Friday, March 25, 2016

'Comeback Special' at Shoreditch Town Hall, 24th March 2016

If you've ever wondered what'd be like to watch the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special while dosed to the gills on ketamine, this is the show for you. Four years ago Greg Wohead watched the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special and apparently suffered some kind of minor nervous breakdown. According to the programme he's subsequently watched it over a hundred times since: "I haven't had this kind of relationship with a video since Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1989".

The obsession now manifests in a one man theatre piece that, at its most basic level, is an attempt to reenact the Comeback Special to understand and tap into its latent power. Perhaps most notable is the show's extreme myopia. Not only content with zeroing in on the Comeback Special, the entire show is about one section of it. Eventually we zero down to the the microscopic: Wohead spending a huge chunk of the show repetitively cycling through a couple of seconds of interaction where Elvis gets a piece of lint taken off his face.

Perhaps it's down to Wohead's quietly intense stage presence or the woozily looping Elvis sampled soundscape that loops over and over, but things get awfully trippy fast. To get an idea of the general mood, check out this quote from the programme: (from Rebecca Schneider's Performing Remains) "to suggest time may be touched, cross, visited or revisited, that time is transitive and flexible, that time may reoccur in time, that time is not one - never only one - is to court the ancient (and tired) Western anxiety over ideality and originality."

So you're probably falling into one of two camps right about now. Some of you are no doubt rolling your eyes and writing this off as a load of pretentious bollocks. The rest of you are curious as to what the hell Wohead's trying to achieve. Frankly, I'm tempted to sign myself up to the 'pretentious bollocks' camp - after all reading the explanation of the show sounds like you're locked in with a heavy stoner.

Having said that, it's at least consistently interesting bollocks. Underneath the  philosophising is a palpable and much-need sincerity. Sincerity goes an awfully long way - however odd the conclusions, you can tell that Wohead is emotionally, physically (and probably financially) committed to this strange idea.

The sincerity proves infectious, especially when a decent slice of the audience is roped into reenacting a few brief seconds of the show. People are instructed to stand to attention, reach out in orgasmic pleasure, furtively fiddle with their handbags and play Elvis' lint-pickin' guitarist. This is the best bit, the tableaux slowly taking form until we feel like we've gained some kind of understanding of the heightened emotion of this tiny moment.

It's a fuzzy understanding, but then Wohead's trying to communicate some pretty out-there ideas. There's a couple more emotional tugs - when we finally see Elvis' face projected all around us, when we listen to Wohead awkwardly narrate what's 'really' happening in Elvis' mind during the Heartbreak Hotel sequence and when he finally sings his way through an Elvis song.

It's safe to say that Wohead isn't going to win any Elvis impersonation contests anytime soon, but there's an earnestness to his singing that tugs at the heartstrings. He layers his own vulnerability onto Elvis' macho manliness, neatly contrasting the two.

On the walk home I tried to unpack what I'd just seen. Concrete meaning seems  far away, but there's something obviously powerful and significant in exploring Elvis' gravitational pull. His undying global popularity must say something important about the human condition, but what? You're not going to get the answers in Comeback Special, but you are going at least get some interesting questions.

God only knows what your average Elvis fan will make of it though.


Comeback Special is  at Shoreditch Town Hall until 26th March 2016. Tickets here.

Pictures courtesy of Richard Eaton. 

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