Reality as Reality: “The Execution of Pierrot” – Derevo Theatre Society

For the people of the theatre, the theatre is the one true laboratory.  Within the confines of our discipline, we confront universal wisdoms.  Distilled as they are from the challenges of human beings cooperatively courting our individual and collective limits, we believe our rules to be valid rules for all humankind.
Even if we are partially mistaken; that perhaps seductive aspects of theatre-work somehow distort central elements of our humanity, it is inconceivable that our habitual working strategies fail to contain a valuable thinking process.  In the very least, the pitch and amplitude of theatrical hyperbole reveal the energy and wholeheartedness necessary with which to embrace and dismantle the human dilemma…
Running off to Szczecin to catch a theatre piece seemed a bit of an extreme endeavour.  But old friends were travelling with 23 Norwegian youngsters (including three sons) to install their vibrating tableau of Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools against suitable historic backdrops in Warszawa, Torun, and then the Castle of the Duke of Pomerania.  Their midnight performance was massive and morally good, but as the quirks of programming would have it — dwarfed by a piece that showed earlier that evening…
A group of ex-patriot Russians, resident in and funded by the municipality of Dresden, performed The Execution of Pierrot, a comedic, street enactment of a firing squad.  The Derevo Theatre Society’s more formal, Butoh-inspired stage plays are world commodities, (the next week they were off to Seoul), but I suspect that their people’s clown work defies both marketing and any awards for prettiness. It was hard, it was hysterical, it was ultimately wise.  Performed in a receptive context, it stands as a stellar example of theatre as research – where the reality of the socio-anthropological content of the theatre meeting became amplified to illuminate its theme.

Buskers with Attitude
At first meeting Derevo immediately reveal themselves as the hardest, most merciless collection of street poet-acrobats ever hatched.  Ambulating from a site below the Thirteenth Century Castle Walls, nine performers assail the administrative heart of much be-battled Pomerania.  Three decorated tormentors, their Capitano, three tiny drummers, and an androgynous Beacon of Time have a prisoner to be sacrificed…
I missed the prologue.  By the time the drummers had summonsed us from the courtyard café and down the hill to the Old City Hall, our Everyman Hero Pierrot had been decidedly captured.  How this had occurred, I could only interpolate within the genre of classic street Commedia scenario that is the Pierrotic turf —  his capture had been as equally ironic and inevitable as life itself.  Working a slowly swelling crowd, our Everyman Hero, mocked by his moreshockedthaninnocent painted face, his classic white suit already threadbare and soiled by whatever journey had led him to this impasse, had most certainly exploited the obsequious role of the clown.   At some point, he would have discovered (or been discovered by) a second street performance where a rabid Colonel put three bound and chained prisoners through their paces…
Employing the prerequisite clown’s machinations of subterfuge and naïve humanistic interplay, and most certainly representing the sentiment of the audience, Pierrot had boldly intervened.  By the time I arrive panting, he has successfully liberated these three sorry souls.  Unfortunately, at the cost of supplying himself as a worthy replacement; it proves an eventful exchange.
The released prisoners ‘couldn’t agree more’ with this turn of events, and immediately let themselves be pressed by El Capitano into an impromptu execution squad dead keen on a crime against humanity.  For the rest of the piece, Pierrot’s street theatre schtick remains irrepressible.  Although now repeatedly thwarted by this little army of deranged conscripts, the clown’s impulse towards ingratiating himself with his people, his pressing of the flesh and baby kissing, reemerge at all junctures : Life is just theatre: all shall be well.
Guano Butohists
But this troupe gives more than a rambunctious guided tour through their symbolism.  They display a philosophic commitment to subject themselves to their imagery.  Their generous offering to this effort, as they go loose at the hopeless task of washing the Pomeranian stones of their history, is their very selves. Their shaved skulls, taunt undernourished bodies, and splattered makeup that most resembles bird droppings, bare witness that they are well aware that the brutality that they expose resonates deep within our racial memories.  Their pageant may well trace a grotesque tale, but it is their real and equally grotesque efforts to extract every last drop of theatre from their personal submission to the playing field, that provides the truth.  The extent of their physical self-humiliation and their willingness to follow the most grotesque of consequences from audience participation, give witness to their uncompromising generosity.
Engaging themselves in the non-fictional act of fleshing out the story with the real effort of their journey, this became theatre as self-flagellation.  Rather than creating external portraits of atrocity, they enact the anatomy of atrocity upon one another, subjecting their whole selves to a collective nightmare, — chancing almost naked flesh against iron rail and cobblestone that had seen more than one Parade of the Victorious. As victims of a macabre improvisation, they wrestle with the human twists that the vulnerability of street theatre invariably amplifies and even (temporarily) assuages.
A work that defies rehearsal
The performed violence was real; no matter how trained the acrobat, an untied shoe on a cobblestone hill shall always defy choreography.  At one point, the evening’s certified victim, in full Pierrot regalia, had the concrete task of wrestling fifteen metres of heavy noose, chains and cowbells upwards and onwards.  Hurling the flotsam of discarded props through the meagre gaps in the audience ocean, collisions were inevitable…
Finally having amassed the appropriate throng in the castle’s outer courtyard, the play can begin.  The Execution of Pierrot is orchestrated into an exhaustive exploration of all possible sidetracks.  The people’s favourite victim continually subverts his execution with the usual subterfuges of last smoke, last meal, last marriage to suitable young maiden.  At first, the audience would willingly postpone the confrontation, but Derevo complicate the situation by their endurance.
Audience participation becomes audience collusion
As any ex-street performer will testify, on many occasions the proof of the pudding is not in the tasting but the wasting — You can’t do everything, opportunities arise, but “The play is the thing.”; “You mustn’t lose the plot”; ergo, some promising lines of enquiry are therefore to be merely indicated.  Not so Derevo — they squeeze relentlessly.  No stone is left unturned; every impulse is to be taken to its extreme.  Blessed with the festival’s hat-free policy, they had more pressing matters than mere dramaturgic progression.  Theirs was a ‘play of attrition’.  In the genre of improvisation round a skeletal scenario, and where variations on their themes defy rehearsing, Derevo are masters.  Working the motors of audience interaction, they inveigle us into the position of co-conspirator’s in postponing the inevitable.  The infectious, madcap human glee that accompanies each invention taken to its utter logical and physical limit, both illuminates and obscures the truth of the performance:  that given the perverted logic of our commanders, we too, have little choice but to kill the innocent and the generous.
We are well versed in the cliché of one last smoke before the firing squad, we have seen buskers aggressively empty a poor student’s last five cigarettes before, we have seen balletic multi-smoking, we know the terrain. Derevo did them all, plus three more…
Pierrot’s last meal was equally filling:  for starters, an overabundance of post-al dente spaghetti proved highly suitable for ritual warfare, serving as both gag and projectile.  For the main course, the doctor prescribed 3 kilos of raw meat (perhaps justified as folklore and echoing both the Polish meat fetish, a literal pre-Lenten carnival, and the regional status as exporter to its ex-mighty neighbours.)  Fresh from the meat market, a slab of pig’s liver doubled as an imposing periwig on a raw scalp, and a chain of perfect plum-coloured sausages made an ideal skipping rope.  To fortify the feeble condition of ‘our prisoner’, two substantial soup bones from the tibia or ulna of an ox are unceremoniously taped to P’s thigh.  In the infectious spirit of the party ( and liberally marinated in red wine), Pierrot enthusiastically assumes a classic, spitted-position suspended above a barbeque pit. ( Just in time for the de rigeur fire-eaters to come-a-singeing.)
After working over the potential wife material in the audience, the troupe augment the fun with their own romantic interest.  A duel over the Wise Damsel’s very melon-shaped breasts becomes a duel with the half-melons themselves.  The pulp becomes spit and invective, becomes hurled insult, becomes a fine-grained cleansing solution and a testament to purity and conviction.  Finally, the empty shells of the exhausted fruit become partially effective military-style crash helmets. An entr’acte of tomato toss adds some local colour.
After dessert, salad, cheese and after-dinner drinks have all made their appearance, some attention to personal hygiene is in order.  While this veteran theatre-goer knows enough to abandon the front rows when the ritual bathing commences; a refreshing shower in the summer heat does no real harm, and a Baltic audience is well versed in how birch swathes can work up an impressive pink area; that they get a thorough trashing in return, seems only good clean fun and an integral part of the sauna tradition.
However, after all these distractions (did I not mention the Tug of War?), and strained by a pressing bladder and the repeated weight shift from one leg to the other, the mood of the assembled multitudes subconsciously changes: Get on with.  We are here for an execution, give us the goods.
Sensing that things were ‘getting interesting’, and aware that I was witnessing this performance on the eve of the Srebrenica 10th anniversary commemorations, the thought kept recurring as to what it would take in order to play such a brutally honest piece in Bosnia.  Given the domestic opposition surrounding the Srebrenica municipality’s sponsoring of the previous year’s fashion show and street dance; daring to launch such improvisations on these themes would encompass an intrusive radical shock therapy – but wouldn’t it in fact be the best the world community could ever hope to offer ?…
After the performance Derevo director, Anton Adasinsky sighed at the idea.  We didn’t get to speak at length before their van was packed and they were off, so his connection to this thought remained unclear.  While on the Derevo webpage the piece bares the prosaic title of The Execution of Pierrot, in the Polish festival program the local arrangers, (either working from earlier notes, or perhaps wanting to submerge the plot) had it billed with the more obscure title of ‘Arken’.  Could this indicate that Derevo had applied self-censorship, and baulked at publicly titling their piece after Arcan, perhaps the current era’s most famous floor-level war criminal?
Derevo’s raw imagery does not follow the prescriptions of an accepted psychotherapy model.  If it is scientific, it is so on an entirely different spectrum. Their improvisations over the themes of their adopted roles, force them to explore all anti-logical possibilities.  Their extreme sport approach, spurred on by the outrageous suggestions that audience interaction inspires, extracts the very pith from the metaphor and exhausts its imagery.  They offer what can only be described as an excreted truth…
Exiled Russians, resident in Dresden and fêted in Edinburgh and Seoul for their stage renditions of recognisable western classics, had prodded and released the soul of the mob. Their uncontrollable variations on a tragic theme, not only reveal that the world doesn’t understand either; the piece also reveals that non-understanding is an essential moment in the Human Rite of redemption.  Would there be place for these living, unsparing self-victims and their extreme poetic exploration of the most horrific moment of human camaraderie between the executed and the executee?1
All good comedies need their twisted end.  After having exhausted all possibilities of inverted logic ( and the limits of limb and audience) the exectutionee’s goose is finally cooked. The appropriate coffin proportioned receptacle appears to give a much deserved final resting place.  Flowers, vino and an angel appear; our Pierrot will make a noble end.  But all is not that harmonious.  Clown logic can’t allow such inevitable inevitability.  One of the mercenary army has succumbed to acute envy.  Suddenly, he too appears dressed as a renewed, pristine Pierrot, and demands his peaceful rest and the place of honour in the coffin.  Our hero is rudely dumped, and the queue jumper climbs triumphantly into his early grave.
It remains to be seen if this extensive human exploration of the force of the innocent can distil any therapeutic wisdom.  Could the brutal gut research of nine young people expectorated by the mighty Soviet hard-school, and with a (temporary?) refuge outside the equally experienced city of Dresden, carry unintentional wisdom?  In the forecourt of the Duke’s Palace, in the meeting ground of Prussia and the Pollack, of turbo-capitalism and institutionalised solidarity, of as yet not-quite-realised tourism, and with the castle swallows sweeping overhead as they have always done, the psychotheatre of an ‘Execution of Pierrot’ had haunting relevance.
What would be the prerequisites before performing such a piece as part of:
Truth and reconciliation tribunal of Rwanda
34th Marine division’s Rest and Recreation Camp by the Rivers of Babylon
Srebrenica Summer Festival 2009 ?

Link for the curious:    Derevo Theatre Society


1 Response to Reality as Reality: “The Execution of Pierrot” – Derevo Theatre Society

  1. Jimmy miller says:

    I have been watching Derevo perform on their visits to Edinburgh for years. big productions, smaller productions, it doesn’t matter the magic is always there. “everytime its always there’. they could do it in a closet or an aircraft hanger and make the most of the space. they know the secret of the Sauce. Anton is one of the most gifted humans on the planet. It’s just a fact, and the whole company are amazing……Always inspiring. Thanks to them for doing it, going through the hardships and succeeding. Viva Derevo. Love Jimmy x

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