Well, you can't fault the Gate Theatre for offering challenges in its current "East Goes West" season. Unfortunately, they're challenges to which many of us prove unequal. After Bulgarian Dimitar Nedkov's adventurous but patchy version of Heiner Müller's The Battle (including one scene of heated debate between two brothers staged entirely as a monologue in Bulgarian) comes The End Of The 20th Century, "a musical and theatrical extravaganza for eight actors and a muscle man" by Ratko Radivojevic's Brod Theatre from Serbia's second city of Novi Sad.
"Extravaganza" describes the spirit of the show whilst ironising its production values. What Radivojevic presents us with are a series of wordless physical-theatre sketches, degenerating into a simple parade of character types. The figure discovered at the beginning of the show curled foetally on stage in dim red light slowly uncurls and begins writhing to a soundtrack of tortured trumpet bebop and percussive bombing noises, then subsides again, at which point a quintet of green-clad surgeons rush in and operate on him. They leave his ghost to witness a parade across the stage of social figures ranging from judge to black marketeer, interacting with an Everyman figure; for good measure, the parade and operation sequences, are then re-run backwards at high speed.
After the surgeons also have their way with Everyman, removing his heart, the piece simplifies down into a series of individual archetypes – the killer, the Lolita, etc. – who come onstage, strike poses for a couple of minutes, are handed the heart and then rush off. All the while "Mr Sisyphus" is off to one side, balancing himself on one arm. (In another piece of grim irony, "Mr Bridge" is made to collapse on stage – he may be announced as London Bridge, but in view of the NATO bombing of Novi Sad's Danube bridges we can infer otherwise.)
It lasts a mere three-quarters of an hour, it does not end so much as stop, and at the performance I saw, it left the audience so bewildered that the person in the lighting box trying to prompt applause was left clapping alone for several seconds before the rest of us realised we should be joining in. The show claims to "examine the themes of perfection and destruction within modern culture", but really all it does is note in a circus-like way that such motifs exist, and that just isn't enough.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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