Misery and decay: Porca Miseria by Trajal Harrell

Words by angel dust.

It’s been a few weeks since I witnessed Trajal Harrell’s Porca Miseria at the Barbican Theatre and the feeling of awe is still very much present in my body. The evening was special in that it took the audience on a physical journey through its three parts (Deathbed, O Medea, Maggie the Cat), that even though thematically different they conceptually and stylistically created a very coherent and immersive whole that very finely balanced misery and ecstasy, decay and ascension. The key ingredients to a healthy life.

In Deathbed the audience is invited to sit on the stage, in really close proximity to the performers. An intimate witnessing of a ritual that culminates in death, this piece explores Harrel’s memory of African-American choreographer and activist Katherine Dunham. Writing a letter, braiding a rope from a piece of fabric, an acorn, a bunch of entangled wires, wooden hard bristled brushes, a cast iron Japanese tea kettle, three perfume bottles and a set of three bells in silver, bronze and gold. A person walks a duck puppet around the stage. Another person balances something invisible on their head.

O Medea is a short film, a meditation on time, grieving and gravity inspired by the ancient Greek figure Medea. A mortal woman with divine ancestry, she was the former princess of Colchis before her husband Jason left her for the princess of Corinth. As vengeance, Medea kills both Jason’s new wife and her two own sons that he fathered.

Maggie the Cat is a hiccuping-techno-folk fashion teleshopping experience. The performers keep coming onto the stage as if on a catwalk, showcasing a range of makeshift outfits created by wearing towels as headpieces and holding pillows onto their bodies. A pageant selling us opulence constructed with no means, this piece is based on the eponymous character Maggie from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a desperate and gorgeous woman that is bound to a husband who does not desire her.

The idea of bricolage – a making do with what you got – something prevalent in queer ballroom culture, is a quality that Harrell maintains and exhibits intentionally in his work even in the context of working within large institutions. Many of the objects and costumes still have their price tags on as if they will be returned back to the store for a refund after the show. I find Harrell meticulous (but in a chilled out kind of way) both in his humour and his choreography, which is how he achieves to make time and its passing feel like a vacuum in a way that I imagine the three pieces as a never-ending loop or a tragicomical spiral.

In Porca Miseria, Harrell invokes the powers of the body, the sultry, the sombre, the iconic, the aching body that encapsulates what it means to inhabit this material plane as a human, particularly one that is othered. By interweaving these three female figures together the series creates a link between torment, strength and beauty that is very precisely threaded through the combination of Japanese Butoh, voguing and ancient Greek theatre. Porca Miseria literally translates to ‘pork poverty’ from Italian and is the equivalent of ‘bloody hell’ in English which I can assure you was the sentiment of most audience members walking out from the Barbican that night. This was the first time I witnessed Harrel’s work on stage and I am looking forward to the next one.