Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 19 June, 2001

One of the more eccentrically powerful offerings from last August's Traverse Theatre bill of fare has now come to London as part of LIFT. Voices, presented by the recently merged Dutch company Zuidelijk Toneel Hollandia, is a quintet of character monologues performed by one man, Jeroen Willens, as he moves from place to place around an elegant dinner table in dessert-course disarray. It is, we infer, the latter part of the evening, that stage at which talk both flows more freely and has lost its inhibitions about tackling the big issues.

The muted cocktail muzak fades as Willens, bespectacled, napkin around his neck, sidles to the end of the table and, almost afraid even to cross his legs for fear of seeming too assertive, begins a tentative, stammering discourse on nihilism, not as a philosophical stance but as a way of living: "social nothingness". At every moment, as he nervously plays with his glasses and the table edge, his body language tries to declare that he is himself nothing, until to illustrate a point, he raises his fist in a revolutionary gesture, then stares at it in bewilderment as if it were nothing to do with him.

When Willens changes places, he not only assumes a more languid demeanour, but one can actually see his face grow jowlier, as it settles into the complacent scowl of a plutocrat... who proceeds to declare, in defiance of the facts, "The first thing that strikes one about me is my smile". Next comes a wheedling sycophant describing the complexity of a corporate structure, with the visual aid of (and taking sensuous delight in) a pair of tights strewn over the table; next, an extravagant drag queen recounting an unusual Faustian pact made by an intellectual; finally, the head of an oil multinational with a loathsome, specious "justification" of the company's global self-serving amorality. The toady may be speaking of the plutocrat beside him when he explains the corporate labyrinth; the drag queen may be speaking of the intellectual a few places along. It hardly matters.

The surprise is the provenance of the text. Almost every word is taken from Italian film director and iconoclast Pier Paolo Pasolini, detailing his shocked fascination with the shifting moral viewpoints of the bourgeoisie. The exception is the final speech, a verbatim rendering of an address by Shell president Cor Herkströter. Over 90 minutes, it amounts to an unobtrusive yet rigorous interrogation of the morality of various self-appointed power élites.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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