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The Chronic Life / a Performance of the Odin Teatret

A work of art is “a being of sensation” that exists in itself, it exceeds any lived, preserves and is preserved in itself, “a block of sensations” that is “a compound of percepts and affects” – this is a definition given by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in What is Philosophy? (1994, pp. 163- 164). The body as the fundamental material of theatre passes into pure sensation, percept or affect, for the time of the performance. In this way it ceases to be individual and cannot be defined as human anymore. It opens to eternity, merging with the performance space, the present objects, costumes, sounds, movements, and other bodies including the audience: “Even if the material [of the artwork] lasts for only a few seconds it will give sensation the power to exist and be preserved in itself in the eternity that coexists with this short duration. So long as the material lasts, the sensation enjoys an eternity in those very moments.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p. 166) In our case, this lasts for the time of the performance, yet eternity has been established and experienced beyond passing away.

This happens during the Odin Teatret’s latest production, The Chronic Life, directed by Eugenio Barba. It was first performed on 12th September 2011, in Holstebro, Denmark. I saw the performance two times in Albino, Italy, in April 2016 as a part of the program of the XV International School of Theatre Anthropology (ISTA) session.

Entering the room where the show takes place the spectator finds the auditorium divided into two halves facing each other, rising on both sides of the oblong stage. The stage is also divided into the middle part, which is heightened by wooden planks, and the surrounding space of the original floor. On one side there is a black wall and a wooden construction and on the other side hangs metal strings in different heights, ending in hooks. According to the given information in the programme book “The action of the performance takes place simultaneously in different countries of Europe in 2031, after the third civil war.” The characters have different cultural and social backgrounds, such as a Colombian boy searching for his father (Carolina Pizarro, previously: Sofia Monsalve), the widow of a Basque officer (Kai Bredholt), a Danish lawyer (Tage Larsen), a Chechnyan refugee (Julia Varley), a Rumanian1 housewife (Roberta Carreri), a rock musician from the Faroe Islands (Jan Ferslev), an Italian street violinist (Elena Floris), and without national identification: a Black Madonna (Iben Nagel Rasmussen) and two mercenaries (Donald Kitt and Fausto Pro). Another character that is not mentioned here is a human-sized puppet, which is dressed exactly in the same way as the Columbian boy.

The action unfolds around the boy’s searching for his lost father, going through several doors without finding him, while the people around him want to convince him to give up trying. The connection between the characters creates a paradox: they all seem lonely and ignorant towards each other, staying in their individual realm filled with desperation, lacking deep interactions and sharing. However, they are, by the given conditions, furled together in the rather small space. A sense of hope comes through music, rhythm and the constant continuation of searching, the assurance of always finding another door opening, even if it leads to something unexpected and far from the original aim. In The Chronic Life this goes on even after death as the performance ends with yet another opening door.

Reading Eugenio Barba’s writing about the work and understanding his main motivation for creating it, I find the simile of a ship that escapes the capture of ice2 referring to theatre (Det Kroniske Liv, 2011, pp. 4-6). Preparatory sketches of the stage and the auditorium resembling a boat complete this image. I draw the connection to what I have experienced as a spectator, the relatively closed, narrow space where the whole action takes place, which instead of separating, includes the audience. The revealing lives of the characters are miserable, and the only way to escape from the pain is through the senses, experienced differently than what is habitual, taken over by them. The characters are joined together in singing, forming a choir towards the end, singing lines of Leonard Cohen’s famous song, ‘Everybody Knows’. As Annelis Kublmann points out in her article (2012, pp., 60-61), the music often contrasts the seemingly hopeless actions, for example, the Rumanian housewife repeatedly attempts to kill herself without success and sings the gospel song, ‘I wanna die easy, when I die…,’ followed by ‘What a wonderful world’ by Louis Armstrong and later the other well-known gospel song, ‘Amazing Grace.’ In all these songs there appears the relation to vision, which is, at first sight a lost quality of the Columbian boy, who appears the second time with his sight lost and his eyes covered by cotton patches. Later on there is a moment when all the characters have their eyes covered in different ways (e.g. with dark sunglasses or bandages). This implies a tragic disability, the lack of perspective that they all suffer from, on the one hand, but it changes the overall bodily perception directing the look inside on the other hand. In the mentioned songs there are lines (even though they cannot be heard in the performance), such as “I once was lost but now I’m found / Was blind, but now, I see;” “I’m gonna see Jesus when I die;” “I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do / But they’re really saying I love you.” Music has a fundamental role in the end of the performance too, when the Italian street violinist appears, playing with covered eyes, identifiable with the Columbian boy (both of them played by female actresses) who in the meantime gained back his sight. We are beyond life, over death, the boy escapes the coffin where his body was pushed into and leaves with his alter ego, laughing together, followed by the melancholic but calming tune of the violin. This is the result of his search.

The performance is not meant to be fully understood rationally, but rather to open the senses, trigger empathy of the spectator, posing questions to which the answer is as personal as collective: a shared experience of learning how to see differently. Eugenio Barba points out the “gift of ambiguity and the experience of not grasping everything” that gives the possibility to a deeper understanding of feelings, the acceptance of things that are not graspable by knowledge, the dynamism of asking questions and searching. He defines his commitment as “to give form and credibility to the incomprehensible and to those impulses that are a mystery […]” (Det Kroniske Liv, 2011, p. 7). This attitude characterised the long working progress too (almost four years intermittently) as the performance took shape. In the beginning there were only images gathering around incomprehensibility saturated with hope, the empathy towards other’s suffering, and joy and compassion (Det Kroniske Liv, 2011, p. 9). There was no pre-fixed dramaturgy or text but research and propositions by the actors considering songs, texts, props, costumes, and so on, which they started developing individually (my notes of E. Barba’s lectures at the XV ISTA session, 2016). Therefore, the creation of the performance was already the searching process that is one of the most important aspects of the resulting, fixed work as it leads the spectator through a path of associations.

The spectators are pushed into incomprehensibility, the rational thoughts are challenged by the cavalcade of senses: a composition of different, often opposing qualities of movements, voices connected to different languages, sounds and visions. The performance is structured by circulating elements (e.g. the cyclical running of the Columbian boy ending in his fall soon after the beginning; the returning lines of the song ‘Everybody knows;’ the interchangeability of the boy and the puppet; the repeated suicide attempts by the housewife; the reappearing objects such as cards and coins, both of them thrown in the air at certain points; the reappearing threat by the two mercenaries; the circulating speeches of the lawyer about a new beginning), the opposition of inside and outside (e.g. the opening and closing of doors; the dimensions of the stage divided into the middle part covered by planks, operating as inside, a house or maybe a country, the space around it that is an external space, a margin mostly inhabited by the Chechnyan refugee, and as a third dimension, there is the coffin in the central position that is covered in the beginning, being used as a dining table, that transforms into a door and opens up during the actions). Incomprehensibility also comes through the multi-lingual mixture of texts and the intentional usage of poetic texts that by its nature, takes time and effort to understand. All these are parts of the overall orchestration of the different levels carefully composed into an intense, pulsing rhythm of vitality embracing suffering, loss and death.

One leading concept of the work was not to let the audience dominate the whole play (my notes of E. Barba’s lectures at the XV ISTA session, 2016). To remember, they are sitting on a ship that takes them to an unexpected place together with the actors. The stage is transparent for the spectator; however there is the obstacle of simultaneity of actions on different sides of the longish stage: that means that the spectator needs to give up seeing everything. Another aspect is the lack of silence that transforms the play into a kind of mantra, a flow where one does not control his/her thoughts. Obviously, the rhythm involves pauses, when the almost silence is created by different sounds, such as the drops of the block of ice that is hanging on one of the metal strings above a soldier’s helmet. This is a very strong sensual affect as well, allowing associations of time, as if a clock was ticking, drops of blood of a hanged body victim or the threatening melting of the polar ice caps.

The final image is an empty space terminated by a tape similar to the ones used by the police to cut off crime scenes from the public, with the strong presence of the coffin in the middle. This is what the boy manages to escape and leaves the scene with the identical violinist through yet a new door that has opened up. Where they are going? That is a question left for the audience. This is the time now to digest and deal with all the questions that haves been triggered. There is a moment created for the spectators to face each other while clapping without the actors’ presence. Something has changed irreversibly in them too: returning to the convenient rational senses is not too easy after the recent experience of losing this kind of control.

As compensation for the non-graspable content of the play there is the “being of sensation,” “a compound of percepts and affects” that is vivified in the work of art, through which eternity is established, even if the access to it lasts only for the time of the performance. Once the ice melts, something will be changed irreversibly: the disappearance of a form into another. Experiencing eternity also transforms one irreversibly by not being able to deny it anymore, by the constantly returning urge to search for it, to be able to hold on to it for a moment and let it go again. The end of the performance leads beyond the human body, beyond death and life, where time and vision are perceived differently and one meets the inner self through another.

1 Term for romanian  used in the programm book of the Odin Teatret
2 Barba mentions the expedition of the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, whose ship was imprisoned by ice in
the North Pole. Instead of giving up trying, he let the ship be taken by the ice that was slowly changing position.

Image: The Chronic Life by Eugenio Barba at the Odin Teatret. Photo credit: Jan Rüsz

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