As Palavras – Cie Claudio Bernardo at the National Experimental Theater, Taipei
March 25, 2018
For some, the concept of manhood is still riddled with the myths of macho-man and his virility but that image is long broken in reality. So, what does it mean to be a man today? Welcome to Giovanni’s Club, a place of male freedom, loosely inspired by the figures of Casanova and Don Giovanni, but also by a stay choreographer Claudio Bernardo had on Ouessant off the Western coast of France, and where he met lighthouse men and felt the effect of the lighthouse and island on them, like lovers, both pushing and drawing them inexorably.
In the hour the works takes, the men of Giovanni’s Club willingly strip themselves bare literally and metaphorically, and allow themselves to be stripped. As they show their true faces, the work questions masculinity and virility, revealing male sensitivities, pain and weaknesses, as well as camaraderie and strength. We see the cast as men together, doing stereotypical man things, but more telling are the quieter, usually more solitary moments when they disclose their inner selves, perhaps become a child again for a moment, transgender and more.
A piano plays as the lights go up. The pianist is naked, as are the men in the shadows, their forms lit only by the light from their mobile phones. In the background one hears groans of men in orgasm although Bernardo’s own stage design suggests the inside of a place of worship as much as a place of male desire. To a steady drum beat, one of the men performs a pole dance, not quite with female sensuality but headed in that direction.
The cast are far from naked throughout, and what nudity there is tends to be cleverly masked to some extent by Marco Forcella’s lighting and the curtains that are variously opened and drawn that form the mainstay of the set. The men’s nakedness also feels perfectly natural, never forced, never there simply to shock. Jean-Paul Lespagnard’s largely simple costumes do their job well but do watch out for the gorgeous multi-coloured bathrobes.
Giovanni’s Club sits somewhere at the intersection of dance, song and circus. The choreography, and there is plenty of dance among everything else (even a pole dance sequence), falls as naturally and subtly out of the rest of the work as does the nudity. One of the men performs a fluid solo with some beautifully controlled pirouettes and softly-landed leaps. Perhaps best is that which develops from a kick around with a golden football, but equally there’s one that resembles a haka, a wrestling contest, and the sight of the future woman carried aloft Hollywood musical-style by the men who gaze in adoration and obedience. There are lengthy sections of text too, and humour, especially when the men explain that this where they usually do the ‘penis dance’ but they are very sorry, they’ve had a chat and decided not today.
The pacing is excellent. Giovanni’s Club shifts comfortably from scene to scene, none too short, none outstay their welcome. Sometimes you wonder if it’s a group therapy session, especially in one sequence at the end where, one by one, they speak about themselves and who they are. Here and elsewhere, it’s impossible not to see the cast as individuals although they mostly actually rather present different faces of what it is to be man.
Musical selections include two excerpts from Mozart’s opera, naturally; a cover of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for voice and solo guitar, the words of which sound startlingly appropriate (“Is this just real life, is this just fantasy?”); and Cole Porter’s ‘So in love’. Those and original music by Yves de Mey and Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven are all neatly woven into proceedings. The familiar strains of ‘My Way’ signpost the end. But there is no grand finale, simply a return to the pianist as the lights fade.
Bernardo has said that he wanted to highlight that men are changing, to show their real selves, weaknesses and all, and that his supposed strengths and virility can actually be a yoke around his shoulders. He does just that in what is a thoughtful, considered, sensitively delivered, gem of a work.