Terribly, terribly brave. Well, it takes a certain amount of courage to play the accordion in the nude, whatever your sex. Even an accordion in a condom: the instruments onstage at Edinburgh's Riyal Lyceum Theatre are encased in cellophane to protect them from the slurry-like mud which covers the stage for the first act of El Periférico De Objetos' The Last Night Of Mankind. You can smell it from halfway back in the stalls. Brian McMaster's Festival theatre programme has come in for some stick over the years, but booking a show that pretty much literally wallows in shit is rather giving a hostage to fortune.
In the first act the five performers, accompanied by puppet homunculi, slither and writhe around in the mire, committing acts of violence, sex, macho competition and inexplicably showering one another with champagne, whilst delivering occasional lines from Karl Kraus's mammoth early-20th-century jeremiad The Last Days Of Mankind. After the interval the cesspool is replaced by a clinical white room, with four gauze walls, in which the quintet find themselves imprisoned and commanded to perform various acts by a Hawking-like mechanoid voice. Initial bewilderment and tentative co-operation turns to despair and frustration, as all the acts seen in the earlier reek are recapitulated only with a veneer of civilisation.
The Argentine company are of course seeking to confront society with its own most bestial impulses, whether naked or clad in social convention. The second act is apparently a particular indictment of the wealthier and more exploitative global "north": the machine voice speaks only in English, and insists that inhabitants numbers one to five in the room do likewise. The thing is that, before an international festival audience, amid the plush and gilt of a venue like the Lyceum, such challenges are instantly neutralised and assimilated by the very cultural machinery being railed against. What remains is a second act which (technical budget aside) could have been conceived by a number of clever student companies half a mile away on the Fringe, and a first act where derision is a more appealing response than shock or outrage. I laughed a lot. I don't think I was meant to.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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