Outrageous reflections of the vulnerability of letting yourself fail
Three shows at National Arts Festival reveal the courage of facing defeat
We all want to succeed, and yet being all too human means that we very often fail.
Showing weakness might be seen as a kind of defeat, and yet the arts are also about revealing vulnerability, of being courageous enough to allow a crack in our armour, which is, in Leonard Cohen’s words, where "the light shines through".
Three shows at the National Arts Festival express failure in variously outrageous ways. In Circus Schoenberg, a group of consummate musicians try to discover the "wrong note", while blowing bubbles, drinking wine and inflating large pool toys.
In The Most Amazing Show, Corné and Twakkie return after a seven-year hiatus to do their utmost to create a spectacular show which is destined to flop in the most bizarre fashion. And, in a very different vein, Stephen Cohen returns to the festival to outrageously (and beautifully) face the ultimate failure, death.
Circus Schoenberg takes us on a wild ride through 20th-century music and its search for the essence of sound. Many of these pieces push the boundaries of what is considered palatable, and audiences are permitted one red card they can show when the music becomes too strange or too boring to handle. (When I saw the show, we were seemingly punished for our use of the card with Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain.)
My favourite part of the show was undoubtedly James Oesi playing Tom Johnson’s Failing: a very difficult piece for solo string bass, in which the performer attempts to read a text aloud while playing an increasingly difficult composition. There’s something delightful in the struggle he faces: if he fails to play (or read) the piece properly, then he has succeeded at demonstrating failure, which is the intention of the exercise; however, if he manages to perform the piece correctly, then he will have failed to fail.
There’s something perversely pleasurable about seeing a respectable classical pianist taking a break from attempting some of the most difficult pieces written for her instrument by gradually blowing up a giant inflatable dog with the valve positioned exactly underneath the dog’s tail. Although the performers took their craft seriously, they did not take themselves seriously at all and this playfulness permeated through the whole show.
In The Most Amazing Show, we’re presented with a duo of misfits: the lanky, imposing Corné (Louw Venter) with his large false penis outlined in his too-tight pants, and his side-kick Twakkie (Rob van Vuuren); both resplendent in oversize moustaches, their trademark mullets having been stolen years ago at the Wits Theatre.
The premise of the show is that these two clowns hope to present the "Most Amazing" show, but due to their bickering ineptitude, the show succeeds at flopping spectacularly, and we laugh at their struggle against this inevitable failure.
When the clown flops, we laugh from relief that it’s not happening to us, as well as out of sympathy for their predicament, since they face our worst fears of being humiliated in public.
The two display all the human poisons we try to keep so carefully hidden in ourselves: pride, anger, jealousy, ignorance, fear, greed. All of these rise unashamedly to the surface as they beg for our approval while creating mayhem around them.
There is something genuinely scary about this show, in the naked aggression sometimes directed towards the audience. They let rip with the unrepressed polymorphous perversity of infants, invading every crevice of concealed propriety and pomposity.
Venter and Van Vuuren put the audience into a trance of hysteria, and I was reminded of the wild, absurd extremities of Dada and Andy Kaufman’s twisted belligerences, which pushed all social boundaries.
And then there are the failures that Cohen addresses in Put Your Heart Under Your Feet … And Walk / To Elu. Cohen puts himself in very difficult positions, wearing a fantastical outfit with an elaborate headdress and walking on enormous stilts made of coffins. The outfit makes it incredibly difficult to move, and there’s a fragile beauty in his effort at overcoming these impediments to manoeuvre gracefully through his intricate set. Cohen’s visual sensibility is extraordinarily precise, and his seemingly limitless imagination is distilled with great care into a public ritual of mourning his life partner.
There is also outrage: Cohen shows footage of a gentle ballet he performs in a slaughterhouse, with the blood of decapitated cows dripping delicately onto his pale skin. There’s something beautiful in the visual display and yet it’s also undeniably horrific. The audience was split between pity and revulsion. Some sat with their eyes tightly shut, while others cried for the suffering of the cows whose fear and terror were palpable.
Then, at the end of the show, Cohen performs his most taboo act to date, ritualistically and carefully consuming a single golden spoon of his lover’s ashes, becoming a tomb for his precious Elu. This act also divided the audience, with some fleeing the venue as fast as possible, while others sat transfixed, crying. In his failure to come to terms with unbearable loss, Cohen has given us an outrageous beauty.
The outrages of TMAS also split the audience between those who were repulsed, hardened by the experience, while others had softened, allowing themselves to become more vulnerable. The three shows offer the opportunity for release, for letting go of the tight strictures of permanence and the propriety we use to shackle and stifle our spirits out of fear and shame.