The Rabbit is Dead – Long Live Theatre. Theatre is Dead – Long Live the Rabbit

04 01 2022

Still Life. Credits: Jaka Varmuž

Author: Kristina Karvelytė

Translated by Laima Bezginaitė

I surf the Internet in search of the recently seen performance Still life: Nine Attempts to Preserve Life by a young Slovenian director Tin Grabnar. Nothing. Instead, I find out that the poetic “still life” is a nature morte, i.e., a genre of art where the focus and attention is on the dead nature. Taxidermy is a much older and radical form of this genre. Here the dead nature can not only be arranged within the frames of a painting; it can also be touched and smelled. I suspect that the ancient Egyptians valued and respected taxidermists for their knowledge of how to give a static form to the ever-changing nature and how to create something that joins death and life within itself and at the same time destroys them both. I believe that it was this duality that made stuffed animals the object and the main expressive means of the Still life performance. And in turn (maybe in taking revenge) these puppets introduce a dual performance’s structure and ways of its narration and its reading. Maybe. Or maybe we should ask the performance itself?

Still Life is divided into two parts, the first of which introduces the audience to the mysterious world of taxidermy, the genealogy of stuffed animals, and the attitude of taxidermists towards their craft. The image on the stage reminds of the imaginary backstage of a zoology museum. It is dark and pretty chaotic here, while the racks are full of various stuffed animals. On the stage, three actors are reading their questions to the specialists of death. The questions are straightforward, while the answers vary: some are praising the craft of taxidermy, some are pragmatic, some are sincere, others – not so much. While taxidermists are talking through the lips of the actors, the stuffed animals are patiently waiting on the stage. They are also different, very distinctive, and individual, just like their creators, therefore their very presence is quite suggestive. In this way, intrigue is created calmly and with minimal means – if taxidermy in its own particular way seeks to save the existence of dead animals, shouldn’t theatre be able to do the same? And if it succeeds in going even further – as sometimes the metamorphosis of the inanimate’s transformation into the animate really takes place in theatre – would we get more life that way? Or maybe we would get closer to the mystery of death? For that, as the performance’s title suggests, we have as many as nine attempts.

That is why I am impatiently waiting for the “action” to begin and for theatre to take over taxidermy. In the second part of the performance, we travel from the darkness of tunnels and caves to an oasis of nature illuminated by artificial sunlight. More precisely, our attention travels there, as the scenery remains unchanged with the exception of a single rack with stuffed animals. Skilled hands place pieces of foam on the rack, thus forming a relief, which is then thoroughly disguised with moss, tufts of grass, stones, and branches. A bit later those same hands start to reanimate, i.e., control the rabbits. The actors are not trying to hide or disguise themselves; they rather seem to be there to demonstrate how craftsmen control objects created by other craftsmen. And how skillfully they do it. As the camera zooms onto the reanimated nature morte, for a moment it is easy to forget that I’m watching a performance. But only for a moment. The performance is too long, too monotonous and shows too openly how the illusion of movement and life is created for it to be believable. That’s why I don’t – when the camera zooms in as close as possible to its object, I see a miraculously revived rabbit, when the camera zooms out, I am watching how the cut and reassembled stuffed animals play rabbits in a semi alive landscape. How they die and live, move and stop moving without any reason or the answer to the question why. Because rabbits don’t need answers. Humans do. We often hope that art will help us to find them.

Does Still Life succeed? It seems that the performance was first of all created for own gains, in order to test the possibilities of such material and own limits. And the limits are determined not only by the actors’ skill but also by their belief in what is appropriate and what is not in respect to a stuffed rabbit. While watching the performance, I keep having an absurd feeling that for the creators the stuffed rabbit is a rabbit’s ba or a Pharaoh's pyramid, therefore, the most one can do without calling upon oneself the wrath of a Pharaoh is to try to recreate his life as accurately as possible. In the performance, instead of acting (creating) the actors are re-creating (imitating). In their attempt to remain ethical, the actors are trying to treat the material with respect, i.e., by allowing it to be what it is not, but not exploiting the opportunity of allowing it to be what it could be. But the rabbit is dead, long live theatre!

Even though watching life being recreated is interesting from the technical point of view, as the stuffed puppets are controlled really expertly, watching recreated death feels a bit funny (pardon me). In the performance, life is depicted as movement, while death is shown as a convulsive jerk, followed by rigor mortis. The performance’s six loops follow the same pattern of movement-jerk-stiffness. Obviously, here the actors are not some humble craftsmen; they are demigods or, more precisely, the three Moirae who have the power of determining when a rabbit’s quiet life will end. The trio, their heads bowed down, diligently mourn the rabbit that was reanimated and then killed off again by their own hands. They look as if standing beside a coffin with the remains of a relative. A moment of respite, and the lifeless body is put aside, away from the eyes of the audience. Because that is how death is seen in our culture. But where is rot, decay, and decomposition? Where are the eight stages of death, where is the still life that takes place in and under the skin, in the bones, and tissue cells? Where are László Krasznahorkai’s unleashed putrefaction workers waiting for their time of merciless siege to come? Alas, the Pharaoh's pyramid cannot afford stench or rot. And, in any case, to recreate death with six stuffed rabbits and a half an hour of time is an impossible task. But, I wonder, maybe it is possible to enact it? After all, we are watching a performance, not an Animal Planet documentary. Therefore, once again: the rabbit is really dead – long live theatre!

Ironically, it is the poor dramaturgy – the monotony and repetition of the scenes, their obscurity instead of hyper-realistic recreation – that brings the viewer closer to the object being depicted, i.e., the essence of nature. Yes, the scenes are boring. Yes, they are repetitive. And yes, you can watch them as many times as you like, but still not fully grasp what it is that you are seeing. But that’s exactly how nature is – cyclical, mechanical, moving in a jerky rhythm of life and death, opaque, and controlled. And yes, in our attempts to understand nature we keep personifying it. And that is why we attribute the right of being dignified to a sack of skin filled with straw and cottonwool, because it reminds us of a real animal, of which there is not a whiff. (By the way, what does a stuffed rabbit smell of?)

But maybe there is? If a glove started acting like a rabbit on the stage, it would become a rabbit. Therefore, so be it, the dramaturgy is convincing, so for half an hour I am seeing not only stuffed puppets, but also rabbits that are simply being there. They are moving their ears in a rabbit-like way, resting, hopping around, sniffing the grass... searching for food? Are they sad? Are they cheerful? Bored, maybe? I don’t know. Also, I don’t think that the actors or the director know the answer. I think that by making a decision to let a stuffed rabbit to become a real rabbit, the performance’s creators destroyed theatre. The force behind movement, the higher principle, and the Prime Mover in the performance is not the Moirae dressed in naturalist clothes and not the director standing in the backstage. It is the rabbits that are controlling the actors by sparingly allotting them movements, by giving the performance its rhythm and dramaturgy, and by immersing the performance’s creators and viewers into their quiet and unremarkable life. This is because in order to portray nature as realistically as possible, one has to obey it and to document reality instead of creating it. And so, theatre is dead – long live the rabbit!

Long live the rabbit and long live nature, which, unlike theatre, is completely indifferent to man and does not let in his logic and meaning. And long live the life of rabbits, which, unlike a nature morte, is not there to be admired by viewers for its composition, texture, and color harmony. Moreover, it does not require neither critical nor scientific, nor any other view of ours. The rabbit does not care much about ethics as well. The rabbit refuses to cooperate, while we keep observing it, trying to tame it or to catch it, to understand it or to dissect it, to stuff it or to make art of it. But isn’t such art a demonstration of our power over nature wrapped in an aesthetic form? Isn’t taxidermy more sincere as it acknowledges that a dead body is merely a substance? Or perhaps both are born out of helplessness? It is not for nothing that at the end of the performance the creators for Still Life placed three untouched stuffed animals next to the six re-animated rabbits. I am watching those nine attempts to preserve life, while a song by Turboreanimacija is repetitiously running through my head. The one where Kastis sings:

“The movement of punks is merely spiritual onanism, but who can ban you from sticking a hand into your panties?”

My version is this:

“The movement of stuffed rabbits is merely theatrical onanism, but who can ban you from sticking a hand into your panties?”

So long live the critic!

This publication is funded by the Lithuanian Council for Culture