Poetry that Smashes Our Comfort. Angélica Liddell’s »Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong«

by Joseph Pearson

14 March 2017

I arrive on set, and find the actors in a circle, doing yoga, limbering up their bodies and warming their voices. I think I know enough about Angélica Liddell productions to explain why the actors might need to do a little yoga before the run-through. The performance that follows will break the calm; it will be physically and intellectually demanding.

My eyes turn to the stage where – in stark and sombre contrast to the lithe and athletic bodies – are shrunken, yellow mannequins lying on a red velvet sofa. They look dispiritingly like dry-cleaned people. Nothing would surprise me in a production with the title, »Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong«. The Spanish director, meanwhile, sits calmly, even smiling, off-stage, as the actors enter for the first scene. With axes, they begin violently to destroy furniture. This is only a taste of what is to come.

Angélica Liddell is a familiar face at the Schaubühne. For FIND 2014, she presented the memorable »Todo el cielo sobre la tierra (El sindrome de Wendy)« / »All the Sky above the Earth (The Wendy Syndrome)«, giving an electrifying, terrifying performance. The themes – involving violence, misogyny, relationships of servitude between women and men – were no less hard-hitting: »Wendy« was set partly on the Norwegian island Utøya, site of the Breivik massacre.

»Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong« first premiered in Madrid, but opens in Berlin as a house production in German, the cast drawn from the Schaubühne’s ensemble. Its characters are a motley group: a dog named Rameau (played with stern determination by Damir Avdic), the dry cleaner owner Octavio (Ulrich Hoppe), his prostitute sister Getsemaní (Iris Becher), a paedophilic teacher (Veronika Bachfischer), Lazar the museum guard who suffers from panic attacks (Lukas Turtur), and the puppet-master Combeferre (the inimitable Renato Schuch appearing in both sports attire and black lace).

»Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong« presents a dystopic European future, with the continent cleared of crime, but also of immigrants. It examines a coercive social contract that dominates and destroys personalities. The production – as Liddell later explains to me – is subtitled, »the Strong« because it speaks precisely about weakness: »The State demands obedience and discipline of individuals, and it exerts a force for which no human being is prepared«. Those terrifying, conflicting, forces are what appear on stage in this Schaubühne production, the first in a FIND festival whose theme is »Democracy and Tragedy«.

The audience might imagine that this is a project – with its concern also with national difference and scapegoats – developed quickly in response to the refugee crisis in Europe, which reached its apogee in 2015. Liddell calls this history »genocide by omission: the era of migration, which has resulted in hundreds of corpses on land and sea... the first tragedy of democracy in the twenty-first century, that inversely mythical journey where men die reaching our shores. I always thought that that would have a cost, that we should pay sooner or later for that omission of relief, for that omission of responsibility«.

But Liddell did not write the text for »Dead Dog« in 2015. Instead, presciently, it was composed more than ten years before, at the time of the US intervention in Iraq. »Europe did not yet live under the threat of terrorism, and somehow the work turned into a prophecy«, she tells me. Indeed, it foresees the way immigrants and refugees would be blamed for Europe’s home-grown ills.

But it would be simplistic to describe Liddell’s work as an effort to foretell the future. As she remarks, »I don’t write works of political fiction because the world is headed in a particular direction, but rather because everything imaginable belongs to human possibility. We can only imagine the possible. Even God has anthropomorphic characteristics. To imagine a State where crimes do not exist, because the enemy has been eliminated, does not mean that there is a direction in which we are heading. It already exists, rather, as a possibility because it has been imagined.«

The production is replete with subtle allusions to French cultural history: Combeferre, a name familiar from Victor Hugo’s »Les Misérables«, is emblazoned on a football jersey. There are allusions to the work of Diderot. Liddell tells me her interest in 18th-century France, for example, is its foundational and legitimising role for modern democracies. This is why she alludes specifically to the »Social Contract of Rousseau«.

»Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong« sets up a series of stark contrasts regarding European civilisation. On one hand, you hear the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, or see Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo painting »The Swing« in the background. On the other hand, Rameau (the character) is an axe-wielding dog, and Fragonard’s picture comes to life in a moment of deranged violence.

I ask Liddell to expand on her commentary on European culture and cultural production, and she explains, »I want to confront the public with the need for poetry; I want to undermine their sense of comfort. Often, culture is a comfortable place, and the artist – in this case, the buffoon – is charged with smashing that comfort. The spectator, by nature, always feels superior, acquires a noble position. If the buffoon breaks this mask, he destabilises the spectator’s security, his superiority. Culture is closer to leisure, and to entertainment, than to poetry. Poetry alone forces us into conflict with ourselves. I want the public to doubt everything, absolutely everything: themselves, the theatre, culture, Europe, their convictions. It is a Socratic endeavour. Sometimes, I think Europe is dying of boredom. Of conformity. Of satisfaction. It is tedium. Tedium. Culture satisfies boredom. However, poetry, as Thoreau says, rips the heart of life from the womb, as an Indian plucks a scalp. I want the viewer to experience the true need for poetry«.

Music too plays its part, and is transporting – be it Rameau, Bowie or Radiohead. A song by the latter, she remarks, »is one of the most beautiful ever written; these poor characters deserve it«. Liddell compares her work to dance – a composition with musical rhythm – a choreography carefully prepared in advance with storyboards. She does not normally improvise, and she tells me »at first I suspect it was rather disconcerting for the Schaubühne actors, accustomed to discussing first at a table together. I work first with bodies. I treat them like dancers. I present my choreography and actors must develop their intentions and feelings within it. I always wait for the actors to find meaning without explaining anything to them. With the German actors, it has been different because they ask many questions and need to understand everything from the beginning. I have done a lot more psychological work than I usually do, and the truth is that it has been exciting because I have discovered things about my own work that I did not know, things that had been set in my unconscious and that, thanks to them, have been defined. I have the feeling that they have been the ones who have directed me. In any case, I have enjoyed it very much«.

More than anything else – and this is what I like so much about Liddell productions – the result is one that is uncompromising in its experimentation, challenging to audiences who expect linear narratives or clear explanations. As a final question, I ask her: »In what ways does your form of storytelling best tell the story?«

And she replies, »The big challenge is to decide how much information you want to give and how much you want to subtract, what part of the story you want to reconstruct for the spectator only with clues, as if you were sewing back together a corpse that had been drawn and quartered. Most of all, I run away from explanations. I am horrified by them. I propose symbols – almost in a Medieval sense – that give meaning to the inexpressible. That's what worries me: the inexpressible. I consider my works to be long journeys to unexplored lands, where each stop gives sense to the one previous. That is to say, the scenes only make sense in their development, sometimes only at the conclusion of the work. My pieces are organisms flooded with blood vessels that feed the unconscious. The most important thing is to build these connections, or to establish very solid codes to elaborate an enigma. Not to solve it, but to ask it. But what gives coherence is, finally, the aesthetic structure«

Dead Dog at Dry Cleaners: the Strong

by Angélica Liddell
Direction: Angélica Liddell

Premiered on 30 March 2017