Aaron Nathaniel reviews Between Teeth’s uncompromising debut production Perpetual

As the lights dim, and the sounds drones I’m soon faced with my second naked man on the Bunker stage in as many months – but nudity aside Perpetual couldn’t be any further from This Is Not Culturally Significant if it tried…

My initial reaction is uncertainty. I’m not entirely sure what I’m watching unfold here, to start. It feels less show more art piece. I’ve heard the words Noise Art, Art Opera, Sonic Opera to describe this production but each of those place the experience in the aural, and sure that soundtrack – if we can call it that – is as foreboding and unwieldy as any description those words can conjure, but for me the emphasis rested much more on the visual. In part, it reminded me of mid-90’s music videos from the likes of Anton Corbijn and Mark Romanek, slightly surreal and trippy, exquisite detail and lighting, more than a little off-kilter. I saw the echoes of Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio. But ultimately it felt wholly like the stuff of LSD induced nightmares.

And the sonic noise, the art boom, that drone that I’m not entirely sure how to describe, got inside my head and after sustaining it for just over an hour. It actually hurt, although I’m not sure that was a bad thing because this entirely visceral sensory assault got under my skin and it left me moved. It felt primal, almost biblical, full of integrity and dangerous and somehow important.

I’m not a Christian so the Lazarus story is unfamiliar to me – but I’m not sure Perpetual is indeed the Lazarus story – and this is where the project slightly fell down for me because, after 70 minutes, I’m not entirely sure what the story is. I believe that essentially we witness Lazarus rise from the dead, and then in turn attempt to help a sick and dying man. Initially succeeding before losing him to death. Amongst this, a woman I initially thought might be Mary Magdalene, in turn helps and hinders the various resurrections we’re witnessing.

In terms of performance, it’s hard to call. Si Taylor needs work in her movement. Perhaps some solid choreography work would help. Her Flower Girl offers something of the deranged Manson Family cliché and I think toning that down a little might be useful. Taylor Ayling’s Dying Man moved well and I bought into his agony, I felt his agony. Sadly, we didn’t see enough of Tim Harris’ Lazarus. It took him twenty minutes to rise and get to his tomb, he only came out again 20 minutes after that, which felt wasted. I was also sad to see that Liam Cadzow’s Entomologist was tucked away for much of his live sound work. What he’s creating is quite special, so I’d have liked to have seen him create it, if we’re putting an easel on stage – which is frankly a step too far – we can put his recording on stage too.

There’s no real mechanism for storytelling in Perpetual, these not quite dance, not quite opera and not quite theatre elements don’t help us understand this story – if it is indeed a story we’re supposed to be watching. Even if we’re dealing in broad strokes and even when we’re subverting traditional narrative – especially when we’re subverting traditional narrative – we must always aim for specificity in the storytelling. I’m biased, I love a good story and I struggle with some experimental theatre for these very reasons. As a human interested in culture, who comes from a long line of humans with varying interest in culture, surrounded by humans with varied and sometimes insatiable appetites for culture, I can’t help feel that we are intrinsically master storytellers. We are imprinted with stories from early childhood, stories are essentially rooted in the very nature of our laws and ethics. So I mainly don’t care whether you’re a play or an opera or an art installation, I still came for a story, I still want a good story and at the Bunker last night, I’m not entirely sure I got one.

Perhaps that’s the challenge with this show and perhaps I’m missing it? Perhaps there isn’t one but maybe that’s ok – I don’t know if it is ok.

The Bunker is certainly challenging its audiences, partly as it finds its own feet and space in a sometimes overcrowded cosmos, but also because its programming team has started asking us to interrogate what theatre is and can be. The theatre has been open for less than a year and we’ve had everything from traditional theatre to space takeovers to naked impersonations to this – whatever we want to call it Madness?  It’s certainly finding interesting work and exciting voices and perhaps as it finds its remit. This idea of challenging what theatre is and can be might help it rear its head above other new spaces we’ve seen opening across the capital of late. Between Teeth also seem to want to challenge us with echoes of the post-dramatic that I thought were long dead Perpetual demands its audience presence. It also makes them suffer. In many ways, it’s exploring a perception of God, so our attention and elements of our pain are perhaps only to be expected, but as an audience is that what we want from our theatre? For it to hurt us? It felt primeval, the voice of Jesus or God or whoever rumbled around that theatre space and I felt it from the chair I was sitting on to the very pit of my stomach and even though the theatre may not be the best place for Perpetual, perhaps of all theatres the underground cavernous space of the Bunker is perfect for it.

I’m recommending this piece. Sure it’s flawed, and it’s not entirely pleasant, but if you’re into alternative and experimental theatricality or crazy sonic noise art, or you want to feel moved by something actually Biblical in its scale and ambitions or perhaps you just want some respite underground in a dark air-conned space with a cold beer whilst watching something more than a bit mental, you should definitely go and see this show. You won’t see anything else quite like it this year, and as every aspect of these post-Biblical times becomes ever more pre-packaged and bland. Sadly not many things in London, including much of our theatre, can really make such bold claims.

Perpetual is at The Bunker, 53a Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RULondon, until July 1st, 2017

 

 

Aaron Nathaniel is a writer and publicist. He has worked across a number of publications and platforms including Attitude, The Diplomat, Encore, The Independent, BBC, and Channel 4. His PR clients include the BBC, Liberal Judaism, LJS, BKY, Little Green Man Nursery, Rogue’s Gallery, Ash Healthcare and Janbarree Ltd. Agency work has included Mother, J Walter Thompson, Blue Rubicon, The Lounge Group and Engine.