F.I.N.D. #14
That Bastard, Peter Pan: The Theatre of Angélica Liddell in Berlin

by Joseph Pearson

07. April 2014

Angélica Liddell (1966, Figueras, Spain) is a poet, director and actress. Some have called her the Spanish Marina Abramović, but I think this a disservice to the peculiarity of her vision. How peculiar, you might ask? Expect multimedia productions that are hard to classify. Expect rage, expect misanthropy, expect female power breaking from gender stereotypes. One of a trilogy of productions set in China, Todo el cielo sobre la tierra (El sindrome de Wendy) / All the Sky above the Earth (The Wendy Syndrome) , is a guest production of her Madrid Atra Bilis company performing in Berlin on 9 and 10 April. In it, she takes on the combined roles of actress, director, writer and set designer.

In our interview, she told me, »As always, I start with what obsesses me in a particular moment, that which distresses me, that thing which I cannot resolve … To endure the anguish that accompanies the loss of youth, I need to take poetic revenge, to fight the death wish by creating something, anything that has to do with beauty. To propose the disappearance of the world is the only way to survive the pain – to indulge in this feeling, to build on this feeling.«

In the Schaubühne press conference, director Thomas Ostermeier made a special point of telling the assembled journalists just how terrifying her performances, and electrifying monologues, can be. Certainly, the press describes her as a »radical performer«. Le Monde speaks of the »L'onde de choc« (wave of shock) felt in Avignon years later after her 2010 productions, El año de Ricardo and La casa de la fuerza. Meanwhile, Libération deliberates about how »she fascinates as much as she revolts« her audience.

How else to describe a piece set in both the streets of Shanghai (complete with waltzing to the music of Cho Young Wuk) and the Norwegian island Utøya where the Breivik massacre occurred (with the abandoned body of Wendy washing up on its shores). And how uncompromising, hardgoing, is it to draw parallels between that island, where the Norwegian Labour Party youth wing held its annual camp – where the mass murder of almost a hundred, mostly under 18-year olds in July 2011, occurred – and the island of Neverland in Scottish children’s novelist J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1911). Yes, these Nordic children will never grow up.

These are the topoi for two interrelated and gender-specific syndromes inspired by the eponymous children’s book: the Peter Pan Syndrome, the immature and cavalier instincts of men who act like boys; and the Wendy Syndrome, the overprotective mothering instinct that results from fear of abandonment. They are intertwined because those coddling Wendy Darlings – who do anything, however degrading, to keep their men, especially as the onset of age saps their beauty – are the agents that keep those very little boys from growing up.

Liddell tells me, »Both syndromes are complementary. Peter abuses Wendy’s servitude and sense of terror. The defect of Wendy feeds back unconsciously and capriciously all the more to Peter’s. However, Wendy assumes a gender role that I hate, the role of the mother, absolutely feminine, which turns me into a completely misogynist. I believe that true women’s liberation passes through misogyny. You only need to enter a clothing shop, a fabric shop, or a Pilates studio, in order to abhor the common female. In the same way, the common male is also abhorrent.«

Liddell’s play takes place in a world of stark gender confrontations, exploring the hatred of mothers and the fear of abandonment, as beauty and youth ebb. But her argument strikes me, initially, to be dominated by a heterosexual dichotomy. I therefore find it necessary to ask her how different sexualities, gay/straight/bisexual/trans etc., and the blurring of lines between genders, complicate her paradigm.

Liddell replies adeptly, »I appeal to the individual to rise above these gender types. This requires misogyny. A call for freedom mediated by a gender confrontation is absurd. The shops are full of feminine complicity, not oppression, but rather will and vindication. I am against this will, these kinds of Miltonic gender confrontations: the good women and the bad men. Finally, one can add to this comfortable little political correct discourse a little dignity.« But, is not a pathological fear of abandonment shared by both men and women? Why call it a »Wendy« complex? Liddell tells me that women don’t have a monopoly on a fear of abandonment, and Peter himself blurs the categories, in that he is an »abandoned child«.

A heated exchange follows:

Liddell: But in this case, I am a women, and I rebel against that bastard Peter Pan. It’s simple, he doesn’t get older, and I grow older without knowing why, and all the time I’m in love with this pig. Clinically, this is diagnosed »The Wendy Syndrome«, a disorder related to the Barrie character who is willing to satisfy whatever desires of the other in order not to be abandoned. Wendy is left humiliated, lower … at times she appears idiotic, stupid. When we reach a particular age, we must learn to be humiliated, because we are increasingly distancing ourselves from the possibility of love. We are faced with a dichotomy, a choice between hope and humiliation. The stupidest choose hope, the realists try to survive this exchange of humiliations which is life, waiting perhaps for that day when you desire to cut your throat in a hotel somewhere. For as much as there is hope, we need to be loved.

Joseph Pearson: What relation is there then between ageing and violence? Was Breivik suffering from such a complex? Is death a »solution« to the complex?

The passing of time is pure violence, as Céline tells us. We are unclean containers of intestines that slowly rot, the body disintegrating until the most humiliating phase that we can imagine, the loss of control of our sphincters, you shit and you piss together. The passage of time is violence, because solitude is that which condemns you like a beheading at dawn. I use Breivik like a metaphor. At the same time that the boys [sic] of the island of Utøya are interrupted in their growth, Breivik is a symbol of the annihilation of youth and beauty, and Wendy uses this to perpetrate her own poetic vengeance. We are speaking of poetry here, not a news bulletin. Death is poetry’s great solution.

Having read some of your other interviews, I see there is an admittedly misanthropic vein to your work. Could you expand on how this affects your position/role as an artist and your relation to your audience?

My relation to the world is entirely antisocial. Because of my nature, genetics, an unhappy childhood, disappointment and realism. Misanthropy. This does not contradict a relationship with the public. The necessity for expression is always »against the other«. This relationship is an encounter and an epiphany of individual sensitivities regarding the opus. Moreover, the public forms a part of the sacrificial act, an act of faith. We all carry a lamb in our arms and a knife at the waist, as we climb the mountain, like Abraham. It is not a social act, but a sacred and spiritual one, a spiritual life that is opposing the disappointing outer life. The relationship with the public is spiritual, and this is compatible with misanthropy. We are alone – the work, and each one of us.

What is the experience of showing your work in different countries: reactions in Avignon compared to, say, Spain, or Berlin?

There does exist a universal! The reactions are very similar. But the public in Avignon is very special, the feeling of euphoria, passion, it’s really very special. It’s a pleasure to work in Avignon. I believe that the public and the creators enter into a state of unparalleled excitement. It wouldn’t matter if someone packed a gun in her pocket. I love working under pressure. I love it. I love going onto stage, and to be on the verge of fainting. 

Todo el cielo sobre la tierra (El síndrome de Wendy)
Der ganze Himmel über der Erde (Das Wendy-Syndrom)

Gastspiel des Atra Bilis Teatro (Spanien)
von Angélica Liddell

Premiere war am 09. April 2014