January 24, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Discords (After Shakespeare) (Fail Better) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

It’s the tenth anniversary of Fail Better Productions, a company who I’ve been working alongside on and off for the last few years. Specialising in Becket, devised work and revivals (witness the excellent Play Without a Title), they’ve more recently been working with a student ensemble at Warwick on a devised piece, which received its large-scale public premiere for this anniversary celebration.

The first half of the evening was a revival of the company’s award-winning Diary of a Madman (After Gogol) performed by Jonathan Broke, a stunning tour de force one-man performance. This piece isn’t my focus, but the company had worked to link together the increasingly unhinged delusions of Broke’s character with the disjointed fragments of the new piece. Diary was framed on either side by the eerie sight of a disembodied head floating next to the stage, peering through a hatch in the back flats. This visual foreshadowing of the coming activity placed an unsettling frame around the closely-contained set of Diary, locating Broke’s breakdown within an ominous, detached world.

Discords followed after an interval. The set of Diary – a small, three-sided room – was dismantled and left in ruins centre stage, and two angled back flats came into focus. One by one, small hatches opened up in these two flats and heads appeared – some crying, some laughing, some sleeping. Three female heads on the left were balanced by four on the left. As the lights faded, the heads disappeared once more behind their hatches.

The ensuing piece took the form of a set of broken sections of dialogue from Macbeth (the witches meeting; Lady Macbeth washing her hands) and Lear (the opening expressions of love; Lear and Poor Tom on the heath) repeated four times, with the genders of those speaking alternated. The choice of scenes allowed for a mirroring of images; three daughters in Lear balanced three witches in Macbeth, and a curious association emerged between Lady Macbeth and Lear himself, the truth-in-madness simplicity of Lear’s words merging in tone with the unconscious slips of Lady M’s dreams.

Across the half hour, the speed of speech was speeded up (to a clattering blurt of sounds by the end of the second iteration) and slowed down, with the third iteration beginning as a painfully slow dirge. The disembodied heads occasionally spoke naturalistically, but at other times would drawl their syllables, or slow down and exaggerate every sound, drawing attention to the feel of the words. At times, this became interminable; this was a deliberately and even provocatively experimental piece, pushing the possibilities of delivered sound within a very small sample of dialogue. While it went on a little too long for my own taste/patience, the leisured pace did allow the resonances of the words to come through. The repeated "nothings" in both extracts were pointed up by the starkness of the delivery, and the disengagement between Lear and his dependents, and the Macbeths with each other, was striking in the paralysis of the heads. Yet there was still room for humour; the Fool repeatedly shook and nodded his/her head rather than respond verbally, and then became stuck as s/he withdrew it following Lear’s rebuke.

Discords did what it said on the tin, and offered a peculiarly focussed interrogation of familiar passages that ultimately destabilsed the possibility of any fixed meanings existing in the words. Words themselves, like the floating heads (one couldn’t help but be reminded of another disembodied head, closing the end of Macbeth), became dissociated from sense, text and context; raw materials to be manipulated as the actors’ bodies. The openness of the experiment left one wanting some form of completion; but then, the dialogues of madness explored within these plays perhaps themselves defy resolution. Either way, it was a fittingly ambiguous way to close an anniversary celebration, the heads finally turning their gaze on the Studio audience.

Posted in Theatre review