The Performance that Was Not One

Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times, 29 June 2003

After having watched Ridiculusmus’s The Exhibitionists a couple of weeks before, and on the eve of watching FM Theatre’s A Slice of Saturday Night – noisy, bawdy and unashamedly commercial – I found a certain peaceful contentment in watching ICARUS 4.

This is stranger than it sounds, since the booklet issued by the Groups for this event – and I choose my word with care – makes it clear that ICARUS 4 ‘is a non-performance performative event’ and it ‘is not a performance because it is neither structured as nor aimed at being one.’

The four young actors – Louise Ghirlando, Sandro Spina, Caroline Gatt and Stefan Aquilina – with their mentor Frank Camilleri, have been working for over two years to reach a stage where they can be considered fit and capable of giving a true performance.

To quote once more the solemn wording of the booklet, ‘The informing principle behind ICARUS 4 has been the guidance of aspiring performers and to organise “performance material” before it meets first the external eye of the director and second, that of the audience.’ What my fellow members of the audience and I saw was the stage reached by the four actors ‘on their journey towards performance’.

Personally I find it difficult to distinguish between a performance and a stage in the preparation for an eventual performance, which is yet worthy of being shown to outsiders. We were not watching a rehearsal, it was made clear, but performers who are seeking the techniques and inner qualities they will need if they are to embark on an acting career.

Like the others, I was there as a ‘witness to a unique event’, I was told, and not as an audience in the normal sense of the word. The trouble is that on learning this I was forced to view the ‘event’ solely from the outside. Like a witness of an event that later ends up in court, I found myself watching the performers as they went through their elaborate movements, noticing the brief moments where the four successive performances overlapped, and listening to their explorations of vocal textures.

It was only when I read the programme/booklet after the performances or what have you were over that I learned, for instance, that Caroline Gatt was working on Odile and Odette, the good and the evil twins from Swan Lake, or that Sandro Spina was Milvus, breeze and dream vendor. I had not perceived any deep connection between Gatt’s exclamation, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, which was subsequently echoed by another performer, Stefan Aquilina (Pink – the Inept/Free Dreamer) and her subsequent behaviour and, to be frank, I never realised she was playing two physically but deeply contrasted beings. Putting on a performance and trying to convince oneself and the audience it is not a performance can create its problems.

But no more objections. I have no doubt that the long apprenticeship of these four talented performers has borne plenty of fruit. They were all in beautiful physical control of their movements around the studio area, their gestures and of their periods of silence. They all used minimal props – a shawl, a lantern, a stick, large wooden hairpins – in a way that was theatrically effective, even if all too often I could not fathom what they were at. I was also much impressed by Louise Ghirlando’s experiments with different vocal tones and dynamics.

These four young people now need to be off the leash. I hope that when they are allowed to perform in the fullest sense of the word, they are also allowed to perform something that can not only hold an audience but also communicate with it.

Groups for Human Encounter must remember that if they truly care to have an audience that will come back again and again, their performances must go out to them. I am sure they will always stay away from commercial theatre – and I rejoice to think that there are some performers in this country who insist on doing this – but it is, I think, a mistake to aim solely at a select audience of admirers. Great theatre has always aimed at larger audiences.