From the start the audience is surrounded by the action – when the theatre doors open at the Phoenix Artists Club the actors are already sitting all around the room. (Actually there are only four actors so all around the room is a slight exaggeration. But one sits on the velvet seats at the back, another at a table in the middle of the cafe-theatre, one on the low stage, another over by the piano). Elegant pink gins and glasses of champagne stand on some of the tables. One actor is reading Jackie Collins’ Vendetta: Lucky’s Revenge. They are all wearing masks. One is tapping a stick on the ground. Another is clapping…
Welcome to Le Jet de Sang, bringing the spirit of Zurich’s original Cabaret Voltaire to central London until 23rd August. Rare and unusual plays are one of the raisons d’être of theatre festivals and this is one of the rarest and unusualist productions being performed at the Camden Fringe.
Antonin Artaud’s 1925 play Jet of Blood, was not staged until 1964. As that forty year gap might suggest, it has a reputation for being un-performable. A glance at the script tells you why – it has characters like ‘The Thunderous Voice’ and stage directions such as …two Stars are seen colliding and from them fall a series of legs of living flesh… Artaud developed the Theatre of Cruelty, wanting actors to assault the audience’s senses and connect via emotions rather than language. He was a Surrealist but more impressively, in 1927 he was actually thrown out of their group, which you’d think would take some doing.
Le Jet de Sang is not easily summarised. Artaud doesn’t deal in character arcs or amusing plot points. There is a script which refers to – amongst other things – love, beauty, incest and cheese, but really Le Jet de Sang provides a loose framework for each new production to exploit in different ways. Director Mike Miller does not attempt a literal staging, which given the stage directions (another example: …A multitude of scorpions crawl out from beneath the wet-nurse’s dress and swarm between her legs. Her vagina swells up…) is very sensible. The impossibility of following the stage directions gives a freedom to interpret.
Artaud wanted the audience to feel and experience rather than think. Here the four actors Ariachne Terizakis, Lucy George, Caroline Basra and Francesca Foley combine to confront the audience with a changing atmosphere. They move around the room, dancing, sitting on tables, tapping and clapping. Confusion and uncertainty reign. At times they make it tense or amusing, sometimes unpleasant and full of friction. The theatre becomes a place where the peculiar starts to become normal, where, for example, DIY breast enlargement surgery is carried out with balloons.
It’s a humorous, free adaptation that has developed out of rehearsal. The absurdity that Artaud craved is there, as are blatant on-stage costume changes, improvised audience interactions, songs and arguments between the cast and crew. We are shown muttering, OCD versions of ourselves, wasting time reading Jackie Collins novels. (Although I’ve discovered that Vendetta is a …scorching new instalment of the wildly popular Lucky series… so you might want to look it up next time you’re in the library).
The production doesn’t faithfully follow Artaud’s script. But it takes his ideas and tries to create something different. Hugo Ball and Luis Bunuel would have enjoyed the goings on – you won’t see a similar performance anywhere else on the fringe.
By the end of the performance I had been handed a top hat, witnessed a violent argument, had a tutu thrown at me and been ordered to applaud a Shirley Bassey imitator. Artaud would have approved.