texts and interviews > 04.2002 the show must go on - tim etchells

1. Voids

Tonight (West Side Story) - the stage and auditorium in total darkness for the duration of the song.
Let the Sun Shine In (Hair) - a fade-up of the lights on the empty stage. The fade-up takes the duration of the song.

2. The rule

French choreographer Jerome Bel is more or less legend for the simple structures employed for his work in which the events of an entire performance can often be governed by the patient observance and manipulation of a single rule.

Ostensibly confining and predictable, the rule in fact creates a new richness of dramaturgical possibility in which the watcher, attuned to the game, its language and limits, becomes sensitised to the smallest variations. Attention correctly focused within a set of crushed parameters, the watcher finds meaning and pleasure in events or changes that might, in a more laissez-faire stagecraft, be too small, stupid or too simple to be recognised.

In The show must go on the basic building block of the structure is pop songs; a sequence of 18, which provide the musical score, are cued and played by the sound operator (Gilles Gentner) who is seated downstage at a small table, his back to the audience. The gap of silence between the tracks appears to be governed simply by the length of time it takes Gentner to change cds, select a track and hit play. There’s a diffident functionality to this process – which establishes something of a convention for The show… - declaring as it does that things here will take their own time. Indeed, the gradual shift in the height of the two stacks of CDs – transferred over time from unplayed on the left to played on the right – might be seen as the crude and faintly recalcitrant onstage clock of the performance.

3. Just

A friend asks her students to write reports on performances they have seen. The only word they are not allowed to use is ‘just’.

No more: He just moves chairs around. No more: They just talk about food. No more: They just stand there.

And instead: He moves chairs around.
They talk about food.
They stand there

4. Let’s dance

For each of the songs played back-to-back in The show… Bel has made a punning and deceptively simple choreography in which a blunt and singular illustration of the lyric is preferred to any supposed nuance of creative spin or depth.

The prolonged empty stage, shifting from darkness to blistering light at the start of The show during Tonight and Let The Sun Shine In, ensures that the cast, like a stadium rock act, are eagerly anticipated for their actual entrance which does not come until some way through song number three - The Beatles’ Come Together. As its title-line is sung for the first time the cast of twenty do exactly as it suggests - entering form the wings and coming to rest in a broad semi-circle facing the audience. They remain in their places for the duration of the rest of the song, apparently unaware of any expectation that they might actually do something.

For the fourth song - David Bowie’s Let’s Dance - the verses see the performers continue waiting in the semi-circle, whilst for the chorus the exhortation of the lyric – ‘Let’s Dance’ - is taken as a literal instruction and obeyed without hesitation. Each performer, careful to keep his or her own place on the stage, begins to dance with an instant absurd commitment. When the chorus ends and the order disappears it is as if a switch has been thrown back and the dancing stops abruptly.

The song says come together and they come together. The song says dance and they dance. As choreographic interpretation goes, this (along with most of The show... ) is simplicity and literal mindedness carried to the level of comical redundancy. Indeed, Bel's choice of tracks, playing order and choreography seem almost entirely constructed in relation to the lyrics of the songs. Except on rare occasions the performers do what the song says. The dancing, you could say, simply doubles what is already there.

5. The dramaturgy of lists

In Bel’s work one thing does not lead to another; instead, one thing follows another. In this sense one could argue that each of his shows is a list.

A list, be it of songs, ideas, actions, names, countries, or gestures of neccessity perhaps, invites one to imagine the set of criteria, mindset or agenda which has been used in its construction. Each new sequential addition to the list (which, in performance, occurs as part of a temporal process) either adjusts or confirms the watchers’ developing guess about the world of the list. Manipulating or transforming this guess is a key element in the dramaturgy (or game) of lists.

Items in a list are temporarily rendered equivalent. The list itemizes, catalogues and, essentially stores data. Items in a simple list are presented ‘value free’, without comment or opinion. Unlike the other staple of modern composition - the collage - the act of listing does not layer, merge, overlay, re-mix or blur together its contents. Lists, with a seriality that implies but never fully delivers narrative, nonetheless let each of their items stand alone, insisting that the thing is the thing. Lists are blank or ‘spacious’ since the job of guessing the constituency of listed items and of unpacking their individual meaning is left to the viewer. Time available for this latter job is especially open to manipulation in live performance because here the list-maker controls the speed at which new items appear and, consequently, the time avaliable for their consideration. Bel’s list of songs leaves us time aplenty in the company of those that he has selected, each of which is played from start to finish.

6. A chorus line

Bel’s cast of twenty, arranged so often in the simple compositional devices of semi-circle or line, is perhaps simply a list of people - presented value free, without judgment or comment, for our inspection.

I saw Roy Faudre (Wooster Group) talk during the LIFT festival in London.
He said a beautiful thing: “The live actor is the one who says, "Look I am a person in front of you. You can look at me from the top of my head to the tips of my feet".”

Trained as a choreographer, Bel seems to have invented something that might better be described as conceptual time-based sculpture. Put more simply, he understands that theatre is a frame (game) constructed so that people can look at other people. He is good at constructing frames like these; deceptively transparent unfolding vantage points on the faces, bodies and movements of human beings. In The show must go on I find myself looking at the people, my eyes scanning left to right and back again at whim. The way that one moves her wrist, the way that one dips his eyes. The way that one is good at that thing, the way the other one is not so good. I start to think that everyone looks beautiful in Jerome’s shows and I cannot fathom it at first. Of course they’re mainly young, cast in some half-chic half-dysfunctional Gap ad, but it’s more than that. Perhaps this beauty arises because everyone here is (allowed to be? shown as?) present in a mode that is resolutely without drama. Like the subjects of Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-66) it does not matter matter if these dancers sweat or shrug or focus, yawn or smile or flutter their eyes or scratch their arses. Jonathon Jones wrote about the Screen Tests , “You can judge Warhol's subjects harshly or kindly, laugh at them or love them. Mostly you study and, as you watch, cool down. You do not judge, after all, but become aware of the endurance of looking, and the tenderness of allowing yourself to be looked at.” (The Guardian, August 2001). No matter what, Bel’s dancers are present before us in their perfections and in their defects, in their ticks, in their stupid ideas and enthusiasms and in their cover-ups. No matter what, they somehow appear—as a stranger once said to me—‘comfortable in their own skins’, resigned to the act of being watched.

Where drama might demand or force my attention on a moment-by-moment basis, the gift of The show , in common with so much of Bel’s work, is that it gives me the space and the time to look, the space and the time to be bored, the space and the time in which to find an interest. The uniformity of the line, the slowness of change in the piece and the simplicity of movement, all hide (or rather, occasion) a wealth of vivid, amazing detail.

7. Pop music

The musical material of the piece is emphatically the pop song. With the songs he has chosen for The show…, Bel is not quoting high culture or drawing on its authority. Nor is he trading solely on cult songs and the status they might afford him. Nor is he performing a version of ‘eclectic good taste’. There are both good songs and truly awful songs in The show must go on , hip songs, kitsch songs and tawdry songs but one gets the impression that these qualities are not Bel’s criteria for the selection of songs.

Tonight ( West Side Story) - 5.43
Jim Bryant, Marni Nixon (Leonard Bernstein)

Let the Sun Shine In (Hair) - 6.06
Galt Mac Dermott

Come Together - 4.10
The Beatles (John Lenon & Paul Mac Cartney)

Let's Dance - 4.02
David Bowie (David Bowie)

I Like to Move It - 3.50
Reel 2 Real (E.Morillo & M.Quashie)

Ballerina Girl - 3.35
Lionel Richie (Lionel Richie)

Private Dancer - 4.00
Tina Turner (Mark Knopfler)

Macarena - 3.50
Los del Rio (Bayside Boys remix)
(A.Romero Monge - R. Ruiz)

Into My Arms - 4.09
Nick Cave (Nick Cave)

My Heart Will Go On - 4.40
Céline Dion (J.Horner, W.Jennings)

Yellow Submarine - 2.34
The Beatles (John Lennon & Paul McCartney)

La Vie en Rose - 3.03
Edith Piaf (Louiguy - Edith Piaf)

Imagine - 3.00
John Lennon (John Lennon)

The Sound of Silence - 3.04
Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon)

Every Breath You Take - 4.13
The Police (The Police & Hugh Padgham)

I Want Your Sex - 4.40
George Michael (George Michael)

Killing Me Softly with His Song - 4.13
Roberta Flack (Norman Gimbel & Charles Fox)

The show must go on - 4.44
Queen (Queen)

Fundamentally, these songs are well known. You have heard them before. Some you have played of your own free will and some you have endured on the radio or at your dad’s. They are well used objects which have already accrued layers of meaning, interpretation—both cultural and (for most people) personal—outside the frame of the performance.

I spin through every interpretation and memory attached to the song as it plays. A song from my childhood. Another song I stopped playing long ago because I thought I’d wrung every last drop of emotional fuel and memory-jogging from it. And I think about what I did when listening to that song out there in the real world and I think about the people I was with when I listened to that song and the things I have thought about whilst listening to it and the places I have been when I have listened to it and the artist whose song it is and how his or her career has developed and what they mean as an artist to me now and if the artist is dead or alive and about the words to the song as they unfold over time and which words Bel has picked out to react to and which ones he has ignored and I think about the reactions of my fellow audience members and what these reactions tell me about them and how they are thinking of this song and I think about the place the song has in the history of pop music, or of its broader significance in a cultural studies kind of way and I think about the time I first heard this song and the politics of the song and what the words mean literally or what they might mean now if they could be heard as if for the first time and about the summer holiday I went on as a child when that particular song was on the tape player so very very often that I learned every word.

Or put it more briefly : Bel trades on the time already invested in the songs that he presents.

8. The dance, the Banal

Where dance as such does occur in The show must go on, it does so largely as paraphrase or quotation through which some genre of movement-to-music from everyday culture is held up as an object, ransacked by each performer to provide a physical vocabulary.

The quoted dance jumps in the first half of The show... from disco self-immersion ( Let's Dance ) through inventive exuberance ( I Like To Move It ) to the amateurish classicism of wannabe dancers ( Ballerina Girl ) to the solipsism of guys dancing in their bedrooms ( Private Dancer ), before arriving at the shared line-dance ritual of Macarena . The latter provides a mild break from the slowly emerging rules of the piece, as one of only three sections where choreography is not a direct illustration of song lyrics. Instead, for Macarena the company simply dance together the dance that goes with the song – they do the thing that is done to it, according to common knowledge, without invention or comment. At a rather later moment, Celine Dione’s My Heart Will Go On gets a similar treatment - of literalisation by association - through the enactment of an image from Titanic which—in its well-known connection to the song—is as obvious, redundant and doubling as any acting-out of the words might be.

Within and without these dance quotations, the movement aesthetic of the piece is that of the everyday with all of the mundanity and richness that implies. The performers are before us in a way that is simple and intimate and their defencelessness or lack of ‘cover’ certainly factors in their beauty. Presence here is constructed without obvious rhetoric or virtuosity. Even when, during I Like To Move It, one of the dancers does an impressive thing with his penis, it is arguably an everyday virtuosity - a trick or natural wonder that would be more at home in the corner of a playground or locker room than on the curriculum of the corps de ballet .

Choreographed to make a complete stage picture, the dancers (items in a list) are nonetheless rarely bound up together in movement interaction – they are, somehow, alone. At rest they glance to each other as one might glance to fellow participants in an aerobics class—throwing looks that are minimal, wary, generous or curious, but in movement each exists most often in a bubble whose internal logic is unique and unbroken. Some of the dancers are ‘good’ at what they are doing, others are ‘not so good.’ Bel seems to enjoy this diversity and to expect that we too will revel in the (list of) many different ways that a thing can be done.

The show… builds a world of simple labour in which choregoraphed moves are the work that must be done, a task to be undertaken in public. Bel does not ask the performers to create a drama or a fictitious crisis from breaking or developing the rule they are working-through. Rule breaks or developments (the introduction of new or ‘unusual’ ideas) occur calmly, within and as a consequence of the systems, not in spite of or against them. The performers for their own part are seemingly content whilst contained within the basic rule of ‘doing what the songs say’. Their passions, enthusiasms, ideas and so on only last as long as a song, or as long as the requisite line. There is no insistence, no unnecessary dramatics. Personality, presence, ‘character’–all these things emerge only through obedience to the rule. They work within the rule, exist in the rule.

Or you could say: they do enough . Not more. And not less. They do what the song says. The song says ‘come together’ and they do come together. The song says ‘I like to move it’ and they move it, whether it is - a tongue, a knapsack or a zipper. They do what the song says. The song says what they do. It is not more complicated than that. It does not need more than that. The thing is the thing.

9. Romances

In the material from Come Together to My Heart Will Go On, Bel secretly stages the faint outline of an essay on human relations which starts with the performers’ arriviste state of checking each other out ( Come Together ). It then moves through group exuberance ( Lets Dance , Move It and Macarena ) and is interrupted by comical separations in which either the women ( Ballerina Girl ) or the sound technician ( Private Dancer ) dance ‘tragically’ alone. Finally, the climax is provided by the most obviously narrative material of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms and Celine Dione’s My Heart Will Go On . This blurred romantic drift is bound in with (arises from) both the content of pop music and its functions in the world, and with (from) Bel’s formal compositional games: filling the stage and emptying it, forming lines and other groupings and then breaking them. Into My Arms becomes a game of wandering in which the chorus refrain - ‘guide you into my arms’ - leads each performer to an embrace in the arms of the first locatable other, before the verse sets them in motion again. Subsequently, My Heart Will Go On provides the occasion for ten clumsy slow motion re-enactments of the iconic scene between Di Caprio and Winslett at the bow of the Titanic from James Cameron’s risible film.

The fundamental blankness of Bel’s choreography – its lack of position – leaves one room to be both distant from and strangely connected to these fragmentary snapshots of human romance. The rote systemic exchange of partners during Into My Arms can be taken as a comically literal reading of the song and at the same time, a coolly accurate description of the world—depending on one’s point of view. The action’s lack of passion can be read as a cartoon joke or as the perfect screen upon which to project one’s own emotions. The re-enactment of the scene from Titanic (in which the pairs of performers rotate physically to mirror the well-known camera spin) is a critique of the original film and soundtrack (its bombastic melodrama, its rhetorical excess, its ubiquity) that at the same time borrows its power and emotion and, between the lines, insists on the possibility of a real life lived and loved in the shadow of such icons, such voluble spectres.

10. Labelling

A friend tells me that when she was much much younger she had been given (by some relative or other) – a birthday present comprising a collection of underpants, seven pairs, each of which were printed with the name of a day of the week written in German. She said that she wore these underpants in strict rotation, wearing Monday on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday and so on, in rigid adherence to the rule of the label and that if she ever made a mistake, wearing Thursday on Sunday for example, she lived that whole day in a state of nervous displacement and preoccupation. As if for each moment of the day, incorrectly, transgressively labelled, she were caught somewhere between the real and a lie or a fiction. As if she were somehow not quite herself.

11. Voids again

After My Heart Will Go On , when the ‘dances’ of the piece and its romantic drift are done, the performers retreat from the stage and Bel shifts The show… ’s economy back to the extreme minimalism established by the two prologue numbers, Tonight and Let the Sun Shine In . In the next twelve and a half minutes this minimalism will become the major vocabulary. The public - repeatedly ‘abandoned’ by the onstage spectacle (there are no dancers and at various points no lights and no music either) - will have little choice but to watch themselves or their neighbours, to think in silence or to find such other diversions as they can. These droughts of signification (from Yellow Submarine through La Vie En Rose and Imagine to The Sound of Silence ) become, in the architectural declension of the piece, an escalating series of challenges and, ultimately gifts, focused very much on the public, its role and expectations.

For Yellow Submarine, the performers exit the darkened stage via a trapdoor, leaving only the luminous spill of yellow light from below as they sing along to the song. This is the first singing we hear from the cast of The show .. but it will not be the last, marking as it does the introduction of a new vocabulary element.

For the following number, La Vie En Rose , the auditorium and stage alike are flooded with light of an appropriate hue as nothing whatsoever is once again presented on the stage. As the song plays, the public turn their gazes on each other. People in the forward rows are twisting in their seats to observe those behind them whilst others are craning their necks to see down the rows. There are waves, shrugs, embarrassed smiles. Someone yells to a friend on the balcony who yells back. The song continues until its end, a strange combination of funny and boring and fascinating that Bel seems to excel at, and which leaves one all the time in the world to think about what, exactly, one is doing here.

For the duration of the next number, John Lennon’s Imagine, one is left in a total blackout – with nothing to look at, either on the stage or in the auditorium. The bluntness of this ‘choreographic’ response to the song - literalizing the lyric by taking away the world as Lennon bids us to imagine its absence- draws hoots of laughter as people get the pun. But from this point on, we are on our own. Denied even the minimal sustenance offered during La Vie En Rose (the sight of the empty stage and our fellow spectators), we are left in privacy to negotiate the minutes as Imagine continues, its lyrics and melody a measured thread drawn through the darkness. I am thinking, inevitably I suppose, about the Utopian vision of the song and about Lennon’s death (now famous for the way it ushered in the era of star-stalking and celebrity-killing). Around me various audience members have pulled lighters from their pockets and are waving them in the air as they’ve learned to do from watching films of American rock gigs. I listen to the words of the song, aware that I have ‘known’ them for years but have rarely listened to them, trying to perform the impossible thought-experiment that it proposes and trying to figure out what these words might mean. From somewhere near the front of the auditorium a lone voice begins to sing along. The singing spreads, finding allies in the darkness, peaks and then dies out tunelessly. The lighters go out too and we are left in blackout as the song continues to its end.

These interventions – like the others that The show… seems to court (all the inventive and spontaneous yells, clappings-along and dance routines from audience members, all the walk-outs, dumb heckles and sing-alongs) cannot outlast the dogged persistence of The show…, its insistence that the thing is nothing but the thing. The CD of Lennon plays. I skip and scan through thoughts and half-thoughts. In the end, I find myself remembering the time years ago when I heard Imagine sung and played badly by a drunken semi-pro wrestler in his early 20’s sometime around 2am, a leviathan slumped at a baby grand piano in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio during a spring snowstorm, the hotel bristling with violence as armed guards checked I.D. on the entrance to the elevators, and other drunken wrestlers (in town for some huge contest) gathered closely round the singer, beers in their hands and tears in their eyes.

These sections, like much of the rest of The show… , determinedly throw the watcher back on his or her own resources, disrupting the anonymous communality of the auditorium and replacing it with either enforced isolation or a newly problematic society in which audience members test the borders of the game they are expected to play. Introspection, minor intervention, trawls or accidental trips through memory, a desire or even moves to leave, attention that flicks from the details of the present situation to abstract thought, periods of boredom, waiting and anticipation are the constituent economy.

Here perhaps more than elsewhere, Bel plays a double game with the watcher, who, faced with more and more less – nothingness, voids, doubling, blankness, redundancy, the banal, the obvious, the everyday - begins to find more and more more . Bresson said that the blanker an image, the more it sings when placed next to another image. At times Bel gives us the theatrical equivalent of a temporal colour-field painting. A ticking clock. A darkened stage. All surface. Fed a diet of the literal, I am starting to think about its depth.

Or to put it more simply, as Jerome says to a colleague of mine in a bar in Munich: Sometimes I think people are getting more and more clever watching us be more and more stupid.

With Imagine, it looks like The show .. has reached a kind of nadir but Bel has one more move left in the game of taking things away from us. For The Sound of Silence the start line of which ‘Hello darkness my old friend..’ can’t fail to raise a laugh in the circumstances of the continuing blackout – the sound technician lets the song play until the first instance of the phrase ‘the sound of silence’ and then takes the volume out entirely leaving us in darkness and the kind of silence the song was just talking about. Even for an audience grown used to Bel’s ‘methods,’ the situation of nothing to look at and nothing to listen to is definitely a challenge and conversations and cat calls soon fill the auditorium. We can only assume that the invisible technician is keeping a close eye on the CD player’s time readout because after a while the song unexpectedly returns just in time for us to hear again the phrase ‘the sound of silence,’ the volume ducking out as soon as the phrase is completed. This rhythmic alternation continues until the song ends – three minutes – the isolated phrase ‘the sound of silence’ returning periodically to label the void which both precedes and follows it.

12. Mirrors

In one passage of Storming Heaven : LSD and the American Dream, Jay Stevens tells how at the height of the Summer of Love, San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, was often flooded with tourists arriving by the bus load to gawp at the longhaired freaks. Angry at their newfound role as human zoo animals, the hippies in the Haight began to carry small mirrors with which they could throw back at these air-conditioned coaches the curious stares of their unwelcome visitors.

13. Watching you

Bel’s The show must go on is concerned ultimately with both the idea (game) of dancing in public and with the expectations, needs, desires, presence and nature of the public who have come to watch. The generosity of both the piece and the performers in offering themselves defencelessly to our gaze through much of The show has a powerful counter-weight in later sections where the direction of this attention is reversed or at least made reciprocal. The broad move of the performance from the presentation of quoted dances, moves and moments, through an interlude of minimalism and darkness, to a direct relation to the audience is its major architecture, an architecture that slowly but surely pushes those watching into an encounter--not just with the stage and what they desire of it--but with themselves.

For Every Breath You Take and I Want Your Sex, the performers return under bright lights to stand in a line the width of the stage, their eyes turned to an audience who are also lit up by the houselights. The line, more direct and literally ‘straightforward’ than the semi-circle of the earlier parts of the show, heralds the shift in dynamic. The gaze from stage to seating bank acknowledges that the looking on the bodies of strangers which is given aesthetical permission in theatre and dance has its origins elsewhere in the economies of human desire. The reciprocity of the gaze in these moments is a gripping shift (and sharing) of power as the performers assert that they too can look where their eyes wish to take them, that they too have interests, fascinations, boredoms, distractions and that our watching must (now and forever) consider itself watched.

Every breath you take, every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I'll be watching you

The returned gaze asserts that the auditorium, like the stage, is a void, a blank screen for projection, that our bodies and faces (like theirs) are also screens with a soundtrack, signifying spaces, clues for the fantasies, dreams and narratives of others.

There is nothing crude or confrontational about how Bel and the cast of The show.. handle this shift in the power dynamic of the performance which from an alternate route once again approaches the blurred constituents of a romantic narrative. Instead, with the music working to eroticise (frame, label, transform) all that it touches, we are drawn into ambiguous territory. The looks that come from the stage are directed to us as individuals illuminated in our seats, emphatically not directed to a crowd. The crowd is in suspension, revealed as a flimsy and temporary structure, a hopeless shelter that cannot last. The looks from the stage are fluid, shifting negotiations of the space and the distance between each of us and each of them. The gazes that meet ours and respond under the condition (label) of the music are tentative, flirtatious, tempting, concerned steps in the acknowledgement that each of us is here, in the same place, at the same time. That this moment is now . That what is, is. And that anything is possible.

This sense of possibility is the seat of Bel’s optimism as an artist and evidence of his real subject - the complex play between consciousness and the material world. It is as if his whole purpose is to uncover such moments of potentiality as these – as the performers gaze at us and we at them. In these moments we see, paradoxically, that we are here and now (stuck fast in the real and the material) and that the here-and-now is open to change and transformation, to the possibilities both of agency and of the fictional. For Bel, the here-and-now is at once obvious and intangible, banal and amazing, concrete and ungraspable. His gift to us is the space in which to see this.

14. Anecdote

In a bar in Vienna, Jerome Bel tells me that with The show must go on he wanted to make a work that was not stronger than the public . A piece that would sit with them but not dominate them. It’s a beautiful thought, but accepting a gift of this kind may not be easy for those raised in other times, in other frames of the relation between artist and public.

At the performances of The show must go on in Paris at Theatre de la Ville there are stage invasions, interventions, slow hand claps. J says he got the message: if you do not dominate this audience, they will try to kill you.

15. Fort Da

The manipulation of a rule necessitates an awareness of its possible edges, and a structure that allows them to be brought together, juxtaposed. Consequently the direct encounter with the audience through Every Breath You Take and I Want Your Sex is shadowed by The show ’s most committed acts of public privacy. In the section that immediately follows I Want Your Sex, the performers don personal cd-players and, on a cue from the sound operator, begin to play their own individual songs, heads nodding to the diverse rhythms of music we cannot hear. Trained by now to Bel’s stringent approach to rules, the audience might well be forgiven for anticipating a three and a half minute silence with the performers thus occupied in front of us. However the silence is repeatedly broken in an amateurish ronde structure as each performer sings the refrain of their songs, presumably in synch with the tracks that are playing directly into their ears. An extension of the technique used in The Sound Of Silence, the walkman section of The show… further performs the dissection of the pop songs at its heart, in this case erasing all but their key lyrical fragments whose beginning is the pronoun: ‘I…’ (“I am a woman in love”, “I can’t get no satisfaction”, “I’m too sexy..:” ) and, for the small group of performers sharing a walkman at the back, “We are the world”. The songs as absurd and inadequate badges of identity and the comic cacophony they present when overlaid is perhaps The show… at its most polemical. But whilst the effect is obviously and effectively comic, the image that lingers, and which will be expanded in the subsequent track, is that of the performers lost in concentration, eyes closed or down-turned, locked in an exaggeratedly private relation with something that remains forever out of our grasp. The publicness, so bright and vivid in Every Breath You Take and I Want Your Sex has gone, faded. We are--as doctors like to say in thrillers, dramas and hospital soaps--‘losing’ them.

The penultimate song is Killing Me Softly with His Song and here the loss will be re-enacted, restaged. During this number each of the performers, gathered expectantly close to the table of the sound operator, remains inwardly focused, eyes down turned, bodies undemonstrative, lip-synching the words to the song. This lip-synching is of course simply a doubling of what is already there, an action whereby the performers, like so many others in their kitchens, bathrooms and cars bathe themselves in the aura of a song. As they sing (not their own words and, in any case, inaudibly) each begins to fade, physically dropping to the floor, collapsing slowly, still singing, eyes closed until all of them are lying on the stage, a tangled heap of motionless bodies. They have gone again. The song completes and long before it does, the lip-synching has stopped, its lyric, which kills them softly, is once again taken literally in Bel’s choreography, telling of a singer whose description-in-song of the listener’s life in pain is so accurate, so precise, so doubling of the life that it becomes a kind of second death, a living death, a mirror that murders.

I felt he found my letters
And read each one out loud

To be known so well. To be so contained in the discourse of another. To go somewhere (the bar or club in the song, or to the theatre perhaps) and to find oneself already there, already described, already prescribed, already anticipated and so-fully guessed in the economy (game) of signification and of life itself– is an unbearable tyranny and, at the same time, perhaps, a glorious wonder.

Those that were singing silently along now litter the stage as corpses, killed softly by the song, they are gone.

Fort Da. This, essentially, is the game of The show must go on . The game of bringing them on and taking them away again. The game of filling and emptying the stage. The game between music and silence. Between image and the void. The game between movement and stillness, between light and darkness. The game between stage and auditorium. The game between men and women, together, as pairs, then alone. The game of few and many. The game between gazes and averted eyes. Fort da.

As the ‘corpses’ lie motionless and silent on the stage, the final song, The show must go on begins. Freddie Mercury sings over bombastic strings:

Empty spaces - what are we living for?
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for...
Another hero? another mindless crime?
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore?

The still-image of the dead continues. As if the pantomime, the heroes and the mindless crimes of the lyric have indeed been discarded, unwanted. And then the title refrain, emphatic, insistent:

The show must go on,
The show must go on .

The lyric given status as a literal instruction. The corpses rise from the stage, performers that bow and leave it. Fort da. They return, bow and leave it again. Fort da. They return, bow and leave it again. The audience begin to clap. The song continues. The performers return, bow and leave the stage again. Fort da. The audience continue to clap, some rising to their feet.

The show must go on,
The show must go on .

The end of the show blurs with the ‘applause’, as if for this last section alone the public’s role is absolutely clear and invited, anticipated, even prescribed. The song continues.

The show must go on,
The show must go on .

The performers return, bow and leave the stage again.

The show must go on,
The show must go on .

As in – the deaths which climaxed the previous song (like those which end a Shakespearean tragedy) must be overcome; the living must continue.

The show must go on,
The show must go on .

As in – the endless circulation of signs that is theatre (or music, or culture), the endless processes of living, making, reading, re-making and appropriating must go on, or rather, will go on, inexorably, machine-like, vivid, terrible and beautiful.