by Diana Damian Martin
Hands is a 1977 film by Romanian artist Geta Brătescu which begins with a piece of string unravelling around fingers, stretched, pulled, reconstructed, dissolving, until it disappears, but, at the same time, it never quite leaves the image. Marathon plays with theatre in much the same way: a compulsive love for theatre, or maybe, a way of finding theatre in the noise of the contemporary, or in the doing and re-doing of something, or in the poetics of being together for something or maybe, for no reason at all but to deal with porous trauma.
Marathon constructs itself in relation to two narrative moments: there is the king, and the messenger trying to relay a message, moving across a country torn by conflict that refuses to acknowledge this status (familiar, isn’t it?). This is occurring, but it is never quite unfolding. There is also a group trying to reconstruct an event. This has occurred, but is constantly brought to the stage. How many volunteers were there? How big was the table? How did the table enter the space? Were there two hundred volunteers? Perhaps three hundred volunteers?
Perhaps it is the care in these collective acts of remembrance, or the lure of the narrative that weaves its way in out of the stage that makes Marathon such a portrait of being in the thickness of the contemporary. But Marathon is a work that thinks with fog, noise, love, hope and despair. It’s not a march to the cliff, more an attempt to figure out the its edges, or to make a fire beside it, or to feel the changing temperatures of its landscape.
Marathon is a speculative fiction about the present. Can we be here? How are we here? What is here? Let us, maybe, spend some time with a song. Let us maybe spend some time with the violence of relating to the now and to each other. Let us spend some time with theatre.
‘Rough for Theatre’ (Samuel Beckett)
‘Is it still day? Will it not soon be night? Is there grass anywhere?’ asks the blind man in Beckett’s first play, Rough for Theatre. Later, in Endgame, Hamm asks, ‘Have you not had enough?’ In Catastrophe, a play dedicated to Václav Havel amidst the toying with light on stage (illumination), A says, timidly, ‘what if he were to… were to raise his head… an instant… show his face… just an instant?’ and D replies, ‘What next? Raise his head? Where do you think we are?’ In Havel’s play-response, Mistake, the King says to the second prisoner, ‘Some people just can’t stand the smell of smoke first thing in the morning. They don’t like it, their lungs don’t like it, they can’t stand it. As is their right. Is that clear?’ What is between worlds, between representations, in the fissures of theatre in the everyday?
Smoke enters the space in Marathon multiple times; amidst fake gun shots and emergency blankets, amidst bananas and tech. Marathon performs through moving. Even in stillness, it has a temperature, it acts as a barometer. It is acutely, pointedly, sharply structured and yet loose, at times casual, but always in tension. Composition is its key language, and the means by which the performance asks questions about trauma and healing, about remembering together, and about difference. Marathon thinks with and about attention and anxiety, about distraction and the multiple labours of being in the present and dealing with expectation, never sure if it manufactured, or if it is authentic.
Two moments of difficulty in Marathon feature death scenes: a staging of a shooting, black cloth over head against white background, using toy gun; killing a friend, using toy gun. These moments require negotiation; they are indexical, but never literal. The poetics of death: ‘now that you are dead’, says Alan, over and over again. Of course, death comes back again and again. What is between worlds, between representations, in the fissures of theatre in the everyday?
I think of Rebecca Solnit, writing in A Field Guide to Getting Lost: ‘the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance’. At a point in the performance, Alan, Jemima, Mal and Sophie form a band. I (we) slip into somewhere else, where the composition is allowed to be. A soft tune, to help us continue with the march. A soft tune, a nostalgic hope for the future. A soft tune, to break the affect. It takes a lot of energy, to wander and permit yourself to get lost, together, without losing it all.
In Marathon, there are threads of now: the emergency blankets which shout crisis, or rescue, or loss, or emergency. The toy gun, which encapsulates so much about violence and its unexpected intrusions, its least spectacular, but most terminal and bloody shouts. The moment when Alan tells us of distraction and digital noise, and the trauma of never quite controlling attention. Playing a piano, a tune not quite forming, just lingering on stage, producing echoes.
Marathon searches for the confusing desire of curiosity and the allure of capitalism. A neon sign above a body (‘Corpse’) we know has not died, but it does not matter, because we know when to recognise a poetics of death. Maybe Marathon is exercising a muscular theatricality, a compositional wander, one that somehow also stages the hopefulness of being together, and the awkwardness of the emotional lexicon of the contemporary.
‘What if you held a protest and everyone came’ (Mark Fisher)
There is a ghost in Marathon. The ghost is the event that never happens, which makes the performance one about a speculation. I am so intensively thinking about the politics of speculation as a way to occupy the present. To queer time. To displace power. To be with difference. There is a ghost in Marathon that Alan, Sophie, Jemima and Mal are remembering. It is in the volunteers that never arrive, though the evening I saw the performance, they did in a false parallel: a coach of students who, due to traffic, were more than fifty minutes late to the performance, and therefore arrived at the moment when its composition was fullest. They arrived during a gig. A different kind of conflict. Nostalgic, even, following a ragged, interruptive silence. I thought I could hear walking feet throughout the performance. Did I anticipate that?
In Theatre and Change, Kélina Gotman proposes that we might think of theatre not only as a contemplative space, an unlatching of the real, but also as a ‘heightened space and time by which we might reflect, at the edge of the stage, between night and day.’ A lot happens at the edge of the stage in Marathon: we imagine a running messenger; a speed-date with an impending disaster; we imagine a huge table, around which we might all sit; we are with the weirdness of false mirroring, my (our) own distracted gaze. History is always implicated, being made, and it takes theatre, which loves partiality and fragmentation, tentativeness and failure, to warp things back to shape, even temporarily. There is something engrossing about Marathon’s ability to both create contours, and make events porous; to both use fiction as a method, and dissolve its lure in the everyday. It’s hard not to love its desire, its collectivity, its intricacy: the loops and chorus lines of conflicted territories: civic, affective, imaginative.
This text is a commissioned response to Marathon by Alan Fielden with JAMS (Jemima Yong, Alan Fielden, Malachy Orozco, Sophie Grodin), winners of The Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award 2018. Image by Helen Murray.