|Francoise Berlanger, Penthesilea|
This is Penthesilea, the story of an Amazonian Queen whose love drives her to madness and despair, and Berlanger has adapted this production from Heinrich von Kleist’s radical nineteenth century version of the classical myth. Emotions are dangerously connected, and Berlanger bleeds between the rapture of love and the horror of grief, just as she bleeds between the characters of this involved tale. It’s all enhanced by her magnetic stage presence, some dramatic lighting and simple costume changes. But most of all, this piece is a collaboration between Berlanger and the two sound artists who accompany her on stage. They produce sounds that battle, offset and complement her performance—at times elongating her words into primal screeches, at times rooting a rhythmic resistance to the direction of the narrative.
This soundtrack composition is like musique concrète—electronic manipulations of real-world sounds seeming to come from industrial machines and twisted into the screams of mechanical nightmares. Combined with Berlanger’s slightly archaic language, this terrifyingly futuristic noise situates the piece outside of time. Fittingly for the profound emotions it represents, Penthesilea occurs in all time and no time—its message is universal.
But while the strength of these emotions is never in doubt, the intricacies of the plot are hard to follow. The piece is text-heavy, and Berlanger’s thick accent can be a barrier to understanding. The two most powerful moments occur when the English language is dissolved: once when Berlanger’s incantation of grief twists until the words lose their meaning, and again when she recites a passage in German. Free from the task of deciphering speech, the audience can revel in the power and profundity of the emotions alone.
The piece is also brimming with symbolism which is left unexplained. Four sepia images hang above the stage (in a set designed by Berlanger’s visual artist brother, Marcel): a desert, a plant, a spiky-beaked owl and an abstract set of lines. Are these meant to be visual aids to the setting of the story, or metaphoric allusions to the state of Penthesilea’s mind? At one point, Berlanger strips to her waist and scrubs a white substance—salt?—over her body. Is this a cleansing ritual? A transformation? Or just an act of madness?
These confusing elements, along with the fact that there is only one actor on stage, compound the difficulty of distinguishing between characters and events if you don’t already know the story. And, with no direction to follow, the emotional weight of Penthesilea can be hard to bear. The sentiments it explores are deeply distressing, and this is reflected in the noise—often painfully loud and always unpleasant—as well as in Berlanger’s impassioned performance. In terms of the language at least, Berlanger may have been done a disservice. She doesn’t speak fluent English but had to learn this script because the Barbican’s Pit doesn’t currently have the facility to subtitle. I don’t think the piece would have lost anything if the audience didn’t understand the words, but something did feel strained because the performer didn’t.
In any case, it’s difficult to engage in Penthesilea for long; to distance oneslf is almost as an act of survival. That’s not exactly a criticism—the emotions it invokes are so severe that to succumb would be unbearable. In that respect it’s a remarkably successful portrayal of grief and misery, and perhaps it hangs less agonisingly from the frame of plot and character. It’s an accomplished and affective performance, but I’m not sure I want to feel those emotions again.
Penthesilea, Francoise Berlanger, Barbican Pit Theatre, SPILL Festivalof Performance, London, April 11
Mary Paterson is a participant in Writing from Live Art, a Live Art UK initiative.
RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. web
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