Sunday, 21 August 2016

Under Ice – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 21/08/16]


I went into Under Ice knowing nothing more than the title and “it is Lithuanian”. I’d discounted the possibility of it being German playwright/director Falk Richter’s 2004 play, Unter Eis, because if it was Falk Richter’s name would have been on the poster, right?

I came out *really* wanting to know how the piece had been made, so I went to the Summerhall website:
“...this contemporary adaptation of Falk Richter’s famous play, by the prominent Lithuanian director Arturas Areima, represents a new generation of theatre. Distilled from more than hundred hours of research [is that a lot? Whose research?] and imbued with a dark and gritty aesthetic, Under Ice is an alienating yet universal mirror of the things we run from, and the things we are...”
Quite by chance, I happened to see Arturas Areima’s graduation production of Road in Vilnius in 2008. It was clear, even in that stark, stripped-back, entirely humourless staging of Jim Cartwright’s play that Areima had *something*.  His new staging of Under Icethe original is still in repertoire at the Schaubühne, at time of writing – is genuinely remarkable.

After watching the piece, I’d have been more or less prepared to swear that this was a new, original, devised/written piece made by the Lithuanian company in the last year – maybe operating something along the lines of the Estonian group NO99.

The aesthetic here feels most like that video of the interview with Laibach from Yugoslavian TV in 1982. There is literally nothing digital visibly on stage. Ok, the TVs are modern, but they could just as well be old ones. Similarly, the soundscape – and, blimey, it’s great – sounds like it’s been made using old analogue delay pedals and effects desks; short reverb feedback and echoes on microphones is the order of the day here. On the three large TV screens, a near-continuous video montage plays; most of it pre-21st century footage – indeed, footage of the twin towers attacks, Trump, Obama, Merkel and Putin feels oddly like broadcasts from the future.

The picture of contemporary corporate life feels familiar enough, however. The language of corporate recruitment, assessment and self-betterment mingles with the extremes of fascism and pretty much every extremist’s online output into one indistinguishable paranoid whole. At the same time, there’s a kind of poetic undercurrent running beneath the piece, allowing a fractured lyricism to offset the otherwise relentless brutality.

Similarly, visually, while the whole is soaked in a kind of 1980s insane machismo, a mess of cables and empty plastic bottles, flourescent lights, and power dressing, another man sits trapped – Samsa-like – in an executive chair, in a cage of microphones. The three performers [no programme, no names] deliver a brutal, at times almost too convincing performance of far-right, business fascist, masculinist supremacy.

I’m not sure how “relatable” the text is. I mean, it’s *really* extreme, and Richter’s musings (have they been supplemented? Re-written? I don’t know) – as elsewhere – don’t always quite hit the exact nail on the head for me every time (and, again, it does feel like a problem that it’s *another* all male play). But, at the same time, the strategies of this extreme 2004 text do now feel worryingly prescient. I mean, this really is *The Play* of the Trump Presidency and environmental collapse, and I’d venture to say that it’s this production from the former Soviet Union – much more than the polite, expensive-looking Schaubühne one – that is the ideal delivery system for the text. I mean, lest we forget, in amongst the visual overload video montage of Trump and Putin is Trump’s suggestion that NATO is to become a protection racket; while Putin’s designs on the EU’s Baltic states are hardly a secret... The cold war aesthetics here really aren’t *just* cutesy Ostalgie.

So, yeah. Christ. Brilliant production, and unexpectedly chilling; far more so than the seeming dozens of end-of-the-world pieces written by comfy Brits. The Lithuanian context makes what might have seemed like petulance from a West German feel like a genuine scream of rage and terror from the “liberated” East.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Cosmic Fear – Bedlam, Edinburgh

[seen 13/08/16]


Cosmic Fear or The Day Brad Pitt Got Paranoia, to give it its full title, is a 2008 Danish piece by writer/director Christian Lollike.

C  – This is the trailer for the original production:

[doesn’t show trailer]

A – I really like the look of that! I shouldn’t have watched it before writing this review!

B – I mean, I do like Empty Deck’s production of the piece. I do. It’s energetic, and kind of on-board with a load of stuff that I’m enthusiastic about in terms of staging...

C – But?

B – Look, this is probably down to my tendency to overthink things as much as anything real – I do think the play-in-translation and/or production just run into the simple problem of Not-Our-Culture a bit...

A – Put simply, Cosmic Fear is (intentionally) quite a frenetic, overwrought, hysterical piece – maybe a bit like the style of earlier Rene Pollesch pieces as well. It’s riddled with irony, and as an Englishman, used (still, mostly) to English Theatre, it’s difficult to pin down precisely in terms of what it says, or wants to be saying, or seen to be saying, or what it’s ironising exactly, or not ironising...

C – Sorry. It feels like you’ve gone all Michael Billington. But, yes, I wasn’t sure what I was meant to be taking away from the performance, or what I was meant to be digging out of it. In part, that might be to do with the fact that the piece is almost a decade old now. It feels like maybe no one’s using that sort of mode of irony across Europe now. Like we’ve all sobered up a bit or something. Not that there’s some sort of “new seriousness”, God forbid, but at least that, I don’t know, that we’re all a bit more...

B – The irony’s different now. Yes. The stagings maybe all still look the same, or similar; i’m not saying there hasn’t been evolution...

A – The vanity of small differences...

C – The vanity of... MAYBE. BUT... NO... It’s not just that. I mean, maybe I am imagining it, but it does feel like things are a bit fundamentally different now to 2008, about how we talk about things now. We’re that bit more respectful now? Or worried? Or aggressive? Or distracted by other things...?

B – There’s not really all that much difference between now and 2008, surely?

A – There are literally hundreds of millions more people on the plant now. In 2008 the world population was 6.7 billion. It’s now 7.4 billion. How is this not terrifying? That’s eight fucking years, man [you can look those figures up, BTW, they’re real].

C – And this is what the play’s like?

A – This is pretty much what the – don’t call it “a play” – is pretty much what the thing is like.

B – set?

A – Sofa, tent, projection screen at the back, mic stand at the front, mess.

C – Cool!

A – *Quite* cool.

B – BUT THE PERFORMERS ARE SHOUTING WAY MORE THAN THIS WRITING SUGGESTS!!!!!!

A – Yeah! It’s quite a frenetic pace throughout!!!

C – You sound disapproving!!!

A – No! It’s not my place to approve or disapprove! IT DOES WHAT IT DOES!!!

B – She disapproves!

A – I didn’t say that!!!

[C plays the trailer of the original production. Blackout]




Bildraum – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 19/08/16]


Ok. There are two* ways to tackle Bildraum. One is the all out rave with a bunch of pull-quotes, and non-sentences like “‘BEST THING I’VE SEEN IN EDINBURGH! A MUST-SEE! KILL TO GET A TICKET! A TRUE ORIGINAL!’ – Andrew Haydon”. But that’s horrible. Who wants that?

The other is the longer version that only fifty people will finish reading... [in this case, it's actually quite a short review.]

Bildraum (literally "picture/room") is extraordinary. It’s about 40 minutes long, and what it consists of is a series of still photos of small architectural models taken live on stage and projected onto a screen at the rear of the small stage. There is a bit of music – some of it made live (2011 called, it wants its loop pedals back) – some sound effects and some ominous ambient noise, but almost everything that happens on stage is architect Steve Salembier arranging the models, and photographer Charlotte Bouckaert taking the pictures.

Maybe the most obvious points of comparison are cinematic and artistic. I thought variously of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, the swimming pool paintings of David Hockney, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (and maybe more, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie), and a lot about Hitchcock.

While the piece is – necessarily – entirely postdramatic, it was fascinating to see the extent to which we (I) continually struggle to invent narratives; to write a story in our heads, based on all the information we have about the world; to make sense of the theoretically unconnected images appearing before us, by making them into a story; even while we could see the way that they were being made, and the fact that they *actually* revealed nothing more than a series of photos we watched being taken of the insides of little architectural models. At the same time, it made more explicit than I’ve ever seen before on stage (more even than Katie Mitchell’s camera shows), the willingness and urge to participate in meaning-making, and the “contract of signs” between audience and performers/makers** (roughly: that we promise to translate the signs, if they’re careful in arranging them).

Maybe it’s incorrect to interpret the sequences of scenes as one single narrative. This could as easily be a triptych. There seemed to be distinct sections, separated by full blackouts. Ultimately, though, there’s not nearly enough information for any audience member’s interpretation to be “incorrect”. At the same time, it’s not so open that you’re simply abandoned in a field of signifiers; you get a sense of place from these models. Architecture isn’t, after all, a static field with no developments. You get a vague sense of time and place from the models. And, when things happens to the models – small or large context changes that make you perceive them differently – that also doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

In a way, this is the coolest show I’ve seen on the Fringe. Cool in many senses: it has a muted, almost monochrome palette; its soundtrack is laconic; the performers do not exert themselves (there is precision, but not “effort”); the overall effect is modish. At the same time, there’s also a kind of nerdy delight to it all. There’s also a sense that – although original now – this is a form that could really be taken forward and adopted/adapted *a lot*. A kind of equivalent new puppet theatre for the postmodern age. A new vocabulary for storytelling (and not-telling). (In short: I want *everyone* to start making these. I want to see one at the NT. I want to see one of these as a revival production of an extant text, or an adaptation of a novel... I want to read Michael’s review telling us that it’s not theatre...)

But, yes, while that’s for the future; in this present, do definitely go and see Bildraum at Summerhall. If you’re anything like me, you’ll adore it, want to see it again as soon as it finishes, wish it had been twice as long, and be totally inspired by the potential of the form.




*Ok, there are more than two.

** It’s fascinating that despite the 'postdramatic-ness,' this piece feels much more allied to the theoretical writings of Patrice Pavis, rather than Hans-Thies Lehmann (if that’s a divide other people recognise). ((Although “the contract of signs” is Erica Fischer-Lichte, I think.))

Friday, 19 August 2016

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again – RSC at Traverse, Edinburgh

[seen 18/08/16]


It’s funny, isn’t it? If you’d asked me on Wednesday what I thought of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, I’d have probably told you I liked it very much indeed. Indeed, I’ve even emailed copies of the script to a bunch of colleagues/dramaturgs/critics in other countries who want to see what radical writing for the stage looks like in Britain. And I think I stand by that assessment. I think I still think that Revolt is a really interesting, difficult text for the stage. I like it because it presents a problem to its director. There is no clear way to stage it, there are no easy answers on the page. Indeed, it might even remind me a bit of Elfriede Jelinek (my favourite stage direction by that Austrian Nobel Prize for Literature-winning playwright is: “[long suggestion for a staging] But I am sure you’ll come up with something completely different.”). On paper, the piece feels full of possibilities, uncertainties, questions, ambiguities...

I am not a huge fan of this production, first made by Erica Whyman for the RSC in 2014 for their “Making Mischief” [or “Midsummer Mischief” according to a different part of the RSC’s website] season, “inspired” by the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote/book-title “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Birch’s text proclaims “This play is not well behaved”; sadly, the production really, really, horribly is. The moment that crystallised this feeling for me – more that the horrible, horrible ersatz, polite, pretend *faux-“German”* stage mess, or the stolen Ostermeier Crave starting set WHICH IS THEN IMMEDIATELY ABANDONED* – was very close to the end when an audience member’s phone went off. Loudly. Twice. And this “not well behaved” play broke. The actors faltered slightly, looked up a teeny bit – even while pretending to be in the same room as us, and talking to us, and engaging with us and in front of us – but then politely ignored the phone, pretended nothing had happened, brought down the shutters of the fourth-wall house that they’d been in all along, and carried on with the nice game of make-believe.

There are some shocking things in the play. (Not “shocking”, what is? We’re all immune to everything now. How else could we live? But powerful reminders of how horribly women are treated, nonetheless.) But the only thing that actually made me angry was the exposure of this lie.

– As Žižek says, people only get angry when something they know, and are pretending isn’t happening, is forcibly exposed –

As such, you’d think that Revolt would also make one angry, by dint of its continual revelations of brutality against women. And perhaps at moments it does – the savage section on how to avoid being raped by making yourself constantly available is bitter, brilliant irony at its best. But instead it is hijacked by the audience. The first half, at least, winds up playing like a very right-wing satire of radical feminism. The audience laugh *at* the radicalism. The Noel Coward accents and tone of the production don’t help. There’s so much “liberal” self-hate chucked into the mix as well, that people who really do hate “well-meaning” posh, Southern-English liberals (most of yesterday’s audience, by the sounds of them) really get to have their prejudices confirmed. The second half of the piece maybe loses that audience, but, Christ on a bike, it feels like a choppy 1hr10. For a good long while, it felt like a comedy night a Edinburgh’s Conservative Association. (Which is not, I preseume, the intended effect.)

But maybe this is the shape of post-Brexit theatre to come. Old people, lured by the RSC’s reassuringly reactionary brand, braying their approval at [what they readily perceive to be] mockery of the now-defeated liberal metropolitan elite’s stupid values.

So that’s depressing.

At the same time, the text is in part inspired by Valerie Solanas’s SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, the kind of Mein Kampf of feminism, which calls for women to “eliminate the male sex”... [Maybe Mein Kampf is too harsh. Maybe it’s more The Turner Diaries], but it’s more or less impossible to engage with the text via this production of it, because aesthetically it’s such an abomination.

I think I still like Birch’s play, but this production wants so hard to be liked, to not alienate a single person, to be ingratiating and “entertaining”, to “give everyone their money’s worth...”

And, y’know, seeing the text performed did at lest make me notice some things about the writing that hadn’t struck me in reading it; the use of recurring images and motifs – the bluebells, the nightingales, the cut off fingers and tongues; all horribly evocative of Philomela and Lavina... But, my God, it’s a hell of a battering the play takes to reveal these few, small insights.

FWIW, I don’t think there’s anyone “to blame” for this. It feels more like a confluence of so many all-too-common factors in British (perhaps “English”) theatre. Their depressing repetition here – the literalism, the conservatism, the visual illiteracy/timidity, the physical non-presences, the hideous politeness – maybe just feels worse because they’re such a kick in the teeth for what the play could be.

In short, this is the sort of production that made me leave England in 2009. I wish I hadn’t seen it. It’s awful. Just the worst. I thought we’d stopped making things this bad, or at least that I’d got better at missing them, but no. Hideous. The worst thing I’ve seen at this Edinburgh Fringe, and made by the highest-funded company here. Ironic. Avoid like the plague.


*I mean, yes, sure, it’s amusing to put a picture of Ostermeier’s Crave at the top of this review instead of a Revolt production photo [directly above], to point out how similar they are. But the advantage of Ostermeier’s Crave (2000) was that they stuck to that stark, difficult aesthetic. Revolt devolves into a series of sub-Stafford-Clark sock-puppet-theatre encounters under the world’s most boring lighting plot within one scene.

The Murderer – Zoo Southside, Edinburgh

[seen 12/08/16]


Isn’t student theatre brilliant? By total coincidence, I first met Luke Kennard through when he and some friends from Exeter University brought their (as I remember it) brilliant surreal comedy, The Freudian Slip, to the National Student Drama Festival in 2003*

As a result, I’ve known his poem, The Murderer for probably over a decade now**. Even so, it still feels surprising when “that poem by our mate, that we used to make him read at parties.” Kennard reads the poem brilliantly, I think:



What I hadn’t particularly factored in, therefore, was the extent to which I’d always associated the relationship between the murderer and the narrator of the poem as one of Actual Luke Kennard and A Murderer (whose appearance I’d never fully finalised).

What was most immediately startling in Clown Funeral’s piece, for me, therefore, was the fact that the “Carer”-for-the-murderer here was a young woman. [I’ve subsequently been told that the company has five performers, who play the three roles in rotation, irrespective of gender, do it was sheer chance that I saw the configuration I did. I’m not sure what this does to my overall understanding of what/how the piece means, though. Not a lot of the things I thought it did, obviously. It also means I feel like I need to see another couple of versions...]

There are also a load of other extrapolations from the poem – obviously there have to be, the poem itself is only 24 short lines, the show is 55 minutes long – with which the company gently but firmly wrest control of the poem from my memories of it, and establish it as theirs, at least for the duration of the show: we’re maybe a short way into the future, where the post-prison rehabilitation of murderers has become some sort of government/privatised scheme whereby volunteer(?) carers take the murderers into their homes, as halfway houses. It’s an interesting idea; partly because it fits well with the already strange tone of the poem, but also because it seems to tap into some sort of idea of society and government which, while neither directly satirical, nor immediately urgent, seems somehow “true” on some level. “True” in perhaps the same way that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World seem “true” even if they’re not.

Indeed, the whole production is a bit like that. It feels almost like it captures the essence of “Classic Student Theatre” (and I mean this in an entirely positive way). It’s got three door-frames of differing sizes that can be (and are) wheeled around the stage; it’s got performers being on opposite sides of the stage facing away from each other but interacting (why *is* that a convention?); but most of all, it’s got this kind of timeless NF Simpson/Pinter/Stoppard/Beckett surrealist essentialism. Like, if there was a default mode for absurdism, this would pretty much be it. And it’s strangely lovely to see it again. In a year where so much of the best work at the Fringe is painfully contemporary and politically urgent, it’s actually kind of glorious to spend an hour musing with something a bit more abstact about the human condition.

Having The Carer played [on this day] by a woman (cast names? I can’t find ‘em) also has the interesting effect of making the whole read a lot more like a relationship drama. (Now, yes, I know that’s wildly heterosexist of me, but then, maybe it’s also a) deliberate/deliberately-ambiguous, and b) more to do with the domestic set-up, in which the same would perhaps apply to the two men, neo-Platonism-style [now see square-bracketed note above...]).

As recent graduates from Warwick, they perhaps suffer from that albatross of an article (see link), which I wrote about their alma mater last year. They’re not Breach, Barrel Organ or Walrus, but nor are the trying to be. This is still distinctive, really rather impressive post-student theatre, and well worth a look, I think. All the more so for its not being poundingly, thumpingly *URGENT*. Not everything about the human condition demands *URGENCY*, sometimes a bit of quiet, wry reflection can be pretty great. I reckon that’s what we get here, and I liked it very much.


Full text of The Murderer (the poem) here.





*The same year as How To Win Against History and Heads Up director Alex Swift’s award winning production of Bedbound (starring Khalid Abdalla and Cressida Trew), and Matt Trueman’s first ever published review in Noises Off, aged 17, fact fans.

** Indeed, one set of Kennard’s Wolf poems in I-forget-which-volume is dedicated to Alex Swift’s wife, Lily Einhorn, after she did a beautiful reading of the first Wolf poem on (if I remember rightly) the hungover morning after my 30th birthday party [I know, I know; we sound like the nauseating set-up for a Simon Gray play.] The net result of all of this is that Kennard is one of the only modern poets whose books I buy as soon as they come out and buy for other people as presents. (Give or take; I haven’t bought Cain yet. But I should.)

Friday, 12 August 2016

Letters to Windsor House – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 11/08/16]


Letters To Windsor House is straight-up the most affecting thing I’ve seen so far at the Fringe. On many levels, that’s ludicrous; it’s totally charming and very, very funny. On the other hand, it does also deal head-on with the absolute catastrophe that is London housing, and that content alone ought to make every single person who sees it absolutely livid. But it’s also personal.

Windsor House is one of the blocks on the Woodberry Down housing estate in Hackney. My Uncle happened to be a teacher, then headteacher, at Woodberry Down Junior School between 1972 and 1997. Things my uncle liked included: Trains, Buses, The Goon Show, Rothmans and Shostakovich. He started an schools orchestra when he was at WDJS and was, I think, remembered fondly for always trying to persuade this junior schools orchestra, in a deprived part of East London, to play more difficult music from the 20th century Russian avant garde. Seven years after he took early retirement, the Rothmans finally caught up with him, but thanks to this one small quirk of history I feel more invested in this one particular housing estate in East London than any other that Sh!t Theatre – a company-of-two: Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit – could have wound up living in.

As such, the video adverts for investment portfolio luxury flats in “Woodberry Park” made me just that little bit more angry than they might anyone else. The film of Louise and Rebecca being shown round one such show-flat, and being told of all the ways that the residents of the nearby social housing are kept away from this new luxury property; the view from the nth floor window at the brilliant, optimistic, post-war council housing – the childhood homes of all those little musicians my uncle believed he could create – and the flat description of when they’d all be being knocked down to make way for yet more “luxury apartments” (priced at close to a million pounds each, FFS); the sheer scale of the social “cleansing” underway – and the matter-of-fact tone of voice, peppered with euphemistic relief – is breathtaking and disgusting.

There is actually a lot more in the show than this, though. The piece is built up through a series of clever devices – opening the mail addressed to previous tenants of the flat, singing mad little songs, and the gradual realisation that the “ex-local authority” flat they’re renting *isn’t*, in fact, *ex-* local authority at all, but a massively price-hiked sub-let by a nominal council tenant (amusingly stereotyped as Fagin off of Olivier! with full awareness of just how terrible that is...). The letters and their invented, imagined, disguised intended recipients form the backbone of the piece, with investigations into where they are now, speculations about their lives, and even made-up songs about them. Larky though this is, it masks the serious point about the conditions of the flat they’re living in; the rapid turnover of residents it hass had; the endless churn of tenants; the astronomical rent (£1,200+ for a two-bed council flat in Zone 2/3? Christ! You people seriously need to look into Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle...); the awful landlord, and the probable desperation of some of the people who lived there before Sh!t Theatre. The fact that the company manage to tread a way through all this without patronising these previous tenants, or coming across as arch or “ironic” at their expense (essentially by being precisely that, but in a way that somehow deflects actual ideas of superiority away from the nominal “targets”) is very much to their eternal credit, while Biscuit and Mothersole’s combined sense of humour mixes the sharp with the silly to just the right degree enabling them to score points against official, Establishment ideology without being remotely preachy. (Much more than I’ve managed in that sentence describing it, in fact.)

Another strand that runs through the piece is the relationship between the two flat-sharing company members. Ordinarily, I run a mile from this sort of self-revelatory content, and even here some of it feels that bit more raw than I’d have chosen to share/have-shared-at-me, but again, it’s included with such a combination of carefulness and élan, that not only is it difficult to fault, it also doesn’t occur to you to want to. The apparent strength of the enduring friendship between the two is part of why the whole is so affecting. Also, without really even being related to the other strands, it somehow magically feels like it ties them all together. But, overall, I was left with an almost overwhelming sense of the heartbreaking destruction of London – held off, slightly, by small, lovely, human stories like this; even when they are effectively stories of compromise and failure, as this is.

It’s a strange thing, though. Since turning 40 earlier this year, I’ve maybe got a sense for the first time of the first few years of my life having now passed into “recent history”; part of an era that *now* really isn’t all that much like at all. I mean, I guess that’s inevitable, and I imagine it’s an experience everyone has at some point. But, yes; a schools orchestra of underprivileged children in Hackney playing Shostakovich. I hope that isn’t lost forever.


[The author with his uncle, circa 1977]

Tank – Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

[seen 11/08/16]


Breach Theatre’s follow-up show to last year’s The Beanfield is, if anything, an even more impressive bit of alt.theatrical thinking than their trailblazing debut. Nominally, it’s about the moderately famous story of Margaret Howe Lovatt, who was part of a Nasa-funded experiment with dolphins in 1960s America. The usual take-home from that story is about the “love affair” (or inter-species copping-off) between Margaret and “Peter” the dolphin. Using this prurient headline as a starting point, Breach (here: Dorothy Allen-Pickard, Billy Barrett, Joe Boylan, Craig Hamilton, Ellice Stevens, Victoria Watson) take the entire narrative apart – imagine Forced Entertainment doing Martin Crimp’s Attempts On Her Life about dolphins – deconstructing the usual cultural and gender narratives around the thing, and also chucking in so much Quentin Tarantino-style (and referencing) soundtrack, that even the way The Sixties are usually constructed is taken to pieces.

As a result – well, this is probably masses of confirmation bias, but... – without ever stating it, Breach have come up with pretty much the most comprehensive critique of American Cold War cultural imperialism, imperialism generally, gender relations, and power relations that I’ve seen at the Fringe (or anywhere for a while, possibly). Perhaps I imagined it, but most of all, it seemed also to be a really radical commentary on race relations in America. By the end, Joe Boylan as “Peter” the dolphin was wearing white lipstick (which – is it too much to note – is part of blackface make-up?) and performing Godknowswhat sort of burlesque of Godknowswhat. I mean, the research lab was on an America island in the Caribbean, the dolphin stuff all happened, the story isn’t so much a metaphor for anything as just a real, concrete, solid example of it.  About halfway through, you just get this horrible sense of humanity (but particularly America), being this massive child that will accidentally rip the wings off any given butterfly and then look surprised when it dies...

And, perhaps it’s just me but, the piece also anatomises brilliantly the problems of failed intersectionality, or, put more simply: the oppressed woman oppresses the dolphin. Arguably. I mean, it’s not a perfect metaphor, for the simple reason that humans are land-based bipeds and dolphins are sea-based mammals with fins; there are more insuperable obstacles between human/dolphin interaction than there are between different human genders or cultures, and there’s a slight danger, I found, in trying to overthink the implied/metaphorical links. But then, at the same time, perhaps there’s also something analogous in this all-white (at least in terms of performers, as far as I can tell) company attempting to critique these problems, and their having an actor play a dolphin. In common with Beanfield, the admission/recognition of failure doesn’t feel defeatist, so much as meta-data about the problem, and the ways in which these problems are presented/imagined. (Although, this is maybe a slippery slope, on which the logical step would be having an all-male company critique the problems of the patriarchy...) Perhaps the discomfort/uneasiness is a part of the strategy, cf. Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B?

Discomfort aside, though, the production and performances are all first rate (and one can’t wait to see it in a first-rate performance space, instead of in the sodding Pleasance with its myriad indignities for performer, performance and audience alike). Joe Boylan, Craig Hamilton, Ellice Stevens, Victoria Watson are all startlingly good “actors”. I mean, there really is acting in Tank. Sure, it’s “acting”, with the actors themselves putting the quote-marks round what they’re doing, but, if anything, that performance style of “being yourself switiching into character and out again, while commenting on the act of doing so” seems like it must be infinitely more difficult to pull off satisfactorily than just having a stab at “playing someone else”. Together with directors Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens (again) – the text was created by the entire company – the company have created possibly one of the most intelligent, intellectually satisfying multi-authored/devised theatre shows I’ve seen in the UK.

So, yes. Go see this. Hugely intelligent, incisive stuff.


Also: soundtrack!

Kyu Sakamoto – Sukiyaki




Cigarettes after Sex - Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby




Betty Chung - Bang Bang




Tomangoes - I Really Love You




Omega - Gyöngyhajú Lány





Thursday, 11 August 2016

Counting Sheep – Kings Hall, Edinburgh

[seen 10/08/16]


As I write, my colleague Matt Trueman is in the room down the hall bashing out an n-star rave about Counting Sheep, which we just happened to catch together.

I disagree.

The (largely/mainly) student protests in Maidan Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2013/14 are incredibly difficult to write about, since there are so many conflicting accounts. It is perhaps worth having a quick look at my review of Maidan Diaries – the Ukrainian verbatim show on the subject, which I saw in Bratislava last year – if you want a quick refresh of the “facts”.

Counting Sheep is a very different piece to Maidan Diaries. It is possible to “watch” it as immersive theatre, in the main body of this deconsecrated church, or to watch it, Brechtian-ly from the balcony. Matt took part, I did the detached German thing. This might well be why we had such differing opinions upon leaving. I mean, I don’t think I *disliked* it. After all, it had given me the opportunity to think about the subject, and actually, had presented its one-sided viewpoint with such force, that from the detached standpoint of the gallery, you could see all the holes in it.

I will say this, where Maidan Diaries was sober and reflective, Counting Sheep is not-sober, gung-ho, macho, militarist, and seemingly pro-violence. I’ll leave you to decide where you stand with that. And, unlike Maidan Diaries, it doesn’t duck the de facto war with Russia(/annexation of the Crimea/invasion) which broke out precisely two weeks after Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.

This is something I’d never quite appreciated before: the protests nominally/apparently started because Yanukovych refused to sign an EU trade agreement, apparently preferring a Russian loan. The protests happen. Yanukovych is hounded from power, after the Ukrainian police and army have killed hundreds of student protesters (the number of dead given in this show is four times higher than that of Maidan Diaries, and ten times higher than Wikipedia’s estimate). The Russians then “invade”, and many of the student protestors join the army or volunteer forces to go and help repel them in Eastern Ukraine (according to this piece).

I’m sure they’ve missed a bit out somewhere, because otherwise that has to rank as one of the most catastrophic and ironic own goals in history. It makes poor Britons voting for Brexit look positively sane. They didn’t want too much to do with the Russians, so they started a riot that led to the Russians invading. I mean, *really*???

This is what you see when you sit in the balcony.

You also see the coercive power of camaraderie; how everyone just joins in, fuelled by pierogi, folk music, beautiful Orthodox church music and just physical contact and play-fighting. You get a pretty good sense of how a protest becomes a movement becomes a pile of the glorious dead.

So what to do with that?

Well (here’s the Billington bit), I can’t help wishing we’d heard a bit more from *any other side at all*. I realise it’s ludicrously fresh, but... I mean, look at Lola Arias’s Minefield (we can all agree that’s the best piece of theatre about real/recent conflict we’ve seen in quite some time, right?) Well, imagine if that had been made just by the Argentinians or just the British only two years after the war. And it was really just about joining in with technique, and feeling *at one* with your comrades. I mean, it’s cheap to say it, but I bet the Wehrmacht would have put on a hell of a show too. (And, yes, let’s not forget that unsavory aspect of Ukrainian nationalism either, which doesn’t even get a mention here. Yes, I’m sure it’s mostly smear tactics by the pro-Russians, but that doesn’t make it completely untrue either.)

I think we can all agree that Ukraine is complicated. And I think we can probably agree that the police action against the protestors was disgusting too. But I’d really like to see something much more thoughtful and analytical and much less about *really feeling it*. That is precisely the sort of theatre that Brecht fought against during the rise of national socialism, and with good reason. You (could) come out of Counting Sheep with the unstoppable view that the protestors were heroic and absolutely right to be protesting (so young! So Valiant! So passionate!), but you are given absolutely no idea what they were protesting about, the ins and outs of the trade deal that Yanukovych didn’t sign, or the one he wanted instead. Yes, there are slurs about his gangsterism, but this is about the forced resignation of a a democratically elected Prime Minister which led to such destabilisation in the region that Russia (by Russia’s account) was forced to send in its own soldiers to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine from a wave of anti-Russian ethnic violence (think about how appalled we are by the post-Brexit “enboldened racism”. Well, Russians in Ukraine are the out-group in this scenario.)

And, well, look... On the day I saw this, I opened my Guardian news app after writing the above, and this new piece is in the top five headlines. I think it’s fair to say that in the West, we don’t begin to get even the slightest attempt at reasonable reporting on Russia. It’s presented to us as an insane monster of a country. We hear only the worst about the place, and, despite everything we know about America, we’re still encouraged to believe that it’s the lesser of two evils.

It will be interesting to see what happens if “President Trump” becomes a reality.

In the mean time, I believe we need to guard against pieces of theatre that ask to to uncritically accept protests without even beginning to give us the reasons for the protests, and asks us to take part in facile recreations of them. Yes, of course the outcome of Maidan and the behaviour of the authorities was appalling (although there is – of course – not one mention of the 18 policemen (Wiki) murdered by protestors...), but I’m not sure how I feel about it as a memorial.

Interesting, though; and thought-provoking, if you remember to think.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

monumental – EIF, Playhouse, Edinburgh

[seen 09/08/16]


To be honest, I’d forgotten this was going to be on. The Edinburgh International Festival’s publicity this year is, well, low-key to say the least. If I had Godspeed You! Black Emperor in my Festival there would be posters fucking everywhere. At the very least, people definitely wouldn’t be able to forget it was happening. But, no... I was only reminded of it by chance, because Facebook’s mysterious algorithims waved Andrzej Lukowski’s Time Out review in my face at lunchtime. So I booked a (very reasonably priced £12, rear stalls) ticket (there were *a lot of tickets left unsold*) and went. I had been swayed, yes, by AZJ’s status: “the Godspeed dance show is amazing, see it tonight if you're in Edinburgh and possibly can...” I’d wanted to go anyway (I’ve loved the band since about 2000, I think). But maybe what really swung it for me was seeing the Telegraph’s headline “... a Monumentally self-important show... Has ‘niche’ stamped all over it...”

It’s not. Obviously it’s not, and it doesn’t. Only the fucking Telegraph could start a review “Godspeed You! Black Emperor are an anti-establishment post-rock collective from Canada...” and make it sound like a criticism, but, truth be told, I didn’t end up much liking it either.

It starts interestingly/promisingly enough. The nine dancers of The Holy Body Tattoo (apparently a re-formed Canadian contemporary dance group) stand on nine short square pillars and throw shapes (see photo. Indeed, if you stare at the photo, imagine it twitching a bit, and listen to Godspeed on full volume, you’ve seen 4/5ths of the show). The band, unseen, play one of their pieces. (I had their entire oeuvre on untitled MP3s in one folder labelled GYBE, so you’re not going to be getting much information on *which* pieces out of me.) The music is great. The stage set and dancing are *ok*. The lighting’s quite nice.

The dancers are all dressed in office-wear, which feels limiting far more than you’d imagine it could. It reminds you of all those sixth-form/undergraduate pieces of physical theatre about the indignity of labour (yes, Leeds University’s Doctor Faustus, Edinburgh 1998, I *am* thinking especially of you). And the movement... Well, it’s early days, but it does look worryingly like all that knock-off Pina Bausch stuff that Steve Hoggett’s been hawking around since, well, also about 1998... Actually, Steve Hoggett’s movement sequences for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were probably better than anything here, to be honest.

Part of the problem is that it’s all so sodding derivative. A bunch of choreographers – the late Pina Bausch; Hofesh Shechter; that Dutch lot, Schwalbe; Sasha Waltz; even Steve Hoggett, actually – could mount and easily win a class action lawsuit for copyright infringement against Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon. For the first hour or so, given time, I reckon you could find the dance piece that every single sodding movement was nicked from.

But, while I was formulating this realisation, it still seemed an interesting enough set-up. A kind of static Canadian take on Einar Schleef’s production of Sportstück, the dancers atop their plinths – simultaneously Olympians and office workers perched on the highest buildings after some global-warming catastrophe floods their city. Of course, Schleef’s Sportstück without the spectre of fascism is kind of nothing. A sort of toothless Olympic opening ceremony, albeit one from a host nation hell-bent on depressing everyone with dire warnings of impending apocalypse before the sports even start.

Another problem was the dogged, on-the-nose literalism of the movement, while at the same time demonstrating its complete inability to tell any kind of story. I’m not saying it *had to* tell a story, more that it looked like it was trying to and failing. No. Unfair. After about an hour, there was a generally agreed sense that there was some sort of apocalypse. And the dancers were finally allowed off their perches for twenty minutes. But, blimey, it felt incredibly limited. And all the more so, because of the music...

Godspeed You! Black Emperor were, of course, magnificent, but, squirrelled away behind a gauze – and often behind a descended curtain (I’m sure the absolute identical similarities between this set-up and Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother are wholly coincidental). I mean, having seen it, I’d have rather just had the band. And I *like* contemporary dance (when it’s good).

Moreover... I mean, you’ve heard GY!BE, right? They’re astonishing. The usual adjective is probably “soaring,” right? I mean, in a way, I almost admire the perversity of taking all *that music* and making something so unbelievably hum-drum to accompany it. But, Christ! Not even modern, or forward-looking hum-drummery. No. Physical theatre/dance-theatre drudgery from 1998. And not even the cutting edge of it then. Maybe there’s a slight problem that the music is too dramatic, and flattened the efforts of the dancers somewhat, and the choreographers responded by trying to turn up the performances, or something.

Whatever it was, it felt like the whole thing would have been better if the band had just been allowed to play, centre stage, and this dance had been dispensed with entirely, or perhaps, moved to the rear, and maybe interpreted with video cameras, Katie Mitchell-style. I mean, not this dance; nothing was ever going to save that; but somewhere out there there’s the possibility of making *great* gig/dance/theatre. This just wasn’t it.  Which is a pity. 

How To Win Against History – The Box, Assembly, Edinburgh

[seen 08/08/16]


Seen directly before Two Man Show, How To Win Against History (H2WAH) approaches almost the exact same questions of gender, identity, and patriarchy from the precise opposite direction; with just as much wit, verve, gusto and subversive intent, but with a dogged determination to WIN, rather than leaving questions like open wounds.

Preçis: H2WAH tells the (short, dead at 29) life story of Henry Paget, the Fifth Marquess of Anglsey (link to his Wikipedia page, which is ALL SPOILER).

Let me say first: I *LOVED* How To Win Against History. There’s part of me that just wants to list its virtues, praise it to the skies, attempt to capture the bliss it is to watch, record just how much I laughed, and leave it at that. (Simon Bowes does a neat job of writing *that review*, while still retaining his intellectual dignity.)

And, well, worrying about how in 21st century UK we still seem default-forced to find our heroes of subversion within the aristocracy – even when there’s been a concerted effort to erase them from it, as here – does just seem pointless. My only uncharitable thought during the whole the show was: “We wouldn’t be making all this song and dance about the guy if we were Russian. He’d have been shot in 1917 along with the rest of the aristocracy. Good. Death to the aristocracy!”

Given Britain’s lack of a violent revolution by the proletariat, what we have instead is a tradition of witty songs with which to undermine the ruling classes. Seiriol Davies knocks the whole genre into a cocked hat. There’s everthing from torch song to Flashdance-montage pastiche, and a fair amount of what could be anything from Gilbert and Sullivan to old school Footlights, all decked out with beautifully turned, delicious, witty, *rhyming*(!) lyrics.

The narrative is told with urgency and finesse. There’s barely an ounce of fat on the dramatic structure (dramaturgy: Eve Leigh), and the stage action and choreography is such that you’ll repeatedly forget you’re actually crammed into a metal shipping container in an Edinburgh square (direction: Alex Swift – as always, impossible to know who did what, but frankly, if even only half of the detail is his, the man also deserves an Olivier).

That said, the down-at-heel setting feels almost crucial for the piece’s success. The opening number is about both Paget and Davies’s desire for “mainstream” theatrical success. The killer irony – that we’re watching precisely this in the smallest venue imaginable – is part of what makes it so beautiful. I mean, it *will* transfer. I’m fascinated to see to what size of venue. I mean, if The Play What Went Wrong can fill a West End house, I really don’t see why this couldn’t. It’d look lovely in an old music hall too... But, yes, without the fringe-iness, I do wonder what would happen to the precision-engineered jokes about being “mainstream” and brilliantly bitter observations about regional touring.

Supporting artists Matthew Blake (all other roles) and Dylan Townley (keyboards, singing, magnificent hairdo and deadpan interjections) also deserve a shedload of praise. Argh. The thing is so good it makes your prose go to pieces trying to explain it. It has several jokes so good that you laugh out loud again when you remember them. You come out feeling completely brilliant for having seen something a) so uplifting in its flawed defiance, and b) so magically well-made and perfectly performed.

Look, just go and see the damn thing. Literally *everyone* will love this show. Promise.

Must see. Kill to inherit a ticket.

Five stars.

(I’m allowed to give stars if I want. They’re part of a meta-gesture toward the show’s desire for mainstream success. So ner.)

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Two Man Show – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 08/08/16]


Rash Dash’s latest piece, Two Man Show, is one of those shows that renders criticism (in some/many senses) entirely redundant. Of course, that depends on what you think theatre criticism is/is for, but if you’re in the Yes/No, Thumbs-up/Thumbs-down or analytical dissection camps, then you’re out of luck; the piece already contains such a pinpoint accurate review of itself, reflecting all the nagging concerns that you as a critic might have been nursing, that you might as well pack up your note-pad and go home now.

Because there is that sense, isn’t there, that a critic is writing to the company explaining what they’ve done “wrong,” in some reviews? It doesn’t seem too fanciful to imagine that this point in the show is maybe directed at those reviews of We Want You To Watch (Rash Dash’s previous show), which rather went on about what the show should have done instead of what it did do, and those reviews completely failed to engage with or understand what was in fact being presented.

Still, reviews can do more than just give a verdict or a dramaturgical telling-off. So, for the sake of theatre history/posterity (rather than ticket sales or lecturing the company), what Two Man Show is, is this:

It starts in a kind of futuristic/seventies-looking setting, wherein Abbi and Helen unwrite the patriarchal explanation of male dominance, and putting forward more recent archaelogical/anthropological thinking on how hunter-gatherer societies were, broadly speaking, equal. And then looks at early, matriarchal, goddess-dominated societies.

There is singing and dancing (with additional musician, Becky [sorry about this first-names-only thing, those are the only credits I can find...])

Then, unexpectedly, the thing resolves itself into what is essentially a very “straight” British, naturalistic play – think mid-nineties Bush Theatre – about an estranged brother returning to his family home, where his brother is caring for their senile, incontinent, dying father. Of course, the two brothers are played by Abbi and Helen, so it doesn’t look as naturalistic as all that, but the mode, the writing, the style of acting are all hugely evocative of that style of theatre.

Then, almost as unexpectedly, there is more dancing (I think it’s during this first scene that the two women have taken off their tops – the sightlines in the Northern Stage auditorium at Summerhall aren’t especially clear.  This also seems an important tool of both liberation and distanciation).

The show then follows this alternating between the “Bush play” and the dance sequences. One or two of the dance sequences feel explicitly legible – in one, Abbi, sort of dressed in an “artist’s smock” poses Helen in alternate famous “male” statue poses, and poses of “female” coquettry, while the music pastiches Mozart, Beethoven and Delibes.

And, if the show had continued like this, with nothing else, it would have been a perfectly good, interesting show, with plenty to think about, if maybe “misgivings about the slightly obvious structure, and clunky exposition/exploration of its themes” (if one were that sort of critic).

But it doesn’t. Instead [SPOILER, if “SPOILER” is applicable here], it veers off into this remarkable scene where Abbi isn’t Abbi, she’s her character, John. In one of the bits that have been strictly set up as “the dance bit”. “John” has some pretty trenchant criticisms of “the dancing bits”. Helen’s got some defence; ideas about language being too patriarchal, but “John”’s got some pretty good come-backs about that. I. Suddenly. Have. No. Idea. Who. Is. *Meant*. To. Be. “Right”. Both? Neither? Abbi? Helen? John? It’s kind of brilliant, but also kind of scary, given that we’re so used to being spoonfed in this sort of piece; so very used to being positioned, as an audience, in terms of who or what we’re meant to be agreeing with.

In turn, though, just as with We Want You To Watch turning out not to be about pornography, but about capitalism, Two Man Show turns out not to be about gender but about British theatre. Yes, sure, gender’s a complete mess, and patriarchy sucks, but everyone who sees this show already knew that. What Two Man Show is about, is about British theatre’s failures as a machine for communication. Or rather, the shortcomings of its success as a machine for communication. The piece is angry at the need/drive-toward “meaning”. Toward well-balanced arguments. Against the deadening reliance on dialectics for issues that clearly go beyond a binary.

What I found striking, however, was just how insular these arguments actually felt. I mean, if you took this piece to, say, Belgium (since there’s so much of their work here), and plonked it down in one of their dance festivals, it would seem suddenly incredibly strange*. Why is it arguing with this 19th century dramatic form? they might ask. Why are there *warnings* about nudity? It’s a dance piece! Of course there is nudity; this is Europe! Etc. I don’t say this as a criticism of Rash Dash, but as a realisation that I had about the show and the culture it’s been made in relation to. I mean, sure, Belgium’s probably *nearly* as screwed up in terms of gender equality as Britain. Maybe even more so (although it never looks like it from their theatre/dance). I dunno. I guess, it just makes me sad that Two Man Show has to be how it is, and has to argue with what it has to argue with, because the UK is so entirely backwards. I’d be really fascinated to see Rash Dash make a show with, say, Miet Warlop next time. Or at least, some foreign dramaturgs and choreographers.

But, yes. There we are. Two Man Show: quintessentially English, but kinda vital viewing (at least for Englanders) nonetheless. Everyone should go and see it, and have a jolly good think about it (and, instead of responding to it by trying to mentally *correct it*, should instead try thinking about what the things they see as “mistakes” might mean if they aren’t mistakes).



* Conversely, if I'd seen this in Germany as a mainstream theatre staging of this made-up 90er Bush play, I probably wouldn't have blinked once, and would have thought it was genius...

Monday, 8 August 2016

Heads Up – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 06/08/16]


Ok. So. First things first: Heads Up is quite brilliant. It’s well-written, passionately performed, beautifully produced... And, for some completely baffling reason it didn’t completely grab me.

This seems peculiar and perverse, not least because it bears such striking visual and textural (no, I don’t mean textual) similarities to everything from Kieran Hurley’s own Edinburgh Fringe show, Beats; to Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities; to Chris Brett Bailey’s This is How We Die; to a fair few of Chris Thorpe’s mic-and-chair pieces...

But an interesting thing that struck me while watching it was that, in a way, if it didn’t have the sympathetic Scots accent, and Hurley’s impeccable leftie credentials, and Michael John McCarthy’s post-punk score behind it, then really, how was it all that different to a Martin Amis novel?

In about a million ways, I reasoned. I mean, a) you can’t very well take all those things away and still have this piece, b) that’s a stupid thought.

But, well, it’s not a completely stupid comparison.

The basics of Heads Up are a set of interlocking or interweaving stories. People with jobs, with names (and names with a Dickensian level of freighting – Ash, Mercy, Abdullah...), people all referred to here as “you”. We, the audience, are told we’re this character or that character. From behind Hurley’s desk, the accusation, or identification doesn’t quite feel like it travels or sticks (at least, not to the back row on a packed-out Saturday). We’re not a futures trader, or a coke-supercharged pop star, or a pubescent girl who’s had her inappropriate image put online by our idiot ex-boyfriend. Or at least most of us probably aren’t. I mean, I get the strategy, but it feels maybe a bit too forced? And, in the main, the characters feel a bit too symbolic, perhaps a bit too pat, too neatly exemplary. (It’s still great, ok? This is less a review, and more a matter of me splitting hairs, and searching through the experience trying to work out why I didn’t connect with it more...)

Heads Up begins just before some unspecified apocalypse. That, too, feels incredibly Amis-y. Which, in turn, felt comforting. All these apocalypses going round this year, in a way actually feels pretty comfortably retro. The crashing markets, and planes, and buildings of Heads Up feel like the street sadness of Dead Babies, the horrorshow of London Fields, the endless roar of money going wrong in Money. The debt mountains and everything being out of joint almost greet us here like old friends. “Ah, the terrible end of everything!” we think. “Well, we’ve been at The End before...”

And we have. If you’ve read Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, there’s a fascinating chapter in which he talks about the length of cycles in financial markets. Yes, there’s mounting evidence now to suggest that these cycles have finally gone off course, but there’s still plenty in the present recession(s) that recall(s) the massive economic downturn of the seventies. Add to that the tentative cultural revivals: the sense of the late seventies and German electronica and punk giving way to post-punk and both the new romantics and proto modern pop music, and the resurgent fondness for brutalist architecture (it already has its own seventies, drag-king backlash show)...

If World Without Us is the companion apocalypse to Us/Them’s terrorism, then (thanks to my own random Edinburgh curation) Heads Up feels like the companion piece to Greater Belfast [review forthcoming], a piece so soundly reliant on Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones, and the IRA, and The Northern Irish T-word.

It’s weird that this feels like the case, since so much of the action is so firmly, rigorously, thoughtfully and precisely about the here and now. “Revenge Porn” (terrible term for it) has never been a thing before, surely neither has the Pret-a-Manger style chain with zero-hours contracts and the complete lack of workers’ rights? And yet, reading back over the literary fiction of the late seventies (currently The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble – recommended), it’s been striking just how much our current predicament resembles pre-Thatcherism both in terms of affects, but also in terms of attitudes to it. Or maybe, rather, the world of Heads Up feels familiar from the early eighties, because it’s the grown-up child of precisely that era.

I’ve no idea how much this is now even a review of the piece of theatre Heads Up is. So let me reiterate, it’s a truly excellent bit of work. Definitely go see it. And almost certainly it’ll grab you more than it grabbed me. Although, thinking about it, I think it did grab me; but not in the way I was expecting, or that the style of the piece sets you up to expect – it’s quite relentless, but actually, my response to it felt the opposite of visceral. Which is really interesting. Let’s say that’s deliberate; I think it leaves you with some cognitive dissonance, but is maybe all the richer for not having just wrung you out there and then. Heads Up also suffers (for me, and totally unfairly), for being so much like what I already think about the world, and like the cultural energies you imagine swirling around things, that it doesn’t actually feel “original”. Of course it is, and actually it’s a massive achievement to be that on-the-button with pinning all these feelings down into a one-hour, one-man show.


Summerhall, Old Lab – 7.05pm until 28th Aug (not Mondays, except today)


Written and performed by Kieran Hurley
Score by Michael John McCarthy
Directed by Alex Swift
[further credits as and when I find them]

written under the influence of this 2009 Russian band, who kind of prove my point about the seventies/post-punk if nothing else...

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Us/Them – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 07/08/16]



Us/Them is a piece of theatre for young people (9 and up) about the Beslan High School massacre.

It’s on at 10am in the morning.

Feel free to digest this for a bit.

*Of course* it’s made by Belgians. I mean, apparently most of the theatre worth seeing in Edinburgh this year is made in Belgium/by Belgians, but there’s an extra *of courseness* here. On the continent (yeah, post-Brexit we’re bringing that phrase back), they treat their children a bit like grown-ups. It’s part of the reason we had to leave, of course. Dangerous nonsense. Expecting *children* to think. Hell, we don’t even expect most grown-ups to do that in Britain, so fuck knows how they cope with thinking children in a country the size of Belgium. By overfunding their arts, apparently; that’s how.

But I digress.

Us/Them is a piece of theatre in which two performers essentially narrate a child’s-eye view (two childrens’ eyes’ views, in fact) of the three day hostage-taking/siege by Chechen separatists in a North Ossetian school, demanding freedom for Chechnya, and the freeing of political prisoners held by Russian government forces.

The genius of the piece, when it is genius, is the sheer number of levels on which it manages to function simultaneously. It *almost* even manages to surmount the hardest question about the piece, which is: why make this piece about that massacre now? In a lot of ways, for EU nations, the Beslan massacre is a kind of zero sum game. “We” condemn “Islamic” “terrorism” (although one could make an argument that Islam is secondary to the struggle for national independence in the case of Chechnya), and “we” condemn Russia for its cavalier attitude to living hostages (and children at that). “We” dislike and mistrust “Russia” (and indeed, we – the audience – are shown that these young Russians have already been taught that all Chechen men are paedophiles, that all Chechen women have moustaches, and all Chechen children leave school aged eight to go and work in manual labour), and yet we cannot countenance the murder of these miniature racists; nor the lengths the Chechens will go to, to gain their freedom; nor the lengths that the Russian military will go to to deny it them, sending a hard, clear, military message that not only will they not negotiate with terrorists, but also that hostage-taking as a tool of negotiation is futile. The Russian military will kill the hostages themselves, if need be.

It’s a lot to digest between 10am and 11am on a Sunday morning. But, my God, is it brilliantly laid out, put forward, performed, ironised, de-ironised, and re-ironised.

I mean, yes, a nine-year-old will be able to follow the basics (if not have vivid memories of the siege and the reporting around it, and a general appreciation of the wider situation around both secession from the Russian Federation, and “Islamic” terrorism). It’s incredibly vivid, without actually being too much, or too upsetting (perhaps), ((if these are even considerations)). And, beyond that, there’s a lot of wisdom and playfulness mixed in with the evocation of the underlying horror. It’s an unsettling piece. My inner English small-c conservative wonders about things like whether it’s right to make theatrical capital out of this senseless massacre, and whether it doesn’t put an improbably brave, cheery facade on what should just be three days of all out misery and suppressed panic followed by chillingly cynical slaughter. On the other hand, you appreciate the cleverness, the irony, the skill, the wry laughs unexpectedly summoned from the darkest situations. It’s still uncomfortable – for me, as an adult – perhaps all the more so for being grown up, and imagining the parents’ pain as well as that of the children, which is left relatively unspoken. Indeed, most of the suffering is understated and almost played-away, in a kind of child’s-eye post-rationalisation, that I’m not entirely sure I fully bought. (The piece almost suggests that playfulness heals such wounds and acts as a coping strategy, which other evidence suggests isn’t quite the full picture. It tests a hypothesis, certainly; but I’m not entirely sure I buy the implied conclusion.)

But, I’m just going on about my issues with it. I mean, that’s a fair representation of what ran through my head while I was watching too, but at the same time was that sheer rush of admiration for the makers of the piece, for the form, content and execution of the thing. I mean, it is pretty bloody remarkable.

[here I take a quick look at Lyn’s five-star review of the piece to see if I can just drop hers in in lieu of trying to explain the strange stage alchemy of how the thing operates, but no, instead I get fascinated all over again where she says:]
“The clue to this piece, and it’s examination of “othering”, is in its title. And it’s evident in the prattle of the children who believe that, 75 miles across the border, the landscape is as grim as a Grimm forest, all the women “have moustaches and work like horses”, and all the men are paedophiles.” 
I would suggest that there’s also another level of Others at work here, though; there’s “Us” in Western Europe, and there’s “Them” in Eastern Europe/Russia/North Ossetia/Chechnya. I think, to some extent (that ever-tiresome Facebook argument about which countries’ flags get to interfere with people’s profile pictures) the fact that this is such an “exotic” tragedy might be part of what makes it palatable? Would people be able to make this show about a tragedy that happened in their own country? And because of their own country’s military occupation of the country from which the “terrorists” (or partisans, or freedom-fighters) came? It’s this more difficult stuff that gets ducked. But then, the piece has the perfect defence – that it’s being narrated by children. They do explain that they definitely don’t understand the terrorism, even while, slyly (on the part of the author/s) giving away that their prejudices already make them unarmed, ideological combatants in Russia’s war on Chechnya.

But, yes. If you’re in Edinburgh, this is definitely worth going to see. Me trying to get to the bottom of the ethical can of worms it opens could go on indefinitely, so I’ll just stop.


Summerhall, Main Hall – 10.00am until Aug 28th (not Mondays)


Actors: Gytha Parmentier, Thomas Vantuycom/Roman Van Houtven
Director: Carly Wijs
Dramaturgy: Mieke Versyp
Scenery: Stef Stessel
Technician: Thomas Clause

World Without Us – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 07/08/16]


Ontorerend Goed are something of an Edinburgh Fringe institution now. Their first show – Smile Off Your Face – was first seen/experienced a decade ago in 2007 (how is it already ten years?). To a greater or lesser extent, their shtick has always seemed a bit to do with shock and/or irritation. Maybe that’s unfair, and increasingly it’s less true. As a company, they have also often, previously been about a demonstrable level of unscripted/unscriptable interaction and improvisation. (Admittedly, I haven’t seen *everything,* but...)

As such, World Without Us marks something of a departure from Ont.G’s usual – if always original/dissimilar – works. It is a monologue played on a near-bare stage – albeit with a biggish sculptural element in the middle. It has lighting changes that correspond to the text. It features a kind of direct audience address, albeit to a theatre that the speaker imagines is empty. It is, in short, theatre. It is also, until the final ten minutes, calm, even soothing. It imagines the end of the world, or rather, the complete, sudden disappearance of all human life from the planet. All other lifeforms, animal, insect, plant, etc. continue as they were, suddenly unmolested by humanity. At the start, as the disappearance of humans begins to be explored, by our narrator and by the animal/insect life inside the theatre, we imagine these beetles and rats gradually climbing out of their usual hiding places as they realise no one is coming back. The conditions of buildings is discussed. In the sky, a plane suddenly deprived of passengers and crew continues to fly straight forward around the earth until its fuel expires and it crashes into an ocean.

The concept of time becomes redundant. All man-made ideas become redundant. Money sits in bank vaults with no one to spend it, its value suddenly erased. National borders are suddenly erased. Property ceases to have meaning. Things people have needed lie untouched, nothing more than their constituent chemical composition and atoms.

I know John Lennon might have also asked us to think about this before now, and the piece also makes a fascinating counter-point to Kieran Hurley’s frenetic, more Amis-like apocalypse in Heads Up (review forthcoming), but for my money this is a beautiful piece of writing. It’s spare, evocative and lyrical. It has a kind of sci-fi Lovelockian grandeur to it. Rather than overly concerning itself with the human factor, it asks us to imagine far into the future – geologic ages away, almost – when forest fires consume the ground where once the theatre stood, and then imagine everything growing back, and evolved and extinct species. It puts things in such a long perspective that even worrying about something as trivial as, say, the result of the forthcoming American Presidential Election feels completely pointless. It’s a useful widescreening of perceptions for a point in recent history where everything was starting to feel just a little bit overwrought.

But then there’s the end of the show. So far, the whole has been beautifully, perfectly crafted. Gorgeously written, and delivered with a remarkable (for the UK) degree of calm and understatement*, but then [SPOILER-ISH] they go and play pretty much ten straight minutes of the stuff that’s on Voyager – in this narrative, now the last remnants of the whole of the human race. And it’s intensely irritating. It feels, at first glance, like they’ve just miscalculated the ending completely. And if they’re trying to be nice, or interesting, or rounding off the thing nicely, then they have. But I don’t think that’s their aim. I suspect that it’s meant to grate. I suspect we’re meant to wonder what the hell they’re thinking, putting this awful, 70s, American-curated kitsch about humanity at the end of this beautiful piece. And, for me, that was their powerful post-script. That this is an actual thing. All that will be left of us, once humanity disappears, is this terrible Western Imperialist, vaguely white-racist nonsense about American technological and global dominance. Jesus, it’s tragic. Our best hope is that, once humanity has vanished, there’s no other life-form in the universe that’s interested in reading President Jimmy Carter’s address to other sentient life-forms.

That the piece also makes one perhaps a bit wistful for the end of humanity is also probably not insignificant. If there’s a preponderance of apocalypses at this year’s Fringe, then it’s also notable that they’re not really saying it’s a bad idea.

Amen.


Main Hall, Summerhall – 11.30am until Aug 28th (not Mondays)

*performed here by Valentijn Dhaenens, although I’m sorely tempted to see it again when Karolien De Bleser takes over halfway through the run – indeed, KdB’s involvement scotches one of my niggles that it was maybe a bit too Default White Male when it absolutely doesn’t need to be, even if it is strangely appealing (to me) to have beyond the end of the world narrated by “Heroes”-era Bowie’s Hamlet (as it were).


Cast – Valentijn Dhaenens (until 14th) [or Karolien De Bleser (from 16th)]
Director – Alexander Devriendt
Text – Alexander Devriendt, Valentijn Dhaenens, Karolien De Bleser, Joeri Smet
Scenography – Renato Nicolodi
Execution [of] scenography – Vormen
Sound Editing – Jeroen Wuyts
Lighting Design – Babette Poncelet
Video Editing – Benny Vandendriessche
Costumes – Rewind Black
Photography – Mirjam Devriendt

Monday, 1 August 2016

Boy – Almeida, London

[seen 26/04/16]


It’s been a while since I’ve seen a piece of theatre that demanded this much space. Space away from it, I mean. In a different way, Ophelias zimmer did too (it probably got about six months from me, in fact). But, with Ophelias zimmer, you can start thinking through the intellectual issues as soon as you’ve heard the subject matter and an outline of the execution. With Boy it feels like the reverse is true. (Or, at least, I experienced it very much as *the piece* first, and thinking through what it was really about afterwards.)

If I’d tried to write this review [a month] ago, I think it would have gone something like:

Oof.

Bloody hell.

Oof.

And I do want to record that experience. The first level of seeing Boy is just being hit by it. How heavy it is. How painful and serious and godawful it all is.

The story of Boy – in short – is that of a young bloke who’s just finished the school year (and consequently his school career?). He has nothing to do all day, and no money to do it with. He goes around to his schoolfriends’ houses, but they’re out doing things. He kills time, he goes to the park, he meets people at bus stops, he stutters inarticulately; he says nothing good, memorable, witty, or charming. People take against him. No one particularly wants to chat to him. And he’s not really got anything he wants or that he can offer. At least, nothing that he can articulate. And we in the audience aren’t asked to sympathise. His leering at the neighbour of a schoolfriend who answers her door in her dressing gown isn’t admirable. Judged by the values of an Almeida audience, he’s not much of an advert for himself.

And this is the genius of the piece. It really doesn’t shy away from making Liam (the boy of Boy) largely if not wholly unsympathetic. You’d really have to go out of your way to feel understanding towards him.


[Edit: the above was written two months ago. Everything from here on is new 17/07/16]


Writing about Boy from the vantage point of three-months-on is intended as a massive compliment. It’s a heavy piece of work, and when it was on, perhaps more than now, it felt like it was dealing with very heavy, difficult, buried, problematic subject areas. In an interesting way, it feels like this was “the play about Brexit” that couldn’t be recognised as such until Brexit happened.

Would “Liam” have voted for Brexit? It seems unlikely. His apparent incomprehension of almost everything seems more likely to have put him in the third of the population who didn’t vote at all, but then, no one ever really seems to take the trouble to try to talk to him properly, either to canvas an opinion, or encourage him to express one.

In Sacha Wares’s staging (which is probably one of the two or three most modern, forward-looking, Britain-in-Europe stagings of 2016), in Miriam Buether’s design, Liam hardly ever gets the chance to sit down. Not properly. Not comfortably. Not talking to someone willing to meet him half way or draw him out; so lord knows how actually articulate he might or might not be. In the design, the cast wear those fold-out, in-trouser articulated-supports used by those “floating” Yodas you get in city shopping precincts. This is perfect on so many levels that one could (and, indeed, David Jays has) write an entire review focussing on just this one design decision. For me (now, after a lot of thought), it’s especially perfect because along with signifying the lack of a proper-sit-down, the lack of anywhere comfortable for yourself, the impermanence of lives in neoliberalism – zero-hour furniture, if you will – it also recalls the crappiest bits of London tourism and attempted money-making.

Liam’s lack of a base, and lack of articulation, is also part of the genius of Butler’s script; not since the films of Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin have we really had such a hapless anti-hero say so little and signify so much. After the Brexit vote, there seemed to be a general tone of surprise amongst the more or less everyone with any access to the mainstream media, from opinion columnists to politicians (as exemplified by the way the whole country seemed to go into spasm for three weeks after the result came in; one was reminded of Shift the ape in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle when the cruel God he has been praying to – and in which he does not believe – actually turns up). Since the Leave-vote win, there has been a sub-genre of piece suggesting that now the barbarians are coming for us (most overtly in the piece by self-appointed “expert,” James Doeser, in The Stage). I’m rather assuming Mr Doeser missed Boy, or at the very least, entirely missed its point (or at least one of its thousands of possible infer-able points), which is that the more one treats people like shit, the more like shit they are liable to behave.

The point is, Boy was the perfect play through which to understand pre-Brexit Britain. It specifically deals with the white working-class; the in-work poor, the sub-urban communities encircling the metropolises that feel all the more disenfranchised for being that bit closer to everything they don’t have. (Although, if nothing else, perhaps our media does ensure that lack of proximity is no bar to envy or fear any more.) That Boy was inspired by the UK riots of 2011 is perhaps instructive, if in no other other way than “The Establishment”’s manifest failure to listen to anyone then, or to acknowledge the massive gulfs between haves and have-nots, the insiders and the alienated “outsiders”. Yes, “Brexit” has broken down that clumsy binary yet further, but the key lesson still remains, that a massive and growing majority of people in Britain are incredibly angry, and not even all that articulate or accurate about who or what they’re angry with. Brexit perhaps also demonstrates that neither articulacy or accuracy are going to count for much by way of a defence if the situation is allowed to deteriorate further. Boy shows the detail of countless lives ruthlessly, mechanically discarded in a Britain whose population has numerically far outstripped its usefulness, and whose ruling class haven’t quite worked out what to do with.

Perhaps one of the reasons that it feels compelling to review Boy now, particularly now, in the wake of Brexit, is to demonstrate that theatre wasn’t actually blind in the run-up. Theatre, on occasion, was in fact sharp, forensic and acute in its diagnosis of the state of modern Britain. Theatre wasn’t just sitting about narcissistically making “theatre about theatre”, it was out there doing the best it can. And that best was extremely insightful.


[continues, increasingly off-topic...

The problem is, one theatre can’t change minds by the country-load, or by county, or even by a whole town, let alone city (if “changing minds” is even its intention or business). That this feels like a problem is probably due in large part to what we’re used to now in terms of broadcast “success” and “fame”.

[Hearing the whole first Oasis album being played in a pub in a town in the middle of nowhere in Slovenia is “reach”, even if the album does say very little of consequence, and may even be all the more popular for this precise reason.]

A such, it’s theatre’s local-ness, and small-ness that feel like the most pressing issues currently facing the artform. It’s not a matter of “elitism” (or, more precisely *exclusivity*), per se, that excludes people; in 99.9% of cases, it is sheer unavailability. If a thing’s good, it sells out its finite number of tickets and that is that. (See: Harry Potter and the Endless Run/Harry Potter and the Clamour for Tickets for further elaboration...)

I have two proposals: that this can and should be countered both by livestreaming and accessible, open, online archiving – so people can just watch videos of performances online, forever, for free. It might not take off, but nothing’s lost for a video of something that no longer exists being on YouTube/Vimeo instead of *nowhere*, and who knows who might see it and be inspired? And, secondly: that theatres should immediately release scripts from contractual clauses as soon as they’ve been produced. I would venture that (almost) NO ONE NOT ALREADY WORKING IN THEATRE, who lives in Manchester, or Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, or wherever, saw Boy; let alone people in Sunderland, Bradford, Salford, Wolverhampton, or Warrington. But it’s not beyond the grasp of these places to have a production, nor beyond the wit of their inhabitants to go to it. But they can’t go if there’s no production to go to.

So, one possible response to having been thus deprived is for all those people to instead think, “Well, fuck them, I didn’t want to go anyway.” And that response *could* calcify into an overall attitude to theatre and/or art. (I’m not saying that is what happens. Even with excellent nation-wide provision, I’ve still never been to a football match, on the premise that it’s not really my thing. That doesn’t make me any worse a person than someone whose informed guess, knowing what they do about themselves and about theatre, is that they would rather do something else.) Still, at least it’s a choice I can make. I have a vague theory that people feel much more warmly toward things that they actively reject as choice, than things that they have no real chance of going to...

Anyway, on with the summer...