surrealism L'esplendida vergonya del fet mal fet King's Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Now that the circus has left town, we can sit back and ask: what in the name of Salvador Dali was all that about? The Catalan surrealist Carles Santos had teasingly offered a few clues in his programme note and, not surprisingly, they took the form of questions: "Can you turn the stage into a stave? Can you substitute literary language for musical language? Can you turn music into a character-actor?" After an hour of Santos's extraordinary L'esplendida vergonya del fet mal fet (The Splendid Shame of the Deed Badly Done), I confess to being none the wiser on any of these points: musically beguiled, visually enriched, a lot more knowledgeable about PVC corsetry, but as baffled as the first gallery-goer to encounter Marcel Duchamp's urinal or Rene Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas un pipe".

Even L'esplendida vergonya's genre is hard to define: it is part opera, part dance, part circus - part floorshow, too. Certain scenes would not look out of place in Fetishes, Nick Broomfield's documentary, screened down the road at the Film Festival, about two months in the life of an S&M parlour. A couple spar with each other on a bed beside two 4ft-long shiny black pump shoes. A naked man is hauled along on a trolley while a rubber-clad minx with a water-tank strapped to her back "urinates" in his mouth.

In the climactic scene, crucified like some incontinent St Catherine upon a rotating cross, Uma Ysamat's soprano demi-mermaid sprays the stage, never dropping a note. Pedro Almodovar, Bigas Luna and now Carles Santos: what do the Spanish (Santos is half Valencian) do to their little boys to make them grow so polymorphously perverse?

None of which is to imply that L'esplendida vergonya is some kind of Catalan Voyeurz. Indeed, kinkiness seems the most mundane aspect of Santos's visual imagination. L'esplendida vergonya is, above all, a dazzling succession of tableaux vivants. Some are strangely sad, like the whiskered seadog with a blue turban and model boat stuck to his head who wheels around a desk that has been skewered by dozens of silver forks. Others - like the two women yoked together by a figure-of-eight Scalextric set, their protruding torsos reminiscent of Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days - are simultaneously funny and creepy.

The most accessible scene is a bizarre two-hander between a walking pianola and a violinist who soars and dives around the stage harnessed like Peter Pan, even at one point playing his instrument while dangling by his feet. It's a rare moment because, for once, you can clearly grasp Santos expressing an idea. This, he seems to say, is what it's like for a musician to struggle with music: half love duet, half duel. Then narrative darkness descends again, and all we are left with is visual fragments shored against the ruins, their connection with one another a mystery. Which is frustrating, because we know there must be other, textual riches to be unpacked (a few surtitles wouldn't have gone amiss). We know that the sea captain is called Antonio Bragot de Lliboria: Santos says so in the programme. From the same source, we know he is someone's husband; but if this production had run until Doomsday, you'd be hard-pressed to work out whose from what happens on stage. Even for a surrealist, that kind of inability to communicate smells of (albeit magnificent) failure.

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