Smashed to pieces/ La Belle Meunière / La Poétique des signes

The plot of the French performance Smashed to pieces can be summed up into a single action and a shared motivation of two burlesque performers, Raphael Cottin and Pierre Meunier – to mercilessly destroy a cupboard using physical strength. Yet from this simplicity, a micro-universe of subtle meaning is born. The performance begins with 2 men determinately setting the crime scene; Cottin and Meunier, both in formal clothing, wearing white collar shirts and red ties as if coming straight from work, are pushing a wrapped cupboard into a corner and placing rubber carpets all over the scene. Lowering each carpet turns into a ritual characterized by precision, patience, symmetry, and gymnastics. As the title suggests, the goal of this performance is to deconstruct a piece of old furniture and visually capture a process of intentional destruction, only to point the audience at the creation of something new from its pieces; as if saying – from each chaos order is born, or – nothing ever truly disappears, but only changes form. Going through this process was a cathartic experience, for Cottin and Meunier, but also for the audience that joined the scene in the second part of the performance. The theater company that produced the performance, La belle Meuniere, is famous for using an experimental process similar to a workshop to explore new theatre forms (and herein lies the first connection to Sturm und Drang), and that is what the interaction with the audience and collecting and rearranging broken pieces of wood looked like – like a creative workshop. Marguerite Bordat, one of the directors and authors of the performance (along with Meunier and Cottin), joined as well on the stage, just in time to speed up the process of rebuilding. All the performers needed to be in excellent physical condition for this show, as it involved using tools such as an ax or a heavy metal ball, jumping, ballet moves, standing on top of the unstable cupboard, and various gymnastics/circus acts such as flips or piggyback. We don’t know much about the performers’ identity, other than their work uniform, and the same is true for the context, the only available information is the local French radio switching between various musical genres and interview excerpts in the background (the second, post-destruction phase is characterized by silence); the central object of the performance, the cupboard, is aesthetically unspecified but visibly belongs to the past. It is not necessary to fully define any of this information to be able to emotionally and cognitively participate in this theatrical experience, but unanswered questions do linger on even after the ending: Why an empty wooden cupboard and not some other piece of furniture? What does it represent to these people? There are no human antagonists here, only people with a common goal; a leitmotif of cooperation is present throughout the performance, first among Meunier and Cottin, and then among the newly formed community made of audience and performers. On a symbolic level, the cupboard could represent an old memory, idea, concept, or system these two men are trying to inspect and tear down so they could move on from it, or it can just be a suitable platform to externalize their frustration and repressed inner world (and this is the second connection to Sturm und Drang). The process we are witnessing on a stage gradually increases in energetic intensity and sets the rhythm of the whole. It is both disturbing and satisfying to watch, it relies on slapstick comedy, exaggeration, absurd and humorous situations (inside of the cupboard unexpectedly exploding, or carefully dusting the cupboard only to destroy it), and optical illusions playing with the perception of body size. In the minimalistic and raw setting of Smashed to pieces, a universe of 3 inhabitants and a single object is created to tell the absurdist cyclical story of creative and destructive impulses in human nature.

AUTHOR: Ajla Medanhodzic