Flower arranging to void the void
Janet McAllister reviews Madwoman/Gentlewoman.
Before we consider Kate Bartlett’s singular solo show, let us consider the infinite Abyss lying in wait for us all:
I asked [my students] to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them…saying: "Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”
American literary critic Lionel Trilling, 1961
I read this quote to mean that the correct – the only possible – response to the Abyss is not cool detachment but abject horror. I imagine Trilling frowning at his students; facing the inevitability of finite mortality isn’t supposed to be mere character-building or exam swot. But at the same time, the Abyss is so terrible, so awful – in the old-fashioned sense – that the appropriate paralysis of terror is impossible to sustain. If we didn’t avert our gaze, nobody would have babies or catch the dinner. The sweeping wouldn’t get done. So we become religious or absurdists or cheerful nihilists; we deny the Abyss while pretending to write around its edges.
In Madwoman/Gentlewoman, Kate Bartlett’s tactic is to domesticate the Abyss. “I’ve always wanted to own my own void,” she says. To own something – to possess it, like a demon possesses a mortal – is to control it. Voids being hard to find on Trade-Me, Bartlett has made her own, and tells us it’s called Lily. Naming something is another way of taming it (as per The Little Prince). Lily is a string of fairylights arranged in a circle on the wooden floor of the Basement Studio. “Lily has different moods,” Bartlett announces, and then proceeds to change the lights’ flickering tempo from “calm” to “indifferent” to “manic”.
The whole 40-minute show veers towards such twee-ness – perhaps saved by Bartlett’s measured well-articulated, almost formal tone, which is neither hesitant nor jazz-hands show-offy. It’s a sincere tone that doesn’t offer any easy wink-nudge irony but nor does it teeter over into a striving earnestness. There’s an air of fragility, of self-consciousness, of feminine introversion, like Bartlett’s reading out her teenage diary. She matches her blunt fringe and brushed locks with a denim pinafore – the dress is straight and rather short rather than an A-line Big Love sister-wife job, but the effect is artless ingénue, maybe someone called Betsey or Phyllis. The soundtrack is Girlpool and Julie Doiron – slow, high breathy voices and a lone jangly guitar. The studio smells of roses – or perhaps that’s just the perfume of the woman sitting next to me. The “gentle” of the title is apt. It’s not an aesthetic for everyone, particularly not those of us who are impatient.
It’s recommended that you’re in the mood to do some interpretive work if you go to this show – you’re free to connect the dots, and what a lot of dots there are, all gravid with meaning: Bartlett’s unhurried activity, her lists, her tidying, her voice recordings, her encouragement of on-screen swimming dolphins: “that’s it, good job, you’re not alone”.
Lily is actually only a short segment of the show although she’s central to my imposed narrative (one of a possible ten thousand): the aim of all the near-twee is to paper over the nothing; the action is but a container for the void – it is Lily-arranging. Sweeping is not the desired result of such containment, but part of the method of containment. If it were a different, more dictatorial show, it could be called Phyllis and Lily: domestic bliss with a domestic Abyss.
The ending, hinting nicely at the eternal recurrence of the repressed, reminds us that trying to contain the void never quite works. Ah well. Tomorrow is another day, we can try again. That’s it, good job we’re not alone.
Madwoman / Gentlewoman is at
The Basement Theatre