9 September–5 November 2006, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee
When did you last see anyone take a toilet break in a movie or onstage? That’s toilet break as in going to the toilet, by the way. Because, while the in-yer-face generation used the smallest room in the house to shag, shoot up or slash someone’s face to bits, this is merely dramatic appropriation—detournement, if you will—of that particular little boys room’s original and very private function. For the playwright, the bathroom is a convenient convenience to get dramatis personae on and off stage. A relief, light or otherwise, in which truth and artifice meet. Realistic, though, it isn’t.
Such a let’s-pretend conceit is littered throughout this collaboration between theatre director Graham Eatough and Graham Fagen, an artist whose concerns with performance, spectacle and the uneasy relationship with a usually imaginary audience has finally burst through the fourth wall. Even here, however, the toilet’s flush, while acknowledged, is only the most menacing of noises off.
On the first of five screens, a nervous Harlequin peers through a red velvet as if checking out the first-night front stalls. Changing into timeless black suit civvies, when he finally takes the leap, it becomes apparent that this is just the prologue to a trawl through some of the defining images of modern drama as we know it.
Landing, on another screen backed onto the first, in a garden scene populated by characters from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, our hero—part Everyman, part Woody Allen’s Zelig, blending into history without ever fully being of it – moves through the basement of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, the domestic bedsit torpor of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and, finally, inevitably, sits on the brink of no-man’s land in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Along the way he’s played at being waiter, assassin, doctor and hangman in a matter of life and death in which everyone else is just hanging around, stuck in their own limbo.
The effect is of a magnificently synchronised timeslip between acquired fictions, in which the Harlequin—played onscreen by a suitably blank-faced Paul Thomas Hickey—becomes both chameleon and cuckoo. As he disappears and reappears, the viewer’s normal passivity is kept enough on its toes. The true wonder of the show, however, is found in the third room. Here each film.theatre set, from the red velvet curtain onwards, stands for real and in the flesh. Even better, each scene is inhabited —in shifts- by the actors from the films that led you to them. All but the Harlequin are present and correct, suggesting, as you inhabit each world, that you too could play a part, intervene and—perhaps- change history.
Look a little closer though, and, as if in a backstage tour, the entire world is revealed as a two-dimensional construction, like a flat-pack Wil West town that can be taken down and put up again on the whim of whoever’s in charge. In this respect, Killing Time can be viewed as one great big Brechtain device, subverting expectations even as it plays with form, as much as its theatrical forbears.
What it says on the broader, more explicitly political level in the way that Eatough and Fagen make claims form remains tantalisingly oblique. For the Harlequin, however, the sheer Sisyphean repetition of his life on film suggests not only that there is no time for a toilet break, but that, whatever the gallery signs may say, there’s no way out and no exit either.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic