The Animal was Upon Him is a title apparently derived by performance-maker Oliver Bray from Will Self’s 1997 Great Apes (a reference to the year it was published rather than a specific number of primates’ tales it contains). ‘There are passages that kindle the imagination’ as someone named Jayne Margetts wrote about the book, and you could say something similar about the piece Bray presented with fellow performer Hannah Butterfield at Yorkshire Dance. You could, but I’m still not sure what the show kindled in me. A degree of admiration for the cast, yes, and for Bray’s rather prodigious daring in attempting to ping and zing such a catalogue of often tangential ideas. But I guess I don’t quite know what to do with the experience, if that makes sense, and, in a way, so archly clever is it that I felt a lot of it was done for me anyway. Meaning, I wasn’t always sure what I could bring to the work apart from my presence in the space. But maybe that uncertainty, and my being there, were both appropriate and enough.
A glossary of terms was handed to me at the door. Impressive it was, too, although I didn’t peruse the sheet until after-the-fact. The glossary intro refers to ‘constraints used within the performance,’ some of which ‘relate directly to OuLiPo constraints.’ OuLiPo stands for Ouvoir Litterature (and there oughta be a diacritical grave over that first e) Potentielle aka the Workshop of Potential Literature which has since 1960 ’used constraints and restrictions to generate new writing.’ Ha! Ya kinda haveta tip your hat to anyone who devises such an elaborate backstory to their performance, don’tchya?
So we’re dealing with playfulness here, and an almost compulsive cleverness. But was it all more than a little too clever for its own good? There were big invisible quotation marks round everything in this two-hander, from what the adroit performers wore (blue coats, off-white tights, boots and black mid-calf trousers for HB and cute pyjama-esque shorts for OB) to everything they said or did and how they related to each other. Hannah was the pretty, perky one nonetheless quite capable of injecting sarcasm into her pleasantly chipper demeanour when needed. It was needed, too, given Oliver’s determined pose of cynical smart-arsery. Like Butterworth/Surman, whose collaborative performance opened this double-bill, they were a good double-act.
Throughout the show the undefined glossary words and phrases were projected onto a screen backdrop. There were also smatterings of movement, sudden and swift and possibly superfluous, and even a blackout. All that, plus the shifting performance style and content, signalled a subversive and supposedly transgressive baroque postmodernism. The two Bs performed confidently, dialoguing away about what I’ll call (with a nod to Edinburgh-based choreographer Janis Claxton who used this term for her own ends) humanimalism, sometimes reverting to apeishness themselves via grunts and shrieks. The work’s satirical stance was further evident in their lurch between, say, talking dirty (with sexually explicit slang substituting for certain words in certain statements – a new slant on the double-entendre, perhaps?) to a slide into the audience’s midst for an interlude of pseudo-historical period-piece storytelling. There was plenty of word play, too (Bray’s ‘I go on a date and then I eat one’ being a particularly memorable example) and some mordantly morbid philosophical games (Bray asking Butterfield if she’d prefer to shoot a puppy or a Siamese twin, er, kitten, and her turn of the tables re his preference for death by burning or drowning) for anyone prone to be tickled by such. I also enjoyed Bray’s silent, subtextual mouthing of ‘F*** you! F*** you, you c***!’ at Butterfield before reverting to a more mollifying and maybe even self-emasculating utterance. (Something was being conveyed throughout about the often abrasive difference between men and women.) There were as well spots of time travel and hypnosis, too.
Plainly B&B were occupying fertile territory here. So then what exactly is my ‘but…’ about this Animal? Because I do have a ‘but…’ even if I can’t quite articulate the source. During the post-show talk later that night at Northern School [about which I'll next blogalot] someone asked Flemish ‘maker’ Nicole Beutler for her thoughts on a theatre of pure, raw emotion (as evinced in the just-performed 1:Songs) versus that which opts for intellectual or conceptual cleverness (yes, that word again). Was the question perhaps made in reference to Bray’s work (and, for that matter, the Butterworth/Surman piece that preceded it*)? Dunno. All I can say is that although I couldn’t truly embrace his prickly piece, I don’t think it wants to be clasped to anybody’s bosom. It’s a jocular asp of a show (and I don’t believe I’ve ever written or said that before).