Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Jonah non Grata, ICA Theatre

Review: Jonah non Grata, ICA Theatre

If that really is the question, the answer may well be, “Meh.” After Simon Kane’s solo show, an attempt “to fashion as one a perfect model of the human condition,” it all seems much of a muchness.

What Kane serves up is an existential crisis with all the associated anguish and terror removed. It makes for an unexpectedly pleasurable panic attack. He stands before us, awkward and cack-handed, but also oddly secure, and preaches the meaninglessness of life. Existence, as Kane portrays it, entails nothing but suffering in a cruel toy world, a process leading inexorably to its own end. Far from putting a full stop to that misery, however, that end only serves to increase the anxiety of life’s struggle. After death, after all, we know neither pain nor its absence. Yet beforehand, we quake in anticipation.

In the face of all this, Kane is a man absolutely come to terms with his own insignificance, futility and arbitrariness. In a world that constantly affirms your significance – where what you buy, how you vote, who you fuck are all spun into importance – Jonah non Grata breaches the ultimate taboo by suggesting otherwise. Kane flouts the system, inviting us, perhaps even urging us, to opt out. It is at once deeply troubling and deeply comforting. Kane confronts us with an overwhelming crisis, in the face of which, one’s niggling everyday troubles no longer seem worth the worry.

Having been birthed from a laundry bag, Kane hops, quite haphazardly, between several different strands. He guides us through a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, plays a language training tape and leads us in a religious service of sorts. He belts out his own version of O Fortuna over a ukele backing and later leads us in a hymn of his own making, which neatly distills and parodies the impulses of wonder and awe that serve as the foundations of worship. In religion, Kane implies, we seek naught but comfort. There is inconsequential, rambling talk of death and love; there are botched magic tricks and bungled showmanship. Initially, it’s like a sermon delivered by a priest who has recently lost his faith, but can’t let on.

With his jagged half-smile, there’s something about Kane that seems to strain for a semblance of ease. His speech has the rhythm, pace and timbre of a sermon or common prayer, but lacks the accompanying authority. His top button is done up, furthering a priestly appearance, but also adding a certain stiffness and discomfort. As he goes on, this man seems to grow in confidence and, with it, honesty. He gives up the ghost and lets us in on the secret – that, maybe, probably, almost certainly, there is no secret.

The obscurity and restlessness of Kane’s material makes Jonah non Grata puzzling, but also adds to its potency. Here he’s covered himself in rice pudding; there he’s blindfolded himself. There are repeated references to ‘the scourge’ and (I think) the Marriot, presumably the hotel. Watching, one is forever scrabbling to understand the piece’s rules, it’s logic and motives. The more slippery and evasive it proves, the harder we grapple to follow. Amongst the audience, there’s an atmosphere of both reverence and boisterousness. We are at once an intent congregation, diligently listening, and a rowdy crowd, baying for spectacle and mischief. The longer it goes on, however – this string of baffling images – the more an overall philosophy comes into view.

In all this, what is said seems less important than how it is said; what we choose less important than that we choose. Language and free will, the two principles conventionally turned to in order to elevate ourselves above animals, are rendered clunky and constrained. Ultimately, they just come to seem a bit shit, barely worth having and certainly no recompense for the hardships of continuing survival.

Before you dismiss Jonah non Grata as mere nihilist nonsense (or nonsensical nihilism), its worth saying that it changes the world – if only for a short while. It may feel bleak, but it’s also brilliantly permissive. Walking away from the ICA, up Regents Street, far more felt possible. The pressures of the city, of public expectation, of etiquette and society had lost their stranglehold. Other people seemed less relevant; their judgement, inconsequential. Life, for a while, felt like an edition of Deal or No Deal: it’s my game to do with as I please. The world reduced to my portion of it, a bubble of experience that moves as I move. This is the whale’s belly. It may not be the whole world, but it’s warm. And there’s a minibar. And a television.

So, far from depressing – though if you let it (better a philosopher unsatisfied, crawling out of the cave etc), it’s got the scope to do so – Jonah non Grata lifts a weight. Sure, we can do no right, but, by the same reasoning, we can just as easily do no wrong. It’s all one.

Photograph: Simon Kane

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