Odyssey: caught in the fray of hypertextuality
Odyssey Complex, couriered as a sampling of 'contemporary performance art from Germany' by Goethe-Institut, was on view at the Shilpakala Academy on February 7, 2013. This itinerant performance, shepherded by Felix Mathias Ott, threading its way through the warp and weft of a 'suspect' discourse that proposes cross-cultural encounters interlacing communities from across the globe, peddles, by the same token, yet another allegory universalizing the trauma of human disconnect, individuation, and the doomed struggle for locating oneself in the chaos of a fragmented, shifting psycho-social landscape.
If we argue the necessity of control over the telling of one's own story, which forms the crux of the politics of identity in today's so-called deterritorialized hypermobility, then the pseudo postmodern Odysseus fails purportedly to establish the authenticity of his self as he finds himself situated inescapably in a culture of systematic objectification of his 'will'. Odyssey, a trope from the Greek classical literature implying a quest, in the simplistic frame of this production is contextualized by its emplacement within the complexities of the modern conundrum of existence.
Hans-Thies Lehman coined a term, postdramatic theatre, to formulate a theoretical rubric that encapsulated prevalent theatre practices notable for their tendencies towards eschewing the 'internal logic' that controls and coalesces the progression of a plot in a drama, only to substitute it with a non-linear, fragmented text spurred by the sheer contingency of its processuality. Following a small leap from pedagogy to praxis, the postdramatic theatre form soon gained much traction in the avant garde continental scene; Odyssey Complex could be seen in light of this tradition as a lesser product of a richer legacy traceable to Samuel Beckett, Peter Handke and Heiner Muller to name but a few.
Beckettian theatre nullifies the primacy or validity of an overriding text or script much the same way that anticipates Foucault and Derrida's vandalism of the semiotic field by ridding it of a hermeneutic framework that attaches a fixed, determinable referent to a signifier. The text becomes the repository for infinite cognitive interlocution. Taking cue from Beckettian lack of a logocentric discourse, postdramatic theatre creates a multilayered 'text' by staging a manifold interface between actor, audience, stage, prop, digitized intervention and above all the choreographed movement of the performer's body transforming it into a visual text/image of a state of 'being'. The mode of communication swivels on a synecdochal logic in the absence of any referential meaning. Odyssey Complex by revealing its affiliation to a similar modality of performance couched in the dialogic relationship between its parts which in turn are greater than the sum, thus erects an allegory of the isolation of an individual from his community.
What is brought to bear on the presumed participatory dialogic reception on the spectator's part, is a contextualized/embodied political 'experience' that which satellites around the space/body nexus of the actor. The performing body is steeped in its own experientially progressive unveiling of a way of knowing, by locating itself in the context of a succession of actions, for which the stage serves as the site of execution. Following the traditions of Physical Theatre that rose to critical acclaim in the 90s in the West, the performer's body becomes the 'slate' for writing a 'working' script/text that opens itself up to a curious momentum of possibilities of perception. A physical presence presides over the stage engaged in enacting an ostensibly visceral, experiential translation of human condition. The sporadic bursts of dances, or rather calisthenics do not comply with the ideal of virtuosity, it becomes a form-defying vehicle for the forceful, physical outpouring of the psychic substance. The writhing, contorting, unyielding body aspires for a libaratory expression, which is free from the yoke of staid , formulaic, heavily coded conventional meanings- a tool of control both in the hands of orthodox hierarchies of dramatic as well as socio-political norms at large.
Odyssey Complx adopted a contemporary idiom which is mediated through media technology. By the rejection of the traditional mimetic representation the notion of fixed identity is given a wide berth; as a result, the character appears as an unstable 'self', a shape-shifter. As the multiplicity of media juxtapose, interact and manipulate each other in the matrix of intermediality, the spectators can conceptualize the character's state of victimhood while the media collaborates to grab him with an amalgam of personae, each connected to the other in a self-reflexive osmosis and yet vibrating around the central precept of an individual caught in the net of an implacable 'power'. Like every other component of dramaturgy (eg lighting , stage property et al) an audio input leads to an enactment of a conversation between the character and an extraterrestrial voice whose non-committal refrain annulled the efficacy of communication( further consolidated when in a later scene the character is found straining against an anguished mumbling at the failure of the veracity of speech). This particular scene is made crucial in its use of hypertext (a reproduction device) which, cloaked in its essence of the simulacra, remains permanently locked in a state of arrival, thus agitating and confounding the spectator's meaning making procedure.
In order to push to the fore the universal state of human subjection, the performance creates a technologically patch-worked global context, in which recognizable images of violence are inserted into the logic of spectacle, whose familiarity serves little to startle or shock the spectators' complicit sensibility and thus succumbs to counter-performitivity, more so, since performance in contemporary purview is aligned with a reactionary mode. In this regard Artaud comes to mind. Antonin Artaud in his vision of a theatre of cruelty rallied performers to summon up the innate primal forces by whose insurrection to stake an extra-linguistic space with the help of 'extreme action' to stage a 'reawakening' to a creative mythical state. By an intense and anarchic deployment of physical-musical-scenic elements on stage, an 'intermedial movement' is let loose making way for heightened sensorial-cerebral revelations. Odyssey Complex, a mediocre work is serviceable only in touching on the nerves/nodes made receptive by its predecessors, without the capacity to cause ruptures into the psyche instigating new questionings.
There is an attempt to deconstruct the representational value of the trio of text/ character/setting made evident through the interstices between scenes, nuanced/imbibed with the essence of the 'absurd', that which alternately challenge and complement each other, yet are strung loosely with the common thread of the theme of charting a journey which over the course of the performance transposes itself into the over-arching text subordinating all else to the centrality of its authority.
By breaking away from a time-space continuum within the performance and setting it against the time-space reality that the spectator inhabits, the performance creates a particularized ontological moment – the here and now economy, a limen, which inspires the spectator to intuit his own 'reading'. The 'energetic theatre' (Lehman) exploits the discontinuous, aberrant fluidity of the onstage events to subvert the preconceived rigidity of the narrative form. By refusing to surrender to a singular definitive interpretation, in other words, by bringing into play the process of de-presentation it incites a recurrence of shifting, fluctuating relation between what is shown and how it is perceived. Mimesis is used as a transformative apparatus to reinforce the dissolution of unified representation. The actor positions himself in front of a multi media screen which displays prerecorded video of the actor in real-time situations depicting his fugitive plight; actions on screen are imitated by the actor on stage, resulting in the transference of the meaning of the original onto the copy, wherein, the copy overpowers the original by sharing in and transgressing its hermeneutic power, thus, decentering it. In the same way, the repetitive act of changing clothes is a descriptor of difference, not sameness. The cameo appearance of another character 'doubling' the first's actions breaks open yet another conduit into differential (de)representation.
Erika Fischer-Lichte posits, '… performance epitomizes the state of in-betweenness… because they take place through the bodily co-presence of those who perform and those who look on,' hence, performer and spectator are joined in a liminal zone, in a metaxis, as semi-autonomous selves participating in situations not of their own 'making', but to which they bring something of their own history. She goes on to emphasize that aesthetic experience entails an experience of the 'passage', the process of transition that locates one in between the real and the longed for.
In spite of decisively keeping its distance from a formalized political discourse the performance self-consciously historicizes the trauma of the decentered urban self with a fervent political portend/import that wishes to sensitize and provoke the audience to a political response. Being political could be seen as being informed with an awareness of one's relationship with lived history.
This awareness is forged and transmitted through actively and reflexively participating in the events on stage, a collaborative measure involving both actor and audience. Brecht encouraged an emotional disjuncture between the audience and the action on stage, however, strongly advocating a critical meditation on the spectacle in sight for the purpose of gleaning lessons which could be carried out to the actual world for effecting 'pro-agency' changes. In Odyssey Complex there is an attempt, most pronouncedly at the beginning and the end to blur the traditional dramatic boundary between actor and spectators. It kicks off with the tactic of staged delay and confusion, followed by a preamble that emulates the profanity of a corporate boardroom presentation narrating the ensuing journey to a gallery-full of critical observers. The dialectic logic of the play becomes evident when the alienated subject after transitting through the 'interregnum (in-between states)' returns to his community (spectators) revitalized (to borrow from Victor Turner) to reinvest himself in the power structure, though with a sharpened insight. He addresses the audience in his native tongue, translated on-screen in scrolling Bengali text against the backdrop of an idyllic Bangladeshi landscape; an intertextuality projected to facilitate a dialogue across cultures with a view to promote diversity, inclusiveness and the like, which our globalised sensibility immensely admires but not without raising the eyebrow.
Odyssey Complex was staged on February 7, 2013, at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.
Photo courtesy: Reazuddin Mahmud