Grab Your Torch and Pitchfork! We’ll All Be Healed!

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead

We’re here to see the Horsehead like be-fore!”

A  hungover musician optimistically called ‘The Band’, also called ‘Joe’, is leading us through the opening number. He grabs the mic and mumbles a verse. Joe is wearing tight black jeans, a pinching suitjacket and a messy tie. He pushes his sunglasses up and gestures to the audience. The group of strangers follows his lead. We mumble and shift nervously on the edge of our  Yard Theatre seats.

David and I are sitting in the center of the front row. Chanting. We’re getting into it. So is the rest of the crowd. The murmur builds into a low roar.

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead/

We’re here to see the Horsehead, like be-fore!”

Neither David nor I  have any idea who The Horsehead is, or what he’s done. No one knows. But we are all in this together.

The Leader of the Community is chiming in with approval. This man in a tux wears wild eyes. He’s got the build and poise of a young Orson Welles. He speaks with rich, desperate authority. He is the one who organized this “Reconstruction” of the terrible crimes committed by the Horsehead. We, the audience, are his captive community. The Leader has lost a loved one to the murderer. He tells us that we, the audience, also know victims of the Horsehead’s crimes. The Leader of the Community hopes we will all learn something from this reconstruction. Everything is broken after the tragedy, but this performance will make it all whole!

The Band and The Projectionist are in The Community Leader’s employ.  An old-school overhead projector beams the lyrics to the ‘Song to Summon the Horsehead’ against the white wall of the theatre. The Projectionist handles the song lyric transparencies during the show. The Projectionist, a weedy, sullen character in a navy blue sweater, is also the puppeteer. He shines hand-drawn scenes and characters against the walls during the reconstruction. He moves them with Q-tips and gives them silly voices.

“Louder!” commands the Leader of the Community.

“We’re here to see the Horsehead, Horsehead, Horsehead-“

Yes, every soul who tromped through the icy drizzle to this post-industrial corner of London repossessed by art, every single soul, is implicated. Everyone who bought a seat to the first show of The Yard’s N.O.W. ’14 series this Tuesday night in February becomes a witness. The audience is a crucial part of Horsehead: A dark, rollicking satire; a weird, compelling ritual;  one of the most cohesive, inventive and fun pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

When the horse-headed boy whinnies and charges into the theatre, the Leader of the Community traps him in a ‘municipal chalk circle.’ From his cage, the parameters of which are literally chalk lines drawn on the floor, the Horseheaded Boy (Steven) is forced to re-enact the atrocities he committed.

What atrocities? Tramplings. Steven used his booted human feet in equine fury.

The motive? Sexual shame, social isolation and, well…horse brains.

We, the audience, chant! We pray! We sing hymns! We boo! …Some of us.

David was easily the loudest and quickest to break into the catchiest ditty, “We burn monsters/OH/We burn monsters!”

The man is always up for an adventure; he’s a dream audience member. Yet, his face crumples into a compassionate grimace when asked to boo the Horsehead boy.

The Leader: “Shall we boo him, ladies and gentlemen? BOOOOOOO! BOOOOOOO!”

David leans over,”I…I don’t want to boo him! This feels so wrong!”

“BOOOOO! BOOOOOOOOO!”

“I kno-ow!” I whisper back, “The liberal arts have ruined us!”

“I SAID SHALL WE BOO HIM, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN?”

Despite the chants, and the strange, enticing sense of community, there is no sense of victory at the play’s end.

The Leader of the Community cradle’s Steven’s severed horse head in his arms with a glazed look of shock in his eyes. The Leader’s voice no longer booms. He is unsure. His last command, for the audience to sing a hymn and take a ‘victory lap’ around the space, is issued in a daze.

It seemed to me that The Leader of the Community felt lost without the firm roles of the reconstruction. Perhaps, he had been doing the reconstruction over and over again- only this show was the show when he lost control and killed the captive Horsehead.

Now it was all over.

What had been put back together?

The audience’s ‘victory lap’ around The Leader of the Community and the horse head was funereal, and equally unsure. What did we just do? What was that all about? David and I weren’t certain, but the spell cast by the Horsehead has lasted weeks after we saw the show.

Over beer at The Yard bar, David said he saw a satire of “provincial English council meetings” in the show: the shabbiness, the shaming, the forming of mobs and designating of scapegoats. He talked about how becoming part of the mob was irresistable as well as uncomfortable. We discussed Frankenstein, fear of monsters, and the desire to create a sensible narrative, that is self-justifying and self-preserving in the wake of tragedy.

For me, the play also evoked the ritual played out after every atrocity committed by a ‘monster.’ The Theatre of Atrocity Coverage. I thought of the Boston Marathon bombers. I thought about the DC Metro area snipers. The school shooters. The outraged, wounded community, in addition to due process, demands a reconstruction. What exactly happened? Scenes are played out again and again in the media and over dinner conversation.

Who was he? There is always a sense that if the life and motives of the monster can only be explored and understood, answers will emerge. The victims will discover a crucial separation between their own humanity and the monster. So often, both the pitiable humanity and the inhumane monstrosity of the perpetrator emerges, muddying as well as clarifying the portrait of a killer.

Justice will be served!…What kind of justice? And will it be cathartic? Is there any release, any satisfaction?

Horsehead brilliantly explored all the elements of the reconstruction in the wake of tragedy- the pain and righteousness behind it;  all the complicated, perverse, problematic relishing that can come with it; the ambivilance, relief, or lack of relief…It is about that staged transformation between something broken and the inevitable way life continues. Does the transformation always occur? If we perform the ritual and it doesn’t, what does that mean?

The show was a rough-hewn, well thought out crucible for both incorporating and alienating the audience as a community. The audience members were both participants and observers in a mob, placing the consequences of the play solely in their own hearts and minds. I’m sure that the crowd reaction and feeling varied with each show.

It was fucked up. It was funny. It was sad. I was never sure what was going to happen next. To me, those are the marks of a good show.

Most importantly, Horsehead is a piece of theatre that has haunted me.

I think about it often. Walking around London, the catchy tunes sometimes float, unbidden, into my brain and match the beat of my boots on cobbles. I hear my own voice in the chorus echo at the strangest moments: When I read the news headlines; when the pub conversation turns to politics; just as I sit down in a completely different theatre to watch a completely different play…

“We’re here to see the Horsehead/Horsehead/Horsehead/

We’re here to see the Horsehead, like be-fore!”