“This is a re-enactment of Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special. Sort of.”
Read the blurb for Greg Wohead’s Comeback Special, which was performed at Shoreditch Town Hall from March 22nd to the 26th. How does one “sort of” re-enact something?
Shoreditch Town Hall is a space that recently transformed into a venue for contemporary arts in East London, supporting young and emerging artists to create work in one of their seventy rooms. The building looks a bit old, but not any less grand, and since 2010 has been the setting for performances from companies and artists such as Dreamthinkspeak, Ira Brand, and Kneehigh, amongst others. Currently, it has five associate artists: Analogue, Upstart Theatre, Theatre O, Simple8 and Greg Wohead.
A fifteen-minute walk from Old Street tube led me to the foyer of the building, where I was welcomed and given a program that, I was told, contained “very important information”. I sat in the warm, and slightly over-priced, bar and proceeded to read the program while I waited to be called in – it spoke about Greg Wohead’s interest in fakeness and recreations; about how films function on syncopated timelines (when they were filmed, the sequence of time they portray, the time it takes to make the film, the time when we see the film…) and about how re-enactments let us live in these syncopated timelines. Suddenly this recreation got a lot more interesting.
We were called into a space that had a square black stage in the middle, surrounded by chairs for audience members on each of its four sides and translucent curtains hanging over the chairs. We sat down facing each other. Greg Wohead walked on stage, and introduced himself to one audience group. Then he turned 90 degrees, and introduced himself in exactly the same way to the new audience group. I enjoyed this looped beginning, which allowed us to see how personal the performance was to the artists and established how he would be playing with the idea of time all the way through.
After this strange loop that made us aware of the sense of re-enactment of the performance, Wohead introduced Elvis’ 1968 Comeback Special – the history of its filming and its transmission; we got told how Elvis had performed for four different audiences for the filming, much as we were divided into four: four different audiences with different experiences of this reenactment. He proceeded to literally try to re-create what the space looked like by describing the scene for us. He placed chairs around the space to illustrate things, but it was only him on stage, describing himself as Elvis – evidencing he wasn’t Elvis. This was an unusual circumstance: a show that promoted itself as being a re-creation of an Elvis film where, in fact, Elvis was the least important thing in the show. I don’t dislike Elvis, even if I am not a big fan of his, but it was refreshing for the show not to be an actual attempt at reliving this icon’s glory – we can all access recordings of his performances – but rather an experience that made use of Elvis’ fame as a way of making the audience realize our own uniqueness and irreplaceability
The description broke to tell us about the first time Wohead had watched the Comeback Special, in a way letting us watch him watch his memory of himself watching the show. We were all a series of others watching each other. We moved through the performance as he moved through the film – Greg never allowed us to get too comfortable, which helped keeping the audience engaged. I enjoyed the pace of the performance, constantly skipping ahead even within its own repetitions, although I would have enjoyed spending more time with certain moments.
At some point, he acted out a section of the 1968 transmission, doing each movement and lip-synching to a recording. He looped this section and then started involving the audience. Ever so slowly, we were cast as characters in this moment – we took part in bringing it into the present. I was in awe at how involved people got, everyone was really going for it. But after we were all included, we got shown, projected onto the translucent curtains, the moment we had failed at recreating; in our failure, however, we had created a completely new moment for ourselves. And it didn’t matter how well or similar to Elvis Wohead sang, it would never be Elvis on that stage, and that was something special in itself.
We were then confronted with another projection from the film. Greg watched it (us watching him) while doing a voice-over that re-contextualized what was happening; the better to reflect how he had perhaps felt the first time he watched Elvis’ recording, and fluctuating between his past experience, current experience, and imagined experience of the film. We were submerged in a dreamscape of observers, as he explicitly talked about seeing himself in this fictional narrative.
Never had I been more aware of myself as a spectator: as a person surrounded by others, all watching the same space. I was so aware of the passage of time: of the time I was spending watching this, and the (back then) non-existent time when I would be remembering watching this. Or aware of what the others might be experiencing while watching it, when we were given false memories as Greg cast us as audience members for that famed recording back in 1968. I don’t think I had ever felt myself more present during a performance.
If you want to see a play from a different perspective, you should go and see Comeback Special. You’ll have the feeling of being part of the show, even if you’re just there to see it.
Greg Wohead is is a “writer, performer and live artist” who does a lot of one-to-one pieces and audio-based work. He aims to make work that is personal and exposing and is currently exploring re-enactments, radical manifestations of masculinity and surrogates… and I can’t wait to see what he is going to do next.