In many ways, George Bush and Children is a net of red herrings, a fact that is hinted at in the opening moments of the play when it is revealed that the George Bush in question is not the former-POTUS, but a paedophile. Considered from a structural perspective, the play places a number of dynamic elements in the context of certain fixed elements. Among these are the venue itself. Project's Cube performance space is set out with the seating raked against the longest wall. More of the audience are physically proximate to the performers in this configuration, but it still feels quite formal. A rectangular sheet of mirror acrylic hangs against the bare back wall suspended from the ceiling on three wires. It bends slightly under its own weight, offering us a slightly warped view of ourselves and alternative perspectives on the performers when they arrive. I am reminded of Dan Graham's performer / audience / mirror (1975), but in this case, the mirror seems to be there for its symbolic and optical value, rather than being intrinsic to the unfolding events. The four performers are costumed as if by a randomising algorithm set to absurd. One performer's Mona Lisa leggings nag at me all night long, in a good way. Physically they are heterogeneous, a statistical distribution of heights, weights and genders.
Other variable elements play out against the backdrop of these constants, tracing specific envelopes over the duration of the piece. The lighting is a good example of this, progressing as it does from house lights up, with both audience and performers clearly visible to each other, through a gradual slide into darkness and overt theatricality. Towards the end of the performance, the room is vertically bisected by a thin band of coloured light running horizontally around all four walls, as if to indicate the edges of an invisible ceiling or suggest apertures of some kind. At other moments, the performers are lit from the side, taking on the appearance of classical statues. The accompanying alterations in atmosphere imply that we're going somewhere, but shifts in the play's other components purposefully conspire to confound that feeling. There's something of the contradictory motion/stasis of Steve Reich's music in this compositional strategy, always shifting, albeit slowly, and always staying still.
The play's language is a major component in this strategy and the press release centres on it. Some scripts are written to be read and are thus cursed with the concerns of literature. Others are written with the performative affordances of human speech organs and bodies in mind. Dick Walsh's script is a collage of excerpts gathered from web-based talk-shows. Dialogue transcriptions are a particular category of text, labyrinths reverse-engineered from real-time thought patterns, deltas of half formed ideas beholden to the false starts and stumblings of argument and conversation. As a technique, transcription is associated with fields of research such as sociology, anthropology and psychology.
In the context of a play, it seems that the act of extracting these exchanges from the ether might imply an attempt at some kind of survey or diagnosis, as is implied in the press release. The subject matter is pure tabloid fare: scatology and scandal. As is typical of talk-shows and phone-ins, a tragic or self-consciously outrageous, if occasionally hilarious, stream of bar-stool philosophy is diagrammed with random hypotheticals and illustrated with first-person tales of debauchery and horror. One could make the argument that the work is attempting to hold a mirror up to society or investigate a global (or at least anglophone) subconscious of some description, but there's nothing revelatory here in terms of subject matter. It is certainly the case that, as with many other contemporary cultural experiences, certain aspects of this work, which was conceived and took shape in a pre-POTUS context, are amplified by the post-POTUS context we now inhabit. The media formats from which Walsh's source material is drawn are the opposite of a statistical survey, predicated as they are on individual experience, and the foregrounding of bias and anomalies. They are the petri dish of fake news. But there is very little being said here that hasn't been said many times already. Something like the movie Network (1976) comes to mind in this regard.
As the text unfolded and its consistent tone of performed emotional intensity emerged, I found myself wondering whether Walsh might have simply gathered this material to create a premise for making a performance, to create an excuse to get some people in a room in order to conduct a structural theatrical experiment? George Bush and Children might be an attempt to say something about the breakdown between fact and fiction in the media, but maybe it is primarily an investigation into 'what can be produced given the constraints of a specific situation?'
The text itself is episodic. The cut-up happens a macro level, topic by topic rather than phrase by phrase or word by word. Talk of abortion is followed by cult leaders followed by pound shop vibrators followed by a mother recounting an encounter with the corpse of her son and so on. There's something of the flow of David Byrne's True Stories (1986) to it. Each section lasts as long as it needs to. There is continuity in all sensory registers, even when a musical interlude dream sequence drifts into place about two thirds of the way through. The piece feels like a single continuous entity, with each verbal exchange deftly woven into the next. The audience are occasionally intimidated or horrified, but generally entertained. There is levity and gravity and a strangely distant intimacy.
This latter sensation is at least partly a result of the way in which the performers' speech organs are disconnected from the rest of their bodies. A few minutes into the piece, they begin to make slow repetitive gestures, akin to stretching exercises or exaggerated slow motion versions of the kinds of subconscious gesticulations people make to reinforce their position as they speak. Their gestures, although repetitive, feel more playful than systematic. It's worth noting that while the source of the spoken texts is acknowledged in the notes accompanying the show, the source(s) of the gestural 'texts' are not.
Although they exchange places over time, the four performers are generally arranged in a more or less linear formation across the stage. For the most part, they face the audience, often seeking to make direct eye contact, which gives their words the feeling of a testimonial. They rarely look directly at each other, even as they engage in conversation. Occasionally, they go toe to toe with the front row. Identities are fluid. Roles seem to shift as necessitated by the particular conversation being re-enacted. Performer gender doesn't always appear to match the gender of the person being re-voiced either, but each performer is always referred to by the others by their actual names.
Occasionally, there are moments of verbal and gestural coincidence, a sense of explicitly denoting a relationship of some kind between them, most notably in a conversation about haemorrhoids, but despite the fact that sound and movement are issuing forth from the same human entities, they are generally decoupled from one another in a way that seems quite deliberate. At times I am reminded of Beckett's Quad (1984), in the sense that the actions of speaking and moving seem to have been distributed across the performers and over the course of the play as if by a series of permutational rules. Move. Stop. Speak. Gesture. Menace the audience. Next performer. Melt into the background. Each act seems to have been accorded equal significance in the equation with respect to each of the four bodies on stage.
The performers deliver this absurd Cartesian choreography of mind and body with total conviction. At times, the script requires them to speak or shout over each other in a manner typical of a radio phone-in melee. There are other points along the way where the knots and loops of real-world speech are very pronounced and it is at these junctures, when attention is called to the text's genesis in everyday verbal performances, that the play works best for me. Imagining the words as they were delivered originally punctures the on-stage context to create momentary flashes of revelation in this bodily suspension of distilled media.
Dennis for DRAFF
George Bush and Children by Dick Walsh runs at Project Arts Centre until the 18th March 2017. Image: @mafalduki (Instagram).
Posted: 18th March 2017