Theatre as a playdate? Yes, s’il vous plait. The World Stage 2016 opened last night with Germinal, a delightfully wacky French play (quite literally) by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, with four actors on stage, a handful of props, the English subtitles incorporated into the lighting and that’s pretty much it. But the game played was serious and fun in equal measure: among its goals were the invention of–the reasons for–language, the efficacy and the limits of communication, how expression happens (its phonation, transmission), the emergence of the written text, the basics of analytical thinking, the need for and the topsy-turvy-ness of categorization, the effect of music on words and people uttering them, the effect of images, the being-together, the making of a collective, the creation of the concepts of time and space, infinity and an ending.
All this enacted by the four individuals of whom we only know that they have curious and irreverent minds and are agnostically open to just about anything being possible. And the part about their being individuals is important: “I’m calling on behalf of a group of individuals” says Halory to the phone operator while he’s trying to order an upgraded knowledge package about mid-play, and at that point he states what’s obvious from very early on, that each will only belong to a group as autonomous individuals. They are most definitely not a tribe, not a nationality, not a race, class, gender, enterprise, church, family, or even a band (when they get to sing, they sing in harmony idiosyncratically). All those common overarching goals, we intuit, come later. The autonomous individual (the “equal access to the voicing panels”) precedes all of that – philosophically, if not exactly historically.
They are also in a state that is pre- or maybe post sexual difference and gender: three of them are male actors, one is female, but however hard you may try sleuthing for signs of gender, neither is marked by gendered behaviour (the lone woman is decidedly not the least physically goofy or least likely to take the lead, for example, or the most patient or caring one). There are no complications of love, coupling or parenting—again, we are in a sort of primeval human togetherness, and the mind roams free of those emotional constraints and loyalties.
As I’m sure you’ve inferred by now, the foundational intuitions of the project are some of the core values of the Enlightenment—the autonomous individual, equal value of all human beings, the primeval benevolence and cooperation, the ‘social contract’. Which is not to say that the play is a blind paean to the rational mind: far from it. The gang plays up before our eyes much of the arbitrariness the thought processes. Logic itself is stripped bare, its fragile core exposed to light. The working of the philosophical dualism is established early enough—stuff that does “toc toc” when a tapped against (various solid objects and persons) are put into one category, and stuff that doesn’t (ideas, emotions, the joy-of-being-together), but complications ensue as soon as Ondine tries the toc toc test on the curtain. The curtain does “frr frr”, and an argument breaks out if that is to be classified as a type of “toc toc” or a whole different thing? Persons, too, do “toc toc OUCH”, does that mean they a subcategory of “toc toc” or what? The lines get drawn and redrawn and the initial almost Cartesian dualism that they started with falls apart. There is not an iota of didacticism in the entire play, however: all this is delivered through a wide-eyed silliness, free rambling physicality and a kind of Socratic ignorance.
So while resting firmly on the ideals of the Lumières, Germinal is not a simplistic praise of the human capacity for knowledge or cooperation. It shows the value and the fragility of both. It rather says: yes, we haven’t got a clue if what our minds do is knowledge and if the humanity can ever be a community (a word that, luckily, and this being a French play, unsurprisingly, is not uttered once). So all the more reason to keep on trying both.
The actors of Germinal are: Arnaud Boulogne, Ondine Cloez, Denis Robert, Halory Goerger and Mathilde Maillard (recorded voice). Germinal returns January 21 (with an after-show Q&A), 22 and 23 at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre. Practicalities
Both photos are by Bea Borgers