Andrew Haydon reviewing In place of a show, at Forest Fringe, Notthing Hill Gate Theatre, London, April 19th 2012.
I'm writing this straight after watching Augusto Corrieri's In place of a show, [...] which is an odd decision, since on many levels, it is the sort of piece that I might benefit from spending some time with before writing about it.
In place of a show is a performance lecture. A genre, the more of which I see, the more I think is one of the best ideas ever. And Corrieri's is one of the best of a Best Idea I've seen.
Its basic question is about empty theatres. Its contention [...] is that an empty theatre is never empty. There are lights, and chairs, and a stage. And memories. Etc. etc. (his full description, which includes a chandelier, took me right back to Berlin and the Volksbühne).
Corrieri goes on to suggest that even if you were to remove all these elements, you would still have an empty room. A room with walls which keep out the outside. A theatre, he suggests, is a building with a door. And he tells us that he is interested in that journey between inside and outside.
Corrieri is researching a PhD and to this end, he found himself at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Northern Italy – Europe's first purpose-built indoor theatre. He describes the space, noting its ceiling, painted to look like a sky, and its walls, painted to look like (then contemporary) street scenes. He notes the orchestra pit and the auditorium shaped like the standard Roman amphitheatre.
He goes into the theatre and sits, experiencing an "empty theatre". For the first ten minutes he is all alone. Then some people turn up. The theatre is, after all, a tourist attraction as well as a site of academic interest. He describes the other people. Wittily.
And then a swallow flies across the space's painted sky.
This swallow gradually takes over the piece. Symbolising an element of "outside" *inside*.
Corrieri thinks his way round the possible meanings, symbolisms and paradigm shifts that this bird effects. He quotes John Berger writing on a similar incident in an opera house in Geneva, and notes the superstition that if a bird is killed on the stage of an opera house, then the building will burn to the ground. He notes that this very theatre that Berger is describing already burnt to the ground in 1951, although he does not know, he wryly notes, whether the death of a bird was involved.
As well as being fiercely intelligent stuff, what's lovely about Corrieri's piece is also his performance of it. He's got a really lovely way of talking that sounds at once precise, but also slightly amused by this precision. Although he remains straight-faced throughout, and the thing really is an academic lecture, it also feels brilliantly, enjoyably wry about its academic-ness. Actually, along with the sudden appearance of the bird, it does seem to share a certain amount of common ground with Emma Bennett's Bird Talk from the previous night at Forest Fringe – at least in its ability to make what could be quite a difficult form (her: modernist poetry, him: the academic lecture) into something incredibly watchable and listenable.
The piece also now has a coda, which I really can't decide whether to reveal or not. I think, on balance, I shouldn't, at least not while the piece still has a performance life, as it really does lift the piece from mere brilliance to something pretty much sublime. It's a real-life final twist in the tale that is so perfect that you'd think it was made-up (I made a conscious choice to ask afterwards and it isn't). But it's real life pretty much imitating a short story by Italo Calvino or Paul Auster, or perhaps Jorge Luis Borges in a way that makes you giggle at how brilliant the world can sometimes be.
I really hope a lot more people get to see it at some point in the future.