An enigmatic feast: The Great Tamer

National Theater, Taipei
November 17, 2017

David Mead

Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer may be a slow burner, but it’s a piece of theatre that grabs the attention and largely doesn’t let go. It’s part dream, part nightmare, part riddle, with a lot of room left for the audience to make their own associations and meaning; somehow, that just adds to the mystery and allure.

Papaioannou trained as a painter before turning to the theatre and staging big open-air spectacular’s (he directed the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2015 Baku European Games among others), so perhaps it’s no surprise that The Great Tamer is about images. It’s 105 minutes or so of visual surprises; a fantastic exploration of time, the meaning of life, birth and death, destruction and reconstruction

The Great Tamer all takes place on a stage of undulating moveable black, lightweight boards that are turned into shields, fans and walls. They look a bit like roughly arranged slates. Pulled back they reveal secret escape routes and hidey holes.

The Great Tamer (05). The Great Tamer by Dimitris PapaioannouPhoto Julian Mommert
The Great Tamer by Dimitris Papaioannou
Photo Julian Mommert

The audience is greeted by a man in a black suit, watching us, watching him. He’s still, peaceful. As soon as the lights dip we’re into an enigmatic and recurring gag. He undresses turns over one of boards, white on the reverse, and lays on it as if on a mortuary slab. A second man comes up and covers the first with a white cloth. A third appears lifts and drops another board, the rush of wind blowing the cloth away.

After that, bodies and more are pulled from the ground, reburied. Body parts from different performers are cleverly used to make a new person: one leg from him, another from him, a torso and hear from her, his arms and so on. There are shoes with roots. Hundreds of arrows pierce the sky before becoming ears of corn that are carefully harvested. There’s even a couple of astronauts bounding across a moonscape pulling rocks from the earth. It’s totally surreal. The whole plays out to the occasional strains of a slowed down version of Strauss’ The Blue Danube.

The Great Tamer by Dimitris PapaioannouPhoto Julian Mommert
The Great Tamer by Dimitris Papaioannou
Photo Julian Mommert

There are several references to famous sculpture and paintings including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s David and, most overtly, Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt. The latter brings one of the most memorable, if macabre, scenes. Having donned ruffs, the cast grab surgical tools and remove a man’s guts. A blink of the eye later, he’s disappeared (one of several special illusions), and the operating table becomes a dinner table as they devour his insides.

Despite claims that have been made for it, I don’t find The Great Tamer particularly Pina Bausch-ian, but it’s easy to why people make connections. It certainly comes as no surprise that, in 2018, Papaioannou will create Tanztheater Wuppertal’s first new full-length piece since her death.

It ends almost back where it starts, with a variation on that opening gag, which somehow seems rather appropriate.

The Great Tamer is a great evening’s theatre, and one that had the audience rapt from beginning to end, but (and again) I struggle seriously with its inclusion in a season called ‘Dancing in Autumn’. Dance is one thing it is definitely not. If one had to put it in a box, it’s probably mime; ‘theatre without words’. In fact, the theatre programme at TIFA would have been an ideal fit. I wouldn’t even call The Great Tamer dance theatre or physical theatre. You can argue that it doesn’t really matter anyway, but including it in a dance season does reduce the opportunities to see the wealth of fabulous and innovative dance and dancers there are out there, both in Taiwan and the wider world.