ARTAUD'S CANE

(1994 - Music Gallery, Autumn Leaf Performance)

Script and Direction : Thom Sokoloski

Video : Thom Sokoloski

Music : Michael White & Scriabin

Featuring : Fides Krucker, Eve Egoyan & Darren O'Donnell

1/5

ARTAUD'S CANE


The Music Gallery, 179 Richmond St. W. $14.50- $18.50. 204-1080.


by
CHRISTOPHER WINSOR

EYE Magazine

 

The anxious and isolated voice of the insane French surrealist poet, actor and theatre director Antonin Artaud haunts Autumn Leaf Performance's newest show, Artaud's Cane. As you first walk in and find a seat, amid the sounds of a storming sea and of a pen nib scratching on paper, a taped voice-over provides ramblings from Artaud's often delirious journal entries, begun in the late 1930s when he was in an asylum in France.

 

The voice-over fades, and the lights come up to reveal pianist Eve Egoyan, seated at a big black grand, who begins to play deranged Russian Romantic composer Alexander Scriabin's Les Guirlandes. When she finishes, she will go to a blackboard and write: "And this is what it is, and it is this forever." Then she will bang morphine. Behind her, on a screen, is a wide-angle image of a distant beach.

 

Downstage, actor Darren O'Donnell sits in a tricked-out wheelchair. He takes a steaming towel and places it over his face. To the rear, Death (played by jazz composer Michael White) descends what looks like steps leading from an aircraft, trumpet case in hand. Elsewhere, at a smallish table, sits a spiritual medium played by vocalist Fides Krucker, surrounded by the paraphernalia of her trade.

 

So opens Artaud's Cane, a poetic concerto of music, sound, film and text written and directed by Autumn Leaf's Thom Sokoloski, and inspired by the theatrical vision of Antonin Artaud.

 

Sokoloski is best known as the director of new music-theatre composer Murray Shafer's sprawling performance/opera works. The first of their many collaborations was an instant classic -- the environmental, 24-hour, Sun-god tribute Ra at the Royal Ontario Museum. This will be Sokoloski's first side project since his Kamikaze in 1987.

 

Prior to hooking up with Schafer, Sokoloski spent years studying performance in Paris with people like Jacques Lecoq, and Artaud's heir apparent, the uncompromising, physically demanding Polish acting guru Jerzy Grotowski.

 

Artaud's influence on 20th-century theatre is huge. His rejection of psychological realism and call for a `Theatre of Cruelty'  -- a savagely cathartic, multidisciplinary performance style that ruthlessly exposed the deepest conflicts of the human mind -- made him a forerunner of the absurdists, and an important figure for playwrights as different as Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Peter Weiss, as well as directors Peter Brook, Grotowski and now Sokoloski.

 

Artaud's Cane is not directly about Artaud. The piece is a symbolically dense, brilliantly packaged story of the pain and descent into madness of a man and woman whose daughter has been brutally murdered. Not exactly a ton of yuks. But it is a ton of inventive storytelling techniques -- part concert, part film and video, part play. 

 

"I have a great affinity for museums and dioramas --for the idea of the display of human behavior," says Sokoloski in a quiet diner not far from the Music Gallery. "That's really where this all comes from. `Virtual display.' One hundred years from now, museums will allow us to assess our behaviour, much more than now. Instead of mannequins dressed like Neanderthals, we'll have holograms exhibiting real behaviour. There's a quality of that I'm working with here. It is dream. It is documentation. Where it flips back and forth I haven't had time to gauge yet."

 

The behaviour on display in this show is intense. Darren O'Donnell plays Paolo, a theatre director familiar with Artaud's works, who himself becomes mad with the murder of his daughter. In the play, Paolo takes up a cane found lying in the rehearsal hall and charges out into the traffic on Spadina Avenue to flail and smash at the passing cars: "Past the mausoleums of insignificance, past the future we all dream, to the lake, the Gardiner, up the ramp to the hour of escape. Car after car I beat. Demon after demon I strike. It was there I found my desert, my demons, my shadow of Christ, my double to Antonin Artaud."

 

For all his pains, Paolo is not killed in the incident, but he is severely crippled. His partner Cecile (played by Egoyan), is a concert pianist who beats back her own demons by playing Scriabin and doing morphine. (Egoyan plays Scriabin's Opus 74, and the musical phrases are echoed throughout by vocalist Krucker and trumpeter White.) Yet even before their daughter was killed, Cecile's and Paolo's relationship was full of dark, disturbing psycho-sexual truths. 

 

"We all do fairly perverse things in our lives, and keep quite sober about it," observes Sokoloski. "You get to that point when you're dying to be shook-up, you want your senses rearranged. Atom [Egoyan] does that, investigates areas we're a little uncomfortable with. I've gone a little further with it."

 

This fits with Artaud's belief in a theatre of extreme actions, pushed beyond the limit. In The Theatre And Its Double, his now famous 1938 manifesto, he argued that "the theatre can be found again only by giving the spectator a residue of his dreams, in which his taste for crime, his erotic obsessions, his savagery, his chimeras, his utopian sense of life and even his cannibalism pour out on an interior level -- a theatre of man considered metaphorically."

 

In form and content, Sokoloski says he has tried to present something of what he imagines Artaud might have been thinking of, although we can only assume. (Artaud was a nutbar after all, and directed only one work -- a production of Shelley's The Censi.) The show's title, Artaud's Cane, reflects this attempt.

 

"Artaud was given a cane by Rene Thomas, who told him it was used by Christ to beat back demons in the desert, and later belonged to St. Patrick," explains Sokoloski. "This was during one of Artaud's acutely religious phases. He then went to Ireland to research the cane and the St. Patrick connection, and it was coming back from this trip that he got into a fight on the boat to Calais, was arrested when it landed, and was committed to the asylum at Rodez. There, at the moment he lost control over his life, he also lost the cane."

 

So, too at that moment, Paolo loses control of his life, he snatches what he takes for Artaud's cane and wades into the traffic on Spadina. "I'm trying to get at the idea of madness" says Sokoloski, who himself looks undeniably sane, "and get at it as an idea of beauty and frailty of human life. But I don't want to get overwhelming. The last thing I want is a state of confusion. I'm not interested in cryptic. I want to do good work. As professionals, we're obliged to make good performance."

 

Autumn Leaf's last presentation, the recent Michael Nyman Band concert, was judged to be more than good. Artaud's Cane has that smell about it, too.