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Maggie the Cat

Trajal Harrell
The Dancehouse, Manchester
to

Maggie the Cat is the first part of choreographer (also director, costume designer, co-designer of set and sound designer) Trajal Harrell's trilogy Porca Miseria, the final part of which was premièred in Athens in April and part two will be created later this year. We are promised the whole trilogy by MIF in 2020.

The piece is based, we are told, on the character of the same name from Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, although the programme note from dramaturg Katinka Deecke states that this was only the starting point for the piece, "which then moves on to leave its template as far behind as possible," suggesting a homeopathic approach to the show's source material. Deecke's article is important to read if you see the show as without it nothing will make very much sense at all.

Harrell has started from the observation that Williams focusses on the white plantation owners in his play but the black servants are marginal characters and turned this around so that these servants are the main characters—a bit like Stoppard did with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern half a century ago but with a focus on race and class rather than existentialism, and without the humour. The class theme is emphasised by the inclusion of the titular Maggie, who, though white and affluent, came from a poor background.

So that's the theory (which I wish I'd studied more carefully beforehand), but what do we actually see? The stage is bare, stripped back to the walls, with a raised stage and a slightly lower forestage where Harrell and Perle Palombe use two microphones on stands. Behind them, there are some tables stacked with cushions and some items of clothing draped over a lighting bar. After sweetly introducing the show and performers, Harrell dons a dress and introduces himself as Big Mamma and Palombe as Big Daddy, although neither actually plays a recognisable character. Then the music begins, which is recorded and a mixture of different styles, sometimes literally a mixture as different tracks play at the same time with different rhythms or jump or stop like a scratched record or CD.

The performers, all dressed in normal street clothes, clear away the items from the back slowly as the music plays. They then enter one at a time walking like catwalk models but with cushions strapped to them while Palombe shouts into a microphone—the word "Maggie" was used a lot but I struggled to understand much of what she was saying. A white backdrop is brought across, and the cushions and tables are brought on again, and taken off again.

The performers come on again one at a time but this time posing in towels, perhaps as though on the beach. They walk through a tray of paint, leaving tracks on the floor (they were so faint that I didn't realise until much later that this is what they had done, although the programme claims that this moment "has almost revolutionary potential"). There is a kind of formal dance in pairs, side by side, and then that goes into more modern club dancing, while Harrell shouts into his microphone different things that Maggie is doing. The cushions reappear, but this time they are taped to some of the performers who appear to be acting as beds, which the others lie on. Then they take it in turns to pose holding a black dress in front of themselves. It ends with Harrell repeating "please don't stop me" into a microphone until he eventually stops himself.

This is one of the shortest performances in the Festival, but to me it felt very long as it very repetitive, pretty humourless and didn't have a great deal to say (at least that I could decipher). Perhaps it really is, as MIF Artistic Director John McGrath says in the programme, "risky, thoughtful and original work" and I just don't get it, but to me it felt slight and self-indulgent, but performed with impressive commitment by everyone involved.

Reviewer: David Chadderton