When does a piece of theatre become self-indulgent? This was the question that I was left with after seeing Hotel Methuselah at Summerhall as part of the Edinburgh Festival and British Council Showcase. It’s a piece of cinema-inspired projection work coupled with theatre, that resembles a minimalist version of Robert Lepage’s multimedia work. Hailed as “headily ambitions… technically and visually a treat”, by The Guardian in 2006, Imitating The Dog’s Hotel Methuselah seems more about showing its audience that the company has the ability to create visually illuminating work, rather than actually allowing its audience to digest it. Hotel Methuselah is like watching a train pass by a station: it speeds by with indifference and mocks us as it passes, leaving us behind waiting for the slower train further down the line. It tempts, it tantalises, but it never delivers.
It’s easy to understand how you could caught up in the visuals of Hotel Methuselah. The letterbox framing of the stage space sits like the screen of a cinema – at a distance from its audience for maximum visual impact. The action is split between projected videos, especially closeups of the actors’ faces or hand gestures, whilst the physical action of the actors playing in front of the projection is timed to the visuals. As an audience, we see only their bodies, as their faces are obscured by the framing device. The affect is at times impressive as we switch between the actors present on stage to the pre-recorded behind – we seek the defining moments from the projected faces of the cast, whilst the body language in the physical space confirms the relationships.
The narrative of Hotel Methuselah is a relatively simple one: Harry, a night-porter of a hotel, goes about his job with an air of distraction. The various guests he looks after seem to all want something from him, be it comfort, sex or just a warning of things ahead. Harry is almost stuck in a repeated nightmare, where the same characters emerge and confront him about his past (Harry suffers from some kind of memory loss – did he have a wife?). The scenes are repeated, and are often literally turned upside down as the projection spins the view-point and the cast emerge sidewards into the space. There is no denying it is impressive to the eye, but the narrative seems to slowly tick by, lulling us more into sleep rather than making us question the complex relationships presented to us.
Imitating The Dog has worked hard to provide a visually arresting piece of work, but beyond the visuals the narrative by Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks becomes thick and difficult to sit through. The work seems to have an air of disdain and discontent about it, helped greatly I’m sure by the production’s influences drawn from post-war cinema and French new wave films. What is described as ‘cutting edge’ seems strikingly behind, but of course it has to be taken into account that this piece was first conceived in 2005.
In some ways I’m encouraged by Hotel Methuselah; it is committed to delivering a certain style and technique, and whilst I didn’t manage to embrace it, the work is a visual treat. I just hope that the work doesn’t fall into being self-indulgent to all audiences and that those who are not use to such visual tricks and techniques can enjoy the spectacle.
Hotel Methuselah is playing at the Edinburgh Festival at Summerhall until 26th August. For more information see the Summerhall website.