Monday, October 17, 2005

Caravan of Courage

I was a little wary of Le Dernier Caravanserail (at the Royal Exhibition Buildings) for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it had been talked up like nothing else, and that instinctively causes me to recoil from the hype and take a distanced attitude towards a show. Nothing's that good, I think. Sometimes I'm wrong. I'm glad when I am.

Secondly, there was something discordant about this show: it's meant to be an exploration of the human experience of forced migration, dislocation, refugees, the loss of homelands, etc. Pretty serious stuff. Probably pretty dark in many places. But I also knew that the most impressive thing about the show is its sheer scale - a gargantuan set, dozens of performers, 12 shipping containers worth of materials and a total running time of around six hours. This sounded oddly familiar...and it was only when I remembered the name of the theatre company behind it that things clicked into place. Theatre du Soleil. Holy crap. Is this the theatrical arm of Cirque du Soleil? Was I about to see the dramatic version of a bunch of gaily painted clowns zipping around on stilts and talking "meaningful" rubbish about the human condition? When I recalled further that Le Dernier Caravanserail featured the cast never actually touching the floor, the hackles went up.

Pleased to say that my opinion was mostly just stupid reactionary thinking.

This is an epic show in every sense, but the three hours of Part 2 (the half that I saw) flew by. It had the feel of an action film, with plenty of dramatic escapes, horrific and sudden executions, gunshots, swarms of people teeming across the landscape or singular figures huddled in cold streetlamps. Some of the most memorable scenes were most effective not just for their realistic portrayal (you'd swear there were invisible helicopters beating down the waves in the opening scene) but for their basis in reality: hard to believe the refugees climbing through the Channel Tunnel to try to leap onto passing trains, or the Caucasian peasants dodging searchlights and machineguns to clamber over the border into Germany, or the Afghan film buff gunned down by the Taliban for obtaining 8mm versions of classic Hollywood movies...all true stuff, though.

There's something here to move anyone, although my initial worries weren't entirely quelled. I'm still wondering if you can do justice to such an important theme by making it so spectacular. Should I be gushing about the visual thrill of a show tackling genocide and mass displacement? Should it have been so exciting and moving and unprecedented? Or is the appeal to the physical and the emotional too cheap, to ideologically dangerous? Plenty of theorists have argued that political theatre can't tug at the heartstrings without becoming manipulative, and though there are token Brechtian moments where we see actors moving the set around (etc) that stuff is pretty standard theatrical convention these days.

Still, I couldn't help but agree with one critic's declaration: Amanda Vanstone and her cronies should be made to attend this show. Hell, everyone should.

There's an extra two shows Tues & Wed this week. Sell your kidney to get a ticket.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Saw these guys in Paris a few years ago - had the pleasure of Mnouchkine herself mispronouncing my surname :-) Spectacular stuff, although they have always been criticised for paying lipservice to the cultures from which they 'borrow' their theatrical ideas.

Still, sounds like this show is particularly good, and I hope it makes it to Tokyo.

BTW, you heard about the Byrne/Cook musical about Imelda Marcos?