The Devil’s Spine Band @ Smock Alley Grand Hall

October 24, 2013

The story of how Oscar Wilde discovered punk rock while delivering a lecture on aesthetics in Leadville, Colorado is the best description of what sliver of a semblance to plot exists in Trevor Knight’s stunning and stunted The Devil’s Spine Band. A multi-disciplinary work it takes an improvisational combination of growling blue grass and Butoh performance and sets it in a lounge-like setting, where the audience were sat in the round and free to pop up to the bar mid performance. As a battle between music and movement emerged, the extremities of the environment, both personal and natural, emerged, bathed in Aedín Cosgrove’s harsh spotlight, conjuring up feeling over meaning. Imagine David Lynch directing a western for the theatre and you get an idea of this work, which is as fascinating as it is infuriating, but, if committed to and considered by the audience, is also deeply rewarding.

As a three piece band provides the soundscape – and often the silence, two Butoh performers, Maki Watanabe and Gyohei Zaitsu, and Cindy Cummings, a more traditional performer and vocalist, traverse the space, often using jerky, bizarre contortions of the body to represent the anarchy and beauty of the culture clash that existed in Leadville. The wealth and grandeur of the rich mine owners and their ilk compared with the anarchic bedlam of the shanty towns where the workers resided.

There is little linkage between the various tableauxs and there is far too many prolonged moments where literally nothing happened on stage as the company decide what to do next. But just as you are about to throw your hands up in disgust they hit you with something of immense power, beauty and imagination.

Knight’s acapella is followed by an unprovoked harmonious response from the audience.Gyohei Zaitsu’s homage to the lone gunman uses the uncomfortable shifts and giggles of the audience to create the bored flights of fancy of a solitary marksman. The near naked Zaitsu, feather in mouth, crawls through the space, now over run with audience members who have kick started an unsolicited hoedown, creating a sense of the hope and blind faith that typified the Wild West and fired the dipsomaniac whoring, gambling and gun slinging.

Knight has previously acknowledged Lorca’s comments on Duende as a good summation of what he was trying to do. And has indeed succeeded in doing; “it’s a mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains”. The fact that the performance changes every time it has been performed, and depends on the audience’s willingness to forgive its lapses and idiosyncrasies, makes it all the more magical as theatre. (The night I went the audience needed no prompting to get involved but during it’s initial run at the Galway Arts Festival the audience were a lot more reserved.)

A more lounge appropriate setting may have further facilitated the interactions between audience and entertainers, which were the most involving and invigorating bits of this production. But, as it was, it was a mental and visual work out, a fabulous curiosity, which adds a further string to the crowded bow of Irish artists combining the musical and dramatic mediums with fascinating results.


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