During one moment of Leviathan, currently showing at the Matadero in Madrid, a member of the audience was heard to whisper : ‘What the fuck next?’
Which sums up rather neatly the amazement one often feels at the relentless onslaught of manic inventiveness in this production, but also expresses the occasional hint of exasperation that even the most hardened of experimental theatre buffs might feel.
The show, devised and performed by Living Structures, is based on Melville’s Moby Dick. The programme notes state the company’s intention to take the audience on a physical and emotional journey, rather than a literal, naturalistic retelling of the narrative.
Key to this approach is the use of the space, and the involvement of the audience, which, seated on either end of a huge expanse of rippling sea, is barely settled before being shepherded into different areas of the theatre. The performance takes place from every angle, on varied levels and in every corner, in what is the beginning of an evening of surprises.
One is soon immersed in a series of sounds and images: sticks become the heaving ribcage of the whale, then metamorphosise into flapping seagull wings; a giant sheet engulfs the audience, or shimmers with beautiful projected images; huge rubber balls roll down towards you, and are then harnessed into great thudding drums.
One moment, we are transported to the inside of the whale’s stomach, the next we are crewmembers assisting with the ship’s chores, receiving barked orders to help carry large, indecipherable objects across the stage. Beautiful choral singing gives way to strange industrial rhythms, or discordant string notes, or screeching seagulls, or crazed chanting. Primordial colours, smoke, and wind swirl around you. Movement is expressionistic, with elements of dance and acrobatics, including stunning displays of rope-climbing.
On the downside, you might also be doused with water (anoraks are provided), or you may suffer one of the actors inexplicably groping at your chest, removing something and placing it in a bucket. Whatever “it” is.
In truth, there are the occasional flashes of student drama cliché (the full nudity, the obligatory same-sex snog) amidst the many genuine flourishes of originality.
Delighted expressions on the faces of the audience were at times mixed with bemusement, and I could not have been alone in occasionally gazing at the multitude of dramatic images and asking: am I getting it? Are the billowing sheets suggestive of the whale, or a womb? Of the sea, or the sails?
Additionally, this reviewer sometimes wished that the company had combined all their skill in multi-sensory, experimental, fourth-wall-destroying physical theatre together with the narrative arcs, conflicted characters and layered dialogue of more naturalistic dramatic forms. After all, without the progression of a story, or identification with a protagonist, the sequence of juxtaposed imagery and sound can alienate an audience and reduce the performance to circus turns, a carnival parade, or a particularly trippy psychedelic experience.
That said, even if Leviathan at times seemed a little lost in its infinite variety, it was great entertainment, and occasionally moving. I can offer nothing but admiration for the professionalism, energy and audacity of this company. For no other reason than to see how far the limits of theatre can be stretched, you should acquire a ticket at the earliest opportunity.
Photo: A. KarpoviczLeviathan Home