Watching the Birdie

 Watching the Birdie

Steven Connor

These comments were written in response to the Wooster Group’s production of To You, The Birdie (Phèdre), an adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre which played at the Riverside Studios in May 2002. The comments were for a panel on Technology and Performance which formed part of a symposium on the work of the Wooster Group at the Cochrane Theatre London, 14-15 May 2002, organised by Andrew Quick and Adrian Streathfield.

Technology is always imaginary. Imagination is always material. That’s what I will say.

Technology is often thought of as disembodying, especially when it is a case of the distancing of bodily or sensory functions, whether for the purpose of enhancement or enlargement. This disembodiment often comes about by means of, or because of, asynchronisation, splitting of the seams of space and time.

Neither of these things seem on the face of it very propitious for theatre, in which the principle of synchronisation, things happening in the same place at the same time, is a minimum requirement. Do we not speak of everything ‘coming together’ for a successful show? Walter Benjamin pointed out early on the distinctive nature of contemporary film, that it was an assemblage of sound and image events which had taken place discontinuously in different times and places, rather than the synchronous witness of events unrolling in a continuous, real time. The Wooster group have a long history of folding these dispersed conditions back into the theatrical event, such that what is made to come together in the designated time and space of the performance is a visible and audible distribution and regathering of elements. The space is crammed yet interrupted, consisting of everything but the synch. The performance still, as we say ‘takes place’ – occupies a determinate stretch of time and space – but what fills that space are rifts, stutters, hiccups, relays, delays, dehiscences. The space is saturated with things that are coming apart from their sources, full of things and events that prompt the question ‘where’? or rather, perhaps ‘whence?’ rather than ‘why?’ The Wooster group specialise not in passion brought to a pitch, or a focus, but what Antonin Artaud called ‘le souffrance de dubbing’ – the suffering of dubbing, the passion of the synch. A suffering that is just to the side of itself is keyed in to the suffering of being just to the side of yourself. But there, what we name as ecstasy has traditionally been thought of as being not all there.

I want to say a few things about the uses and misuses of voice and sound in this Woster Group production. But I am minded to dawdle for a while with this word, production; for production, in all of its contemporary senses, does seem veritably what is going on here. There is of course what we call the production in total, a word which we use to describe a particular embodiment of a play-text, a set of performance conditions and operations, though the ubiquity of the figure of the ‘producer’ in contemporary media should make us aware that the act of producing a play involves a great deal more than deciding which side of the stage the actors are to come in on. What then is ‘the production’ that we have seen, most of us? Is it the same production that has been mounted in other cities at other times, and will be reassembled in yet more? Is it the same production as the version for radio broadcast earlier this year by Radio 3?

This kind of production comes before the completed performance, but there are other kinds of production. In the world of radio and TV, the ‘producer’ has a very particular role during a live performance, which is to make the decisions about what elements to assemble into the live mix that is actually broadcast. It is as though the producer were here a secondary organ of voice-production. I sit in the studio and emit the words, but it is the producer who integrates these words and determines the form in which they are to be transmitted.

There are other, more primary kinds of production in evidence in the work of the Wooster group. There is, for example, certainly plenty of ‘voice production’, that specialised way of talking about talking that voice-coaches like to use, as part of their mystified and utterly magical anatomy of chest-voices, head-voices, nose-voices, armpit-voices and so forth. Forgive me: I have spent too long amid the enchanting and quite insane ideas that people have had about how the so-called ventriloquial voice is produced (from special organs in the stomach, from mobile devils broadcasting from the rectum, or the vagina, etc) to take seriously the bizarre delusions that perfectly reasonable people who have seen the insides of plenty of fish and chickens and perhaps even human bodies too still entertain about the process by which the voice is produced. We think Greek and Galenic doctors mad for fumigating women at the nostrils in order to drive a vagrant womb back into its correct place, but have no difficulty in believing in the vast, empty, resonant spaces inside the body.

Where was I? The work of the Wooster group enforces an awareness of the primary physical connotation of words such as produce and production, as that which has been brought out, from an inside, typically the inside of a body, whether as phlegm, mucus, faeces or some other emission, or as a new birth, in the process of reproduction. The production of sweat, odour, tears and faeces is emphasised through the production of To You, The Birdie. Hippolytos (Ari Fliakos) and Theramenes (Scott Shepherd) ostentatiously wipe away the sweat from brow, crotch and arsecrack during their badminton; Phèdre’s attempts to purge herself are literalised in the enemas to which she submits, while Oenone drowns herself, not in the sea, but in a bowl filled with enema-products. A little later, I will suggest that this attention to bodily productions has something to do with what the Wooster group do with voices and sounds technologically.

There is an obvious sense in which the Wooster group effect kinds of technological disembodiment, in which audiovisual technologies effect displacements and derangements of physical words and actions: Hippolytos and Theramenes open the play with a relaxed, locker-room colloquy, in which they pass a microphone to each other, and cross and recross their legs in front of a screen which gave us another version of their crossing and spreading legs, obligingly feeding and firing the prurient curiosity always aroused by a kilt, a little like the X-ray screens in the comics I read in my far-off fabular youth. We could see enough to know that what we say were not live legs, just as, later in the show, the prone Theseus delivers his speech of remorse lying down in front of the screen, which showed us an image of his nonsynchronous face and voice as he delivered the speech. I could not determine whether a time-delay or visual reverb system was in operation here, feeding actual movements back in to the performance, or whether we were watching a leg-track and a face-track recorded in its entirety on another occasion, or several occasions. Perhaps the most striking feature of the production is the separation of speech from its source, most notably in the case of Phaedra. Her lines are read by Theramenes into a microphone at the back of the stage, though her ‘real’ voice came into operation at points of high crisis or distress.

It seems almost too easy to read this as a split between an inner voice and the voice of public declaration – in which the inner voice is evacuated and comes from the outside, while the public voice is torn from the innards. In fact, what seemed to me to be going on was a little more involved than this. Kate Valk’s Phèdre seems forced to dance, though spasmodically, and unnervingly just off the beat, to the tune of her own voice. But the speaker of her words makes it clear from his rather flat, slightly cantering delivery, enlivened only by the occasional lick of a Bettie Davis snarl, that these are not his words either; he is like the reader-in who substitutes for a missing actor in rehearsal, whose function is to keep the cues coming and keep the ball of the dialogue in the air.

I want to end these few remarks by suggesting that, if technology is used to split and appropriate the body, then there is another, probably more important sense in which technology converges with the world of matter in the work of the Wooster group. Michel Serres argues that every metaphysics is founded upon a physics, a particular theory of the operation of forces and materials. He sees matter as historical and history as a kind of matter in movement between different states, solid, liquid and volatile. The world of classical physics was preoccupied with and governed by solid and distinct forms. The new physics which opened up during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was matched by the emphasis on flux to be found in the philosophy of Bergson, became interested in liquids, in movements, in processes of change and exchange, thermodynamic, electrodynamic. Serres suggests that the predominating state of matter in the contemporary world is gaseous rather than liquid: ‘The system’s “matter” has changed “phase,” at least since Bergson. It’s more liquid than solid, more airlike than liquid, more informational than material. The global is fleeing towards the fragile, the weightless, the living, the breathing’.

If this is true in general, there are plenty of complications and exceptions, ways in which technology rejoins the world of weight and hardness. After writing a book of a wearisome 450 pages on the history of ventriloquism and the disembodied voice, I was able to conclude what I should have been sensible enough to have seen from the start, namely that There Is No Disembodied Voice. The dissociation, discarnation, attentuation and redistribution of the voice has not in any sense made it less bodily or substantial. Indeed, it has emphasised these aspects, or made it possible to do it. The Wooster group seem to work with the idea and the substantiated fantasy of the voice as magical substance or object, or production.

Michel Serres suggests that an analysis of complex or dynamic networks, especially in a mediated world, is not well served by a theory that separates subjects, or users of a network, from the objects they transmit, or the network itself conceived as an object. Instead, he proposes that we think of such networks as held together by the movements of what he calls ‘quasi-objects’. He classifies many social institutions – religion, economy, military institutions – as quasi-objects: but perhaps the most telling example of a quasi-object is the ball in a game of rugby or football. It is only the clumsy player who thinks of the ball as an object. The skilled player will think of the ball as a moving source of potential. The game takes its form from the movements of the ball, rather than from the intentions of the players. Similarly in To You, The Birdie, its very title a crossing or rallying between languages, attention is centred on what moves between the players – emblematically (rather too emblematically may we say?) in the shuttlecock of will, desire, fortune, or whatever, less so in the exchanges of the microphone, the suturing and undoing of voices.

The voice is one such mobile or quasi-object; but I saw a show in which the voice is made to circulate within a kind of laboratory of forms, substances, processes, movements, collisions, governed by the alchemists’ motto: solve, coagula – dissolve and compound. It was, in the strict sense, a sort of quantum world, in which processes were worked through in segmented lumps, rather than in terms of qualities. What contemporary parlance aptly calls ‘the visuals’, were as manipulable as the vocals. Two systems of signification seemed to be elaborately translated into each other: on the one hand, an overfamiliar story of incestuous passion, betrayal, revenge and remorse, the business-as-usual of neoclassical tragedy, on the other, the manipulation of blocks of matter, particularly under conditions of collision; slidings, shufflings, shuttlings, blows, declensions. The mediating factor between the world in the words and the world of the production was the matter of the words. Everything that can happen to bodies in the performance can happen to the words they emit. Words are decomposed and recomposed as the semi-ensouled noises that formed their substance: ringings, twangings, birdsong, engines revving.

Amplification, the fluctuation between sound states, becomes an active participant in these processes. The omnipresence of the sound of water, gurgling, hissing and sluicing, is a harbinger of the eventual swallowing of voices in entropic white noise. Water inhabits the space between the volatile condition of the shuttlecock, the (oiseau), whizzing between the players, and the relentless of gravity or going to ground. As in a cartoon, the extraordinary, comically, sometimes neurasthenically amplified sounds of impact, concussion and sliding, seem sometimes to be there to sandbag or ballast characters who seem otherwise insufficiently weighty, or insufficiently elastic. At other times, we are hearing the sound of living beings being engulfed in matter: despite repeatedly pulling his rib-cage up to his chin, and demanding ‘Look at this’, Willem Dafoe’s Theseus slides down the diagonal of his tilted chair like Grandfather Smallweed.

Sound, in a sense, provides the milieu of this production; sound is its infinitely changeable and yet compelling material, what everything seems made of, comes down to. Sound has always signified power, partly because it is immaterial, evanescent, event rather than object; but in the era of manipulable sound, sound which can persist and be repeated, it becomes sticky, palpable, starts mattering.

Did I mention this before? Technology is imaginary. The imagination is material.