The Natural Conservatorium for Wise Women – Absurdism after the female. (Theatre Review)

The Natural Conservatorium for Wise Women

Clockfire Theatre Company

3-21 October Old 505 Theatre

You can grab tickets here. 

Illustrations: Sunita Lewis

In her beautiful program notes to The Natural Conservatorium for Wise Women, director Emily Ayoub describes, breaks down and intentionally demystifies the processional logic behind the Clockfire Theatre Companies alluring efforts in creating The Natural Conservatorium for Wise Women. This insistence on collaboration is more than an (anti)humble-brag acknowledge of the cleverness of the collective, for it accedes and discusses sources and process, calling forth the realization that text is communication rather than authority. To steal J.P. Sartres understanding of Venus de Milo as more than the sum of its collective parts because of meaning we prescribe, The Play becomes, via the diffusion of creators, “A real and permeant center of unrealisation.”[1] The Play then has an individuated being (just as the statue is no longer a rock in a mountain side) simply because it has been given the function of representing a certain non-being, however conversely, as soon as The Play is recognized as something determined by the social imaginary, the whole event-as-object is instituted in its being. It is society therefore that grants The Play its ontological truth in as much as the being of this event is regarded as a permanent incentive to derealization by unrealisng this collective of creators actions into a text that forms the play. Unrealisation is essential, but for it to take place, realization must exist first. In this case the imaginary process of the creatives is anything but ephemeral, amorphous or devoid of structure, as it has called on appropriation to become text. Yet still, within its DNA it possesses the strength, intransigence and the expanse of the collective creative process. Therefore, the expansion of the collective exists for the purpose of derealising itself publicly by derealising its audience. The Play couldn’t make its point without inhabiting that which it seeks to refute. It therefore is, as Sartre would describe the maximum of being.

Perhaps it is for this reason that we feel such a moment of profundity within our witness of The Natural Conservatorium for Wise Women? Is not the state of the statue similar to that of the actor? But the actor is not just a lump of inorganic matter which has absorbed human work, but a living and thinking being (in this circumstance part of the creator of the acting role itself) whose immersion in unreality becomes a capricious blend of creation, rehearsal and circular invention for as long as the show will run. However, the actor still resembles the statue in that she is a permanent centre, real and recognized of unrealisation (permanence here being a perpetual start rather than the dormant endurance of the statue). The Cleverness of Clockfire Theatre here is to inhabit its points of binary opposites (woman/man; peace/war; wisdom/social norms; conservation/nationalism; collective/authority; Nature/military machine) in order to expose them as absurd. This, however avoids the traditional tropes of The Clown, which sets itself up as an outsider to be laughed at with recognition but not reflection. Here the absurdism is used against Camus in that it is an inevitability that can’t be countered whose revelation inspires consciousness. Instead we are offered the distinctly Sartreian position of existence preceding essence. Essence, previously imposed upon the body of body of woman is ‘becoming’ in her control. Even as The Actor, The Play and The Statue is formed as much by that which we impose upon it, so it has been for women. Clockfire choose to include this position (indeed they have no choice, as we bring it with us into the theatre, just as the actor brought it to the creative process before they created) in order to refuse it.

When the wise woman of the Conservatorium move into their voice, they march to the sound of the typewriter, that takes on the tropes of a nationalist anthem we hear to represent the machismo and potency of war. Just as the patriarchy gains its virility from the death of a woman by impregnating her (for what has the power to eliminate female sovereignty like devoting her life to a child?) so it gains from death in war. As the women of Liberia are chanting to their men in the streets of Monrovia today, “When the elephant and baboon fight, only the ground can suffer.” The use of the typewriter by Sam Newing-Stern to call forth the march of Catherine Parle and Laura Turner resonates with the work of Ryu Hankil, particularly his recorded work of Beckets Typist of the text by lo wie. This work forges a direct pathway between Beckett, absurdism and the authority of the text interrupted for the purposes of the wise women of the play. Even as The Natural Conservatorium for Wise Women evokes the familiar authoritarian discourse it refutes, it equally offers us a path of resistance. Inside this beauty is the inherent nature of rebellion and the true spirit of woman as the outsider force that embodies the constant challenge to patriarchal insistence. Just as the domination of the patriarchy implies there is a dangerous force to be dominated, resistance implies there is a dangerous force to be unleashed. We do not know what a matriarchal world will look like; but we will soon find out.

This marvelous, truly uplifting thrilling play employs the complex and joyful tropes of Lecoq and absurdist theatre. It is an astonishing accomplishment, modestly opening itself up on the 505 stage (what a great year The Old 505 are having) with a truly rebellious spirit at its core. This is a superb production nestled in a year not short on great productions, yet emerging as easily one of the years very best. Don’t miss this. You will be thinking about it for a long time.


[1] Sartre on Theatre, Jean Paul Sartre The Actor, Quartet Books Limited 1976, English Translation Copyright 1976 by Random House