Daniel Day Lewis stands in the centre of the gallery, staring at a small mirrored cube. He watches a portion of the bottom part of his head reflecting in the smooth glass, the corner of his mouth sinking into a contemplative frown. We can’t know why Daniel Day Lewis is in the gallery. He might be lost in the midst of an extended period of research for a film in which he plays a complex, declamatory loner stalking theatrically through the Soho art scene. Or he might be there for a bit of peace between awards ceremonies, quietly considering the space around this small, mirrored box, the fractured reflections of movement, the throbbing quietude of the air, the sound of cars going by on the street outside.
What are we enjoying when we enjoy theatre? Do we go anticipating a display of virtuosity – a magnificently designed set, a series of clever directorial coups, a well-made play, a star turn? Or as is often the case in certain places, are we there to consider the value or purpose or meaning or the failure of the performance? As we check our tickets and take our seats, can we ever be sure what it is we’re expecting to witness? Or, put another way, can we ever be sure what kind of witnessing is expected from us?
I was watching the Wooster Group’s Hamlet at the Pompidou Centre in Paris but before we get to the auditorium it is important to describe the journey that brought us there. The Centre Georges Pompidou is an unrepentant celebration of contemporary art and culture. It is a yelped exclamation of modernity in an otherwise quiet neighborhood. It is reading Derrida in a suit in the park. We snaked our way through a labyrinth of white-walled galleries to find the entrance to the auditorium, giant pieces of modern art appearing round every corner, commanding us to be vigilant, to ask the right questions. And although I wasn’t at the time I’m now thinking of Duchamp and the moment at which a certain kind of art you often see in white galleries dissociated itself terminally from questions of virtuosity. And I’m thinking about John Cage and Robert Morris, and the possibility of an art that exists most powerfully in my relationship to it. Back in the auditorium the show has been on for about an hour now, the stage is a tangle of screens and projections, the performers are wire-walking through this cinematic landscape when all of a sudden everything goes blue and in a small box on the back wall floating in an ocean of vivid, digital azure is the single word
And the actors stop. They remain completely frozen staring fixedly at the technical box. And after 30 seconds or so, the pictures reappear and the show continues. After the end of the show we spent a long time considering the meaning of this moment. The power of this sudden interruption. The possible resonance of the word ‘undendered’ in relation to Hamlet’s quiet removal from Denmark by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Just this brief experience of silence in an otherwise frantic production. It was only later that we found out that it was a genuine technical error. And I wonder now if our (over)reading of this error was not in part at least conditioned by the environment we’d passed through to encounter it. If we’d have been in a theatre would we have been so quick to read meaning in failure? Or would we instead have assumed that the show’s otherwise virtuosic display of technological stagecraft had had a brief and unintentional hiccup.
Virtuosity is a valuable commodity. It can be judged, it can be compared and perhaps most importantly, it can be taught.
Daniel Day Lewis is a walking, emoting window display for the virtuosity of acting. He is acting as tangible set of processes, a teachable vocabulary. He is accents and anecdotes. He is proclamations and gestures. He is dedication and genius. He is admirable. He is almost tangibly, explicably, awardably good at acting. And for just £9000 a year, you could be too.
I feel myself caught somewhere between white galleries, black boxes and red carpets. I don’t know how to tell you to watch and I don’t know what basis on which I’m asking to be judged. Sometimes I want to try and write something beautiful. Sometimes I want to make something ugly. Sometimes I’m failing by accident and sometimes I’m failing for a reason. Sometimes I like black boxes. Sometimes I like dusty old churches. Sometimes I like punk. Sometimes I like opera. Sometimes I want to sing along with the common people and sometimes I do actually quite like Daniel Day Lewis.