Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Postcard from Perth Festival 2: Dimitris Papaioannou, The Great Tamer

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The Great Tamer is one of those unique festival works that will be talked about for years to come, writes Humphrey Bower from the Perth Festival.

As has often been noted, the Greek experimental theatre director Dimitris Papaioannou began his professional life as a visual artist. As such he belongs to the tradition of theatre that is oriented more towards showing than saying (in Greek, theatron means ‘a place for seeing’). As such, language or narrative play a relatively minor (or perhaps rather hidden or buried) role in The Great Tamer. According to Papaioannou, the work was partly inspired by news reports of the mysterious disappearance of a boy who was bullied at University and later found dead by a river, ‘but whether it was murder or suicide no one knew’. Pappaiannou says the story left him ‘with emotions I didn’t know what to do with’. As such, The Great Tamer can be seen as a dream-like attempt to process an unassimilable trauma – one in which images and free association supplant the role of words or logic. 

Papaioannou studied painting under the major Greek artists Yannis Tsarouchis and later Dimitris Mitaras. A quick glance at the work of the former reveals the influence of Matisse in terms of colour and vitality, and many of his canvases portray strong but vulnerable men; Mitaras seems to have followed more in the footsteps of Picasso, focussing more on female nudes, and shifting in style from realism to abstraction. Both men also designed sets and costumes for the theatre: Tsarouchis in particular created a memorable costume for Maria Callas in Medea, and famously staged an adaptation of The Trojan Women in an Athens parking lot. Pappaioannou thus shares with his mentors a fascination with theatre and the body, as well as a Matisse-like celebration of life, shadowed by a Picasso-like preoccupation with sex and death. 

Time, the seasons, agriculture, castration, infanticide, melancholy, slowness – these then form a cluster of sub-themes that permeate The Great Tamer.

In terms of his own professional trajectory, Pappaioannou shifted focus in the ’80s and ’90s from painting to illustrations, comics and magazines with countercultural and gay themes (which were somewhat taboo in Greece at the time). Meanwhile he was also taking an interest in theatre and dance, attending seminars on Butoh at La MaMa in New York and working as an assistant to Robert Wilson. In 1986 he founded the underground performance company Edafos Dance Theatre in Athens, whose productions included The Last Song of Richard Strauss, Medea, A Moment’s Silence (the first play in Greece to deal openly with AIDS) and an Oresteia at Epidavros with music by Xenakis. Most famously he was artistic director of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004; works since then include two (which dealt with homosexuality and masculinity) and Still Life (Sydney Festival 2017) which focussed on the myth of Sisyphus and saw Papaioannou increasingly using simplicity, absurdity, repetition, illusion, body parts, slowness and silence – all of which feature heavily in The Great Tamer. In 2018 he was the first person to create a new work for Tanzteater Wuppertal since the death of Pina Bausch (New Piece 1: Since She).

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Art and mythology, life and death, men and women, sexuality and corporeality, materiality and the search for meaning – these are Papaioannou’s themes and motifs. According to him, the title of The Great Tamer refers to Time (which Homer in The Iliad called ‘the all-tamer’); perhaps it’s also worth noting that the Greek god of time Kronos (whom the Romans called Saturn and who is also associated with agriculture and the cycle of the seasons) castrated his father with a scythe and threw his genitals into the sea, instigating and presiding over a mythical Golden Age, and devouring his own children until he was in turn overthrown by his son, Zeus (Saturn is also associated with melancholy and was slowest-moving planet known in the ancient world). Time, the seasons, agriculture, castration, infanticide, melancholy, slowness – these then form a cluster of sub-themes that permeate The Great Tamer; other Greek classical figures invoked include the Goddess Demeter, Narcissus, Tiresias and the hermaphrodite creatures described by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium.

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These references to classical mythology are however heavily mediated by images from Renaissance and post-Renaissance painters such as Mantegna, Da Vinci, Caravaggio, de Ribera, Velasquez, Rembrandt and Goya – especially those ‘black paintings’ which make heavy use of chiaroscuro, and in particular the heightened contrast between dark clothing and pale flesh. Such images are of course highly theatrical in terms of lighting but also because they also focus on the body – in particular the Christian (or post-Christian) ‘fallen’ body, especially the male body, and notably that of Christ himself. These images are in turn mediated by the influence of Surrealism, in particular the work of Duchamp, Magritte and Dalí (who of course also famously ‘painted time’, not to mention moustaches, skulls and women’s bodies – all of which feature also heavily in The Great Tamer). In short: the sensuous materiality of classical Greece is penetrated by the other-worldly spirituality of Judeo-Christianity, and beyond it, the philosophical, social and psychological materialism of modernity (there’s nothing ‘New Age’ or ‘post-materialist’ about The Great Tamer, and its references remain resolutely Western).

There’s a Beckett-like minimalism and mood of absurdist black comedy that at times makes The Great Tamer resemble a kind of melancholy circus. 

This venerable list of more or less overt mythological, art-historical and thematic references might sound a little creaky, or even like a rather tedious obligatory post-modern or post-dramatic roll-call – and indeed it’s not hard to situate Pappaioannou in a line of auteur performance-makers from Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson to Romeo Castellucci. In terms of literature, apart from surrealism, one thinks of T.S. Eliot (‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’) and perhaps especially of Samuel Beckett; indeed there’s a Beckett-like minimalism and mood of absurdist black comedy that at times makes The Great Tamer resemble a kind of melancholy circus. 

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What made the work distinctive for me was the honesty and vulnerability of the performers, the elegant simplicity of the staging, and the unforgettable beauty/comedy/sadness/horror of the images. There are ten performers, seven male and three female. The men’s costumes (designed by Aggelos Mendis) consist of black suits and shoes and white shirts; a few have moustaches and resemble Pappaioannou himself at various ages, and their demeanour is mostly calm and unhurried. The women likewise are all mostly simply dressed, but their physical and emotional journey is a little different from the men. There’s a great deal of nudity, exposure and illusionistic dismemberment and recombination of body parts; the influence of mythology, psychoanalysis and surrealism is clearly felt in the motif of ‘the body in pieces’ (including cross-gendered pieces). In general however I was struck by the difference in the way male and female bodies and forms were treated: the male bodies seemed more like erotic, pathetic or comic objects, while the female body seemed more like a façade concealing an enigmatic interior (Freud’s ‘dark continent’).

There’s something of Kubrick’s post-humanism, coldness and visionary sweep in the show.

The set (designed by Tina Tzoka) consists of an undulating raised platform loosely covered with plywood slats painted black (the undersides of some are white) which can be shifted, raised, flipped over or climbed, stepped or fallen through by the performers (who also occasionally roll or leap off the back and disappear); beneath is presumably an invisible grid-frame support with a network of holes. The only furniture consists of a few small stool-tables, which the performers occasionally sit or climb on. Lighting by Evina Vassilakopoulou is mostly in cool white tones and designed for maximum exposure of the stage and (and the morbid pallor of the performers’ flesh). Music consists primarily of slowed down and distorted fragments of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz (adapted by Stephanos Droussiotis), which underscored the repetitive slowness of the action and had a sickly fin de siécle circus-effect; I was reminded of Karl Krauss’s joke about the dying days of the Hapsburg Empire that ‘the situation is hopeless but not serious’. I also couldn’t help thinking of Kubrick’s use of the same piece in 2001 at key moments of evolutionary and technological transition; and indeed there’s something of Kubrick’s post-humanism, coldness and visionary sweep in the show. This association was reinforced by the recurrent (and otherwise apparently anomalous) image of an astronaut slowly wandering the set and digging up earth, bones, body parts, artefacts and other human remains; the amplified sound of their breathing also recalled Kubrick’s film. In fact the theme of excavation, and the related actions of covering and uncovering, extracting and even eviscerating, are central motifs in the show.

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On this surrealistic ‘operating table’ a series of unforgettable and artfully staged images, tableaux and ‘chance encounters’ take place. A man removes his clothes and lies down naked in the centre of the stage with his feet facing forward and genitals prominently displayed; another man enters and covers him with a white sheet; a third man enters and lifts, inverts and drops one of the pieces of plywood beside him so that the gust of air blows the sheet off the body; the sequence is repeated endlessly. The image references Mantegna’s Dead Christ, but also the figure of Lazarus (and more generally the theme of death and rebirth).

Later, the same man lies down again naked and feet-first but upstage right at an oblique angle; he is surrounded by black-clad performers who suddenly put on white ruffs and assume the tableau of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson; a moment later they begin operating on him while he is still conscious, and then pulling out entrails and eating them, and then discarding organs and bones, in a monstrous parody of Goya’s ‘black’ painting of Saturn Devouring His Children (and other myths of sacrifice and cannibalism from the feast of Thyestes to the Last Supper).

A woman with a bare torso is borne aloft by two men, each with one black trouser leg removed and one hairy leg exposed wearing a stiletto; the effect is at once comic, grotesque and erotic; one thinks of Surrealist juxtapositions like Magritte’s Rape, and mythological figures like the transgendered Tiresias or hybrid creatures like satyrs, centaurs and chimeras. Two naked performers (male and female) interlock bodies and slowly roll over each other across the stage like a wheel; one thinks of the torments of the damned in paintings by Heironymous Bosch, but also the mythological four-legged hermaphrodites in Plato’s Symposium.

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A man lies on his back on top of a stool-table and holds another man above him by the waist who mirrors him with the tips of their shoes touch  the image recalls the figure of Narcissus (who is also invoked later by a man leaning over a pool of dark water in a gap between the slats, in an image that also clearly references Caravaggio).

Pappaioannou is a magician in his capacity to direct (or misdirect) our gaze.

A marvellous hail of golden darts flies through the air and lodges in the floor (while a performer shelters under one of the raised boards) to became a field of corn or wheat; a seated female figure in a robe with a basket sits beside them, like the goddess Demeter; and we think of the cycle of the seasons, sowing and reaping, life and death. Towards the end of the show, a man sits crouched over an ancient open book beside a skull, like Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome − or Pappaioannou himself, meditating over the relics of his own memento mori. (A friend and I went up after the show to inspect the book at close range: the open pages were meticulously reproduced and aged copies of pages from Leonardo’s notebooks with their tell-tale mirror-reversed handwriting, including a drawing of a foetus in the womb – again reminding me of the closing shot of 2001.)

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For me however the most indelible image in the show was that of a man leaning over a prostrate naked woman with a covered face and repeatedly reaching out as if to insert his hand into her torso, while she arched her back and crawled backwards away from him, her face distorted in agony. The gesture was repeated endlessly, and each time I expected him (in part because of the earlier Anatomy Lesson scene, in part because the gesture involved his upstage hand) to actually pull something out. Once again of course the scene references images from myth, religion and surrealism, but I also found it a disturbing reflection on sexuality and objectification, in part because of the complicity of the staging, which (as elsewhere in the show) involved the artful use of space and expectations; Pappaioannou is a magician in his capacity to direct (or misdirect) our gaze.

As with all images, to describe these is scarcely to do justice to their power. They are obviously meant to arouse cultural and personal associations in us, but also to speak for themselves, in their own silent language. In fact there are no words in this show, apart from the odd outburst of collective muttering; but a hidden scaffold of language and narrative underlies the imagery, much like the hidden framework that underlies the set. The impact of the work also continues to expand and reverberate like a slow-motion depth-charge long after seeing it.

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In sum: The Great Tamer is one of those unique Festival works that will be talked about for years to come, especially by artists and performers. In its lack of overt ‘community’ focus or involvement it’s perhaps something of an anomaly in terms of Perth Festival artistic director Wendy Martin’s typical programming – but then again, artists and performers are an important community too. Sadly it also represents a level of work that’s unlikely to be achieved in Australia under current conditions because of the long-term investment involved in a singular artist, work or – crucially – ensemble of performers.

The Great Tamer was at the Heath Ledger Theatre February 8-12
All photos by Julian Mommert

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