Dynamite the Future: After the Walls (Utopia

The comfortable modernist Théâtre National seems like an odd place to stage a manic diatribe against modernist architecture. But this one man show, magnificently performed by Vincent Lécuyer, is much more than the ranting of a failed architect.

It is a project that engages the audience as we are invited to a lecture organised by After the Walls Inc, given badges at the door, onto which we write our names, as if we are attending a conference. After the show, we are told, we can join the ‘Utopia community’ on the project’s web site "I wanna live after the walls" and over the next twelve months help with our comments and suggestions to shape the future that will replace our outmoded social structures all together (www.afterthewalls.com).

The next piece (the Dystopia) will be presented in 2014 and based on the project shaped by our contributions. This is audience participation par excellence.

Writer/director Anne-Cécile Vandalem has created a character who needs us to share his project. He is a solitary dreamer but one with a gift for words and a powerful persuasive presence. After the Walls (Utopia), presents us with a familiar figure, the visionary, the truth-teller, the guide who will lead the way to the place we really want to go, we just don’t know how to find it.

The irony lies in the fact that this ideal space, the future space, is Utopia—literally nowhere—and the character has acquired some elements of the self-help guru and the advertising man into the bargain. His role is to reveal our own desires.

Nonetheless, this sad and funny little man, dynamic with nervous energy, scores a few good points about modernism, the way our lives seem to be permanently lived in expectation or deferral; something better always seems to be on offer in the future but desire is continuously stimulated instead of satisfied.

As he explains, we spend our lives in boxes. The French word ‘boite’ can be used colloquially for cars, places of work, houses, and, of course, the coffin, not to mention the little boxes in the mind. We go from box to box until we are returned to the earth in our final box. The high-rise flats and offices that are so much the symbol of modernism are the boxes that contain us, our dreams, and shape our lives. Their walls symbolise the fears that keep us in the rut, moving from box to box, consuming and being consumed, living always in the land of promise but never owning our own dreams.

He is very amusing; he plays with the audience, invites them onstage, and asks them to answer questions, he even sits down among the audience to hold conversations. It’s difficult not the like him, especially as he entertains us with a song and dance routine, with the refrain ‘The future will be better’.

His discourse is impressive, both logical and appealing to our hopes and fears, the crises that have forced us behind those walls. His logic is driven by an equally impressive range of authorities from Bachelard to Baudrillard and the contemporary icon of a ‘happy simplicity’, the Algerian agro-ecologist, Pierre Rahbi. Do we go forward, or do we go back to the hut or the house constructed with the help of family and neighbours.

But if this is a critique of modernism, one to which we can subscribe, the catch is typically modernist too. In order to create that utopian future we have to erase the inevitable future as it has been created by the present and by our history. What have we got to lose? Do our boxes make us feel any safer? Does all the insurance we take out to cover ourselves for loss or destruction of our property assuage our fears, or the locks on the doors?

We have to start from a tabula rasa; we have to destroy what goes before. Erase the past to make way for Utopia. Finally, the auditorium darkens and we watch films projected onto a screen, modernist buildings dynamited in the process of demolition, so that they collapse in on themselves in clouds of dust and flying rubble, one after the other, dozens of them, an orgy of destruction accompanied by rock music that rouses the blood.

After The Walls (Utopia) is a forceful piece of writing, simply staged and conveyed by a powerful performance. Lécuyer is protean as he puts all his physicality into describing how we are thrust from the womb, how our ancestors protected themselves with just a roof of branches to keep out the rain, how a dynamited building collapses, as if his body and the building have become one, which is probably the point about how our environment shapes us. And, like SPEAK! and The Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species, it challenges us to question, to doubt, to be suspicious of simple solutions and those with the gift of the gab.

As Vandalem points out in the programme, what passes for progress is generally imposed during a crisis. The destruction inherent on WWII cleared the way for the modernisation of Europe, and while we are still in shock from the financial collapse of 2008 it would be easy to impose something that seems inevitable (see for example Naomi Klein’s book Shock Capitalism).

I can’t help but feel that this production also works around that question posed by Tony Judt ‘What’s comes next?’