Thursday 12 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 3

Chris Thorpe - What I Will Do When They Come To Take My Guns and
There Has Possibly Been An Incident 

Tom Penn


Hitherto, the Forest Fringe's residency at the Gate had been a bit, well, polite.

Polite isn't a bad thing. Hell, content-wise it's still been pretty high-octane, subversive stuff, but as Lyn Gardner's review sort-of hinted, the first couple of days at least didn't *look* so *very* *formally* challenging.

Wednesday night – Night 3 – changed all that.

Chances are, if you're reading this you're also following someone on Twitter who spent much of yesterday periodically exclaiming things like: “Box Office lines close at 5:30 so get in quick for £5 tickets to tonight's @ForestFringe death metal budget speech! Quote 'T*******'”...

As it happens, the first half of the night still followed the now-quite-familiar person-on-stage-behind-a-mic format. Which, in this context, put like that, sounds like I'm being disparaging, but I'm absolutely not.

First up was Chris Thorpe, doing two of his most recent bits of work. The first,
What I Will Do When They Come To Take My Guns was first seen at the Edgelands flash-conference hosted at FF last year. The second was one third of a new text, There has Possibly Been an Incident, for three voices that Thorpe is developing at .Manchester Royal Exchange

What I Will Do... is the piece of work by Thorpe I know best by quite some margin for the simple reason that there's a video of him reading most of it (the beginning and end, a small bit of the middle is missing) on YouTube (more on this subject in today's essay). As such, seeing it *live* again is both a bit of a treat and also quite odd.

What I Will Do... is inspired by the book The Turner Diaries – basically a cult racist/fascist novel from America, written in the late-seventies/early-eighties - and it is Thorpe's writing at its tautest, and most pointed. The refrain of the piece: “I want to try and write like the fascists do” is hammered home again and again. It is blunt, ugly and threatening. At first, it's almost as if there's no character and no story; just a disturbing challenge from the man sat in the chair in front of you; a challenge to your assumed leftie liberalism (hell, it presents a challenge to anyone on the left of Nick Griffin, which I suppose probably also includes most Tories). It's also an attack on the point of art. It rubbishes metaphor; it bins *uncertainty*. It yearns for things that are called the thing they are. And it is frighteningly powerful.

There is also a story, though, a story about blowing something up. And there is a character, because they're sat in a jacuzzi while narrating it, and because Thorpe isn't a fascist. But it's a terrifyingly effective bit of writing nonetheless.

I'd quite like it to be longer. Long enough to make it into a stand-alone show. I'd also be really interested to see what a director (probably a German director) could do with it. While it works beautifully as a man in a chair reading to you, I think it could easily be made to work brilliantly in a totally different way. I'm not sure if that is strictly relevant here, though.

Although I suppose it is, since Thorpe's second piece is currently being developed with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. And, here, in the environs of FF@TG is performed by its author sitting in a chair with a microphone.

To be fair, Thorpe is a superb performer. And I'd argue it *is* *performance*. Not “acting” as such, but he's definitely a cultivated a way of *being* on stage (how I'd differentiate between that and *just reading on stage* is hard to say, though). He has a ritual of taking all the stuff out of his pockets before he starts. The first time you see him do it it obviously makes *sense*, but when you've seen him do it a few times, you maybe appreciate that there's something very specific about it. Maybe, in part, it's to do with detaching *himself on stage* with the practical necessities of *himself in the real world* (Pseuds' Corner, here I come, I know). It's worth noting that Thorpe does also have a brilliant voice; deep, growly and, on stage at least, almost perpetually sardonic, with a broad, flat Manchester accent. It's hard to think of his writing being read any other way – 'though I'm sure different performers would bring many excellent, new qualities to it.

Anyway. The second piece was one of the “voices” (of three) from There has Possibly Been an Incident, which “is kind of *about* heroism, I guess” Thorpe explained, by way of introduction.

It gradually describes being stood in a crowd, essentially watching that man go to stand in front of those tanks in Tiananmen Square.

It's an incredibly powerful bit of work, but it's also brilliantly detailed. The story fixates on the white plastic bag that the man in front of the tanks is carrying (Exactly. Go back an look at the photo, it's there, but I'd never consciously noticed it before. Had you?). It's precisely this fixing on detail that lifts the writing well clear of just describing something emotive for a cheap effect. Rather it fully re-makes your relationship with this iconic image. And, ultimately, I guess, it makes you think about how it affects you, and everyone else, ethically. It invokes molecules, distant stars and the whole universe and then up-ends the entire edifice to re-focus on “a man standing in front of a fucking tank”.

Knowing that we had T******* still to come, by the end of Chris's set I thought I'd pretty much figured out Wednesday's thing. This was nasty, hard-edged politics night. No punches were to be pulled. Difficult things were going to be looked at. Hard. Straight in the face.

Tom Penn pretty much single-handedly destroyed this thesis within about a minute of taking to the stage. And kept on destroying it throughout his half-hour long story Some Things Are Lost.

Actually, that's not strictly fair. I reckon Some Things... *is* actually about some pretty difficult stuff. But this was strictly the personal rather than the political. Also, it is just about the most middle-class thing I have ever seen in my life. Which isn't a criticism, merely an observation.

Indeed, the fact that Penn (middle name Grenville, we learn) could hold his head up, sandwiched between Thorpe's mordant, threatening stories and L___'s barely contained fury, and tell an engaging story about losing his teddy bear (who is called Gladstone) is a very real testament to his considerable talent. The piece starts with him doing THE WHOLE OF THE BEGINNING OF THE LION KING. Singing, describing the stuff, doing all the animals in different voices. The works.

I've never seen the Lion King.

Plainly it would have helped *a bit* - if only with the comedy-of-recognition and appreciating just how precise/acute his take on it was – if I had. But, for the record, you don't need to have seen The Lion King to get an awful lot out of Some Things...

It's a deceptively simple tale, albeit one with a few surprising, and not-quite-ironed-out twists. It basically describes Tom moving out of his parents' place, getting a flat of his own, losing his teddy bear, and then the rest of his possessions, and then his dad finding them all again. Which all feels like a very big metaphor. Mixed in with all this, he tells us about the first time he saw the Lion King in the cinema.

On one level, this *could* be a startlingly frank (if elliptical) account of someone a particularly nasty bout of depression. On the surface, however, it is also almost studiedly apolitical. Which felt a bit odd, in the context not only of Night 3 of FF@TG, but in the context of the week. Considered alongside Goode's Infinite Lives from the night before, for example, just sticking the Lion King into a story, without really unpacking the whole Disney thing, leaves it looking a bit, well, *uninterrogated*. That said, I'm not sure a lot of detailed socio-economic worrying would necessarily sit well within the frame of the story. Still, it feels like it'd be good to be able to feel that it had at least been thought about. The story, even the manner of delivery, all hinges on a level of almost total innocence, but in the context of last night, it did also feel a bit like an object lesson in good people doing nothing. And we all know what that leads to.

But, on the other hand, a) Tom Penn is *very* talented, b) he is also stupidly young (23, I think), c) he *is* dealing with big themes – possibly depression; definitely the death of a parent; hell, even “growing up” is a pretty big deal.

It was also interesting to note that while plainly the piece sat a bit strangely in the overall shape of Night 3, it did also contain unexpected resonances and echoes of earlier pieces. Penn was apparently wearing his father's suit, just as Alexander Kelly had been wearing his grandfather's. Where Chris Thorpe had earlier described distant stars failing to care about a man standing in front of a fucking tank, here Penn quoted two characters in the Lion King (no, I don't know which ones, I've never seen the Lion King) staring up at the stars imagining them to be fireflies stuck to the big dark covering that had been thrown over the world.

But, yes. Some Things Are Lost is a lovely, lovely piece of work by a stupidly talented young performer, and I suspect it will go on to have a rather successful future – perhaps in Edinburgh, or on tour, either expanded, or alongside something else.

Then there was an interval. And there was also a genuine buzz about the place.

After all, it's not every day you get to hear a budget speech delivered as death metal.

T******* is the brain-child of ever-brilliant L and, well, it does what it says on the tin. What the tin says is: "George Osborne's budget speech delivered as death metal".

Actually, I'd dispute “death metal”. There are elements of that, but actually, a lot more of it sounds like the proto-industrial music of Throbbing Gristle crossed with the “power electronics” band White House [WARNING: White House are very unpleasant indeed. They sound horrible. What they sing about is horrible. And there's an outside chance they're not joking. Open link at your own discretion], while E, when not doing the whole Death Growl thing adopts a vocal style that reminded me of Joy de Vivre or Eve Libertine from Crass.

Whatever the musical lineage, the net result was pretty awesome. Given the project was thrown together, or at least rehearsed, for only the smallest amount of time, it feels like an idea that has legs. It was also amazing to actually see something so out-and-out *alternative*/*difficult* being done in a British theatre. This is the kind of thing you usually have to go to Germany for :-)

I kind of wish Lyn Gardner had seen this night, rather than Monday's. On one level, yes, it still feels a bit like a retro- Avant Garde, but here we're looking straight at the ICA circa 1977, rather than Left-Bank 1959. In a funny way, though, given that Britain is currently staring down a massive recession under a disastrous Tory government (*they've* clearly given up on the whole coalition thing, so I'm damned if I know why I should keep up the pretence), it makes a horrible sense that the sound of protest, rejection and disgust at the government does sound like this.

There's possibly some merit in asking, re: T******* (TC) - “what's it *for*?” And, while I don't think Art (or noise terrorism, for that matter) has to be *for* anything, TC does feel like it achieves a certain, what? Catharsis? An expression of disgust? Necessary venting of feelings? At its best, it feels almost like a distillation of the myriad wellsprings of last summer's riots into pointed sonic form – the roots and causes of of all the violence being named within the sound of an inferno. Some other bits probably needed a bit of working on, though.

What's excellent about T******* is that it doesn't actually contain any *analysis*. By simply repeating from Hansard what the chancellor said, it leaves people free to draw their own conclusions. If they can still think amidst the ear-bleeding noise. (Yes, ok, I'm being slightly disingenuous; the, uh, *accompaniment* does slightly lend weight to the idea that the budget speech wasn't an entirely good thing)

I really hope E (and Chris Thorpe, and bassist (+ laptop/electronics/programming?) Steve Lawson) get to do it again sometime, somewhere. I can imagine it going down a storm late at night at Latitude, for example...

Anyway, here's a couple of snippets from the show:


[temporarily removed]


[temporarily removed]

And this one is a list of peers who voted for the NHS reform bill and their links to private healthcare companies.

[you guessed it]

Also, rather marvellously, the full text of What I Will Do... is online here, although I reckon, if you're going to read it, you should probably* watch these excerpts of Chris reading it first...

*re: “probably” - see essay below for more detailed take on pros and cons.


Steve Lawson said...

thanks Andrew, so glad you "enjoyed" ToryCore. you're absolutely right about the 'death metal' thing... we dipped in and out of a lot of different extreme metal sub genres - doom, black, sludge, avant garde etc - as well as industrial noise. For me the quest was to couple the malevolence of the subtext of the budget speech with a music that echoed it. The theatricality of death metal in particular is often about the opposite - applying suitably gruesome lyrics to the darkest music the musicians can dredge up. And it's often very honest about its theatrical detachment - Cannibal Corpse (one of the prime catalysts for this project as Lucy pointed out) are very clear about the 'horror/slasher/zombie film imagery set to brutal music' premise, and are *really* lovely, friendly guys in reality.

For this, we chose to let the pathological neglect of the poor and the institutions that protect the weak that was expressed so clearly in Osborne's budget inform an equally twisted accompaniment. And I think we succeeded for the most part. It was, perversely, an hugely enjoyable process, particularly working with Chris and Lucy, though after the rehearsal (which was even louder than the gig) I did feel sick from the sonic bludgeoning - the point at which I realised we were onto something!

thanks again.

Labor Posters said...

Thanks for the reminder about musical genres. Love the music when it comes to rock genres.