Tim Etchells for the perfromance "The State"
Described not as a play, but as a text design, Alexander Manuiloff’s simple but compelling work The State comprises a sequence of 63 short statements, presented as a script which the audience reads page by page, the text appearing on papers removed in turn from a pile of envelopes on a table. There are no actors beyond the co-opted players of the audience; a group of wannabe spectators cast as unrehearsed stand-ins in a drama that they do not know in advance.
In a rough conceptual cluster with projects such as OK OK (2011) by Ant Hampton and Gert-Jan Stam, or Ivana Müller’s We Are Still Watching (2012) in collaboration with Andrea Bozic, David Weber-Krebs & Jonas Rutgeerts, The State activates the audience in the creation of its drama, assigning roles and voices to those who, in a pervious understanding of theatre, might have been left as ‘mere’ spectators. The formal dynamic of this emerging genre is at one level, focused almost inevitably on the audience/actors alienation from her/his own reading/speech, since the act of blind-reading produces a profound tension between the ‘I’ or other thinking subject constructed on the page, and that of the subjects actually present. Brecht’s demand that the actor show her distance from decisions or utterances of characters needs little amplification in this context, since each acting spectator is made profoundly aware of the gap between the printed performance script and the realities of her own psychological interior. Texts in this frame are at their best perhaps when they work this dynamic heavily, progressing such narrative drama as they might have, hand in hand with this more purely mechanical drama of ventriloquized puppet-subjects. Scripted characters that worry at the drama, object to its decisions and circumstances, reflect on its lack of honesty and so on are at a kind of premium here, speaking to the situation of the performance, whilst doubling, layering and extending it.
Manuiloff’s The State takes a bold route in the territory by basing itself on
an actual incident, the unexplained protest self-immolation of a 36 year old Bulgarian
man, Plamen Goranov in February 2013. Beginning from this story, Manuiloff’s audience-actors
set out on a narration which in one strand posits Goranov’s public suicide as an
act (performance) which has not yet taken place, announcing its’ beginning in a
specified number of hours and minutes. At the same time, other audience-texts serve
as alleged first-person utterances by Goranov, statements that recount his
preparation for suicide whilst at the same time venturing the kinds of explanations
for his actions that the real Goranov declined to provide. Layers of real and
structural violence draw the readers in, making them complicit in a kind of
powerful but second-hand drama, the tension built and amplified for an act that
has, ironically, in any case already happened. As audience-actors we’re
trapped, not just in the ‘play’, but in the historical narrative, in the fact
of a death, complicit, not just in the execution of a drama, but in culture of
corruption, economic hardship, political deadlock and disenfranchisement that
framed Goranov’s self-immolation and that of numerous others. The State takes us to one particular
edge of the contemporary theatrical – a conceptual work, reflecting on the
conditions of performance that nonetheless harnesses the power of narrative to
look at real political issues.
Tim Etchells, London 2015.
First published in the official brochure of Theatertreffen, Berlin 2015
translated and re-published here after consultation with the author