The Abbatoir Pages

Written and directed by John Harrigan
Guerilla Zoo and Foolish People
The Old Abattoir, Clerkenwell
(2009)

Production photo

The show begins before you even get there for first you have to discover where it is. I'd been to the Abattoir before so I had an advantage but still wasn't sure I'd got it right until I saw a newly chalked set of numbers by a door and, on closer inspection found a notice informing Helen Mayer's guests that they should wait for entry.

Promptly at 7.30 a beautiful woman appeared, elegant in chic red, her martinet manner slightly undermined by a gentleness behind the eyes. The programme says she's Tacuinum, which perhaps relates to an Arabic medieval medical manuscript called Taqwin al-sihla - when translated into Latin it became known as Tacuinum Sanitas, but there is no way at this stage of knowing that, nor is their really any way of discovering who the other people, animals or beings you are going to meet are called or exactly what they are. If there is a story it is fragmented and up to you to put together. If there is a mystery to be solved you have to find it, quite apart from discovering a solution.

Tacuinum issues strict instructions about guest behaviour, for the premise is that you are invited to a party that celebrates the publication of the latest work of a famous horror story writer, Helen Mayer. Most importantly you must be silent, as the beings you meet will constantly remind you with fingers to their lips, and you are warned that you may have to go really close to hear what some of them are saying.

Called out by name, individuals sometimes being whispered an extra personal message, you are ushered inside to sign an agreement (which ensures that you don't blame anyone else if you fall over in the dark) and are then led down a stairway into the bowels of the building by a hare-headed creature in a formal black suit. There are at least two floors below you with large open spaces, iron-pillared halls, dark corridors and many smaller spaces. Split into small groups not everyone may go to the same location and I can only speak of my own experience.

I was led to a white-walled room with large exhibition cases at its centre. Filling them were serried ranks of glass jars that contained all kinds of natural specimens from mammal skulls to petrified wood; plant parts, mineral samples, natural oddities, and small containers with what looked like a condensation of coloured sap or resin, a smudge of animal body fluid or a smear of human blood. This could all be the contents of a renaissance cabinet of curiosities or the raw material from which a mad scientist is trying to make life.

Around and in small rooms off were other similar samples, real or fabricated, work tables with records of research, photographic slides, books and other papers, projected images, a TV screen placed on the floor showing intermittent images and words, a video with mirror duplicated images that morphed into different creatures or the heads of a pair of Indian looking conjoined twins. While my back was turned a distraught-looking but silent woman appeared slumped at the base of a wall,

At first I wasn't allowed to leave, animal-headed attendants barred the way but then we were led through into a large space where a suited man addressed us. Sightless behind bandages, like blinded Gloucester or eyeless Oedipus, he introduced himself as Helen's publisher. We were invited to inspect the exhibits in her collection, the raw material from which she made her work.

Indeed the walls around were hung with artwork. There are sculptures too, larger than life-size: a figure that could be an arctic explorer, a bare- torsoed, pregnant woman her mouth stretched in the rictus of a scream, a naked man speared on a vertical spit; circular hanging racks with yet more jars against the surface of each was a humanoid doll of fabrics, felt or cotton wool, stitched and embroidered, sometimes beaded, like so many small homunculi.

We appeared to be about to be greeted by her but instead were offered a voice on a recording machine. Helen's words, whether because of the acoustic or deliberately so recorded, were extremely difficult to comprehend, perhaps a deliberate obscurity. From here on what the 'guest' finds is up to them. There are artists' installations of various kinds and a succession of performed episodes that range from static figures sitting on steps or on the ground to a naked woman standing alone in a vast space to set pieces that involve almost all the company. There are duologues between two arguing women or between pairs of what appear to be lovers, a sequence of bodies spinning their way through semi-darkness and, in what is the strongest dramatic episode and a focus for the whole piece, a finely choreographed ritual that draws in all the animal headed creatures and seems to be leading up to the sacrifice of a man by a group of women, though it suddenly resolves itself quite differently. Perhaps one line from this section: could be the key to what the whole show is about: 'No-one knows where the body of truth lies because man killed it.'

Apart from this last, it is extremely difficult to pick up enough of the dialogue to find a way into any of the individual episodes or to see how they might fit together. By choosing the right key from a set of symbols you gain entry to a special area with a bar where a medium-like woman was playing some sort of card game like Snap with another guest but I could not discover what the smudged images on the 'cards' represented, though they might have been the characters of the 'story' or even the guests themselves. She whispered directly in my ear but her language was incomprehensible and I was no wiser as to what it was she wanted of me.

It seems perverse that someone with the talented imagination of writer Harrigan, whose text frequently seems poetic and who can clearly inspire a huge team of actors and artists to work with him, should want to keep his work so obscure and, as a director, do everything to make his words go unheard. I am all for audiences having to make an effort to get the most from a show and I'm certainly not timid in placing myself right next to a performer, but here even being so intrusive that one is in danger of annoying all other participants I still had problems. That did not stop me from discovering some delights. There was a lovely moment when one of the 'animals' drew up beside me and clenched my hand, drawing me down to the ground close to two struggling figures. I didn't work out exactly what I was watching but it communicated a touching intimacy beyond closeness. Despite being partly a method of control, these creatures all have a benign feeling about them and their costumes and masks are beautifully worked out.

This is as much an art exhibit as a performance. Works by more than twenty artists are on display in addition to the contribution of the costume and set designers and the performers create some startlingly effective images. I found the sight of an 'animal' and a human carefully guiding the blind publisher through the halls and down the stairs particularly moving

Sometimes the experience is of what is taken away as much as what is presented. Following one 'animal' into a dark alcove and turning to pursue no more than a movement of air sideways I advanced in darkness until a glimmer of light to one side revealed that I was in a passage linking a series of side spaces, each with one small glimmering flame. It was an exploration I gave up when I sensed an even deeper darkness ahead but as I retreated a figure hurried past. They knew where they were going. Somewhere in that blackness I might have suddenly erupted into a cast dressing room.

Everyone in the audience will experience something different. That is partly what this sort of promenade is about. The performance is cyclic through the evening but each repetition may be slightly different. I stayed through two cycles and saw scenes adapted to different special configurations but that didn't make things any clearer: I'd like a little more help to aid my comprehension. I don't like to think I'm missing the point of what a group of artists and actors put so much hard work into. I was particularly impressed by the focused way they maintain their character's integrity despite spectatorial intrusion. I'll certainly be interested in what they do next.

Until 2nd November 2009. The Old Abattoir is at 187-211 St. John's Street, Clerkenwell, London. EC1

Reviewer: Howard Loxton