The Woosters are here again. The Woosters are here. They make things look queer, so it may strike fear that the Woosters are here, but not in me, my dear. The Woosters are fine, and they don't decline to tackle Gertrude Stein, so that's fine. Except, of course, that Gertrude Stein's jingling, repetitive text for the opera Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights provides only part of the raw matter for House/Lights, on show at the re-opened Glasgow Tramway last week for the Wooster Group's first appearance on a British stage since 1992's astounding Brace Up! The Stein text is intercut with dialogue, screened footage (and wondrously precise synchronised re-enactment thereof) from the 1964 softcore dominance-and-submission B-movie Olga's House Of Shame. There's also a ventriloquism routine with a viper's head fitted over the bulb of a microphone, a few dance numbers from the likes of Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams, and even a brief snatch of Young Frankenstein. Yes, the Woosters are here.
There is no set as such, of course, merely a conglomeration of apparatus both electronic and mechanical: mics, video monitors, free-rotating ramps, a chair on rails, a scaffolding barrier at the front of the stage. Amid this set-up a clutch of performers – led by Kate Valk as Faustus/Olga's plaything Elaine and a horned Suzzy Roche as Mephistopheles/Olga – do not so much "act" as position and re-position themselves and their voices. Audio-visual technology has now developed to the point where characters' voices are routinely pitch-shifted up or down, and the live-action movements of the performers onstage (when not engaged in split-second-accurate duplication of sequences from the Olga movie) can be matted against vintage-movie backgrounds, and even against themselves: at several points, Valk's face is "captured" twice, a few seconds apart, to create a video two-shot in which she appears to be arguing with herself. The Woosters are here.
The Woosters' Web site describes House/Lights as "an eccentric confrontation with the themes of identity, enlightenment and illusion". Well, I can't quarrel with "eccentric", and I'll take their word for the rest of it. What it undeniably is, is extremely complex, clever and yet refreshingly free of the onanism which such "reinterpretations" all too often entail. Of course, director Elizabeth LeCompte and her cohorts have literally decades of experience of this sort of thing now, and have more or less spawned an entire approach to dramaturgy. But the response to this show is not one of veneration for the original grandmasters of the form; no, the Woosters can still mess with your head and your vision, in the most agreeable way. So that's fine. Thank you.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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