DESIRE CAUGHT BY THE TAIL (Le Désir attrapé par la queue)

Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington

04/04/2017 - 08/04/2017

Production Details

Desire Caught by the Tail by Pablo Picasso (Yes; THAT Pablo Picasso!) was written in 1941, four years after he completed Guerinca – one of his most famous paintings. Paris had recently been occupied by German forces and the population were beset by despair, fear and starvation. In this bleak and desperate time Picasso took up pen and paper and wrote the play in three days.

Long Cloud has taken this rarely performed play (often dismissed as impossible to stage, meaningless and incomprehensible) and created a theatrical experience that is chaotic, beautiful, humorous and prophetic. The ensemble has discovered in Picasso’s text a cautionary tale about power, distrust, ambition, and of course, desire.

The oddly named characters (Big Foot, Tartine, Onion, Round Piece, Big Anxiety, Small Anxiety, Silence, Curtains, and the Cousin) use a painterly language that bounces between achingly beautiful poetry, banal everyday conversation and mind bending word diarrhea.

Taking their personal feelings about their place in the world and their hopes for the future as their starting point the fourteen members (aged from fifteen to twenty two) of the Long Cloud ensemble have created a wild and bracing piece of theatre that ultimately offers us all hope in dark and overwhelming times.

“Throw flights of doves, with all our strength, against the bullets, and lock securely the houses demolished by bombs.”

Desire Caught by the Tail
Tuesday 4th – Saturday 8th April 2017
7:30pm (60 minutes duration) 
Whitireia Performing Arts Centre 
25 Vivian St, Wellington

Big Foot:  Michael McAdam
Onion:  Grace Haselden
Round Piece:  Liam Whitney
Tartine:  Rosie Glover
Silence:  Timon Zeiss
Small Anxiety:  Zora Patrick 
Big Anxiety:  Luka Lokmer
The Cousin:  Charlie Tilley
The Curtains:  Lara Rose Strong
Chorus:  Isadora Lao, Mark Whittet, Gypsy Mae Harihone Harrison, Jacinta Compton, Ben Ashby 

Designed by the cast
Video Art by Campbell Henderson
Production Management by Jason Longstaff 

Youth , Theatre ,

A creative challenge for the participants

Review by John Smythe 05th Apr 2017

Legend has it that when the Gestapo searched Pablo Picasso’s Paris apartment during the German occupation of France (1940-44), an officer spotted a photograph of the Spanish artist’s powerfully moving painting Guernica (lightyears away, stylistically, from the Nazi ideal of art). “Did you do that?” the officer asked. “No,” said Picasso. “You did.”

Guernica was Picasso’s response to the bombing of the Basque Country village in Northern Spain by the Nazi German Luftwaffe of Nazi Germany and the Aviazione Legionaria of Nazi Italy, in April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was being used as a communications centre behind the front line. Civilians were deliberately targeted and hundreds, if not thousands, died (figures remain disputed). Picasso’s huge mural, in black, white and grey tones, was completed in time to be exhibited as part of the Spanish display in the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life at the World’s Fair in Paris, that same year.

Three years later Hitler’s troops began their five year occupation of France and, in three feverish days in 1941, Picasso’s response to the resulting despair, fear and starvation was to write his first play: the surrealist Desire Caught by the Tail. It was given its first reading in March 1944 directed by Albert Camus with a cast that included Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Valentine Hugo and Picasso himself.

While it is generally regarded as incomprehensible and unperformable, it’s worth noting that by this time Dadaism, Absurdism and Surrealism had long been entrenched in Parisian alternative theatre, courtesy Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, Tristan Tzara, Albert Camus et al.

When the Guggenheim in New York produced a reading of Desire Caught by the Tail in 2012 – along with Picasso’s only other play, The Four Little Girls (1947) – they described it as “a reflection of a day-to-day life in Paris during the second world war”. The Guardian’s Matt Trueman described it as a “surrealist, non-linear farce that reportedly out-Becketts Samuel Beckett.”

But Bernard Frechtman, who translated the work from the original French, writes in his Foreword, “It says nothing of human destiny or of the human condition. In an age which has discovered man with a capital M, it is gratifying to advise the reader that Picasso has nothing to say of man, nor of the universe. This in itself is a considerable achievement.” Which tempts one to ask, why bother?

LUXE, a company dedicated to experimenting with theatrical form and language, premiered it in London last year and described the play as “bawdy and burlesque … a play of misery, discomfort, anguish, hunger and passion that is caught in the impossibility of its fulfilment. It is outrageous and funny, with a lyrical spoken language which incorporates high poetics and absurdist juxtapositions.” So maybe there is something to it after all.

“Please don’t look for a logical narrative, character development or any of the other hallmarks of the well-made play,” the programme note to this Long Cloud production exhorts us. “Instead we invite you to surrender to the sumptuousness of the imagery and poetry of the ten distinct vignettes.”

Fair enough … Except given the extraordinary eloquence of Picasso’s response to the bombing of Guernica, it’s hard not to hope his response to the occupation of Paris, albeit expressed in a very different medium, will wrench the gut in a similar way.

For me, however, as performed by Long Cloud (previously known as Long Cloud Youth Theatre), it doesn’t. In contrast to the “misery, discomfort, anguish, hunger and passion” identified by LUXE, Long Cloud’s months of devising have been “around themes of power, fame, ambition, despair and, of course, desire.” Crucial elements seem to be absent, at a gut level anyway.

That said, the stage is festooned with performance and there is talent aplenty on display, both on stage and in the imagery projected on the huge screen at the rear (Video Art by Campbell Henderson). I could add the music and soundscape are impressive too but too often they drown the spoken word, leaving us in no position to respond to its poetry, absurdism, surrealism or whatever it may wish to convey or provoke.

We are greeted by an upbeat cast, dancing to a lip-synced rendition of ‘Fame’ (not high on the agenda in occupied Paris, I’d have thought, but this is a Millennial take on ‘desire’ – and it must be conceded Picasso and others were certainly well-known artists, even if being famous was not their primary driver). On closer inspection, distinctions become apparent: a transgender woman and child huddled in a corner; a black-clad roamer; a man who is reluctant to dance …

The latter turns out to be Big Foot (Michael McAdam), who is groomed for power and glory by Tartine (Rosie Glover). His rise and fall, her adulation and that of the masses, climaxing then evaporating, does, inevitably, give the play a structural through-line off which other more random actions hang. I see his power as political (Trump does flash by amid the images) but later something suggests he’s an artist so I can’t help wondering if Picasso was critiquing his sexually delinquent self in Big Foot. Or is there misogyny in his depiction of the love-addicted Tartine? Or is her puritanically censorious Cousin (Charlie Tilley) the main focus of his savage satire? The enquiring mind cannot help but be engaged.

Other named characters – make of the names what you will – are Onion (Grace Haselden), Curtains (Lara Rose Strong), Round Piece (Liam Whitney), Big Anxiety (Luka Lokmer), Little Anxiety (Zora Patrick) and Silence (Timon Zeiss). Those designated Chorus are Ben Ashby, Gypsy Mae Harihona Harrison, Isadora Lao, Jacinta Compton and Mark Whittet.

Whether they are panicked masses, complaining about their chilblains or euphoric about ‘winning’, their ensemble work is strong and there is little doubt they share clear purposes in all they do. This encourages us to have faith in the merits of their actions, whether or not we ascribe meaning to them (which, being human, we are invariably compelled to do).

Doubtless tackling this text has been a creative challenge and probably a rewarding one for Long Cloud members. As for their audiences – each member will come to their own conclusions. Personally I think Picasso was right to stick to his day job. 


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