image via www.arnolfini.org.uk
Aping the Beast by Serena Korda at Arnolfini Bristol
I made a trip over to Bristol this week to go and see Aping the Beast by Serena Korda at Arnolfini arts centre. How could I resist a performance desribed as an ambitious, theatrical rendering of animal symbolism and folklore featuring a towering monster puppet… and a live soundtrack by Grumbling Fur.
We were a little anxious about making it in time for the performance as our train was delayed en-route but luck would have it that the performance got off to a late start so we didn’t miss a thing. Our intrigue was roused as we entered into the performance space as we were ushered in in small groups via small dark holding space – apparently this was to prevent ‘the haze’ from escaping.
The first half of the performance involved children dressed as ‘Boggarts’ (pictured above) who were involved in a ritualistic performance to rouse ‘The Beast’. The beast was a giant puppet of a green dinosaur-esque monster best described perhaps as a Godzilla puppet. It was more cute than terrifying though and even roused a few quiet giggles as one of the operators reached up with a big stick to wiggle it’s jaw.
The second half of the performance involved two girls in blue body suits carrying model gun ships on their shoulders. They strutted about around the beast circling it until they were batted aside by one of it’s loose limbs.
And that was it.
We looked at one another quizzically and stayed sat in our seats a little longer willing another act of the performance to burst forth and deliver on the expectations set by the publicity blurb. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever left an arts event feeling so disappointed.
The Boggarts were played by children from a local school and were by far the highlight of the night. Their boiler suits and latex masks de-personalised them and gave them a very creepy edge almost reminiscent of Chris Cunningham’s video for Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy. The unpolished way in which they delivered their routine worked really well and helped in convincing me, as a spectator, that this was a ritual and not a performance.
But from this point on it was all downhill. The blue ocean girls moved with little grace following an uninspired routine and when the monster was brought to life it did little more than meekly flap it’s arms from side to side – despite being operated by at least four people.
The performance followed a clear narrative arc but the exploration and presentation of this was woefully lacking. Yes, the narrative was simple but it offered so many ways in which the different themes at the core of the performance could have been explored in much more interesting and thoughtful ways.
In reality all we were presented with was – Boggarts raise beast, boats circle beast, beast destroys boats. There was no visual, performative or sonic cues that indicated anything beyond that what we saw had been considered.
The Arnolfini website described the performance as an ‘ambitious theatrical rendering’. Were this an end of term school play then it would have been very ambitious, but we were in an institution that describes itself as ‘one of Europe’s leading centres for the contemporary arts‘ to view a performance co-commissioned by the Artsadmin Jerwood Commission, Camden Arts Centre, London and Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool. With that in mind this performance just didn’t cut it.
My feeling is that this production would benefit from a back to basics approach giving more thought to the ways in which in themes and ideas were communicated to the audience. Yes the dinosaur puppet was big but it didn’t appear to be well made and certainly wasn’t terrifying as we were promised. The gun boats similarly lacked any real craftsmanship and it was questionable as to whether they really brought anything meaningful to the performance at all.
Bigger isn’t always better.