Tate Modern – Sehgal

Seeing ‘Philadelphia, Here I come’ (Donmar Warehouse) preceded by ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ (National Theatre) the day before encouraged me to ask lots of questions about theatre. Nothing too esoteric, but after seeing plenty of theatre over the past few years I could see how much boundaries are negated in some recent productions. ‘The Curious Incident’ was incredibly slick, a production that was clearly not naturalistic but an inventive attempt to capture the condition of the boy with stylised movement sequences and actors assuming roles of not only characters but becoming props as well as facilitating rapid changes in the set. Nothing ever looked out of place, however, and the concept was thoroughly consistent. ‘Philadelphia, Here I come’ was in complete contrast. The set never changed, and one is forced to engage fully with the acting. This sounds desperately obvious, but without the filagree of stylised movement, choreographed routines of the whole cast, unexpected changes of the set and so forth one to is compelled to concentrate on the text, and the delivery of the lines. Characters seem to come to life for me more when I am not distracted by productions. I was genuinely moved by the close of Donmar production as somehow over the course of the play I started to share Gary’s anguish of not being able to communicate with his family. ‘The Curious Incident’ never abled me to connect with characters so well, I was never willed to share in the experience and feel connected to the characters. Well, there were some moments. In these more modern (I loathe the word) productions I feel less able to engage with the acting due to the excessive physical theatre elements. But then again, this is theatre, no? The synthesis of movement and speech.

Spending forty or so minutes watching the Sehgal piece in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern connected well with my thoughts on the two plays above. I didn’t know what was going on, seeing the group of people moving, their roughly synchronised walking through the hall, running, seemingly playing games with each other. Something become rather uncomfortable about watching them, and it was equally uncomfortable not knowing who was ‘involved’ in the performance (was/is it a performance?). When one of the ‘performers'(?) approached me and engaged in conversation I was also alarmed initially and felt unease – I avoid theatre where there might be audience participation but somehow this didn’t feel uncomfortable. I was fascinated. I wanted to understand what was going on but knew I couldn’t without being explained specifically what the shape of the work was, how it progressed, what each person’s role was/is. I had to experience it blind, without knowing what might happen. This was exciting.

I recall seeing ‘Being John Malkovich’ and questioning whether what I was seeing was real. ‘Mulholland Drive’ had a similar effect. The Sehgal doesn’t make me question reality – of course I know I am watching a ‘piece’ (is it that?) in a space, with people who have been conditioned to give a performance of it. Seeing the Sehgal made me question where theatre begins and ends; it is a piece (is it a piece?) that one cannot see the start or end of, one where you are forced (permitted?) to engage with the performers (participants?) and something that poses uncertain questions (answers?). I want to see it again, spend more time watching/engaging with it. There is something undoubtedly musical about the changes of pace, rhythmic flow of their movement that makes it compelling.

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