The Desk at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: eerie but ill-conceived

I love physical theatre. I love its beauty and the simplicity of its focus on the human body – its demonstration of remarkable strength and focus in a controlled setting. Just last week, I raved about SHINE at the Fringe – its breath-taking combination of intimate physicality and immersive sound delivered vial headphones to deliver a psychological experience of madness.

That said, I’ve always thought of physical theatre as a poor medium to express ideas, and The Desk is a prime example of the form’s ideological inertness. Once your physical theatre piece is designed as an examination of a theme, the audience becomes preoccupied with figuring out how the mass of moving bodies in front of them relates to that theme. Trying to relay ideas in this way is cumbersome, difficult, and you can say a tiny fraction in an hour of what you could in a play (or even a painting, to be honest).

So what do we learn in The Desk – a piece inspired by cults and subtitled ‘a study in orthodoxy’? We learn that in cults there is brainwashing, mind control, and a hierarchical power structure. We also learn that members of cults become parts of a hive mind until odd beliefs are normalised. We learn that cult leaders are self-proclaimed demigods who control their subjects (quite literally) like puppets.

Problem: we already know all this.

Reetta Honkakoski’s wordless show casts herself as the ruthless, quasi-dictatorial leader of a cult (which is only evident if you’ve read the show description beforehand). Somewhat bizarrely, the show begins with her disciples already… well…. disciples – The Desk never attempts to explain or study the seductive religious fervour that bizarre movements inspire, instead settling for the much easier task of demonstrating the in-cult dynamic.

Aside from Honkakoski, there are five more performers who act as her ‘pupils’. Everyone has an old school desk – which is probably why this is called The Desk – and is non-coincidentally dressed up in a sort-of school uniform type costume. Over the course of the hour, these desks are moved around and the pupils interact with them in ways that demonstrate the uniformity and power structure within the organisation. All the while, a minimal ambient score complements the piece and provides a sonic metronome for the performers – although, at times, it appears slightly out of sync (is that the point?).

Although all the performers are excellent, Honkakoski is particularly impressive as the enigmatic, militaristic head of the organisation. In a solo scene, she’s given free-reign to move unnaturally to unsettling backing music, really channeling the creepy magnetism that should be more present throughout this show.

Despite the skill of the performers, The Desk feels at times like a 30-minute show where everything is done for twice too long. Here’s an action, here’s it repeated, here’s it repeated again with exactly the same soundtrack. Several repetitions later, and I’m thinking ‘can we please move on to something different now?’ But no, the repetitions continue until I see a sea of blinking watch-lights in the crowd. The idea has been conveyed in less than half the time the movement continues for – all this faffing around for what?

And even then – even with the constant repetition and shallow analysis – even then the audience just don’t get it. Upon exiting the Summerhall, I heard several voices say ‘I had no idea what was happening’ or ‘I didn’t get it’. I’ve come across reviews saying similar. The fact remains: this kind of physical theatre is a poor medium to explore ideologies and turns what should be an impressive performance into an academic exercise in self-congratulation.

When I watch a play, I’m watching it for the enjoyment of theatre – and when ideas are discussed and talking points raised, I’m often provoked and intrigued by them. Take Tricky Second Album, which we reviewed yesterday: it was a piece of absurdist comedy that became a really interesting takedown of the Fringe and the arts industry in late-capitalist society. But with this sort of performance, what I inevitably end up looking for is ‘what is going on?’, which is something that should be self-evident, right? And then, when the audience do figure out what is going on – e.g. ‘ah yeah, this mindless repetition is supposed to represent the mindless regimentation of cult life’ – they congratulate themselves on being clever or cultured enough to understand the piece, rather than actually learning anything or engaging in any meaningful thought about the theme.

This is because, crucially, the enjoyment and understanding of a thematic, wordless physical theatre piece depends wholly upon the pre-existing knowledge of the spectator – it can’t teach the audience anything, they have to already know what’s up in order to ‘get’ it. It’s a circlejerk.

That dynamic isn’t so far-off the dictionary definition of ‘pretentious’.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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