What do we do when the end of the world arrives? Party Skills for the End of the World says that it’s coming, and that we need to prepare for it. The show makes the case that we ought to learn how to sing songs, pick locks, make paper flowers and gas masks, throw knives, punch, play records, and other sundry skills. Held in Salford’s Centenary Building in what amounted to a takeover of the entire space, Party Skills first overloads attendees with these skills by scattering lessons on them throughout the building. Then it bombards audiences with ways in which the possibilities of life may remain forever unfulfilled, through a ten-minute monologue that considers what people are afraid of. Without determining how to handle such fear, the show turns to the body and stages a dance party. Exhausting this option, a cast member then recalls the pied piper, improvising a moving trumpet solo that leads attendees to a hopeful coda.
Attendee reactions have been mixed. Perhaps that’s because Party Skills sought to combine two different forms of dystopia - an Orwellian one in which our lives are run by fear, and an Huxleyan one in which our lives are run by desire. As social critic Neil Postman writes, while “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information”, Huxley “feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism”. Party Skills toys with these two dystopian registers. Echoing Orwell in its form, Party Skills offers attendees no information about what skills can be learned and how to negotiate the building, except when led around or directed by the cast. Echoing Huxley in its content, the show overwhelms attendees by the choice of skills, impossibility of mastering each one, and extensive listing of fears, leading to the dance party that recalls Postman’s characterization of the result of Huxleyan dystopia: “some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy”.
Perhaps this ambiguity has led to some of the more confused reactions of audiences and critics. Immersive approaches to work often contradict the idea of a unified storyline, and shows that experiment with this form may seek to challenge expected notions of what theatre is. This oscillation between theatre and performance, Orwell and Huxley, pain and pleasure, is precisely the negotiation that Party Skills attempted. It may have been imperfect, but it's likely that the end of the world will be as well. (AM)
- Asif Majid
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
Huxley Vs Orwell - Webcomic
Neil Postman's Predictions - Guardian