After three years away from theatre, Nicholas Coghlan and Ming-Zhu Hii return with a veritable art-monolith on death and the vanity of human pursuits. And whatever else you make of this show, you can't but admire the consistency and seriousness of its aesthetic argument.
In the program, Hii, director and co-creator, admits that "We aren't certain that it's theatre." Well, I'm not certain that it's theatre either. In fact I'm fairly certain it isn't.
In a world teeming with post-dramatic hybrids, yes, it can difficult to know what nails theatre qua theatre, but a sense of shared theatrical space – the bare notion of a stage – would still seem to be essential. Here, however, there is no – or almost no – sense of stage. Until Then, Then is a polysensuous experience – visual, aural and conceptual – but it is not spatial. In that, it seems to share more with experimental film, installation art and the burgeoning field of animated projections.
Perhaps there is a sort of residual theatrical element, where Coghlan, credited as performer and co-creator sits at a desk between the two large projection screens that overwhelm the La Mama stage, with laptop, mixing board and paper crown, apparently in character, partly in shadow, conducting the audiovisual symphony. But this is ambiguous at best, and most of what happens in this production happens between the audience and the screens.
On one screen are projected fragments from classic theatre texts – Peer Gynt, Woyzeck, Krapps' Last Tape – texts which decay before our eyes, punched full of holes. On the other screen are projected reproduction paintings by various post-Renaissance masters, mostly baroque and rococo, which in their turn are torn apart, manipulated and merged in a collage-like visual fugue designed with Matthew Angel. Russell Goldsmith provides a typically ominous sound design that includes snippets from the same classic plays. Technically, it is a slickly made package, bound up with surprising purposefulness.
It's symphonic in structure, poetic in character and obsessive in its argument. "Pull down thy vanity" it seems to announce as Caravaggio's self-regarding Narcissis disappears into himself, or a baroque memento mori is sliced to pieces. The conjunctions between the images and the text and the manipulations are at times striking, but always very heavy, loaded with a sense of moral gravity and perhaps a faint whiff of condescension.
This is not to suggest that condescension is fundamental to the project. For the most part Until Then, Then is earnest and serious: in the modesty of its parts it is engaging, and in its manifesto-like ambition and thematic coherence it is exciting. But even those with a taste for stern modernism will feel a twinge of disaffection.
Obscurity and difficulty and seriousness ought to be relished in the theatre, and in art generally, but even in the most opaque or convinced work the audience must be given at least the offer – the hope – of initiation. This, one imagines, is meant to be the function of the otherwise superficial figure at the desk, Coghlan, described in the program as "the fool, the player king – or nobody at all". And yet he seems almost to be sneering at our cross-eyed helplessness, not sharing in it.
Enthroned behind his equipment, barely smiling, almost smirking, pulling the strings, pressing the buttons, gloating over the deadliness and deathliness of art, he seems an almost hostile presence, and certainly nobody's fool.
This feeling is perhaps strongest in the show's final moment, where the king turns a camera on the audience, leaving us looking at a picture of ourselves while he moves on, out of the theatre. This image – the audience – us – contrasted with so much death and decay, implies that the audience's yearning to see itself on stage, reflected in the art, is the ultimate – the last – vanity of human wishes. There may be much truth in this, but the gesture is made in such a facile way, coming after so much seriousness, that it feels like an accusation, and we finish the show feeling defensive, rather than uplifted or energised by the show's formal daring.