It’s the final seconds of the final scene of the final performance of How a Man Crumbled at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012, and an audience member has just had a panic attack. Her friend assures me afterwards that she’s OK. Not to give too much away but the scene involves offal. Whilst audience reactions are not always so visceral (literally in this case), it’s fair to say that the show has proved somewhat divisive. Fest magazine declared it ‘meaningless’ and ‘incomprehensible’, whilst Edinburgh Guide described it as dealing with ‘sex, death philosophy and religion in a high quality absurdist style’. We revelled in this discrepancy and printed off both reviews side by side.
How a Man Crumbled is based on the work of the Soviet era Russian writer Daniil Kharms. His oeuvre is violent, absurd, cruel and very funny. Old women fall from windows and smash like porcelain, father and daughter repeatedly die and bury each other and Stalinist disappearances are treated as a kind of joke with no punchline: dark humour indeed. It didn’t prove popular with the regime and he wound up starving to death in the psychiatric ward of a Leningrad prison in 1942. Our show centres around his longest story, ‘The Old Woman’, in which a young writer has to deal with the unexpected arrival and sudden death of an old woman in his apartment. The story is frequently interrupted by other vignettes, whether bouts of vegetable violence or lectures on geometry.
The show was developed first in a dusty squat in Paris, then in an abandoned flat in Istanbul during the largest snowstorm there for twenty years. Without any technical provisions we devised our own lighting techniques (military lamps bought for dirt cheap at Montreuil Marché aux Puces wrapped in black card). The cold forced us to wear coats and the grime of the locations rubbed off on our skin too: smothering ourselves in clay became key to the aesthetic of the piece. Nearby halal butchers also meant the cheap and easy provision of various animal innards.
We made a decision early on that we didn’t want to worry too much about pleasing everyone. Our previous show was accessible but left us feeling dissatisfied. This time we were keen to pursue a less logical narrative style even if (or even because) this risked losing some people. This does not mean, however, that we are not interested in how people respond to the work, and we’ve become keen observers of audience responses.
In the year that we have been touring the show we have performed in Russia, Turkey, France, Germany and the UK. Venues included Summerhall in Edinburgh (the macabre Demonstration Room was ideal) the Meyerhold Centre in Moscow, Maschinenhaus in Essen, Battersea Arts Centre in London, and theatres up and down the UK. Audiences are never the same and we’ve had a chance to observe cultural and social differences in reaction along the way.
The biggest discrepancy in audience reaction has been between British audiences, particularly student ones, and the Russian audience at the Meyerhold Centre.
Bringing our Russian show to Moscow felt a little like bringing coal to Newcastle. ‘The Russians,’ our Russian member Sacha warned us, ‘might not know what to make of it; they have a very psychological approach to theatre.’ This surprised us given that the show had been inspired by their fellow countryman.
We found that the audience were highly attentive but almost entirely silent – that is, until the final scene. That fated panic-attack-inducing-scene starts very quietly, and little happens: three inexplicably moustachioed men shuffle, chew tobacco and sneeze. It went down a storm. One director described it as a ‘coup de théâtre’. All of the frenzied violence and cut up mayhem of the rest had left some a little bewildered, but this they found truly humorous. Doing nothing. Waiting. Perhaps it appealed to their dour nature. It’s a very rewarding thing to do nothing in front of an audience and feel like that nothing is electric.
In Britain we have seen the total opposite. Student audiences have been known to laugh almost throughout; their lack of cynicism makes for a gleeful engagement with even the darkest of subject matter, but when we reach the ultimate scene the stillness renders them quiet and subdued.
The Russian critical response was wonderfully intense too: ‘Such a deep stare into the abyss of a taken personality can make any living being crumble,’ said Alexey Filippov of The New Gazette. In a way it’s hard not to be flattered by this seriousness. After all, Kharms took absurdity very seriously, dressing like Sherlock Holmes in austere Soviet Russia, always carrying a silver tea set with him and refusing to go to the theatre without a false moustache.
The Russians, of course, knew the source material. Kharms is a big deal over there, especially to theatre people. His children’s books are still widely read, and even though the stories we worked from didn’t come into print until the ’80s (he wrote them in the ’30s), his iconoclastic work has been adapted over there a fair bit.
Most Brits, however, haven’t heard of him, and this might explain the more intuitive audience responses that we get: a leak being smashed over a head is enjoyed for its immediate comic value (‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’). Prior knowledge of the author should not be necessary to enjoy the show, although we do hope we have introduced some people to the joys of Kharms. Nonetheless knowledge of his tragic demise can give an extra dimension to the piece.
The show has also, from time to time, bombed. It’s not always the small audiences either. Sometimes they just refuse to come with us and as we try harder to bring them along, the play can become forced and thanks to the grotesque performance style we can get into a kind of violent and dysfunctional one-way marital row.
Responses to the dark style of humour vary and it’s always interesting to hear when people laugh, sometimes at unexpected moments. Why do we find violence so funny? (But there’s reams and reams to be written on that, perhaps another time.) My brother commented after an early scratch that he was shocked by how much laugher there was, considering how dark the subject matter is. He is a very moral person though…
As it comes to the end of its current touring run, How a Man Crumbled has been an enormously rewarding and challenging show to perform, with its fast pace, short attention span and intricate timing it’s not just the audience that is never quite the same, but us too. And that’s part of the wonder of the organic creature that is theatre. We’ve performed to small groups of Turkish academics, 250 flower-giving Muscovites, packed houses of rowdy British students, eight people in an industrial estate with a Gospel Choir singing next door, a wine-swilling middle aged couple in Exeter (who chatted throughout as though they were watching TV), and the director of the Grotowski Institute (who described us as specimens in a petri dish, a compliment we believe). But nothing can really top a panic attack.
How a Man Crumbled will be at the Nightingale Theatre as part of theBrighton Fringe, 25-27 May, at the Reckilinghausen FRiNGE 4 – 8 June,Oxford North Wall 12 June, and Surge Festival in Glasgow 25 – 28 July.
Clout are currently working on their next show The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity, inspired by Flann O’Brien. It will be scratched at Battersea Arts Centre14 & 22 June, then previewed at Mimetic Festival 24 July before a run atSummerhall as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2 – 25 August.