CRITIC | 6.4.2018
Julie Rongved Amundsen (http://www.scenekunst.no/sak/author/julie/)
Verk produksjoner, Manifest United
By and with: Saila Hyttinen, Fredrik Hannestad, Anders Mossling, Signe Becker, Per Platou, Tilo Hahn, Solveig Laland Mohn, Espen Klouman Høiner, Håkon Mathias Vassvik, Lea Basch, Kjersti Alm Eriksen, Jon Refsdal Moe, Pernille Mogensen.
With support from: Kulturrådet.
Co-produced by: Black Box teater (Oslo), Teaterhuset Avant Garden (Trondheim), BIT -Teatergarasjen (Bergen).
Première at Black Box theater 5. april 2018
Anette Therese Pettersen and Runa Borch Skolseg, the editors of the book series about Verk produksjoner, both write for Scenekunst.no
In Marxist terminology, surplus value is that part of the workers effort of which the capitalists can make profit. In Verk produksjoner’s work, the audience accrue the surplus value.
Verk produksjoner are celebrating 20 years as a theatre company with the performance Manifest United, and by releasing a book series about their work. Two of the books in this series were launched at the première. 20 years is a long time, and I haven’t followed the company for quite that long, although I have seen their works for the last good ten years. I have not seen everything they have produced in that period, but I have seen enough to always have high expectations. In fact, I am always excited to see whether they have made it this time. They don’t always, or at least I become a bit of a strict schoolteacher-critic, who often think they could have done better. Now and then I have thought that the performance and aesthetics they propose has more potential, and I have always waited for their next thing to be genius.
In the second book of the jubilee-series, edited by Anette Therese Pettersen and Runa Borch Skolseg, theatre scientist and former Head of Theatre at Black Box theatre, Jon Refsdal Moe, who has also functioned as dramaturge with the company for the last few years, has written a text where he describes Verk produksjoner’s aesthetics as an aesthetic cultivating the empty space. He has entitled the text “An imminent danger of collapse”, and when I read the title, it suddenly occurred to me; This genius thing I am waiting for, it is not coming. The entire point is that I think it will come. Verk produksjoner are balancing on the edge of a knife between genius and collapse, and this balancing act places me at the front of my seat, tensed neck, it pulls me in and out of the events happening on stage. I am looking for content, searching for form, I attempt to attribute meaning; intellectual, contemplative and dramaturgical, to the performance, but Verk produksjoner is not a solvable puzzle. They will not give me seven winning numbers in the lottery. There is a surplus somewhere in there, which can never be placed, and perhaps this is where we can look for the genius.
Form and content.
In Manifest United, Verk produksjoner take their starting point from several artists’ manifestos from the last hundred years. They describe it as a cacophony, and do not reveal which texts they are reciting from. I am relieved they use existing textual material, I have not found it as successful when they have created their own. I intensely try to follow, listen to the words, as I am thinking, the meaning must lie in these texts, that is where I will find what the performance is about. However, the text is given relatively little space. The dramaturgy is equated, much like in a post-dramatic paradigm, and the texts feels at the same time detached and incorporated in the overall expression. Scenographer Signe Becker built a wooden construction consisting of three rooms with doors, looking like an unfinished house. When all rooms are used at the same time, I think of medieval simultaneous dramaturgy, where different biblical stories where played in different tableaus one after the other. Although medieval theatre does not fit into Hans-Thies Lehmann’s post-dramatic paradigm, the experience gives me a feeling of a dramaturgy in motion, which also leaves a lot up to the perceiver.
The performance opens with actor Espen Klouman Høiner trying to carry a large screen through one of the doors. In true slapstick-tradition, he can’t get it through the door. He is wearing a painter’s coat with stains and a strange wig, over the speakers we hear soundtracks with laughter. The other actors come to help, but for a long time, they can’t make it. Finally, they lift the large screen over the door. The humoristic form they refer to, gives associations to clowns and variety theatre, and also to sitcoms.
I am attempting to find meaning, and to conjoin form and content. When Håkon Mathias Vassvik lies on the floor, and Solveig Laland Mohn films his face, which is projected on a screen whilst she decorates his face with patterns of pearl necklaces, I wonder if it is not too much gimmick. It looks too much like what everyone always does in independent performance art. Where is the manifest in that, what is the reference, and why should they be doing that? I have such a strong wish that it would fit together, all of it, in order for me to write an intelligent text about it afterwards, but this is before I really understand that this is not created in order to satisfy my intellectual desire for context.
The manifests are written in a desire for revolution, and an idea that art should be for the people, not for the bourgeois. So here we are, in a bourgeois theatre framework, listening to manifestos looking to break down the bourgeois art. One does not need a sociology degree to understand that the audience in Black Box theatre at the première of Manifest United does not belong to the working class. The revolt against bourgeois art conveyed through the manifestos become, in that respect, illustrating for the bourgeois self-understanding, or lack thereof. The culture of the people, represented in the beginning with slapstick, stands in contrast, and suddenly underscores the fact that this is a performance about art and class, and I become very conscious of my own class affiliation, as I am sitting, trying to recognize the artists’ manifestos they are reciting from.
They play Grieg, March of the trolls, and the actors become more and more troll-like. They hammer into the paper walls. One actor is wearing a rat’s head. They are dancing and running. They play more Grieg, Solveig’s Song, I am thinking, one of the actors is named Solveig, but surely, that is not where I am to look for context. Saila Hyttinen is wearing a pink wig and huge slippers, looking more like pillows covering her feet. She becomes adorable when she shouts: ”What is it?! What is it?!” whilst she in a slapstick fashion slides and hits herself, when she can’t see the wall. The further into the performance we get, the more evident the class perspective becomes. The chosen examples are distinct symbols for forms of culture: the clowns and trolls on the one side, ballet and Grieg on the other. There is boxing, the working-class sport above all sports, Solveig Laland Mohn is holding a polystyrene board over her head, moving the way women do at boxing matches, wriggling her hips, smiling at us. Suddenly she does this accompanied by a Norwegian folk song, it sounds like an old lady singing in a documentation project.
Finding the context.
I feel a bit smart. I have been looking for context throughout the performance, and in the end, I feel I have found it. When we reach the very end, and we hear an American worker’s song about the benefit of belonging to a union, I am not sure if I am relieved or disappointed. The class perspective protrudes, workers who are joining unions don’t care about artist’s manifestos written by the bourgeois, who think they understand the revolution, and want to remove the forth wall and make art for the people. For a long time, I thought I had found this meaning myself, that it was me who deciphered it, or came with a unique interpretation. So when the union song is played, it is as if the performance is concluding together with me. Although I am satisfied, all questions are not answered, and I don’t go out into the foyer with a wish to shout of genius or small talk over cava about this being fantastic stuff at the following book launch. My neck is still a bit tense, I am unsure, I don’t want to talk about it, because I am afraid someone will say something I won’t be able to put aside. The performance is growing in me, I am thinking about the trolls, and wonder what they were about. Trolls. The genius lies in the surplus.