I haven’t seen a show by Pan Pan Theatre Company before. I am, I realise now, much the poorer for it. My recent doubts about the state of Irish theatre, its lack of edge and intelligence, are completely dispelled after seeing Oedipus Loves You at the Project.
There is one week left to see them in this production, before they hit the road again and continue their seemingly unceasing well-deserved tours around the world, with other shows. This production, however, has toured to more than 20 cities, including Berlin, Beijing, Helsinki, London, Quebec, New York and Shanghai. Please, please, please, go here now and book your tickets to see what the rest of the world has enjoyed. You will be rewarded with a scintillating assault on the senses, a hilarious piss-take of the Oedipus complex, barbecues, Freud, mythology, dysfunctional families and therapy games, in an exhilarating 90-minute roller-coaster ride. And there’s music too. And nakedness. And sausages. For more information, here’s an interview with the writer/director/founder Gavin Quinn.
This is my kind of theatre. It is the sort of work I was involved in as an actor during the eighties, one of the Tom McIntyre “lunatics in the basement”, in the Peacock Theatre. Since coming back to Ireland two years ago I’ve been wondering if we were just a flash in the pan in Ireland, whether the literary tradition had washed away all traces of our nonsense. Physical, movement-orientated theatre, influenced by dance companies such as Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, and the mime of Marceau; theatre of the absurd; subversive mucking around with myths and fairytales, symbols and archetypes, poetry and soundbytes; multimedia (I have fond memories of the late, lamented and demented Joan O’Hara with braces and a Nurse Ratchett cap on a loop on a TV, centre stage, advocating smiling therapy, repeating the words “Happy Brain Chemicals” over and over again).
In general, it was a sort of inspired lunacy, the edge of madness/genius. Of the playwrights who lit up that decade, as far as I was concerned, Marina Carr has continued to furrow her intense and prolific path with integrity and passion, (more to come with Marble) and I am delighted to see Tom McIntyre coming back with Only An Apple next year. But until I saw Pan Pan, I wasn’t sure who were the next generation of lunatics. And I mean that as the highest compliment I can muster.
McIntyre in the eighties deliberately set out to avoid declarative text, swimming against the strong tide of the Irish literary tradition. His intention was not to frustrate communication, but to communicate on a much deeper level with audiences. He aimed to connect on an archetypal, visual, haunting and often playful wavelength with the audience – the stuff of dreams, of nightmares. Once the audience stopped trying to understand the work literally, and went with the flow, as it were, the experience was consuming, overwhelming. And, sometimes, this meant that people got angry, people were confused and irritated at what they saw was pretension. But for those who got what we were about, it was stunning.
Some experimental theatre companies test the boundaries by challenging the expectations of audiences, consciously risking and/or inviting disappointment, outrage, disgust, boredom, and the experience is sometimes akin to a rather unpleasant assault. Some have a simmering contempt for their audiences, their imagination or values, and the audience feels fucked and used like an object, a thing, leaving one emotionless, cold, ashamed for having consented, or experienced pleasure.
And then there’s Pan Pan, who, with zest and passion, have the sort of playful sex with the audience that is full of belly-laughs; this is making love with a whole-hearted, mirthful, conscious presence. It’s intelligent without being pretentious, it’s risk-taking without being deliberately obscure. They want to take you on their journey, to be moved, to have fun, to be challenged, to be tickled, to be dazzled.