‘We don’t often see this kind of Artaudian excess on our stages: it’s one of the signs of how conservative our theatre culture has become’: Alison Croggon on Mitch Jones’ Autocannibal
The Hanged Man – drawn from the Major Arcana card of the Tarot, with bonus suspended saw – is the first image we see in Autocannibal. He emerges out of a theatrical gloom generated by vast quantities of smoke: a man suspended upside down in mid-air by one foot, sawing through the rope that holds him up. We hear amplified hacking noises, and then he crashes from an unfeasible height into the darkness.
It’s a pretty efficient metaphor for humanity’s trashing of our own biosystems, one of the preoccupations of Mitch Jones’ show, now on at Theatre Works. But mainly he’s concerned with what happens after the rope is sawn through.
Autocannibal is a work that needs one of those portmanteau Germanic nouns. Directed by former Cirque du Soleil performer Masha Terentieva, it’s a grotesque post-apocalyptic circus performance art piece (I guess?) that draws from Jones’ circus experience in Circus Oz and Snuff Puppets. It’s his second solo show, and digs deeper into the dark, ironic pessimism of his first, which was called Relax: Everything’s Fucked.
We don’t often see this kind of Artaudian excess on our stages: it’s one of the signs of how conservative our theatre culture has become. Jones’ work draws from European traditions of circus theatre; its junkshop aesthetic reminded me strongly of James Thiérrée’s solo show Raoul, also a hybrid of circus, dance and visual theatre. But that was an absurdly playful performance with a dark subtext of existential panic. Autocannibal doesn’t leave its darkness in the subtext. It brings it right upfront.
The world we’re plunged into is in fact very familiar from popular culture: it’s a staple of disaster and horror movies. The minimal narrative is introduced by Bonnie Knight and Marco Cher-Gibard’s sound design, which opens with a series of headlines: reports of drought, legislation that now makes consuming human flesh legal, and so on. Our hero – dressed in an artfully ragged grey suit – is, it seems, a former news reader.
The show consists of a series of surreal vignettes with lashings of body horror, in which we watch our hapless character pursue various futile attempts at survival. He exercises until he sweats, wrings out his sweatband into a glass, and attempts to drink the fluid. When a fly appears, he transfixes it with a knife, eats it and, briefly animated by this nourishment, performs a grotesque dance. He fucks a garbage bag full of rubbish, tied with ropes to briefly resemble a female body, until it falls to bits. He saws off one of his fingers, so he can eat it.
The whole is a brief but intense exploration of the paradox of self-destructiveness: our ragged man goes to extreme lengths to feed his various appetites, but each scene sees him more abject. Sometimes it’s cathartic to look the worst in the eye: after all, the headlines that introduce the show are only slight exaggerations of those we read every day, of record-breaking droughts or floods or hurricanes, riots, protests, concentration camps or war.
This isn’t, in short, the kind of show to which you’d bring a first date, although its bleakness is leavened by grotesque comedy and the ingenuity of the staging. Jones is a remarkable performer, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Horror, especially body horror, really isn’t my thing; moreover, I feel a profound anxiety when I watch people playing with sharp edges or other dangerous things on stage. But it’s fair to say I enjoyed this show immensely, for a certain particular definition of “enjoy”.
Autocannibal, created and performed by Mitch Jones, directed by Masha Terentieva. Set design by Michael Baxter, sound design by Bonnie Knight & Marco Cher-Gibard, lighting by Paul Lim. Oozing Future and Theatre Works until July 21. Bookings
Wheelchair access. Please discuss your access requirements with box office staff at the time of booking.