I’m not a fan of theatre as such, let alone experimental theatre. But I do have an undisciplined interest in art – be it performative, written or the so-called fine-arts. Particularly so because I believe in the expressive and political nature of art; not as a wilful act of resistance, but as, Oscar Wilde would have it, a nuanced system of expressions that teases out complexities, and leaves the reader thinking, questioning and critical. So, when I read about a Chinese theatre group, Grass Stage Theatre, performing a “subversive theatre” production called Unsettling Stones (directed by Zhao Chuan) at Bombay’s National Gallery of Modern Art, my curiosity was piqued. In the light of China’s political culture of suppressing dissent, subversion, or free speech in the broadest sense, what I find worrisome – and here I’m echoing philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek’s concerns - is the fact that we're looking to them for development paradigms (something I have satirically referred to in the essay, Shanghai-ed). Coming back to China, Zizek argues that in the west, traditionally, the rise of capitalism coincided with the demand for democracy; a system which was mutually beneficial for both. True, grave issues have plagued this alliance – colonialism for one; global capitalist hegemony, another – but with China, what we’re seeing is the existence of capitalism without the conditions of, or the need for, democracy.
When it comes to art, specifically, this phenomenon is compounded. Liu Xiaobo, the “dissident” writer, and human rights activist is currently incarcerated. Mr Mo Yan(literally: “don’t speak”), on the other hand, happens to be a party member,and widely respected across the country. His is the image of art that China wants to project. The political appropriation of art (be in for suppression or activism) is always a danger to the integrity and very operational matrix of a dynamic system of thought. The fact that Grass Stage Theatre is coming to India to perform, is itself a critique of the state and culture industry-appropriated art forms – not just in China, but, I believe, everywhere.
Needless to say, watching Unsettling Stones was an enlightening experience. As an art form – and that too, in a foreign language – it was evocative, lucid, and it pushed the mind to think, to feel; to transcend the negative space between the stage and the seats. I’m still struggling with ideas as I write this review: which theme to focus on? should I rely on description? or should I focus merely on reflections? But the fact that I am thinking and grappling with these ideas, I think, says a lot about the nature and the depth of the performance. For the sake of semblance of coherence, however, I shall divide my review into two broad sections: first, the physicality and aesthetics of the performance; and second, the philosophical and reflexive elements I read in the performance.
Aesthetically speaking, Unsettling Stones adhered to minimalism as a performative style. The stage was stark; the actors wore no elaborate costumes; the lighting, subdued and sharp; there was no music or a background score. On the other hand, the diegetic noise of their footsteps, their breathing, of the irreverent songs over the radio – were elements that came together to form a discontinuous narrative, punctuated by emotive dialogues and pauses pregnant with tension and unpredictability.
The bodies of the actors were as much props as they were instruments of expression. As they stripped under the gaze of the authority – here, the gaze of the audience; their bodies were subjected to the discourse of surveillance, masquerading as safety. The stark nakedness, the subservience, the docility – bodies policed, forever subject of the panopticon, quite literally in the Foucauldian sense.
Even as they paced across the stage, seemingly erratic and random, it resembled our everyday pace; as we settle into routinized behaviour of the office, or the commute; they grooved to the rhythms played on the headphones, oblivious to the others; breaking into dances, or bouts of masturbatory pleasures, or retreating into a shell filled with simple ones: endlessly repetitive, uncritical, un-reflexive – relishing the products of the culture industries.
As the performance progressed from one segment to the other, the actors’ relationship with the stage changed: from “acting” they went on to creating. Arranging props became a part of the performance; elaborate patterns drawn on the floor with chalk-dust, an act of creation, destroyed in the very next moment – the very act of destruction (or, deconstruction?) becoming a liberating process. Their emphatic grunts, as they hurled stones into the emptiness, resounding in the darkness of the stage; then they lay, face down, enemies of the state. Subversion trampled. Dissent crushed. Status quo, preserved. Is this how it all ends?
Although the performance was in Mandarin, it articulated what it set out to, loud and clear – to challenge the status quo; to partake in dissent. There were no romantic overtures. This was no revolution. There would be no change. An Orwellian pessimism was ingrained in the script – which is why the language didn’t matter. It spoke volumes, be it in its moments of silence, or in the loud joyfulness brought about by the culture industries, which sought to gratify and stupefy. Unsettling Stones is a philosophically rich performance; I’ve already mentioned Foucault's panopticon and Adorno’s culture industry, elements pertinent to the inquiry in the social sciences. It uses stark elements, a language of metaphors, to paint a vivid picture – both polemical and pessimistic. Of these, the “stone”, I believe was the most powerful. In the last two years, we’ve seen people’s outrage transform into action; stones becoming the weapons of the disenfranchised, of the marginalised. But do they really bring about change? Or are they doomed to resound in the empty darkness, as it did on stage? Can it be an instrument of freedom? Or is it just another weapon of the weak? Another brick in the wall?
At the heart of it lies a question we all continue to grapple with, a question about the fundamental nature of freedom: can there be freedom – of expression? of voicing dissent? of formulating a discourse of resistance? One answer points towards the fact that this very performance is one, and that there still might be hope. But structures aren’t always oppressive. They could be Orwellian. Or, they could also be Huxleyan: providing us with an endless source of self-gratification and pleasure; replacing criticality with complacency, and then with comfort and desire. And this is not just China we're talking about; in India, we're heading towards a similar fate, maybe. Perhaps not as bad, or perhaps, worse. But we're heading there. Not totalitarianism. But a crass form of governance marked by corruption, decadence and ever in paranoia over the preservation of power. That said, I think it’s important to observe that as strong and rigid and iron-caged as structures can be, there is always space for dissent and subversion; they are, if I may say so, structural; or perhaps, inevitable. Structures are defined by their temporariness. They don’t last forever. In a way, Unsettling Stones left us with yet another question – a question that I don’t think I can articulate, but one which would ask us the possibility, nature and direction of change. Is there a chance, as The Who put it, for us to not be fooled again?