Theatre reviews: Darktown Cakewalk/The Party

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SOMETHING is changing in the relationship between theatre and visual art. It's always been a strong bond – some of the greatest visual artists of the last millennium have been involved in theatre design. But now, some artists are beginning to challenge the traditional formula of the theatre event defined by time, place and duration, and the visual elements serving that rhythm.

The aesthetic of the slowly-evolving installation is beginning to invade the world of theatre, just as the idea of performance is penetrating gallery culture; and the current Glasgow International festival is reflecting that change, even before the opening of Graham Eatough's performance-based This Time With Feeling exhibition at the Tramway later this week.

Linder Sterling's Darktown Cakewalk – performed at the Arches on Friday – is a 13-hour meditation on gender and race in relation to ideas of performance, carnival, and celebrity, designed to complement Linder's small but fierce exhibition at the Sorcha Dallas Gallery. Strongly related to the wilder reaches of rock and pop culture over the last four decades, Linder's images and installation at Sorcha Dallas reflect on the commodification of women's bodies, colliding them with exaggerated images of food and flowers.

The Darktown Cakewalk takes that story further, using a series of archetypal figures – the Cakewalk King and Queen, the Witch, the Muse, the Puella Aeterna or Beauty Queen, and a gorgeous young man in gold pants called The Star – to explore ideas about fame and beauty, silence and self-mutilation, in the context of various kinds of traditional dance or procession.

The final four hours of the event, which I saw, featured some astonishing sustained improvisation by the seven-strong cast, some magnificent musical sequences from Stuart McCallum and his band, and a haunting range of dance, from mass tap-dance to a tango ballroom where the old and the young danced together in rare harmony. The show is not always easy to decode. But it challenges us to watch the slow evolution of visual and theatrical ideas in a way that conventional theatre rarely allows; and its fierce focus on our culture's dark history of racial and sexual oppression gives it a moral authority and depth that's difficult to deny.

Alexis Marguerite Teplin's The Party, by contrast – seen at the Tramway on Saturday, and presented by the young Glasgow-based collective Mary Mary – is a little 30-minute play-cum-installation about art, featuring four intellectuals (the artist, the designer, the critic and the ingenue) in stiff, painted costumes theorising in a style that deliberately recalls the bourgeois avant-garde of the mid-20th century; a kind of collision, if you like, between Sartre, Cocteau, and TS Eliot at his most moodily reflective, based on echoes of recent critical thought.

It's an amusing idea, executed with some style. At heart, though, this kind of stuff is duller than watching paint dry. Artists and critics may sit around debating the theory of art if they choose. But the idea that their self-absorbed chatter is a suitable subject for public performance is not proved by this charming but tedious interlude.