Thursday, December 20, 2007

Me and Willem Dafoe

Back in the day (that'll be 1986 then) I went to see a theatrical production by the Wooster Group from New York. At the time I had no idea they were one of the coolest theatre troupes on the planet.

The Wooster Group specialise in experimentation. The work I saw at Chapter Arts, Cardiff, entitled The Road to Immortality (Part Two)* certainly fitted into the 'weird' category. Linear plotting was jettisoned in favour of a collage of theatrical set-pieces, video sequences and live music.

As I recall the work linked the witchcraft hysteria of the 1660s with the drug counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s in America. Essentially they took the trial scene of Arthur Miller's Salem-set play The Crucible and intercut it with texts from the likes of Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley and Jack Kerouac.

What I recall most were the sudden shifts in tempo of the production. Scenes were manically speeded up, slowed right down again, and incongruous disassociating events introduced. Some actors wore period clothes others modern dress. The performance was meant to reflect, I think, an LSD drug trip although at times it seemed more like an amphetamine rush.

At one point in the drama they invited members of the audience to shout out names of counterculture writers. I must have been trying to impress the girl I was with because I yelled out "William Burroughs!". One of the actors immediately turned to me and began reading/reciting a chunk of Burroughs prose.

It was all rather extraordinary. Despite its kaleidoscopic structure the piece had a strange intensity and an innate theatricality that I've seldom seen bettered since - certainly not on the stage anyway.

After the show in the bar at Chapter Arts I spotted the unknown actor who had delivered the Burroughs speech to me. He was drinking alone. I wanted to go and have a quick chat with him about the play but the girl I was with was jabbering on about something or other. And then he was gone. The next time I saw him was on the big screen - it was Willem Dafoe.

The real stand-out performer in the production though was a guy called Ron Vawter. He went on to become a brilliant character actor turning up in flicks like Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs, and Sex, Lies and Videotape. Many's the time I've elbowed a companion in the ribs when he's been on the box and declared: "I've seen that bloke in Canton".

*Although the play was performed in Cardiff under the title The Road to Immortality (Part Two) it is more usually known as LSD (Just the High Points).