Sex As Unholy Communion
REVIEW ... Riverside Studios
by Jann Parry
The Observer | 2nd Aug 1992
DV8's tangle with the Grim Reaper has Jann Parry in awe.
DV8's Strange Fish was commissioned by Expo 92 and given its première at the British pavilion in Seville in May. It could equally well have represented Britain at Barcelona, for its dedicated performers display Olympian qualities of skill and bravery: all eight would be candidates for a gold in emotional judo.
Team leader Lloyd Newson created DV8 as an artistic collective six years ago to 'challenge our perceptions of what dance can and should address'. Early creations were confrontational, tackling violent sexual relationships head-on, knocking the breath out of performers and audiences alike. Then, with Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988) and "if only ..." (1990), Newson became more devious, engaging our sympathies so that we submitted willingly to his apocalyptic vision of the human condition.
Strange Fish is even more cunning, because we respond with laughter that dies in the throat. We giggle at the mating game of over-sexed adolescents and cringe at crashing party bore Nigel Charnock, who delivers a manic monologue about being a people person like an Alan Bennett character on Ecstasy. Neither we nor the players realise until too late that these cravings for physical intimacy at any price are deadly.
Strange Fish (which continues at Riverside Studios until Saturday) has reached London at the end of a three-month tour of Europe, Canada and Britain. Its timing and stamina, its shared sense of risk and trust, are as fine-tuned as a medal-winning team performance. Catch it now, at the full 90 minutes, or wait for the half-hour version for BBC TV which starts filming once the Riverside run is over.
The title refers to a Buddhist saying: 'Be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing rod'. This gnomic utterance could apply to the making of a work of art or to the consequences of making love — especially with a stranger. Charnock's monologue is similarly ambiguous in its desire for communication by 'getting physical' through that 'wordless thing, body language'. The heavy petting going on around him, in which he longs to take part, is indistinguishable from dance. Every sequence is precisely choreographed, even though encounters seem to occur spontaneously.
Sex, dance and death (the very themes treated by Michael Clark's Mmm...) are placed here in an overtly religious context. The piece starts and almost ends with a female Christ on the Cross, singing liturgical music (composed by Jocelyn Pook). Naked bodies writhing over each other could come from a Day of Judgement panel. The wooden set has a floor of planks which conceal a charnel house and a façade with as many orifices as an Advent calendar. A ladder, often climbed upside down, seems to lead to hell at the other end.
Diana Payne-Myers is the ubiquitous crone in black who tends the Cross, lights the votive candles and serves the glasses of wine. She watches reprovingly as the younger generation work out what kind of sex they want or want to be. They torment her at one stage, flinging her between them as she yowls and clings on like a witch's cat.
Nigel Charnock rescues her and is rewarded with guardian angel's wings — two downy feathers — stuck on his shoulders by Wendy Houstoun.
She takes him up the ladder and urges him to fly: the temptation could be Freud's metaphor for sex or an LSD hallucination. Charnock, who (as we know from Dead Dreams) is mad enough to try it, resists and survives a little longer. At this point, the realisation dawns that Houstoun's manipulative character is seriously bad news.
She, like Charnock, has seemed the pathetic outsider, the child ostracised in the playground, the inept socialiser, the coyote sexual partner (the one you'd rather bite your arm off than wake her in bed the next morning). From pitying her angry suffering, you come to appreciate that she should indeed be shunned like the plague, for that is what she is: la rage, the Black Death, AIDS.
Charnock, the last of her victims, tries to escape her by roping himself to the foot of the Cross. Spritual faith, however, is no use against the ravages of disease. Melanie Pappenheim, mater dolorosa and female Christ, sings despairingly from the Cross until Houstoun silences her with a goblet of blood-red wine and the kiss of death. Plague rules the deserted set, balanced on the rim of a glass, ready to strike again.
The message seems harrowing in the extreme, except that it is transmitted with such vigour, by such formidable performers, that hope rather than a virus surely lingers within the walls of the set. The Christian imagery, even the word 'harrowing', holds the promise (however hard to believe) of salvation from hell.