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in the belly of the beast

deborah lieser-moore: la fura dels baus’ sub

Deborah Leiser-Moore is a performer, director, sessional teacher at La Trobe University and artistic director of Tashmadada. She is presently working on her new performance piece, Cordelia, Mein Kind, which she is taking to Washington DC in December 2008. www.tashmadada.com


La Fura dels Baus, SUB La Fura dels Baus, SUB
photo Oskar Perez
LA FURA DELS BAUS IS KNOWN FOR ITS HIGHLY PHYSICAL AND CONFRONTING PERFORMANCE SPECTACLES. THE COMPANY HAS DEVELOPED ITS OWN THEATRICAL AND VERBAL LANGUAGE (FURAN), STYLE AND AESTHETICS. MY MEMORIES OF THEIR EARLIER WORK INCLUDE BEING CHASED AROUND BY MUSCLE BOUND MEN WIELDING CHAINSAWS, BEING PELTED WITH OFFAL AND HERDED AROUND BY GIGANTIC CARDBOARD BOXES.

La Fura’s work bursts out of the chaos of Barcelona. I discovered that nothing there is straightforward—not even finding out about their show, SUB. After a futile online investigation, I decided to leave it to fate. As I wandered down the back alleys of Barcelona, desperate to find some clue, I literally walked into the wall that bore the only extant poster anywhere in the city. And, as it happened, the last night of the performance was my last night in Spain.

The venue, Naumon, is an old Norwegian icebreaker ship that La Fura bought in 2003, saving it from being turned into scrap metal and returning it to life as a floating theatre on Barcelona’s harbour.

In SUB the line between theatre and life is blurred. The experience begins outside the boat, while the audience wait to board. Loudspeakers bark orders in a neat reversal of maritime law—women and children first! All the women talk and laugh nervously with each other—strangers bonded through fear and excitement at the mysteries awaiting us. One by one we proceed up the gangplank, leaving the men behind. Bags and bodies searched, we are pushed and shoved, forcefully herded down the dark stairs into the belly of the ship, a small torch our only source of light.

Down, down into the hold, like descending into hell. It’s dark and claustrophobic. We are forced to sit on the floor—bodies squeezed very closely together. Finally the men enter, with their energy and the stink of sweat, herded aggressively and made to sit opposite us. Doors shut, occasioning slight panic. It is now impossible to escape. We are all imprisoned—slaves or illegal refugees crammed into a freighter. Or into an Orwellian world in which people are powerless. And then La Fura dels Baus pull out all their party tricks—and it is one hell of a ride.

La Fura dels Baus, SUB La Fura dels Baus, SUB
photo Oskar Perez
A performer drops through the ceiling hanging naked from a rope. Is he being punished for trying to escape? Are we all being punished? What is our crime? An amplified version of “Love Me Tender” booms from the opposite end of the boat. A woman, in boiler suit, sings karaoke as she descends the staircase, leading in the latecomers—the dispossessed. Her plea for love goes unheeded. Instead she is defiled, raped and hung from a meat hook. A powerless trophy of war?

Above us, two women and two men hurl paint, the drips forcing the audience to shift uneasily in the first of the company’s manipulative crowd/body orchestrations. Characters emerge from all directions—above, below, from the sides…Who is that big bellied man lurking in the shadows? A slave master ready to pounce? In a moment of pure theatrical release, the separated male and female audience members are allowed to reunite. In this subterranean domain there is panic to locate partners, wives, husbands, children—all of us forced to think about the ones in reality who will never find each other.

One side of the ship opens to reveal a ‘human aquarium.’ A man drops into the water, almost naked, a breathing apparatus in his mouth. The water turns red as another body plunges in. And another, and another, now without a line of air. The tank is getting overcrowded, limbs pressing against the scratched glass wall. At first they help each other breath, happily sharing their lifelines but friendship quickly dissolves into a watery struggle for oxygen and space. Outside the aquarium we are powerless—fated to watch but unable to help. And yet, how generous would we be in such a life and death situation? Would we share our last gasp of air with a stranger?

More airless moments: another two bodies are strung up—each totally covered in plastic, a snorkel their only source of air. But, instead of it bringing air into their plastic cocoon, air is being sucked out—the bodies become literally vacuum packed. The amplified wheeze of their breath echoes in this cavernous prison.

A booming voice-over infiltrates the space. A mythical tale unfolds, set in Queensland of all places, in which people are ordered to drink whatever they can find—but to purify it with a pill (a reference to the current debate over drinking recycled sewage). Following orders, a performer, suspended on the side of the boat, flops out his penis, relieves himself into a watering can, puts in a tube and then proceeds to drink this ‘precious’ liquid. Has he gone too far? Extreme circumstances cause extreme transgressions.

And, all throughout the performance, while bodies are dragged across the ground, suspended, vacuum-packed; or as we are chased by gigantic electric fans; while water gushes into the boat, is caught in buckets and thrown at the audience, or is sprayed at the performers; while they are finally strung up against a blank canvas only to be painted out of existence, there is the constant flash of mobile phones and cameras as members of the audience clamor to record the events. The horror preserved for later observation—once we are safely removed from the experience.

As I make my way through Barcelona’s streets, filled with the excitement of having been totally consumed by this performance, I reflect on how much I have been hankering for this style of extreme performance back home. On board the train, I sit in an airless carriage totally controlled by raucous hash-smoking Spanish teenagers. Is this part of the show? Have the lines between theatre and life totally disappeared?


La Fura dels Baus, SUB, text Ahmed Ghazali, Rafael Argullol, direction Younes Bachir, Carlos Padrissa, performers Samuel Delgado, Oumar Doumbouya, Irene Estrade, Zamira Pasceri, Younes Bachir, producer Isabelle Preuilh, coordination Adrìa Guadagnoli; venue Naumon, Barcelona, Sept 22-Oct 12, www.lafura.com

Deborah Leiser-Moore is a performer, director, sessional teacher at La Trobe University and artistic director of Tashmadada. She is presently working on her new performance piece, Cordelia, Mein Kind, which she is taking to Washington DC in December 2008. www.tashmadada.com

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 11

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