La sottise, l'erreur, le péché, la lésine
I did not expect to hate this production. I'm not a big fan of reviewers who put themselves down for shows they know they won't like and then leave the theatre glowing the acid-green glow of prejudices confirmed. I honestly thought I would like this production because it claimed to be based on my favourite book of poetry, Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), a text I love so much that even if the performers had done nothing more than read the poems out loud, I would still have enjoyed myself and would have commended them for their choice of material. But Errorism - Flowers of Evil was not about Les Fleurs du mal; instead it was about being stupid, obvious and shameless; it was about being boring; and it was about physically hurting its audience.
Of course, I've seen dreadful shows before and not been quite so upset. I've even come out of the occasional show which physically damaged me without screaming for revenge... Why then am I so upset at this one? There are several reasons.
First, most seriously odd theatre advertises itself as such. Consider The Necessary Stage's now-defunct [names changed to protect the innocent] programme: because it was extremely cheap ($5), because it was performed in a non-prestige venue (The Necessary Stage Black Box) and most of all because it admitted up front that it was all about experimental works in progress, anybody who bought a ticket had only themselves to blame. Errorism, on the other hand, cost $24, was staged at The Esplanade and offered few disclaimers in its publicity.
Second, when I have seen extremely poor shows, they have not physically assaulted me.
Third, when I have seen shows that physically assaulted me, they have had something interesting to redeem them.
Errorism was the worst of all worlds. Let's start with its stupidity and obviousness. The first half of the show was performed by Li Xie. Dressed as a man, she mimed some kind of narrative about a lost soldier who finds an abandoned baby. The baby was an undersized puppet which Li manipulated to crawl all over her, and with which she appeared to have conversations. Of course, this was a mime, so the conversations were just dumb show, but they took a surprisingly long time, and it was by no means clear what was supposed to have been communicated. At one point, Li mimed being beaten up by someone, even though she had a gun and he didn't. When she finally turned her gun - which had been plainly visible all along - on her assailant, he decided to leave her alone. After that she stood in the rain for a while, angstily.
All of this was performed with such earnestness that I never got the impression it was meant to be funny, though funny it undoubtedly was. It very much appeared that Li thought she was making a serious statement about war, perhaps even an original one. This became clearer when the music changed and she turned away from the audience. On her back was the mask of an old man set in a square of gold-sequined fabric. Through the speakers came Frank Sinatra's extremely slow version of There's No Business Like Show Business along with seemingly random excerpts from speeches by American presidents. Li generally cavorted to the music and tried to give the impression that the face on her back was speaking the presidents' words. She did this routine quite often and for extended periods of time. Perhaps she thought the audience had never previously considered that politics is all a big show and politicians don't really care about the troops they send to war. Perhaps she thought this wasn't the most obvious statement anyone could make on the subject.
But if Li's half of the production was embarrassingly naïve and clumsy, then at least it was inoffensive and she seemed to believe the audience might get something from it. The same could not be said of Zai Kuning's half.
Actually, the start of Zai's section augured well, and reminded those who had forgotten that Les Fleurs du mal had something to do with the production. A silver bowl was placed onstage and water dripped into it, the regular beat of the dripping amplified and echoed. This effectively symbolised the numbing passage of time, one of Baudelaire's major preoccupations. After a few seconds of this, Zai came on, looking vaguely syphilitic, a modernised image of the poète maudit for which Baudelaire was the original. This positive impression lasted about twenty seconds. After that, nothing happened. After a while of nothing happening, the noise that sound designer Yuen Chee Wai was creating on the other side of the stage got very loud. After a while of its being very loud, it got painfully loud. I do not exaggerate: the noise was loud enough to cause considerable physical discomfort even if you cupped your hands over your ears, which everyone I could see was doing.
This lasted a very long time. While it was going on, Zai basically just sat there looking glum. Around half an hour later (and thankfully the noise had abated by now), he had mustered enough energy to stand up. A quarter hour after that and he took off his shirt, revealing red track marks up the left side of his body. A while more and he decided to throw his stool at the stage. Allow me to clarify: when I say stool, I mean seat, not faeces - though if he'd thrown the latter it wouldn't have been out of place. It was all pointless, brainless and boring. There was no intelligence, no artistry, no consideration of what the audience might be able to get out of it - it was masturbation. Then the painful noise started up again and I left the theatre, because it's one thing to masturbate in front of me, it's quite another to beat me about the head while you do so. I'm just glad I got complimentary tickets or I'd have felt robbed as well as assaulted.
So I didn't like it. But you see, the people responsible for this show won't listen to my review because they know, deep down, that I don't understand what they were trying to do. They wanted me to feel the terrible essence of The Flowers of Evil and the fact that I walked out is simply proof that I felt it. Bullshit.
The chief link the performance had to The Flowers of Evil was that, whenever the projectionist felt like it, she projected the text of Baudelaire's poem Au Lecteur (To the Reader) on to the screen at the back. This poem talks about the vices that plague humankind, and it singles one of them out for special attention. Allow me to quote the English prose translation by Francis Scarfe:
Clearly Zai wanted me to feel that level of boredom. But the thing is, "Boredom" is an unsatisfactory rendering of the French word "ennui". In written form, the mistranslation doesn't really matter, because reading the poems soon helps you define what Baudelairean ennui truly means (and anyway, there aren't really any alternatives*). But misrepresenting the concept of ennui on stage is fatal. Boredom is when you feel like leaving the theatre. Ennui, however, is when it makes no difference whether you leave the theatre or not. Boredom is nothing more than temporary uninterest; ennui is permanent disinterest - it is when pleasure and pain are indistinguishable, when inertia is eating your soul and you sit and watch it happen.
There was no ennui in Zai's work, it was merely boring. When it wasn't boring, it was painful. Actually, thinking about it, even when it was painful it was boring. (Contrast this with TheatreWorks' 2003 production of pulse. i am alive., a play which managed to capture the essence of ennui while also being riveting to watch.)
But it's not surprising that Zai didn't know what ennui means. After all, Au Lecteur, the only poem featured in the show, is the very first of the 161 poems that constitute the third edition of Les Fleurs du mal. Many other poems in the collection explore ennui far more fully - for example, Le Goût du néant and the four poems named Spleen. Zai could have chosen any of these to better illustrate his point. But no, he chose the first. I believe that's because he hadn't read any of the other poems in the book.
Of course, whether he'd read them or not doesn't change anything. Errorism - Flowers of Evil was a stupid, malicious, incompetent exercise in narcissism which got worse as it got longer. It is the only play I have ever walked out of. Zai and his collaborators owe a lot of people $24 and an apology.
*Actually, there is an alternative, though it's rather out of date. When he was writing Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire found that French didn't have a word capable of expressing the level of disaffection he intended, so he turned to the English word "spleen" instead and used it as a title for four of his poems. Later, after reading Baudelaire, the English forgot that they had their own word and decided to use the French one, "ennui", instead. Thanks to Baudelaire, the word ennui now has, when used in English, a stronger, deeper meaning than it had when he originally wrote it.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /