Guerrilla, Transform 17

Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s a low drone of anxiety rumbling beneath Guerrilla. A bit like the low, background hum of disquiet that follows me to my desk, to the library, to the shops, to conferences and lectures and demonstrations, to the theatre. That sense of continually trembling on a precipice, caught between safe ground and the gaping abyss while 24-hour news scrolls past.

Spanish company El Conde de Torrefiel crystallise the unease of the troubling present moment. In particular, they crystallise the unease of being young in the troubling present moment. Or, more specific again, of being young and European and (for the most part) middle-class in the troubling present moment. The set of fears that Guerrilla externalises therefore align very snugly with my own. Sitting within this experience is a bit like watching my own head being turned inside out on stage. It doesn’t necessarily offer me a different way of thinking about any of these anxieties, but it does let me look at them from another angle, chew on them for a while.

The show falls into three distinct parts – acts, we might even call them. The first is a conference at which theatre-maker Romeo Castellucci is discussing his work. The second is a Tai Chi class. The third is a pounding techno rave. All three events are happening across the city of Leeds between 21 and 22 April 2019. Interwoven with this timeline, meanwhile, are events from elsewhere and elsewhen. A deadly military pact. A startling scientific discovery. A devastating global war.

At no point throughout this, though, is a single audible word uttered by the performers on stage. One of the most striking things about Guerrilla is its complete absence of dialogue. Instead, narrative and ideas are conveyed via text that is projected above the onstage action. Characters speak, but that speech is always recounted to us from a distance. Statements are detached from their origin. Incidents are reported rather than witnessed.

It all seems to break one of theatre’s cardinal rules: show don’t tell. And yet. For me, at least, there’s something surprisingly theatrical and affecting about the juxtaposition of the text, with all its cool cerebral content, and the onstage sensory stimulation. Encountered on the page, without adornment, Guerilla’s text might read as an essay on the future of Europe and the nature of humanity half-heartedly dressed up as a narrative. In the theatre, something far more complex and interesting happens.

The show’s opening is deliberately drab and innocuous. Rows of chairs are set out on stage, which are gradually filled by people clutching notebooks and looking out expectantly at the audience. As the conference begins, the Italian voiceover of Castellucci’s conversation is joined by a parallel written narrative that takes us inside the experiences and personal histories of some of those intently listening. Within these personal narratives, certain themes are soon pulled on: war, conflict, turmoil. Almost imperceptibly at first, Adolfo García’s extraordinary sound design puts rising, rumbling bass on top of the polite intellectual dialogue, until that’s all that fills our ears.

The creeping anxiety of the first part is replaced with the tranquillity of the Tai Chi class – a tranquillity constantly undercut by the words projected alongside it. While performers make slow, measured, graceful movements, the text philosophises ominously about war, history and class struggle. By the final rave sequence, the pulsing music, lights and bodies – now confined within a tightened stage frame by Blanca Añón’s subtly shifting design – are a visual and sonic realisation of the constant overstimulation discussed by ‘characters’ in the accompanying textual drama.

Throughout, there’s an unsettling slippage of tenses. The ‘present’ of the show’s narrative – which of course still lies beyond our own present moment in the theatre – is sometimes phrased in the future tense, while the great War of ’23 that lurks constantly on the horizon is discussed like the contents of a history book. This shifting temporality reflects a paradoxical contemporary feeling of living at once in a continuous present, on the cusp of future catastrophe, and in a resounding echo of the past. There’s a persistent nostalgia, too, for an abandoned wild and natural pre-history, which seems to me just as misplaced as the distraction sought in screens and raves.

It’s unclear – and cannily so, I think – how seriously we should take the various statements presented to us through the ciphers of different characters. Theatrically, it’s fascinating how the presentation of these lines of dialogue as sentences of projected text reads entirely differently to how I imagine I would interpret characters speaking that same dialogue in naturalistic scenes. What might otherwise come across as clunky authorial statements are transmitted somehow more tentatively and playfully, encouraging interrogation rather than straightforward acceptance or dismissal.

However you choose to interpret the many intellectual statements and debates that the piece conjures up, the overall feeling that’s communicated is one of the ordinary strangeness of daily life carrying on amidst global economic, political and military upheaval. People still dance and talk and fuck and check their phones. This, of course, is a symptom of the relative privilege that El Conde de Torrefiel could do more to acknowledge. Not everyone has the luxury of the anxieties that Guerrilla prods at. Not everyone can party at the end of the world. There are questions to be asked too of the company’s use of participants: how much agency they really have within the show they lend their bodies to, and who can even afford to participate in the first place.

But as a diagnosis of the fears and preoccupations of a particular portion of the global population at a time of what feels like great global uncertainty, Guerrilla makes horribly compelling theatre. Both visceral and intellectual, it makes me really feel the things that I might otherwise only think about. Most powerfully, it captures the strange terror-complacency of the present moment with more force and precision than anything else I’ve encountered.

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