forty years on – restaging – return – nostos

I have just received the wonderful photo book of Mike Pearson’s new work – The Lesson of Anatomy 1974/2014.


On 5 and 6 July 1974, the newly founded Cardiff Laboratory for Theatrical Research (later Cardiff Laboratory Theatre) presented The Lesson of Anatomy: The Life, Obsessions and Fantasies of Antonin Artaud in the Sherman Arena Theater, Cardiff, during the venue’s opening season.

On 5 July 2014, Mike Pearson performed his solo sections from The Lesson of Anatomy on the 40th anniversary of their original staging in the Sherman Arena, now Theatre/Theatr 2, Sherman Cymru. Drawing on surviving photographs and fragmentary notes, his reconstitution investigated how period devised works (those arising not from a dramatic script of a playwright but from the improvising of a performer) might be performed again, to give a glimpse of styles long disappeared; how site itself might aid their reimagining, acting as a mnemonic for performer and audience alike; and how additional dramatic effects might result from the impacts of aging on the performer – the true lesson of anatomy.

The juxtaposed photographs from 1974 by Steve Allison and 2014 by Russell Basford are an extraordinary manifestation of all that has changed in the body of the performer, and all that endures in the will to perform — that photographic combination of arrested moment and the time between then and now. Actuality — the juxtaposition of then and now, and metamorphic duration in these voyages into the world of Artaud – the displacements, the schizoid ruptures.




A key theme in this theatre/archaeology is the return, to past experience, through memory and trace remains. Implied is the archaeological circuit, the shape of the archaeological imagination that Mike and I have been exploring, and which is so evident in many works of contemporary art:

  • encounter (here with Artaud, self, and site and architecture — the anatomy theatre and its table and seating)
  • the assemblage of things of interest and pertinence, aspects, attitudes, the gathering of evidences and remains (Artaud then and now, and Mike’s work, then and now, upon such a reception)
  • transformation and displacement, as we take things away, describe and represent, turn them into performance
  • and then, perhaps inevitably, if there is the opportunity – the return, to reencounter, to reflect again – this is the trope, the scenario, the phenomenon of nostos.

The return is iteration – doing it again, and again. Rehearsal – see the argument Mike and I made about the homologies of design (with its component of iterative prototyping) and performance – [Link] – for the journal Performance Research.

We are familiar with the notion of nostalgia. There’s a radical reawakening here of something very far from sentimentality. That is Artaud’s pain and suffering (the second etymological component of nostalgia is algos – pain).

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