The Open Theatre's Nightwalk in London in 1963. Image courtesy of Donald Cooper/Photostage/Kent University
To the Young Vic to see reading-group regular the wonderful Anthony Ofoegbu in Conundrum, the new Crying in the Wilderness show much delayed by covid shutdowns. I'd seen a shortened earlier version of it live-streamed without an audience as part of the Hackney Festival in (I think) the middle of last year, so I had a rough idea what to expect. But impressive though that was, it hadn't prepared me for the electrifying impact of this extraordinary piece experienced live in the Young Vic's Maria space and with a fairly substantive audience. This was presence in its richest, intensest and most lyrical form; presence transmuted into grace; earnest and elegant. Ofoegbu's performance had a full-on, grounded, gestural power, its emotional terrain beautifully, intricately and precisely parsed; expansive without being showy; extravagant but intensely humble in its commitment to the raw emotional truth. Dancing on the edge of a volcano. And executed with an air of fluent, jazz-jamming, improvisatory playfulness. So refreshing to see a performance commit to the weight and heft of human experience, and to do it with such craft and amplitude. It was almost a dance show at some points, a kind of lyrical, magical Pina Bausch experience. Or Chaikin-esque, even. Theatre in the UK now seems often to have lost its full-on engagement with raw human experience, any sense of import and significance 'in the moment' that could shade it out of naturalism and towards a necessary ritual, even into the heroic perhaps, without irony or cynicism on the one hand or portentousness on the other. Van Hove's View from the Bridge surely had it, teetering on the edge of bathos with its use of the Faure Requiem but somehow holding the line, drawing us into a vortex of seriousness, significance: beauty fathomed from chaos, elegant order plucked from the urgency of raw abject feeling.
The play itself seemed expanded and yet somehow more elemental, more terse, than I remembered from the earlier live-streamed version. It must surely be the most rawly and purely expressionistic piece of theatre London has seen in a long time. It could almost be channeling something by Georg Kaisar from Berlin in the '20s, performed by a reincarnated Emil Jannings.... Ofoegbu's performance has some of the glory, intensity and scale of gesture that proper expressionist acting must have had before it succumbed to hammy un-rooted exaggeration and the aspic-afterlife of silent film and pop-culture cliché. A man - (appropriately, poignantly) 'Fidel' - confined to a square of memory, exhorting the audience to understand, to sympathise, to recognise.....to attend. Like an emotionally desperate version of Beckett's Krapp; an Artaud figure desperately throwing biographical ballast out of a rapidly descending (and perhaps alight) airship, or perhaps more accurately a Dostoyevsky character reporting from deep underground, he leafs through touchstone relics of a childhood of seeming promise and an early adulthood of thwarted ambition. All of which triggers for him the memory/enactment of subsequent experiences of anti-psychotic medication and incarceration. As a child, encouraged by his mother, he had memorised and could recite the scientific names and intricate functionings of the organs of the body, but the jobs he subsequently applied for (and for which he was apparently 'over-qualified') were for lowly medical admin positions. He was apparently repeatedly told not to get 'above himself'. However his instructors' lack of belief in him was not shared by his mother. Now in his 40s, in a kind of performance space limbo, he tries to establish who he is and to substantiate and fortify a core identity by mobilising his old childhood tricks of reciting biological nomenclature. In a way it's like a superannuated child-performer essaying the faded glory of an old showbiz routine. Writing, inscribing, seems also to be his way of holding on to something, as he scribbles the mentally-retrieved outcomes of his anatomical knowledge onto the already heavily-inscribed floor.
None of what he evokes is in anyway substantiated or fleshed out with 'situational' detail, but that surely is not the - rawly expressionist - point. The performance is a heart-rending evocation of pure subjective experience, pure interior struggle and emotional response - a cry in the wilderness. And the cry is a physical, danced, spoken poem and incantation, a desperate last-chance rain-dance for success, fulfilment and acknowledgment .
This is not a wholly solo show. The spare, hugely effective and deeply disturbing intervention of a drug-dispensing psychiatric nurse to an utterly abject, foetal-crouched Fidel offers something of a context and frame, but is still experienced by the audience from and through the margins of consciousness and memory of Fidel himself. A touch of late Sara Kane, here, 4.48 Psychosis. What situational context there is, or at least can be inferred - or is likely to be projected - by the audience (and the whiteness of the nurse, amongst other things, is clearly significant here), is that there is a racist dimension to all this (the performance's debt to - or inspiration from - Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is referenced repeatedly in the text) But beyond even this, this is the cry of the abject, rendered beautiful. Attention must be paid. Like all good expressionist theatre, there is something universal, archetypal about it. It speaks to the unheard, abandoned child in all of us, surely
Later on, as Fidel struggles to define himself, to cling to the objects and personal affordances that might fortify his sense of self, he seems to experience an epiphany: 'I know who I am' he cries. But does he? And what in any case might that mean, for him and indeed for all of us? Fidel may simply be in the grip of psychosis, but then in our desire to know in simple terms 'who we are' maybe we all are. Maybe contemporary culture and its obsession with individual identity, rather than the subtle, supple and silent bonds of connectedness, has driven us all mad. At the end of he piece Fidel shuffles out, endlessly repeating the "I know who I am' line as if it were a broken, last-remaining talisman, a set of secular rosary beads, a failing open-sesame.
Some of the reviews have praised Ofoegbu's performance while expressing reservations about the play's lack of situational detail. But its impact surely does not come from any intention to directly and clinically diagnose and indict injustice via a Brechtian showing of the social mechanisms of oppression, but surely comes rather though a physical and verbal 'singing' of the emotional experience and impact of the perception (accurate or inaccurate) of oppression. And even here - in relation to what we the audience can construe of the hard forensic situational details of Fidel's story - Conundrum (the clue perhaps being in the title...) is surely a much more complex and nuanced piece than some reviews have allowed. Its expressionist approach and our consequent slightly myopic submergence in his emotional world surely allows at least the possibility that Fidel is the classic unreliable narrator, or at least the partially informed one. Are we to fully empathise with Fidel or to at least partly also recognise the possibility at least of an unbalancedness; to observe his incipient psychosis, his appalling psychological distress, his apparently partial conception of intelligence and success, and so be drawn to question his diagnosis of the reasons he has been thwarted in life? That is not to say there is no social and political indictment being offered here, but to suggest that it is a more complex and nuanced one, and one that helps to sharpen and enrich audiences' responses. We are surely being challenged not simply preached to or asked to uncritically agree with the emotive perspective offered.
As a child, encouraged by his mother, Fidel seems to have come to equate intelligence with rote-learning, and for that to be dependent on continual reinforcement by his mother. In which case perhaps the real social inditement offered is that no teacher, no mentor, no cultural context was available to Fidel as a child to introduce him to the real, nuances, ratiocinative, probing nature of intelligence, or of the many forms in which 'intelligence' comes, and in relation to which rote-learning is at best a handy trick and at worst a trap.
Is this response intended by the makers of Conundrum? Surely such a reading is at least legitimate. As he finally walks off mumbling about 'knowing who he is' there are shades also of Koltes's 'I am Roberto Zucco', and even more of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man: Fidel is a revealing and informative product - rather than an accurate chronicler - of wider social and structural ills. Dramatic irony is surely at play here
The result (especially in relation to a performance of the quality offered here by Ofoegbu, and a script and direction as boldly elemental as Paul Anthony Morris's) is that we acknowledge Fidel's feeling of oppression while being challenged and intrigued to probe further into its cause. Regarding this we both conditionally infer whatever we can glean from the action, but also we are challenged to induct evidence from our own relevant experience and wider observation This is surely the best of many worlds, and an element of grown up theatre. Maybe it will take audiences time to 'get' this kind of earnest, rich, intense work (the audience tonight seemed at times a little non-plussed) but hopefully they will have many more changes to savour its quality