A group of local artists take a journey to the heart of darkness
Modern society and culture often promote the idea that human monsters are twinkle-eyed, almost supernatural geniuses, affably quoting Wilde and Nietzsche while disembowelling people in the most convoluted way imaginable. Of course, the reality is that most ‘monsters’ are repressed, delusional, almost pathetic creatures that are only gods inside their own heads. Yet they walk and talk among us undetected. See that person sitting next to you while you read this? Yup, right now they might be thinking of ways to use your skin as a dress.
This idea of the ‘monster’ inside us all was what a group of artists and dancers led by Erna Ómarsdóttir were looking to explore at this year’s Reykjavík Arts Festival. Despite being a renowned dancer in her own right, I was more aware of Erna’s work with sex bin death metal pop band Lazyblood (fellow Lazyblood-er, Reykjavík!’s Valdimar Jóhannsson was also performing). But it was safe to expect that this piece would be pushing a few boundaries.
Arriving five minutes late, the performance was already at full tilt (apparently in theatre land, a 19:00 start means that it actually starts at 19:00). This meant an interminable game of catch up as I tried to decipher what the hell was going on. The first half saw a series of slightly disjointed visual set pieces that seemingly aspired to explore the realms of the monsters deep in our psyche. There seemed to be a lot of inspiration from horror celluloid going on. Stage twins Lovísa Gunnarsdóttir and Sigríður Níelsdóttir, with their long hair, knee length socks, and sudden jerking movements, resembled a cross between the dead girls from ‘The Shining’ and the killer ghost from The Ring, while Erna herself, with her bedraggled bedclothes, psychotic eyes and highly suspect mothering tendencies, definitely had a touch of Joan ‘Mommy Dearest’ Crawford about her.
In terms of the dancing, you could tell who were the professional and non-professional dancers, which meant some scenes were more memorable than others. The definite highpoint though was the danse macabre between Valdimar as death and Ásgeir Magnússon as his victim. It was especially graceful, reminding me of the exquisite torture a cat renders upon a mouse before killing it.
Now this being a piece about the heart of darkness those monsters occupy, you’d expect some explicit imagery to portray this. Naturally, ‘We Saw Monsters’ had a director’s cut full of symbolism that would make any torture porn addict’s knees tremble. There was masturbation with a scythe and rubber hands, copious nudity, transvestism, simulated incest, death, gore and body mortification. Perhaps I’m a dead-eyed misanthrope inured to such things, but for some reason this didn’t shock me that much, especially when placed in context with the likes of De Sade and Herman Nitsch. What did unsettle me though was a five second period when the music cut out, giving way to the orgasmic heavy breathing of Lovísa and Sigríður in the throes of some inter-sister rutting. Cue heavy squirming in my chair.
While the dancing and visual scenes took a little effort to understand, the music (provided by Valdimar) propelled the piece along nicely. With atonal radiophonic electronica, hard industrial sounds, EBM death metal, and sweeping operatic ambient, it provided an abundance of atmosphere that soothed and battered you in equal amounts.
The show ended with a Grand Guignol finale as the characters embarked on a religious themed orgy of self-destruction at an altar that was reminiscent of the endings to Peter Greenaway movies in the ‘80s with its emphasis on death, decay and the limits of the flesh. It was all designed to pound and overload the senses as they burned up in heaven (or hell depending upon your viewpoint).
“We Saw Monsters” was bewildering, punishing and definitely a little fucked up. But you can pretty much say the same thing about our society’s monsters.
What: We saw Monsters
Where: National Theatre
When: May 20, 2011