascinating work, and a mesmerising production
Artaud’s life was a catalogue of misfortune, yet he fought through it to become one of the major contributors to the development of theatre in the twentieth century, not because if his output but rather for what became known as the Theatre of Cruelty. At the age four he was afflicted with meningitis It marked the start of a lifelong engagement with drugs needed not just as medication but also to satisfy his dependence and to feed his addiction. As a child he spent several years in a sanatorium, which didn’t prevent his being conscripted into the army. His mental erraticism and reliance on laudanum soon saw him discharged. By nineteen he had suffered his first nervous breakdown and the rest of his life hardly benefitted from experiments with peyote and his intake of heroin and a host of other opiates. Later years were spent in and out of hospitals and mental institutions, one of which witnessed his death in 1948 at the age of fifty-one.
Artaud viewed the genre attributed to him as a liberation of human subconsciousness that demanded "communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism; gestures, sounds, unusual scenery, and lighting combine to form a language, superior to words, that can be used to subvert thought and logic and to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world." To Have Done With The Judgement Of God fits neatly into this description. Yet Midtgard, seeking a conceptual framework for this production found inspiration elsewhere. ‘The ultimate methodology of the play,’ she told me,’was Howard Barker’s Theater of Catastrophe.’
Subscribing to this means that rather than attempting to make an incomprehensible script more meaningful the performance strives to underline its unintelligibility; to prohibit a uniform understanding and promote ambiguity so that each member of the audience might leave with a unique interpretation. Artaud’s writing is a juxtaposition of words and phrases that often make little sense, yet they are grouped thematically. The challenge is bind them in such a way that there is some semblance of overall coherence. Written as a radio play there is no point in looking to the author for assistance in staging this work. The options are wide open.
An instrumental screeching plays as the performance begins with the ensemble cast of Rhiannon Bird, Andrew Davies, Findlay Duff, Tingting Liu (刘婷婷), Kristupas Liubinas and Harry Pearce already on stage. Two female figures in black hooded cloaks with dazzling headlamps stand together and begin to move reciting the text. Following this introduction, semi-naked bloodstained men break out of a cocoon and begin to painfully writhe around the floor as though in a primeval swamp. Their feeble bodies gradually rise, assisted by the female pair, but the men are weak and their bodies contorted. They wash themselves and are are brought shirts, trousers and jackets, but this attire appears alien to them and they dress with difficulty. The text is uttered by individuals, pairs and as a chorus and so the action progresses in similar vein, creating what Midtgard refers to as a ‘neo-brutalist aesthetic’.
It’s a fascinating work, and a mesmerising production. Students of drama, in particular, should seize the opportunity to see it, along with anyone else who appreciates an uncommon theatrical experience.