What Jérôme Bel in his previous work did to bodies on stage, he now does - practically -to the body of the stage: he diverts it. For The show must go on, according to the (diverted) title of his latest production. The stage is plunged in darkness; all you can see, in front of the footlights, is a DJ, sitting at a sound mixer, and introducing 19 CDs one after the other into the CD player: Leonard Bernstein, Galt Mac Dermott, David Bowie, John Lennon, Nick Cave, Edith Piaf etc. The song by Queen which gave the show its title concludes the sound cycle. During the first two minutes, and on several occasions later on, the stage remains plunged in darkness. The production is literally diverted into the imagination. Jérôme Bel thus abandons the show to the idea of the show. Then, the performers come on stage. By stopping. They hardly move, only present themselves, not even that, they expose themselves. They expose their gaze, so they represent the audience, no, they expose it. In a confrontation which is so literate that it is annoying (what dominates is a frontal choreography close up to the footlights), the person watching is struck by his own gaze and is dispossessed of himself.
Imagine can be heard in the darkness in which the theatre as well as the stage are plunged, and what “shines out” and resonates here, here is literally the very image of imagination. All it is doing is referring to itself through the assumed return to the song's exclusively extra-stage reality. In this paradox can be found what in stage terms is called oscillation, the impossible choice between the literal and the referential. Memory enters the scene, the individual and collective memory of which the code, situated beyond current models of identification (here musical hits), remains unknown and unreadable. What is supposedly being experienced in common escapes, paradoxically, the imagined singularity of the experience. What is being produced on stage is the act of remembering, but henceforth this no longer works except on the outside, in a superficial way. Memory is being used as a screen that the visual and textual elements that the show transmits can be projected onto, for ideological imputations which are applied to and which strike a still dispossessed and unreal body.
To the music of I like to move it, minute movements are made, concerning only one part of the body which is different for each performer: tongue, elbow, bottom, etc. Standing in a row facing the audience, the performers make up a line of hieroglyphic movements, a line composed of isolated corporeal letters with which anagrams can be constantly made. One of the performers shakes the curtain at the back of the stage. Be it the curtain, a tongue, or a bottom which is moving, no hierarchy of meaning is established. The body becomes the stage, the stage becomes the body. The hanging tongue becomes a curtain, the inverted commas of the voice and the song, while the curtain is transformed into a tongue, ironically sticking out from the middle of the face of the stage: I like to move it, move it. The confrontation with the body on stage is literally transformed into confrontation with the body of the stage. It is the lingua of the stage that comes into play, its language and its tongue all at the same time, the curtain which opens its mouth, eye, ear.
The DJ has installed a bright spotlight for his personal dance/song ( Private Dancer ), before however immediately leaving the place of his imagination (in all senses of the term). The show (recognition) must go on : with a disturbing availability, the familiar images come to be added to the familiar melodies: Titanic , the couple leaning on the ship's rail, theatrically multiplied by ten, continue to rotate several times (instead of the movement of the camera) in their magic circle with an extremely intense economy of movement, since the ten couples simply turn round on the spot holding their pose all the while. The presence of the dénouement is here transformed into a disturbing phantom-like present of the theatrical element. What we are given is a gift, but one which acts like poison of wrongly verified identification. Thus what is given does not exist. What is taken for granted, Bel's scene simply does not accept.
It is literally, and not naturally, that the body speaks to us here in his shows. It is precisely in its minimal literality - the body is the body is the body - that he undermines any attempt to read its gestures as signs casting doubt on any scheme of reference. Besides, the revelation of the uncertain scheme of reference of ‘textual' bodies as well as ‘corporeal' texts jeopardises the validity of all theatrical convention. The more the action on stage seems “natural” to us, the more it is forced to revert to its artificiality. What is here is that divide between nature and culture which always opens up elsewhere in the fabric of language and of bodies. To Yellow Submarine, a yellow ray , the glow of a projector, spills from the wings onto the stage. For the first time, we hear the voice of the performers who take up the song in chorus: coming from off-stage, the voice is in the same place as where the image (the light) is coming from. The image comes from the voice which is also absent: theatre. An over-exposed literality, going beyond sentimental habits of identification, shows the concentrated emptiness of the stage (in the form of a ray of light), as if it were the light coming through an open door behind the wings. The scene sets up an opening, presents / represents / exposes an opening. Then it goes dark. If the theatrical event is marked/ minimised by the darkness, and then by the constantly interrupted silence, all to the song Sound of Silence , it is Bel's deconstruction of theatrical conventions and the theatre of conventions that is in force here.
When the performers, all armed with a walkman, begin, at a sign from the DJ, to listen, it is the listening itself -what else - that is literally being directed. What is shown is the break, the interval, that which is omitted.
The crisis of representation turns on representing the unrepresentable, on listening to the inaudible, on viewing the invisible, literally this time. We see what is not shown, and we hear what cannot be heard (without a walkman). If one of the performers listens to I'm still standing and all the time he just stands on the stage, if they start dancing each time the refrain Let's Dance is sung, or couples (different ones each time) put their arms tenderly round each other several times but at the same time in a dizzyingly solitary way to the tune of Into My Arms , it is because the performers are doing what they are singing, and what the song titles sing to them, and they thus spell out the impossibility of deciding between what is performative and what is referential. The paradox of suggested dispossession is pushed to an extreme. To Killing Me Softly the performers collapse noiselessly on the floor as they sing. Then they lie there motionless and silent. A stage death. Death of the stage. “He was singing my life with his words”, says the song; someone scrupulously sings ‘my life' until the very end. In a life (which has always already been) represented by foreign words and constituted as a symbolic order, we lose ourselves: a loss as real as it is figurative. The body's absence, which comes only from his shows, pushes serene nostalgia, or intelligent emotion well beyond any emotional turmoil.
As its title gives us to understand, The show must go on by Jérôme Bel plays beyond the limits of its possibilities. The show plays doubly beyond the limits of the theatrical; it reflects on it and it goes even further, further than what it states and meta-states. Here, the stage is referring to itself, it is exposing itself. Above all, it kills itself, and is always inclined again to disappear: a zero point of representation. The obstinacy of the title The show must go on stipulates a precarious theatrical duty, which is the same as a renunciation. Bel's stage is vertiginously empty with good reason. What is ceaselessly astonishing is that its emptiness becomes more and more intense at every theatrical instant. It stages the impossibility of its being occupied, its self-effacement is bewildering in a different way every time...Because the ironic Bel is only directing the production of the person watching (subjective / objective genitive): but is the person watching producing or is he himself being staged? Doesn't the extremely happy and participative audience immediately fall into the trap of that clever hunger artist Bel, who diverts the anorexic body of his theatre right through by transmitting it to foreign images, and to the audience's responses, and makes writing and looking coincide just, so to speak, by intensifying listening? It is synaesthesia rather than synthesis.
By 1995 Jérôme Bel by Jérome Bel was no longer the hallmark of the visible, but of the invisible: with a stick of lipstick, a naked performer drew crosses on invisible parts of his body: the soles of his feet, the palms of his hands, in his armpits, on his eyelids, his tongue, etc. and this scenography revealed the “obscena”, that which can be seen beyond the scene; it ticked, and underlined what it was really crossing out. The Last Show by Jérôme Bel effectively left the stage in as much as each scene was repeated several times, getting smaller little by little until it was literally reduced to nothing more than a microphone in front of a raised curtain (instead of the famous mirror of the stage), behind which the action, which had been repeated several times and memorised by the audience, did not even need to be performed.
And now the show continues to scenograph the show, in a post-script, a “post-show”. For The show must go on is an affirmative performance, an “afformance”, which signs, underlines and designs the scene as nostalgic sound (though thirsting to see), and as a sound element between the literal and the metaphorical.