tue 21/05/2019

Matthew Herbert's One Pig, Theatre Royal, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Matthew Herbert's One Pig, Theatre Royal, Brighton

Matthew Herbert's One Pig, Theatre Royal, Brighton

Oddball sonic profile of modern farming makes for affecting avant-garde theatre

Herbert gets piggy with it

There is a shouty lady outside the Theatre Royal in Brighton who takes strong objection to us attending tonight’s Brighton Festival performance of Matthew Herbert’s One Pig.  The show is based around the life and death of a pig, from birth to plate, and includes pork being cooked. We are, she tells us as we enter, “hypocritical vegetarians with the blood of farm animals” on our hands. Matthew Herbert is not a vegetarian but she has hit on a crux contradiction about the evening (albeit in the unfortunate manner of Crazy Cat Lady off The Simpsons). Yet Herbert’s work is surely about revealing a wider truth? Can such morals be comparative? Does the benefit of profiling the cold reality of the meat industry outweigh involvement with the slaughterhouse? Most ageing house DJs do not have to face such moral conundrums when facing their public - but then Matthew Herbert is not your average clubland don.

Facing the three tiered, red and gold opulence of this 200 year old venue, the stage is dominated by a small wired pen – a sty. Beside it is a bale of straw. The houselights dim and a man in a white coat arrives and rustles straw in a microphone. This is sampled and looped by another white clad butcher-technician at a laptop. The rest of the straw is distributed on the floor of the pen. Four men in white coats surround the pen, manipulating computers and keyboards. One of them is Matthew Herbert.

When the sounds of human voices and a lorry appear in January, a genuine sense of dread arose

He truly is an egghead, a boffin, and he’s master of the imaginative musical art happening. While he still retains a flavour of his techno-house past, his career has long moved to stranger pastures, from deconstructing Forties swing music to recording human body sounds. One Pig is the third album in his One series. The first, One One, was a strange, intimate affair of vocally whispered ambience; the second, One Club, was constructed from recordings of a night in Frankfurt’s Robert Johnson Club. One Pig is the most potent of the trilogy due to its contentious subject matter. Live, it packed a surprisingly hefty conceptual punch.

In the sty the part of the pig is played by American electronic maverick Yann Seznec. His only costume is a series of white coats with consecutive months on the back, representing the pig's six month existence, August to January. Seznec also, affectingly, goofily, acts the part, bouncing around grinning like a fool as a piglet, turning against his cage as a teenager, sometimes contemplative in later stages. It turns out the wires penning him in are a kind of electronic harp (which Seznec invented). As he pulls and twists them, they respond with snorts, grunts, oinks and other porcine sounds while the white coats create various backdrops, from hammering thudding to hypnotic tribal rhythms overlaid with Warp Records-ish tones.

It’s remarkably effective. The whole thing works to paint a picture of the pig. We are sucked in and, of course, we all know what’s coming which adds a sinister edge that the music plays to. When the sounds of human voices and a lorry appear in January, a genuine sense of dread arose in me. The music grows more abrasive, broody dub noises – swine-step, if you will – start to impinge. A real sense of theatre holds sway. We are in the lorry listening to muffled human  voices, the electronic cacophony rises and slowly each of the white coats clambers into the sty pulling at the wires, entangling with each other, all around the “pig”, the noise rising throbbing to the inevitable end when Seznec is manhandled into a red jacket.

At this point a chef comes on at the back of the stage and begins cooking pork chops or similar. The theatre fills with their smell while Herbert’s quintet sit back at their laptops creating a sequence that begins with one of their number sampling a bone saw doing its grisly work and builds to a climactic, caustic electronic tone that’s held for an uncomfortably long time, before subsiding into eating noises, cooking noises, intermingling with faint piggy squeaks and squeals. At the conclusion the food is served, the air now thick with bacon. The band stand in a line by their dinner table and Herbert sings a quiet melancholy solo vocal.

“At this time, this time of year, I take my happiness and disappear…” it begins. It’s a short elegiac ode, then all is silence. One Pig lasts only an hour but it hit home. Although clearly not so much with the men who gathered at the front of the stage to scoff the fresh-cooked plates of pork.

Watch the ten minute film The Story Behind One Pig

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