Elements Of Style In Street Of Crocodiles

Essay, Research Paper

The production of The Street of Crocodiles presented by Theatre de Complicite at the Queen s Theatrein London exhibits evidence of a broad variety of theatrical styles. Adding to the complexity of theshows rich composition is the truth that it is a devised piece of theatrical work. The groups body ofwork has been widely regarded as innovative, garnering a number of major awards and nominationsin the recent past. Dedicated to the collaborative manner in which this production has beendeveloped, the inventors of this staging have guaranteed an intricate weave of dramatic elements. In the1999 published text of the work Simon McBurney and Mark Wheatley are credited asthe adapters. The copyright also goes to them. Their original source material starts with the work ofthe Polish writer Bruno Schulz published in his collected works, The Street of Crocodiles &Sanitorium Under The Sign of the Hourglass currently available from Picador. Other writings ofSchulz used for the basis of the dramatic text include additional short stories and letters. Althoughthey never appear on stage, it is unlikely that the illustrations penned by Schulz were ignored asinspirations. Work on this project began at the Royal National Theatre Studio in 1991. Simon McBurney,Co-founder and Artistic Director of Theatre de Complicite, has served as the shows director sincethis time. Jacob Schulz, Bruno s nephew, worked with the company as they developed the show. Hisrelationship with the play remained ongoing through its continued growth until his death in 1997. Jacob is credited as providing a bridge between the past and the present by McBurney and Wheatleyin their notes on the script. His input continued to illuminate not only the character of his uncle but also the world inwhich he wrote and lived. There is often a lyrical, often somewhat pastoral quality to much of BrunoSchulz s writing. The external reality so closely associated with the subjects and settings of his workare widely regarded as bleak and burnished. The world he represents in his stories is not necessarilyin keeping with the images often associated with Poland during his lifetime. Given this, the helpoffered by Jacob seems likely to have been invaluable. The younger Schulz was certainly in a positionto be of immense aid to the company s understanding of his uncle s unique character. The content ofhis uncle s writing commented very little on the author himself. Of course the nature of the narrativeis revealing in and of itself and says much about the man who gives it voice. Jacob s personalexperience of his uncle can only have helped to add depth and texture to the figure of the man and hisworld. I believe the single most brilliant aspect of the original writings of Bruno Schulz is this. Thebeauty with which he sees and experiences his world seems fully contained within the writer himself. Without ever commenting on his own perspective he appears completely unaware of his integralpresence within his own narrative. He thus becomes not simply the filter through which his readersexperience his world, but the actual object of the their observation. This subtle shift in focus is quitelikely to be the key element that accounts for the surreal aspect of his work s effect. The tenuousredirection of cynosure leaves the reader unwittingly off-balance in territories mistaken as familiar. At this point Schulz is free to compel his readers on a journey inward. There they are apt to join himin an examination of the nature of recollection that in itself outshines any individual memory. Here lies the challenge to the creators of the theatrical piece. Their task is to extend farbeyond simply portraying the stories of Bruno Schulz in some way upon the stage. Simply adapting aselection of characters and settings from the collected stories would do little to bring the world inhabited by them to the audience. Beyond communicating the tone of the original text lay themission to translate the literature into a theatrical language that would have as much impact visuallyas it did on the page. In keeping with the original style of the text, the presentation was to remain anarrative whilst allowing the nature of the subject s conveyance to be as intricately depicted. To address the creation of an appropriate language capable of communicating the text asfully as possible the company looked beyond the written and spoken word. During the process of theplays development the company and those who were to assist them allowed their exploration toinclude the possibilities of relating the world of Bruno Schulz to a theatre going audience with a physical vocabulary to support what already existed in writing. Ultimately, the group sought a way todepict the mental and emotional processes with which the stories were told. The production s design by Rae Smith, along with Paul Constable s lighting and sound byChristopher Shuff are in no way small contributions to the fullness of the world evoked on the stage. Yet the success of the form does not rely on these elements in the way that a more conventionalproduction often does. It is common place in today s theatre to let the technical aspects of aproduction do the work of communicating much it s form. Transitions and the passage of time areregularly depicted with a change in the action s setting. Memory and dream can be represented withthe support of lighting, fog, smoke and scrim. Recorded sound is apt to accompany the climaticaction. At other times it can be used amplify the emotions portrayed by the performers. In contrast,the majority of responsibility for illustrating and delivering the complete theatrical picture falls in thehands of the performers themselves. Their physical presence coupled with their manipulation of thetangible environment which they inhabit are the tools that forge much of the plays structure. Accepting the unusually high demands placed on the physical abilities of the performers leads to anexamination of the training and experience that prepares an artist for this work. The backgroundrequired includes not only the ability to execute the work. The success of the play has relied on theindividual performers abilities to contribute to the creation of the physical shape of the play. The art accomplished in this production draws on a broad spectrum of what is frequentlyreferred to under the vague heading of movement in the theatre industry. It is commonly acceptedthat stage performers who endeavor to train in stagecraft will include movement in their studies. Therealm of choices available to those who seek instruction is broad and varied. Ballet has long beenused as a basis for the performers study of their own body and its mechanics. The disciplinerequired by this form of dance is ideal in helping artists to begin to manipulate their bodies as tools. Alexander work is a frequent inclusion of stage training for the actor, dancer and singer. Theprinciples of it s work encourage the practitioner to address and effect change in patterns of physicalstress. Here, a further understanding of the body s own mechanics are deepened. For the work accomplished in the creation and presentation of Theatre de Complicite sproduction of Street of Crocodiles the mastery of physical performance goes much deeper. The workof Jacques Lecoq is an ideal basis for a study of much of the physical work that goes into theinvention and fulfillment of this manner of exhibition. In the article Mime in the Twentieth Century:to 1950 appearing in Mimes on Miming , the editor, Bra Rolfe refers to Lecoq as the fourth of theFrench four stemming from Coupeau s work. The full compliment of artist contained in thisdescription are Decroux, Barrault, Marceau, and Lecoq. He discovered his interest and aptitude formime by way of his participation in athletics. Jean Daste, within whose school and company Lecoqwas to initially train, had worked directly with Copeau. In the current production, there are a number of performers who have studied his work atL Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. These include Antonio Gil Martinez, Eric Mallet, Clive Mendus,Stefan Metz and Cesar Sarachu. Director Simon McBurney s training and work in Paris alsoincluded an association with this artist. All of these actors appeared in the original production ofStreet of Crocodiles at the Royal National Theatre Studio in 1991. Each of them has had a relationship with the piece since the beginning of its development on the stage. Collectively, theseartists brought with them the methods of approach and exploration passed on by Lecoq. In the article Mime, Movement, Theatre appearing in Rolfe s book, Lecoq comments on thenature of the work he explores. Often people ask me What is it you do in your school, is it mime? I always feel that the one who asks that question limits the school to a wordless formalism. The word mime already is restricting. One sees a performer who does not speak and who makes stylized gestures to show imaginary objects, or makes faces to have you understand that he laughs or cries. Then I answer that I don t do mime, not that kind. This rudimentary anti-description of the focus of his endeavors is actually the basis Lecoq sart. His aim is to develop what is real and present in a performer s physical experience. Thisdeparture from a more classical approach to mime work is what deepens the effect of the truth in hiswork. Lecoq defines his work as fundamental. He seeks to give expression to the seat of experiencerather than to represent an action for viewing. He believes that the response to any stimuli a charactercan encounter is the source of theatrical articulation. This determines the performers action to be onlywhat they can achieve truthfully with their own presence. The movement Lecoq teaches does notattempt to represent an illustration of the physical world. In his theatre the action is it s own subjectand needs no external focus to justify its reality. The approach places a high level of responsibilityon the performers ability to create honest moments foe themselves. Their ability to communicate the

reality of their experience to an audience depends on the highest level of commitment to the actionthey are creating. The artists who have spent time and energy honing the techniques of Lecoq steachings gain a high command of their communication abilities. The interest lies in the simplestgesture that fully illustrates the artist s state. Lecoq refers to this as Pantomime Blance, wherein thegesture replaces the word, offers a study of language. The events that require this theatrical physicality in the performance of Street of Crocodilesare frequent. There is an ideal point of departure for an initial examination of this work sapplication. In one instance, the ensemble is called upon to portray the beloved group of birdsbelonging to the character of the Father. There is no offstage technical wizardry to encumber them. The actors simply form themselves into the familiar formation of a flock. Each of the actorsmanipulates a hardbound book directly over their head. The performers allow the books to take theeasily recognizable physical shape of the individual birds. The birds in the form of books flap noisilythen glide about the stage, reforming the shape and pattern of the flock as they move. The humanbodies manipulating them are never meant to become invisible. The intention is not that the actorsshould magically fade into the background, escaping the audience s attention. The books neverappear to be flying on their own. It is the shrewd use of the books as key signs of creatures capable offlight that allow the actors to appear to be flying themselves. This simple device allows theperformers to focus solely on the purity of the action of the bird they are portraying. They have beenfreed from the obligation to flap their arms and draw attention away from the contact their feet makewith the stage. Another chief instance where the company s physical work is used to extend the production svocabulary is in the internal transitions. In the short stories that make up Schulz s two books,memory and dream – like states are explored as deeply as any of the human characters. Theinspection of the effects of the passage of time and the decay it brings is also littered throughout theprinted narrative. These states are effectively communicated by allowing their effects on a singlecharacter to be observed. The role of Joseph is the depiction of Bruno Schulz himself. Throughoutthe action of the play he moves fluidly back and forth between the life he lead in reality and the worldhe wrote about in his stories. Students under his tutelage become family members and then customersin the family shop. On stage Joseph exists in a world in which he is an observer. Although hissurroundings are familiar and those who keep his company are recognized as his close relations, heappears always just off-balance and incapable of anticipating a moment s probable future. While hisexperiences his journey as moving forward at a consistent pace, the events and people that surroundhim spiral and skip unpredictably. When the characters swirl about the stage, constantly changing thedynamic as they reposition themselves in relation to each other , they alter the setting in which theappear as well. As the characters resolve into the next moment, Joseph is left to catch up with themalthough his interaction with the rest of the group has never ceased. The Official London Theater Guide describes the show as a world of dreams that hasmerged with an absurdist sense of reality. Although this notice can alert a potential audience to thesense of what they might expect to find in the production, it may ultimately be misleading. Anyonelooking specifically for a sampling of something from the Theatre of the Absurd could not be fullysatisfied here. In this production what occurs onstage often appears to be of the Absurd. The effect,when it does occur, is usually accomplished visually. Although the production often has the lookpopularized by practitioners of Absurdism the meaning here is different. The relationship between Theatre de Complicite s production of Street of Crocodiles and theTheatre of the Absurd bears some clear resemblance to the one Tom Stoppard illustrates in his shortplay After Magritte. In it, Stoppard allows his audience to examine their own reaction to stagepictures they may feel are familiar to them. At the curtain s rise the stage is populated by charactersin unlikely physical positions interacting with common household items in unusual ways. Initiallythey are discovered in plateau. As they begin to speak their vocabulary appears to be fragmented anddevoid of meaning. What follows in the play s short action is the information that fills in the gaps inthe narrative and justifies all that has gone before. In this way Stoppard tells his audience that theyhave come to accept at least part of the vocabulary of the Theatre of the Absurd. The signs and noteshave become recognizable and thus there is some chance of anticipating the action. The effect of the visual imagery used by Theatre de Complicite covers some of the sameground. The work relies on it s audience having a basic familiarity with the style s feel and tone. It sinclusion is meant to accomplish the establishment of an altered perspective. For the play s opening, Joseph s entrance precedes the others and he initially occupies the stage alone. The company ssubsequent entrance is described in the play s text as follows. The cast gradually appear on stage as if called up by Joseph s imagination. One of Father s assistants, Theodore, walks down the wall perpendicular to the audience, pauses to take his hat and looks up as, out of the bucket, his twin assistant, Leon, appears – wet and dripping. Having struggled out of the small bucket, he picks it up. There is no trace of where he has come from. Maria emerges from the packing case of books. Charles, Emil and Agatha emerge from behind the bookcases. Mother, swathed in cloth, shuffles forward on her knees with a book covered in a shawl. At a signal, they all produce books in their hands and look at Joseph. In these instances the style certainly fits the literal definition of the notion of absurdity. Asdefined in the forth edition of the Oxford Dictionary Absurd is not in accordance with commonsense, very unsuitable, ridicules, foolish. When used in the description of theatrical work the term absurdism generally carries a more weighted meaning. In much of the literature of the Theatre of The Absurd the style that has come to be to someextent common to the genre is used to comment of a lack of meaning. For this purpose action is attimes portrayed as outside the generally accepted realm of the possible so as to illustrate it smeaninglessness. Character s tasks are fragmented or committed in repetition so as to comment ontheir innate lack of purpose or effect. Scenes are played in impossible settings so as to illuminate thefeeling of man/woman existing in a void with no purpose or ability to direct their course. None ofthese themes is in keeping with the writings of Bruno Schulz. Neither are they the meaning thatmotivate this theatrical work. The issue of the devaluation of the individual is also explored here to great effect. It isperhaps a nod to the tradition of the renowned polish dramatist – director Tadeusz Kantor. In hisTheatre of Death he depicted the hopeless state of the individual by substituting an inanimate objectfor a person. A puppet of sorts is used in conjunction with live actors who carry out a ritualisticmurder. Ionesco deals with the same subject matter in his Killing Game. Yet again, when this deviceis employed in The Street of Crocodiles it is only a visual resonance of a style that is given a differentvalue here. When the character of the father is lost to Joseph he reapers in wooden effigy. In notime the wooden effigy is destroyed methodically by another character. Yet it is Joseph s experienceof loss that is being illustrated. The father s demise is only presented for its effect on the son. the father himself is given the line No, no, no, there is no dead matter. Lifelessness is only adisguise… The Street of Crocodiles speaks about searching for purpose and meaning just as theaforementioned work does. It is however an innately different style of art. Throughout the piece thereis evidence of finding meaning and purpose. While a similar style is shared, it is used here to drawvastly different conclusions. Often in the plays of the absurdist theatre words are shown to have nomeaning or use. Their very lack of purpose or impact can be identified by the void on which theycontinue to have no effect. In Samuel Beckett s Krapp s Last Tape the playwright s sad clownunwinds the word spool until it has lost it s meaning. At first it becomes a silly plaything and thenfinally is discarded as debris. Words lose their value when a character discovered that they can notuse them to communicate anything. The question of the possible impact of the spoken word Makes several appearancesin The Street of Crocodiles as well. The characters speak in a number of different languagesthroughout the play s dialogues. At times they are understood by Joseph whilst sometimes theirmeaning does not reach him. Yet here again, as with the example of the play s opening sequence, itis only the appearance of an absurdist characteristic. Here the use of language explores the outerlimits of it s means of communicating. In several instances, Joseph s lack of understanding what isbeing said to him is positioned as a metaphor for his uncertainty of being understood himself. In the end the Theatre de Complicitie s production of Street of Crocodiles benefits fromweaving a number of different styles together and possible creating a new one in the process. Whileelements of absurdism are evident they serve a different purpose than that for which they are usuallyused. The mime work incorporated into the body of the piece empowers the strength of the play slanguage, yet the movement is never enacted on it s own. Indeed no single pure element from any ofthe formal genres on which this creation draws is utilized on it s own. In their note on the script,Simon McBurney and Mark Wheatley speak about the plays composition and nature in the followingterms. So, this book is more the record of a process than a text for performance; a map rather than a play. A play is a place which demands to be inhabited; both origin and destination, linked by a clearly determined path. A map indicates the landscape, suggests a multitude of directions, but does not dictate which one you should take.


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