In all forms of communication illusions must materialize and disappear, ideologues must enter and exit, but certainly the show must go on. Matti Braun’s re-imagining of acclaimed Indian film director Satyajit Ray’s unrealized screenplay The Alien was a play performed for three consecutive nights in Project Arts Centre, Dublin (initiated by The Showroom, London), melding visual art, theatre and dance disciplines into a meaningful yet humble conflation, presented in four neat tableaux.
In The Alien a childlike extraterrestrial visitor crash-lands into a lotus pond in a small Bengali village and befriends a local boy, causing relationships to become strained and traditional value systems to float to the surface. Ray’s piece came very close to being produced by Columbia Pictures, with a cast that was to include Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando, but was shelved after the release in 1982 of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., a film that Ray suggested would never have been conceived had it not been for his original idea.
Braun’s use of non-professional actors, drawn from volunteers who are all affiliated to Project Arts Centre in some way (one main character, Devlin, the play’s ‘holy driller’, is Willie White, Project’s Artistic Director), signalled a crisp break with the traditional separation between the private and public space of performance and the viewer. Obviously this is nothing new: Bertolt Brecht’s ‘epic theatre’ of the 1920s and 1930s established distancing techniques concerned with encouraging audiences to think more than just feel, by instructing actors merely to demonstrate the actions of the characters they portrayed, rather than identifying with them too closely. The cast was a charming motley bunch that delivered an engaging performance, stumbling over only a few errata, which added punctuation marks to the play’s tempo. A fit of coughing from the prompt, audible from behind the curtains, was a definite signal that the occupying powers of culture were somewhat absent.
The artist designed all visual aspects of the play, with a Daniel Burenesque striped set, asexual smock costumes and stylized white concrete representations of the lotus pond and spaceship. These last made direct reference, in finish at least, to Le Corbusier’s city of Chandigarh and were, perhaps, the least successful aspect of the play, for their presence added a level of detail that was neither necessary nor consistent with the rest of the production, being somewhat at odds with the general flatness of characterization.
Peter Brook has written that ‘there is no doubt that a theatre can be a very special place. It is like a magnifying glass, and also like a reducing lens. It is a small world, so it can easily be a pretty one. It is different from everyday life, so it can easily be divorced from life. On the other hand, while we live less and less in villages or neighbourhoods, and more and more in open-ended global communities, the theatre community stays the same: the cast of a play is still the size that it has always been.’ In scale, at least, The Alien succeeded in reifying the potential of movie action into a compound of disciplines, in gathering in its audience with some familiar elements and pushing them away with the failure of belief.