This article is from 2007.
Is it an Italian B-movie? Is it a classical opera? No, finds Mark Fisher, it’s La Didone from the American collective Wooster Group, which brings both these elements together to create something new and remarkable
‘I developed special software for the last couple of pieces,’ says Elizabeth LeCompte, artistic director of New York avant-garders the Wooster Group. ‘Final Cut Pro and Isadora, you know, I was the initial developer.’ Actually, she was nothing of the kind. She is being egged on by actor Kate Valk who wants to wind up the company’s in-house technicians for a laugh and to test whether they’re reading the publicity. Because, although no Wooster Group show is complete without a phalanx of TV monitors and a high-tech collage of sound and light, LeCompte has no idea how to get the effects she wants.
‘I love the technology and I love watching people use it,’ says the 63-year-old who has run the company for three decades. ‘But the only thing I’m good with are cameras. I’m not good with computers, although I was the first to get them in our office. And I’m not a button-pusher. I just say: “We need this here” and the technicians go and get it. And if they don’t get it, they bring me something else that’s better.’
If she’s being honest – and with LeCompte you can never quite tell where irony ends and disingenuousness begins – then she certainly knows how to hang out with the right people. As weird theatre goes, Wooster Group shows are the weirdest. They make oddball collisions in which Arthur Miller can rub up against LSD trips, sexploitation movies can infiltrate Gertrude Stein plays, and games of badminton can pop up in the tragedy of Phèdre.
Yet, however befuddled you are, you’re never in doubt of the company’s incredible technical sophistication. They synchronise the live and the pre-recorded with atomic clock accuracy, mix voices and music into a sound palate of ever-shifting complexity and draw performances from the actors that are as precisely drilled as they are other-worldly. If LeCompte didn’t invent the software, she surely knows the person who did. ‘It’s like what people had to deal with when they first saw a Pollock or Kandinsky,’ says LeCompte, who trained as a painter and specialised in photography before moving into theatre. ‘They would have thought: “I don’t know what that is, but that stroke, I can tell he meant it”. There’s a commitment there. It’s the same with all new constructions; you have to look for the intent.’
We’re sitting at a table in Rotterdam’s Schouwburg Theatre where La Didone is playing before its Edinburgh run. The title is that of the 1641 opera by Pietro Francesco Cavalli, but Planet of the Vampires would have done just as well. That’s because LeCompte gives Cavalli’s pioneering opera the same amount of stage space as Mario Bava’s 1965 Italian sci-fi B-movie, played on screen and acted out by her four actors while the opera competes for our attention. It isn’t so much a question of one informing the other as both playing simultaneously, a juxtaposition that produces heat and light, friction and symmetry, poetry and pandemonium.
It means opera fans shouldn’t expect a simple telling of the legend of Aeneas as he ventures from the smouldering ruins of a defeated Troy into the alien land of Carthage and the arms of Dido. Nor should trash culture buffs expect only the tale of Captain Mark Markary whose spaceship is lured to the planet of Aura where a dying race of aliens inhabits his zombie-like crew. Rather they should expect both at once: a cross-cultural cocktail of mind-boggling oddness.
On one hand, you’ve got Dido, played by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, wearing a cape of sci-fi silver. On the other, you’ve got space cadet Sanya, played by Valk, who joins in with the operatic choruses. There are ray guns and baroque strings, punch-ups and arias, helmets and wigs. It’s as unconventional as the electric guitar in the four-strong orchestra and is certain to blow up a storm of outraged critical sensibilities when it opens at the Royal Lyceum.
For LeCompte, an arch-postmodernist who once said that ‘humour is built into everything we do’, the decision to meld such disparate artworks was informed by logic as well as a playful sense of adventure. The connection between La Didone and Planet of the Vampires might not be obvious, but she sees them as the work of two Italian artists 300 years apart, both with an interest in a male journey into the unknown. If her work has meaning, however, it arises not from the director’s pre-determined vision, but in the minds of an audience when these two unlikely bedfellows come together.
‘My pleasure is not to know what’s going to happen,’ says LeCompte, a former partner of Willem Dafoe and collaborator with the late Spalding Gray. ‘When you have a lot of time to work and you’re not worried about making it mean something, things emerge. If you have an idea you see it in everything.’
Sitting loyally by LeCompte’s side before the start of afternoon rehearsals, Valk is a founding member of the ensemble and the star of shows including LSD (. . . Just the High Points . . .), Frank Dell’s The Temptation of St Antony, Brace Up! and House/Lights, all of which have been seen at Glasgow’s Tramway. Appearing in a vibrant red wig and high-necked space suit in La Didone, she explains that the show’s meaning is not pre-ordained but something that emerges from the performance.
‘It reverberates on so many levels,’ says Valk. ‘The two things are speaking against each other. As a performer, I find the lines from the film are taking on more and more layers of meaning between the two stories, between the two times, between film and opera. It’s all about creation, destruction and how you make work. It’s about itself and about the two very specific stories at the same time.’
So, although most people would find it peculiar to mix a cult B-movie with an opera from the formative days of the genre, on Planet Wooster it makes a kind of sense. ‘When we asked our dramaturg to suggest a sci-fi film about space travel he immediately said Terrore nello spazio,’ says Valk. ‘Everything about it, the style of performance, the look of the film, the camera, the way it was edited, everything was right.’
Always hungry for new challenges, Valk welcomes the chance to expand the company’s repertoire into the world of classical opera. The collaboration is, however, very much on the Wooster Group’s own terms. ‘This is the first time we’ve worked with so many new professional musicians from outside of the company,’ she says. ‘There are eight new people, which is a lot to bring in to our way of working, but we were really lucky.’
Although you can spot a LeCompte show immediately from the spare, modernist staging, the clever blending of the live and the recorded, and the unexpected clash of styles, Valk insists they make no attempt to impose a Wooster Group stamp on a show. Rather, the characteristic qualities we find in La Didone are a result of 30 years labour at the forefront of avant garde theatre.
‘Liz [LeCompte] works in the way she works,’ says Valk. ‘We’ve been developing the methods we employ over such a period of time. There’s no other choice. That’s the only point of reference. But we’re so open to what the musicians and singers do and they came with such a wealth of stuff that it was great to luxuriate in their contribution. It made our whole process dilate: like if you have a microscope and a strip with a drop and you add a drop of something else. Instead of a move forward, it’s a dilation. But the new drop is huge; the biggest yet.’
Royal Lyceum Theatre, 473 2000, 18 &19, 21 & 22 Aug, 8pm, £10-£30.