In Gaspar Noé’s violent but brilliant film Irreversible (2002), there is a scene where the protagonists enter a gay S&M nightclub called The Rectum. As they descend through the club’s labyrinthine levels, like passing through the circles of hell, they are accompanied by a disturbing bass sound, distorted and revving, with the menace of a chainsaw. Like the violence that is to come, this sound seems to cut through your consciousness.
This is the kind of sound (generated by members of noisecore group Cementimental) that accompanies Afternoon of the Minotaur, which also takes us on a hellish, labyrinthine journey, but this time into the depths of a tortured, trapped consciousness.
On stage, a woman appears in a dressing gown, but with the huge head of a bull weighing on her shoulders. It dominates her form, seems to possess her, to erase her personality. Her movements are jerky, inorganic, dysfunctional, as if she can no longer control her body. Either she is catatonic, or some external force is trying to take her over.
At the same time, there is something terribly isolated about her predicament. Abstract, digital images are projected on the screen behind her, as if her senses have raised a barrier between her and the world, and this is all she can see and hear as she stumbles about, cut off from the warmth of subjectivity.
So far, so much chaos and alienation. But gradually I began to pick up on allusions to domesticity and everyday routine. The figure got hold of a broom, interior architectural spaces could be made out on the screen, and there was that dressing gown too. At one point she started ripping up a roll of till receipt (though it could have been bog roll).
I was reminded of Walter Benjamin talking about the experience of shock and how it pervades all aspects of modern life, from the factory floor to the pedestrian on a city street assaulted by a barrage of stimuli. The daily tasks and machines of domestic (and clerical) work seemed to have taken over the motor functions of this woman and trapped her in an endless repetition of their restricted motions, closing off access to all other movements.
In the second part of the performance, the figure began fingering her dressing gown, and I half-expected a sudden transformation into a burlesque striptease. However, what she stripped down to was an evening dress. Domesticity had been exchanged for a more social, maybe even privileged, role. But it soon became clear this was just another role, another set of tasks. The movements remained as spasmodic as ever, and several times she held her arm out, as if needing support from someone else. Passive and dependent, more object of adornment than social subject.
Finally, the long-awaited moment of liberation and release came, as the figure picked up an electric bass and began to play herself the music that had dominated her. This was enjoyable, but less convincing, I felt—a kind of rock’n’roll ending, where all we need do is recognise the conditions of oppression and the chains will melt away.
Afternoon of the Minotaur was, however, a compelling and driven performance, with a touch of brilliance in the way it managed to situate an abstract portrayal of alienation and dysfunction in the very concrete context of female subjugation, domestic labour, and adornment.
‘Afternoon of the Minotaur’ performed by Madalena, Luxury Goods IV: The Role of Art festival, 30 April 2010 The Courtyard Theatre