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Miki Espuma (La Fura Dels Baus)

Published 17 April 2008

La Fura’s spectacularly explicit homage to the Marquis De Sade has proved to be one of the most controversial pieces of art to be shown in London in recent times. Earning outraged splutters from the British press, XXX (at Riverside Studios) has been variously accused of conducting sex acts on audience members or inciting them to conduct them on each other. Tom Bowtell caught up with Miki Espuma to find out what everyone is getting so excited about.

Miki Espuma is one of the artistic directors of La Fura, which has been one of Spain’s leading theatrical innovators for nearly a quarter of a century. Until XXX hit the headlines so spectacularly, the company was perhaps most famous for their performance at the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics when, combining physical theatre with circus tricks, they recreated the myth of Hercules in spectacular fashion.

At the start of the interview, Miki tells me that his English “is not absolute perfect”, and seeing as my Spanish is absolutely imperfect, it was left to La Fura’s press officer Claudia Cuello to translate Miki's answers for me. Throughout the interview, I get the impression that despite the fact that the show is about sex, contains sex, is named after sex and includes more nudity than you could shake a stick at, Miki didn’t actually want to talk about sex. He was clearly fairly bemused by the schoolboyesque reaction of aspects of the British media : “He says he’s very surprised” [says Claudia] “Because we’ve been in Italy, France, Spain and Germany and nobody has responded like this – this is the first time. Miki thinks that these things are important and wrong for the papers, but they are not so important for us. We care about other things.” I ask if the company believes that all publicity is good publicity, but they clearly don’t have that phrase in Spain.

"We won't allow these people, these papers, to close the show"

Miki seems broadly unconcerned about mooted legal action against the company for alleged indecency on stage, although he clearly isn’t happy about the allegations “it is important for La Fura Dels Baus to work here in London, and he doesn’t want to allow these men, these papers or whoever they are, to close the theatre and not allow us to do this show. Miki does not think this will happen because we made a test tape and the police said that nothing would happen.” Throughout proceedings, La Fura have maintained that the offending organs were all prosthetics, and that the participants from the audience were all plants. The fact that one was called Miguel, and was clearly as Spanish as paella, would seem to back this theory up and the company was all but let off the hook by a recent police announcement that, having viewed videos of XXX and attended the show live “no evidence of any criminal activity has been found.”

While XXX may not be illegal, can it really justify calling itself art? Espuma is adamant that it can: “Miki says that XXX is certainly not pornography. It makes people think about pornography, but it isn’t pornography. The show is based on the novel Philosophy In The Bedroom by the Marquis De Sade, and the sex in the show is only that which allows us to speak about political and cultural issues. He says what is more important, more controversial than the sex is what we talk about with religion, politics, the culture: to us this is more important than the sex.”

It is clear that Miki and his La Fura colleagues take their work very seriously, and that they do not take kindly to being labelled pornographers. This desire to make their point is brought home by Miki’s response to the loaded question of whether or not he and the company get frustrated by people coming to the audience just because of its raunchy reputation, and not because of its loftier intentions. “Again, Miki says we use the sex to allow us to show other things, so people will come to see the sex and learn about other things. We don’t want to talk about sex, but it is our way of talking about everything else.”

"We don't want to talk about sex, but it is our way of talking about everything else"

Robert Wyatt: huge formative influence on La Fura's philosophy

One of La Fura’s founding principles was the “concept of collective creation, where the actor and the author are one and the same.” According to Miki, this production, which takes the simulation of sex on stage to unprecedented levels, is a classical example of this in process. Miki uses a rather cryptic analogy to explain the process, quoting Robert Wyatt (bearded singer and founder member of the soft machine) at me: “there was a man, Robert Wyatt who said ‘when the finger points to the moon, the people who watch the finger is a stupid man.’ The man who watches the finger not the moon is a silly.”

Slightly taken aback by this grandiloquent response, I essay a different method of questioning and ask if there was anything the performers in La Fura (Teresa Vallejo, Pau Gómez, Sonia Segura and Pedro Gutiérrez) refused to do on stage? “No” [this time I understand Miki by myself], “The actors and actresses have performed nude scenes before on stage and the actors and directors worked together in La Fura, so they say ‘we will do this’, ‘we will do that’ and it is all OK.”

"De Sade would have found it very light!"

Part of the appeal of De Sade’s work was its pitch black wit, the recognization that there remains something slightly laughable about the naked human form, especially when involved in the galumphing business of sex. So has this humour been transferred to XXX? Claudia is suddenly animated: “Miki says yes! There are lots of jokes. He says that in today’s performance, the audience laughed a lot. It is a very ironic show.” Would the Marquis De Sade have approved of XXX’s style and content? “Yes, surely – although Miki thinks that the Marquis would have found it very light."

Scenes from the Come-As-A-Clock Ball for nudists

There are still many more things I'd like to ask about this extraordinary show, but it seems that Miki has finished his lunch and Claudia politely terminates proceedings. In all possible ways I am left with an impression of La Fura Dels Baus as an utterly confusing company. They passionately defend the artistic nature of their show, yet sell it on its sex and even name it using three Xs – universal shorthand for porn. They are tell me that they are against war yet De Sade’s work encouraged total submission to natural instincts such as sex and violence. Whatever the merits of XXX – and people are still strongly divided – the courage of the company in doing things on stage that most of us wouldn’t dream of even dreaming of, is undeniable. My elusive, half-comprehended conversation with Miki Espuma certainly hasn’t dulled my interest in the piece – which, I hasten to add, is entirely professional and wholesome.

La Fura XXX runs at the Riverside Studios until Saturday May 17.

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