Cadavre Exquis

Surrealist Games: Cadavre Exquis by Kassys

uit: 13/9/2012

This quirky experiment in theatrical form and content is steeped in surrealist history and European intellectualism. However, in practice Kassys have produced nothing so heavy; Cadavre Exquis is a rapid journey through pathos and innocence via various visual jokes, performed by four pleasingly-naive characters who seem almost as surprised by the twists and turns of the production as the audience.

Conceived by Kassys' Liesbeth Gritter, this production - as she charmingly explains before it begins - is bound by the principles of the children's game and surrealist endeavour of allowing one artist to begin a picture which other artists will complete in ignorance of what has come before. In this case, four directors have been given 15 minutes to create a theatrical event in sequence, having seen only the final 60 seconds of the preceding section. This has certainly resulted in an interesting meander, though perhaps the connections between each section could have been made stronger: since each were so distinct, it made it difficult to remember what came before. The result was that, unlike a painting similarly made, the effect of each section overwhelms the entirety and it is hard to step back and see a surrealist whole rather than a peculiar series of individual sketches.

Each director brings different interests to their 15 minutes, from physical movement and tightly-controlled dialogue to the comedy of Gritter's opening film. Cadavre Exquis opens with a cleverly conceived split-screen film in which we see characters suspiciously sussing each other out before banding together in some unspoken pact from which they never really emerge. When they eventually appear in person on the stage, it is impossible not to be eager to discover what on earth they are up to. As Pavol Liska and Kelly Cooper take the baton from Gritter, we are provided with an answer of sorts: we are observing an experiment and investigation into the art of acting and actorly integrity. The dialogue is disjointed, full of the unfinished sentences and changes in ideas that natural speech contains, though this is far from natural: the dialogue is fed to them via earpieces. This makes the second section at once strangely familiar yet sinister, and the conceit, though clever, can wear thin. It proved too much for some in the audience, who with evident relief upped and left within 20 minutes of the start. In fact, this danger is directly acknowledged, as one actor invited more people to leave whenever they felt they had had enough.

Unsurprisingly, the deeper into the experiment we get, the less meaning it seems to hold. Not that this isn’t entertaining in surprising ways. Nicole Beutler's section holds a strange fascination, if only in watching as the four actors undertake a full aerobics workout, keeping up an uber-repetitive line dance routine whilst dressing up in various and inexplicable outfits. There is a simple yet undeniable pleasure in scrutinising four people as they become progressively more and more exhausted. Will they forget the routine? Will they trip? Will they faint? Add to this discomfort the pounding noise of eurotrash club music and it is both unremittingly awful and extraordinary.

The set is necessarily simple in order to accommodate the varying needs of each director and scenario. More than scenery, the film screen and props differentiate the changing sections. The costumes, which at one point Gritter playfully tells us were chosen specifically to cause a puzzle for the next director to solve, become the thread running through the whole play and are both an expression of the characters' preoccupations as well as the physical translation of their thoughts on the purpose of performance. When they put on their costumes they are at once following their naive impulses and playing with our sense of how we are expected to respond.

The intention of the directors is given a lot of weight, as the exercise naturally emphasises the thinking behind each scene rather than the story it is trying to tell. However, the performers, as they float through each scene, are the glue and silent witnesses to each stage in the production process. They become Tireisias - wise oracles within the play - naively submitting to the will of each director whilst holding far greater knowledge of the whole piece than any of the directors. It is an interesting dialectic and one that they manage admirably, mostly because they are constantly wondering, funny, trusting and vulnerable. They each bring different accents and fascinations and come to represent the human condition in all its surprising flux. This is an interesting and overall successful experiment which is alternately comic and touching and is performed with a warmth it is difficult not to absorb.

© Sophie Lieven

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