It didn’t start with a lot of promise. The house lights coming down at the top of the show didn’t stay down. A couple of times. But that setup the language of Germinal.
Image courtesy of Bea Borgers
Donna Karan, American designer and self-appointed goddess of hippy woo woo, she who was goop personified before Gwyneth Paltrow, once said that if you went to the beach and picked up a handful of pebbles on the beach, there in your hand would be all the colours of a perfect tweed. In fashion, they don’t aim very high.
But here, on a seemingly malfunctioning stage, Germinal presents the entirety of civilisation. With small detours for comedy no less. It is that ambitious. And in its own (deliberately) bumbling way, it succeeds in spades.
After this initial drama of house lights that don’t go down properly, we eventually meet our four performers. They could be anybody, they’re dressed in street clothes, they use their real names. And in each of their hands, they hold what appear to be small lighting consoles, cables trailing off into the wing.
Image courtesy of Alain Rico
And in a series of scenes they, and we along with them, start to discover how they control their environment, that their faders control lights, or projection. That they can telegraph their thoughts onto a pair of projection screens, or the back curtain. And then they find speech.
Of course, we’re also entirely aware that some of this is not real. How much of what they’re apparently manipulating is actually manipulated in a tech booth far up and behind us in the audience? Are those lighting boards they play with merely props? And if so, do they control anything? Do we?
In some ways there is just nothing to say about Germinal because it is that perfect. That’s not a judgement of value, though I really really really loved it, but rather, it is perfect in the way it manages to completely encapsulate and present its central idea, creating its own logic and seeing that logic to its, well, logical end.
And a big part of that logic is that we would rediscover the stage together. We hear this a lot, of artists speaking of reimagining the stage, or rethinking narrative, or rediscovering theatre-making or some other such cliché. But here we have a company that is literally doing that, literally suggesting that we can represent our civilisation on stage and in doing so,discovering the stage, almost as if for the first time. Not literally, of course, the show can’t change every day, otherwise how to submit to IMDA? We can discuss why we need the IMDA at all, but that’s a separate conversation.
Yah, the 4 people on stage are actors, and they’re really good at performing as themselves. They’ve really got down pat the act of discovery and also the very clearly carved out space of being simultaneously curious, smug, innocent and an asshole or at the same time. It’s all really fun, and as an audience, I never once felt like I was being talked down to, or that there was a kind of nudge and wink that the cast was performing with each other at the expense of the audience, because they rediscovered the stage for real, we did too.
Around the time that when the cast discovered microphones, and that they could be used to strike various parts of the set, or the cast, I’m 100% sold. Watching 4 people try to categorise their world as “poc poc”, ie making that percussive sound when struck twice with a mic, and “non-poc poc” things that don’t make a noise, and then the crisis when the mic hit a curtain (it makes a sound, it’s not poc) offers a particular delirious pleasure, of course, but it’s also the point in the show that I started to think about whether every act of discovery or world making on this stage was actually meant to a be representation of some aspect of contemporary life.
Is the moment with the lightboards about how people think they have power but actually don’t?
Is the moment with telegraphed thoughts about how people have to be invited to find the ability to think their own thoughts and find their own voices?
Is "poc poc" really about how categories like race and gender are really poor ways of understanding the world? Looking at you, champions of a possible first Malay woman president…
It’s tempting, but also maybe unnecessary. Maybe it’s just about what is happening on the stage, it’s a complete world they’ve created afterall. Think so much for what?
All good things end. Donna Karan’s label has been closed.
So how does civilisation end? Apparently, with 4-part harmony.