Review: Penthesilea at the Barbican (Spill Festival)

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The Spill festival continues to pour out around us with performances in the Barbican, Shunt Vaults, Toynbee Studios and Soho Theatre. We’ve mentioned one piece in the programme so far, Raimond Hoghe’s Sacre – The Rite of Spring and there’s more coverage of the pieces we missed on the SpillOverSpill blog – click through for reviews and interviews and more musing about this festival of experimental theatre.

It’s been challenging, difficult, invigorating and exciting: the emphasis on body-based performance and the distinct lack of clothing, inhibitions and a beginning-middle-end structure has shown us what is going on in theatre at the boundaries.

Last night’s Spill performance at the Barbican Pit occupied an unusual space between story-telling, theatre and… something else. Penthesilea was Francoise Berlanger’s hour-long solo show. It was a text-heavy performance, essentially a reading with two sound artists providing a white noise and feedback soundtrack, and stage design by Marcel Berlanger, Francoise’s visual artist brother. There was nothing more than Francoise Berlanger’s commanding presence on stage, her extraordinary voice booming and shaking as she stood in a shifting sea of dry ice beneath five illustrated panels that depicted different aspects of Penthesilea’s tale.

The Algerian-born, Brussels-based director and performer strode naked through the audience, bearing a bow and arrow then once the audience was seated, she dressed herself and began an extraordinary and exhausting oratory, telling the tale of Penthesilea, the Amazonian who fell in love with Achilles during the Trojan war. This powerful warrior Queen was so moved by the passion she felt for him, she met him in battle and tore him to pieces with her teeth. Then, she violently lamented the loss of the object of her love and strove to be with him in the Underworld. All of this was performed for us with no props and no other intervention than some growling and bass notes from the sound artists.

Berlanger assaulted the audience with her voice, screeching and booming and sometimes mewling with the force of her emotion. Her thick French accent sometimes made her impassioned speech incomprehensible but like in opera, we were eventually listening only to the emotion and storytelling in the sound of her voice, not her words. The violence and passion of the story induced her, at one point, to spit out a stream of white froth. She was choked with her own performance, as were the dumbstruck audience. Early on in the performance, she cried several times “Women, rise up!” and we very nearly leapt up out of fear and awe, such was her power over us. Berlanger used Heinrich von Kleist’s radical 1808 version of the Penthesilea story that abandoned the classical structure of plays for 24 consecutive scenes and was further radicalising it with this stark, emotionally raw performance.

In a post-show discussion with Francoise and Marcel Berlanger led by Lyn Gardner from The Guardian, we were surprised to see a translator on stage; after such a comprehensive assault on the ears, Francoise revealed in a soft voice that she had performed Penthesilea in English for the Spill festival for the first time and was in fact in need of some help from the translator for this post-show talk. Her entire performance was led by the sound and pattern of the words, not necessarily by the meaning.

Gardner commented more than once that she had found it uncomfortable to watch and asked where a performance like this could have come from. Berlanger spoke of her feelings of loss when her husband died of cancer six years previously and her conscious decision to turn these feelings outward, using her skills as an artist and performer to create something out of her loss.

We had witnessed something very personal, very powerful and uncompromising. Gardner asked one final question: considering the intensity of her grief, both in performance and in her personal life, was it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all? Berlanger replied with little hesitation that to have loved and lost made her even better at loving again. In that same spirit, we couldn’t wait for Penthesilea to be over but we were glad we had seen it.

Penthesilea, as part of the Spill Festival. For more information about the performance and the Spill Festival, go to the festival website here.

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