Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo – Theatre in layers over time. (Theatre Review)

Bengal Tiger At the Baghdad Zoo

Mad March Hare Theatre Company and Red Line Productions

The Old Fitz Theatre 2 April to 6 May You can grab your tickets here.

Image credits: Kate Williams

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo occurs in various shades of night, for the war in which this play is set exists in the age of Capital; created for financial reasons and occurring in the gap of an absent socialism (or Marxism). Events of the play vibrate through a seemingly endless night in which daylight becomes unthinkable and life labours under an inexpressible trace of a figure of morning.  Written in 2003 Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo represents a time when politics as an expression of multiple genres was fulfilling its role as a ‘nothing’ but more in the sense that it was no longer something. Through the triumvirate of George W Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, we saw what Jean-Francois Lyotard called “the haggard desperation in it.” (Libidinal Economy) “What the new generation is bringing to completion is the scepticism of Kapital, its nihilism. There are no things, there are no people, there are no frontiers, there is no knowledge, there are no beliefs, there are no reasons to live/die.”

Claudia Barrie exemplifies this state in her glorious rendition of Rajiv Joseph’s iconic play. Where Joseph struggles for coherence (his tawdry links between zoos, instinct, Nietzsche and god smack of biological determinist pandering) Barrie enlivens his commentary with sublime casting, meditative set design and a poetically silent Greek chorus like observation that sit upon a troubled humanity as it struggles to come to terms with this dark night without demeaning itself. Fourteen years after the fact, and in a political climate even worse than what we knew back then, Barrie transforms Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo into a question about Capital. How do we resist capitalism today without Marxism that is to say, an historical subject upon which to hang our hat? Where is the place for fidelity to the Now when politics is like a name that has been deserted?  Barrie asks, what of our drift, in this dark night of the soul? As topiary animals (statues carved out of nature by man’s will) are transformed into a moving animus by virtue of Barrie’s direction, Isabel Hudson’s landscape as mask and the nightmarish glow of Ben Brockman’s lights from facial borders, the animals merge with humans to become a previously incomprehensible unity against whatever lurks in the night. Lyotard called It Kapital, as the nocturnal name of the being that is. Rajiv Joseph despaired at the loss of dignified humanity by seeking to account for it and its loss through (like so many weak minds before him) “instinct,” which is motivated by the primacy of transformative action.  Claudia Barrie changes this into a politics that is not in the realm of power, but one that is in the realm of thought.  Her politics does not seek transformation, rather the creation of possibilities. Ideas that could not previously be constructed. This new politics is not distilled from situations; it prescribes them.

Therefore the audience feels the desperate sadness alive in the play, but equally the endless expanse around the single gesture. It is this expanse that leaves us nervous, unsure. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo now contains the central problem of modernism. What relationship can we have with a lack, an absence? As Alain Badiou would say “The problem that now arises from the profound decomposition of activities and ideals is, precisely understanding how the revolutionary project can be expressed and organised and how it can fight.” (Pocket Pantheon) The contention of this production becomes this; Any current notion of “The Left” lacks perspective and is miniscule in relation to the real dimensions of the crises. In Nate Edmonson’s glorious (de)composition, we have the clarion call for revolutionaries to measure up to the revolution to be made.

Herein lies one of the great beauties of this production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Rajiv Joseph’s text, lost for answers and obliterating itself by engaging with Capital inside its essence becomes inevitably recuperated by the forces it seeks to expose. However, under Claudia Barrie’s watchful direction, the play is rescued from being a scream reduced to the written. We are no longer permitted to state we know what the masses desire. No doubt Rajiv Joseph would like to lay some claim to this by stating that a synthesis of a series is also part of the series, but his work was not (I contend) written to be viewed this way, and it is Claudia Barrie’s team who have brought it to the fore – albeit with 20/20 hindsight.

For theatre as it should be, as a living breathing thing grounded in the ephemeral (!)  you will struggle to find a better example of an Immediate Now than Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. This production has built on the writing and the transformative time since its inception to become a new and perceptible thing.  From the superb performance of Maggie Dence as our Blakeian Tiger whose presence alone rescues a script labouring under an out-dated masculinity through to Isabel Hudson’s set that evokes the post-apocalyptic scenes from The Terminator, this production reveals why theatre has always been opposed as dangerous and why it so regularly finds itself violently attacked by the status quo. A sublime example of evocative collaboration, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo finds its place among the provocative, transgressive and universal.

Highly Recommended.

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