Saturday, October 13, 2012

'Forever Crazy' at the Crazy Horse Tent, the South Bank, 13th October 2012

'Crazy Horse' hail from Paris, a city that trades on an image of decadence and luxury.  So from the heady centre of one cultural metropolis to another.  What usually takes place on the glamorous, tree-lined Avenue George V has been transplanted to a purpose built tent in a car park behind the National Theatre on the South Bank.  Can Parisian glamour survive this journey?  

There is a sudden shift in atmosphere that's quite surprising as you near the place. Initial thoughts are that the tent doesn't feel quite right, it's a weird facsimile, and reeks of artificiality.  The floor is slightly soft underfoot, and gives ever so slightly as you walk on it.  Decoration inside feels like you're in a low-rent and seedy version of the Big Brother house.  Silvery, shiny plastic looking seats dot the floor, and similarly ever-so-slightly cheap chandeliers all add up to an atmosphere that's faintly brothel-like rather than the high class gentleman's club look they're presumably going for.

Things pick up a bit when you're in the stage area, which reminded me a lot of the Spiegeltent set up at the Wonderground this year.  They share a similar Weimar Republic cabaret aesthetic, but again, the stage layout seems to leave a little to be desired here.  In the Wonderground there was a projecting stage, and the audience was seated in the round, allowing us all to get a fairly close view of all the acts.  Here, by design I'm seated pretty far away from everything that's going on, and very quickly I understand that the main difference between this and the burlesque cabaret acts that I've seen before is that the divide between audience and act is to be rigorously maintained.

As the show begins, the curtain raises to reveal a line of girls in pastiche Queen's Guard uniforms.  Big black furry hats, epaulettes and... not much else.  Barebreasted they trot up and down the stage, stamping their feet to a military tattoo.  I'm a bit surprised to see that they're topless right off the bat.  My impression of this kind of thing is that they usually work up to this, and tease the crowd a bit.  This back and forth between audience and performer is part of the reason why burlesque can make a convincing argument against the objectification of performers.  But here we have 10 or so identical looking women moving in concert, any notion of individuality given up in service of the group.  Ordinarily I'd be pretty enthusiastic about subverting militaristic parades with a dose of feminine sexuality, but this doesn't feel like its satirising anything.  The women's faces are locked in doll-like blankness, running through the routine like puppets on strings.

The next few acts in the first half of the show all run in a similar vein.  It feels like a checklist of cabaret cliches are being run through.  This morass of tits n' arse begins to melt together, and in retrospect much of this half of the show seems like the same fembot clone doing similar dances under slightly different lighting to slightly different music.  It's all impersonal, and more importantly it's extremely unsexy.  The women on stage never acknowledge the audience, they may as well be performing to a brick wall.  In previous cabaret shows of this nature the audience are repeatedly encouraged to cheer on the women, who seem responsive to the moods of the crowd.  This enthusiasm is infectious, and goes a long way to dispelling any sense of sleaze in us.  Whatever the reality of our relationship to the women on stage, we should feel like equals, and it should feel like the performer is enjoying themselves.  Here though, the audience is as quiet as a funeral, and this silent, lascivious gaze begins to get to me.

When I say the women are used as canvases to project stuff onto I was being entirely literal.
They may have vaseline smoothed smiles plastered onto their perfect faces but there is nothing behind them.  Any vestige of individuality has been systematically scrubbed from these women, rendering them smooth, Barbie-like canvases for the stage manager to literally project whatever they want onto them.  They even mime their way through the musical numbers, which only contributes to the strangely soulless atmosphere.  I found myself wondering what all of this would look like without the backing track: a silent audience sipping their expensive wine, coolly watching naked women jerk arrhythmically, their mouths silently click-clacking open and shut like horror film ventriloquist's dummies. 

One theme that seems to be developed in the second half is the utter abstraction of the female form.  The projection that opens the second half is a gently undulating mountain range composed of arses.  It shivers organically; perfect half moons gently shuddering under a breeze.  It's about as erotic as an autopsy.  The theme of the second half seems to be the sexual potential of inhumanity, something developed in the following acts.

A large mirror is placed on the stage, and behind it the performers contort themselves so as to place different body parts just above it.  The impression we get when they raise their arm is a hovering, mirrored hand floating in the centre of the stage like something from a deep sea exploration film.  This almost feels like an attack on common notions of what is hot, and what is not.  Now we're seeing an arm floating like a jellyfish, or an arse perfectly mirrored in the stagelights, looking inescapably alien and unhuman.  Are there people here getting off to this grotesque distortion of sexuality?  Is there a new fetish in town for the twisted abstraction of femininity? Do people really get off to monsters composed of infinite mirrored breasts, or a severed leg floating in an inky black pool?

As I see it there are two possibly interpretations of this show.  The first is that 'Forever Crazy' is a vicious condemnation of its audience.  It'd be correct in identifying this kind of cabaret as a way to leer at women under the pretext of culture, a socially acceptable way to pay to see some tits.    Having accepted that this is what its audience wants, it takes the same stance as a furious parent catching their child with a pack of cigarettes.  "You're going to smoke the whole pack right here in front of me."  'Forever Crazy' is saying "You want tits and arse, fine - here's all the tits and arse you could ever want, but transmuted into the nightmarish by our grinning, sterilised automaton-dolls."  Anyone that would genuinely get off to this kind of thing strays into the realm of the serial killer or the sexual psychopath.

This reminds me of Silent Hill.
The second (and the far more disturbing) interpretation is that this is what people find sexy.  An audience genuinely doesn't want to see humanity on stage.  The notion of empathy with the person rubbing their arse on stage for your pleasure is something that people are actively repelled from.  The cold, the impersonal and the inhuman is what they crave.  They would rather consider the erotic potential of the arse in absentia of the person it's attached to.  I imagine the people that enjoy this sort of show gazing longingly into a butcher's window, blushing as they furtively hide their erections.

There was one brief moment of humanity in the middle of this sea of despair, something that felt transplanted in from an entirely different show.  'Nu-percussionists' Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding perform a back and forth table drumming session, complete with masses of cocaine, two black eyes and bottles of champagne.  It's great stuff, but it's an all-too-brief reminder of what's missing from the rest of the show.  This little window of personality, humour and energy only under-lines the sheer soullessness and of the rest of the performance.

They're soon replaced though, the stage filling with glassy-eyed mannequins once more, women distinguished from each other only by the colour of the wig they're wearing.  In a cruel twist they flash their names up, but we have no idea who is who.  Ordinarily we'd be applauding each performer, as their name flashes up, but there's no context, and the audience sits in uncomfortable silence as if trying to process what we've seen. 

Sexy abstract times.
 The name 'Forever Crazy' sounds like a light-hearted bit of fun and the notion of a little space in the universe where it's always cabaret time is appealing.  But lets strip it back a bit.  This thing is crazy indeed, but it's crazy in a psychopathically antihuman way, and it will never, ever end.  If you want to picture the show, imagine a high-heeled shoe stamping on a woman's face - forever.

Stamp.  Stamp. Stamp.

'Forever Crazy' is on the South Bank until the 16th of December.  God I wish it wasn't.

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