Review by Regina Papachlimitzou
The Mechanical Animal Corporation, a new Bristol-based theatre company dedicated to creating site-responsive theatre, have chosen an abandoned warehouse in the Paintworks quarter as the set of their first performance. Und, by Howard Barker, is a chilling exploration of the intricate ways in which self-perception, self-deception, and sexual desire at once stem from and overshadow each other in the struggle for survival.
The play opens with a young woman, ostensibly a member of the aristocracy, waiting for a gentleman to join her for tea. But he is late, he is unforgivably late. Und launches into a rambling monologue, which, although at first could be mistaken for an idle pastime, quickly takes on a more disturbing turn. Under the punishing glare of a floodlight, Und’s thoughts uttered out loud take on the character almost of a confession. And yet there is no one there to interrogate her but her own self: throughout the play Und addresses people who are pointedly not there, her absent guest, a seemingly defiant maid, even the mute audience. All the while, her voice echoes across the vast expanse of the abandoned warehouse, accentuating the very fact of her aloneness.
Und’s unfurling monologue strikes, one by one, all the notes in the scale of trepidation. The audience moves from detached curiosity to dismay, from dismay to wariness, alarm, rising dread –eventually and inevitably leading up to the horror of realisation. The setting, although never explicitly stated, is a concentration camp; the man she is so impatiently waiting for is an officer who ‘gathers Jews’. And as for Und, as she herself simply puts it: ‘I am not an aristocrat. I am a Jew.’ Her statement catapults the audience into the abyss of the human psyche, into its multitude of dark, interdependent layers which the play so expertly turns over, probes and questions.
For the next hour or so, the heroine’s barely controlled hysteria, her terrifying omissions and misdirected anger, her flimsy excuses and the lies she in turn tears down and attempts to patch up again, gradually make up a complex and disturbing portrait of her struggle; a struggle not for dominance but for mere existence. The beauty of the language she uses and her (at times wavering) elocution sharply contrast with the ugliness of the truths she stops short of uttering. Interspersed with quieter, contemplative moments, this manic accumulation of psychological evidence eventually gives way under the repeated reminder to herself that her maid is gone. ‘Put these in a vase!’, she barks at no one, and then more quietly, ‘She isn’t here…’; ‘Nevertheless!’ Und’s initial pastime of talking to herself while waiting for her guest has broken down to its inevitable conclusion. Her self-deception has become impossible to sustain, save through a schizophrenic personality split; and yet, she is still unable to achieve this, despite her concentrated efforts to the contrary.
The promenade-style of performance orchestrated by the Mechanical Animal Company makes excellent use of the space of the warehouse. The audience follows Und through a series of mini-sets, including a study, a garden and what appears to be the site of an execution: the sets mimic the circles in which Und’s self-exploration is condemned to move, the seemingly inescapable vicious circle of admission followed by denial. At the same time, the live soundscape of mysterious and often harrowing sounds serves as a constant reminder of the physical reality encasing the heroine. The proliferation of props such as trays, teapots, and spoons amplifies the character’s inner struggle with herself, her inability to reconcile what she thinks are her desires with the reality of her situation.
Und is altogether a hard play, in that it unreservedly asks painful questions to which it offers no straight answers. The production as a whole, and Annette Chown’s arrestingly multi-faceted performance as Und manage to bring to the fore, with admirable integrity, questions of identity, sexual desire, dominance, complicity, and survival.