Hull Literature Festival 2001 8th - 18th November
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A rehearsed script-in-hand reading
Hull Truck Theatre
As reviewed by: Philip Barnes
Monday 12th November 2001

"Let's get shit-faced and start an art magazine!"
- Alfred Jarry to Remy de Gourmont

As an editor of a modest magazine myself, I find something endearing about Jarry's sentiment here, and about his indulgences and impracticalities in general, as depicted in Mike Carter's 'Jarry'. The play was this year's script-in-hand contribution to the Humber Mouth, Hull's literary festival. As with previous productions occupying this slot, it was wonderful. Without the logistical and financial encumbrances of being a full stage production, these script-alone projects arguably have a much freer hand in what they are able to present.

Jarry the play is rooted in a European intellectual tradition- although Jarry the man would have assaulted me for saying so. Nonetheless, the 'lager-and-shagging' of contemporary theatre, which strains to ingratiate itself with its audience, was delectably replaced with absinthe and copulation with dogs under Serge Alvarez's direction. And admirably so.

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) occupied an anarchistic, fantasist world, and left it only to irritate the bourgeoisie of his time. Often, disorientated with the stale quality of modern life, he retreated back inside his own fantasies, supported by a few cohorts and literary supporters. Ironically, and not unfittingly, the play began with a heckler: "I'm here now- you can begin!" This man also retreated, but only into a drunken slumber, and the play began proper.

Jarry's finer achievements were the coarse, disrespectful 'Ubu' plays, and his theory that a time machine can be built from a bicycle with no chain- you stay still whilst the world goes about its business, and thus you trick time itself. He coined a phrase, "Pataphysics", to which he ascribed theories such as these. He carried pistols, too, and ate by catching fish from the Seine: the former was a stunt emulated by an impressed young Picasso.

Less happily, he was discharged from military service after drinking a bottle of acid. Such an act illustrates the quiet desperation of wishing to escape; to a 'time traveller' such as Jarry, being harangued by some brutish Colonel was a monumental waste of time. Less happy too was his interaction with other people, even those in the literary circles who seemingly admired him. Before women he either remained awkwardly chaste or would be humiliated; his 'ambivalent' relationships with men were not particularly tackled in the play, although from it one concludes that by and large Jarry was an entertaining but fundamentally isolated figure.

In a way, Jarry has become a textbook case for today's aspiring bohemian set; perhaps we can only look upon his antics with a regrettable sense of nostalgia- given, at least, the negligible availability of absinthe in this country. The play, with its ribald humour, coarse language and at times slap-stick presentation, could be mistaken as being a comedy throughout- which, I think, was rather the case on this particular evening. And it is a mistake, too, to regard Jarry merely as a kind of avant-garde clown. By the standards of his society Jarry's life was largely "useless" and "wasted"; he wrote rude plays, spat at the society in which he failed to live peaceably, and espoused his esoteric philosophy of 'pataphysics' from the confines of his tiny flat. But as with all these self-fulfilling 'clowns'- and thankfully, there have been a fair of them number since- Jarry assumes a certain dignity and significance by building his entirely imaginary castles, and by confronting his audience with an almighty, guttural cry of "Shit!"

© Philip Barnes, November 2001

(Philip is co-editor of Illegal Media magazine, which is being distributed throughout the Humber Mouth festival.)

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