‘The Critic in the Episode “Rebounds”’, by Jana Perković

Image modified from an original by Lisa Zins. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

1. in which no theatre gets reviewed

The interesting thing about rebounds is that one often isn’t aware they’re having one.

Certainly, there are those where one cannot quite lie to oneself. The one-night stands. The hastily start-and-stopped relationships with clearly incompatible people. The ones you come too close to, and then retreat from. The occasional toilet sex.

But then there are the outliers. A summer of flirtation with Alex, for example, right on the heels of Karen, was clearly no more than a band-aid hastily applied to the Critic’s concussioned heart. But Alex was a good person, a decent person, and also German and prudent, so not much more happened than some exchange of wise books, some pleasant frisson, some meaningful conversations down by the Landwerkskanal, where groups of people gently moored boats equipped with beer coolers and entire sound systems playing easy summer techno (because this was Berlin, after all). In a very German way, Alex asked questions and diagnosed, with a simplicity and clarity.

“How long has it been since your last relationship ended?”

“Four months.”

“For me too, four months. That means we will be fine to date again in another six. Until then, we can be a two-person celibacy team.”

But the un-dating they did still had a beneficial effect on the Critic, because the best rebound is, of course, a friendship with just enough romantic overtones to put a warm compress on that bruised heart. They gently held hands, protected each other against unwanted groping, met each other’s friends, cooked dinners, and generally enveloped each other in a cloud of niceness that they managed not to confuse with love. They didn’t see any theatre. It was the summer break.


2. in which some theatre gets somewhat reviewed

The Critic spent a long time confused about the Karen-shaped hole left in her life: why it hurt so much, considering that it was a small thing, an unserious thing, that her emotional investment in Karen had always been mostly a polite reciprocity of affection. The Critic had been wary of straight girls testing the outer borders of their sexual territory, and Karen, she had thought, had not been entrusted with her heart quite enough to break it.

There was a large contingent of Australians in town for the Foreign Affairs festival. They were doing a lot of coke and felt powerful and as if all mistakes would be reversible, because it is the one quality of summer that it gives the illusion that time is in limitless supply.

At Foreign Affairs, Angélica Liddell, Spanish performer with a reputation for intelligent provocation, presented You Are My Destiny / Lo Stupro di Lucrezia, a performance that left everyone unconvinced about the validity of said reputation. A work about the rape of Lucrezia, and her subsequent suicide in order to restore the honour of the men of her house, was presented in the interpretive key of “rape trauma is a love story,” a statement which would be unsettlingly problematic even in locales less progressive than Berlin.

There was one memorable sequence, in which the male drummers leaned against the back wall in a half-squat that quickly became uncomfortable to even watch, let alone endure. Liddell, the director of the piece, wiped their brows, kissed them, and in other ineffective ways made gestures toward alleviating their suffering, all the while berating Lucrezia for forcing this ordeal. The show of power was brutal and chilling, and there was something there, some kernel of a statement about women and men and society. Mostly, however, Liddell presented an overlong show that mashed together, without a clear structuring logic screaming women, a choir of semi-naked drummers, Christian imagery, Ukranian church songs, little children, and Venetian architecture, in which beer was poured over female bodies, panties tossed into the audience, and all was angry and inarticulate. The final bow was followed, in the foyer, by a number of patrons selling off their tickets to Liddell’s subsequent shows.

The Critic found herself endlessly distracted by the murky blend of hatred and self-hatred that permeated the piece, something she found distinctly southern European, something from a time before post–Second Wave feminism. Liddell’s women had an anger that spinned towards and away from themselves like a confused compass, and this, she thought, had a lot to do with having one’s female identity formed in societies that haven’t sorted out either their religious, undemocratic, or patriarchal heritage, and mostly weren’t putting any effort to do so, either. It is not exactly that northern Europe was post-patriarchal bliss, but, in Berlin, where every woman wore short hair, thus making the numerous playgrounds and parks appear to teem with dads and lesbians, it always seemed like there was a paved way forward, slow but somewhat certain, that did not involve self-immolation and such.

Besides, the Critic was a big believer in utopian separatism wherever possible, in creating better, easier worlds. She grew up watching her older friends and family burn out on the barricades against right-wing ills, ranging from everyday sexism to Croatia’s war crimes—there were journalists murdered for writing about massacres that occured, that everyone already knew about—and their lives slowly infested with fatigue, aggression, a fixation on the enemy. This is why she came to Australia, to not have her life structured by hate, her identity defined in opposition to something.

To women who complained about men, she always suggested: date women. They thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.


3. in which theatre makes a small, but pivotal appearance

The interesting thing about rebounds, as we have already said, is that one often isn’t aware they’re having one. Certainly, here are those that happen in the first weeks and months of a breakup. But the heart, it turns out, is not chronologically linear.

The first clue that life was more complicated than we necessarily wanted was when Alex said, I have had the conversation I needed to have with my ex. Said, I need some alone time now. That they were merely un-dating didn’t seem to mean much. Alex, now six months into the breakup, finally started what seemed like heavy processing, and disappeared into a safe place.

It was during Liddell’s Lucrezia that the Critic got thinking about how she went into queer communities and queer dating for political purposes—in that sense in which the personal is political—because it offered a clean way out of the million little violences of heteronormativity. It offered an escape from Liddell’s confining rage, rage that could be triggered a hundred times a day. Dating a woman, suddenly bartenders looked you in the eye, suddenly the cheque was offered to you at the restaurant, suddenly it was assumed you knew about computers. Suddenly the dishes got washed and the shopping done. Suddenly you could be too tired or stressed to have sex and this was okay, this was allowed. The appeal of Karen was not personal, but categorical, and abstract more than actually present: Karen was the promise of partner as an equal.

As Liddell’s show ended in an interminable coda of singing and bad burlesque, the Critic saw nothing and heard nothing. Instead, she was suddenly seeing Karen for who she was, a test subject of her own, a solution to the relationship that preceded her, an attempted creation of an easier and better world.

There had been a man before Karen. And that had been a long relationship, a real relationship, a complicated relationship full of prosaic problems that involved finances and household chores and whose-career-comes-first-type questions. There were arguments about being too stressed and tired to have sex, and there were male and female friends who automatically took the man’s side—or rather, who automatically assumed that there were two sides and that the man’s was right, not that the two were fighting the same battle—and there had been an immense guilt on Critic’s end for not being able to manage it all well and without stress. And yes, sometimes they went to the pub and the bartender only spoke to the man, even when the Critic was the one ordering.

Karen came right after the end of that relationship, and the months of their cautious dating were never about Karen herself, but an attempt to fix the relationship that preceded it, albeit on a different person. Poor Karen—who had to not only do everything that the man before her did well, but also outdo him where he was deficient—that poor Karen never had a chance to be seen for the person she was. She remained a half-fitting answer to a question she didn’t know had been posed. It was unfair. It was even, in a very real sense, violent.


4. in which theatre cannot be reviewed

Another thing the Critic discovered about rebounds that summer is that, when they end, one is left processing a few relationships at once: the rebound, the one it was meant to cure, and potentially a few others, that one had concatenated over the course of a life. The gentle rebound of Alex and the heavier rebound of Karen were all masking the enormous pain of a long-term relationship breakdown, that the Critic had managed to dodge for a while, but had finally caught up with her.

What followed were weeks of blinding distress quite unlike anything else before. Liddell’s show was the last piece of theatre that the Critic saw for the whole rest of that year. Even though she continued to go to the theatre, she couldn’t see the stage. Every detail sent her mind off on a tangent: she was grieving, she was making sense of things, reality was changing contours, no theatre could be reviewed in that state.

Theatre criticism requires emotional labour. We laugh at that statement, because it implies that criticism is suffering, which it mostly isn’t. Emotional labour, the work that requires empathy and embodying certain feelings (mostly of happiness, care, delight, and such), is generally low-paid, female, and undervalued: nursing, caring for children and the elderly, sex work, counselling. These are jobs that require a certain kind of emotional response at will, an ability to hack one’s own internal processes at will: happy, compassionate, sorry, optimistic. Jobs that cannot be done while grumpy or distressed.

It turns out that criticism is emotional labour, because the Critic was completely unable to do it in her distraught state. She could not focus on the narrative long enough to empathise with the characters. She couldn’t follow the plot. She couldn’t be taken on an emotional journey. She wasn’t open to any of it. She sat there in the auditorium, like a piece of furniture, no different from her own chair, unfeeling.

This had happened before. The Critic has had post-breakup theatre outings. Some were memorable failures: once, she had to see a show by Needcompany, a coveted ticket for a Flemish ensemble on top of their power and hype. She walked out of the theatre with no recollection of the show. She stared at the blank computer screen for hours, thinking only about how the breakup meant signing a new lease and buying a whole lot of new furniture, and criticism wasn’t the most lucrative of careers. Finally, in the small hours of the night, she wrote the review of a show she didn’t remember and had no opinion on by plagiarising what other people had written. Her review was factual and concise, careful, because that’s the only way to get away with not having any opinion.

This happens more often than you think. What would you do? She had a deadline.


5. in which theatre is merely a group of people

Finally, she saw Karen. There was almost nothing to say. Karen had been very reluctant to meet, the Critic eager, but by the time they managed to calm down the hostilities enough for it to happen, the Critic no longer cared, and Karen was dating someone else.

“You have been good to me,” said Karen, and it meant a lot.

And they left it at that.

The Critic called up the ex, the man, the one who had started it all, to see how he was doing, to say sorry, to say she understood who Karen was. It turned out he had started seeing someone else immediately after their breakup, a friend of Critic’s, another critic, let’s call her Critic 2, someone able to provide the same free tickets and the same post-show conversations and the same connections to semi-famous playwrights and actors.

“Are you in love?” she asked, and he got confused and couldn’t answer.

The Critic wanted to urgently explain about rebounds and Karen and violence, but didn’t, because some messes cannot be cleaned up.


6. in which our protagonist’s inability to see any theatre becomes something of a running joke

Some time later, the Critic was in Brussels to see some contemporary dance, and then there was a terrorist attack in Paris.

The next weekend, Brussels was in lockdown, all public events cancelled on security grounds: concerts, plays, performances.

She stayed indoors, like everyone else, banned from walking the streets by the special police, banned from getting close to windows, drinking tea with Cécile, a former girlfriend, now a good friend, a reliable soul. Cécile was on extended sick leave on burn-out grounds, frantically trying to reach her father in Paris, who still wasn’t responding.

“He usually takes two weeks to reply to an SMS. One would think now would be a good time to break that habit!”

Cécile raged and howled, because she was worried, because her father didn’t care about her fear, because she was burnt out and suddenly had to come to terms with her long-term failure to manage her life, because she was disappointed in herself and in other people and she wanted her country to be alright and her father to tell her he was alive. Since calming down didn’t seem remotely possible, and because all distractions were cancelled for a real threat of massacre, they hugged each other on Cécile’s couch and cried, for different reasons, for hours, shamelessly, as only two good friends can.

A message arrived, and it was, inexplicably, like a joke, a message from Critic 2:

“I am thinking of you. I am sure you are all taking care of each other beautifully.”

Cécile couldn’t be more incredulous, on the couch in her yoga pants and face in a crumple of snot and redness.

“Who is this airhead? What is this nonsense? ”Beautifully?” Seriously? Beautifully?! Has she ever spoken to you about dating your long-term ex-partner?”

“No.”

“What does she think she’s doing now? ‘Beautifully.’ I hope her criticism is better than that.” She wiped her face, leaving a snot mark on her sleeve, suddenly energised by anger. “You know, after you I needed something peaceful, and I dated this incredibly boring girl for four good months before I broke it off. When she told me she was in love, I realised I wasn’t fair on her. I suppose men don’t entertain such concerns.”

“I wanted to believe in women, when I couldn’t believe in men any longer,” said the Critic, thinking of Angélica Liddell. “When I could no longer believe in the ordinary world, I wanted to believe in art. And then the queers. Eventually I was left with believing in myself, and a few good people around me, like you. And now I realise that I have made a mess of my relationships.”

“And I am having a burn-out, and I wish my father was dead, instead of an unloving arsehole.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of theatre that dealt with the pain we transfer across people and relationships, these concatenations of rebounds, in order not to deal with our shit,” the Critic contemplated. “It’s too complex for theatre. Theatre is all about a few people in a few hours. The older you get, the longer you’ve been alive, the more time it takes to explain you, your accumulating baggage.”

Besides, she thought, living in the theatre means getting hooked on catharsis, the adrenaline of a few intense hours many times a week. Theatre is like an endless supply of summer and coke: it fucks up time. Life becomes a long sequence of moments of ecstasy, interrupting the long stretches of time needed to make sense of more complex stuff of life. For complexity, one needs silence, one needs humility, one needs a terrorist attack.

Brussels remained under siege for days. They stayed on that couch, crying, about death, about women and men, about relationships, and because they had spent their twenties believing themselves strong and smart, and found out in their early thirties that they were neither. It was autumn, and time had caught up with them. They didn’t cry about theatre. Art had let them down.


This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #29. Get your copy here.

Jana Perković is a theatre nerd. Her writings on theatre and dance appear in The Guardian, RealTime, The Conversation and on guerrillasemiotics.com.