Wednesday 16 September 2009

Everything Must Go – St Augustine’s

In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have written a word about Everything Must Go, or; The Voluntary Attempt to Overcome Unnecessary Obstacles. The show, you see, is a one-woman piece about the performer’s father. Apparently it was to be a two-person show also starring her father. At the time of entering the show for the Fringe he was suffering from terminal cancer. The one-sided A5 photocopied programme sheet reads as follows:
“Dad performed the show with me three times.
He died of pancreatic cancer on 2 June 2009
The show will continue to tour after Edinburgh. This is a labour of love.”

Now, I’m a theatre critic, not a labour-of-love critic. This is a piece that demands to be put beyond criticism. Ordinarily there’d be no point in just writing about how much one didn’t like this show. If one’s tastes don’t coincide with it, why harp on about it? Simply let the matter drop. Yes, it was recommended to me by people to whom I listen. They had found it moving, so I went along – misery junkie that I apparently am – fully expecting to be moved. Having not been moved in the slightest, this review would have stopped there. On leaving the theatre I would have – did, in fact – make a mental note not to write about it. Except.

Except, Everything Must Go (not to be confused with Tim Etchells’s amusing alternative Fringe programme pastiche written for Forest Fringe, the recent strand of Soho Theatre shows, the somewhat more distant play by Patrick Jones or indeed the album by Jones’s brother) won a Total Theatre Award, beating Icarus 2.0, If That’s All There Is and Company F/Z’s Horse in the Devised Performance category. It is also, now, apparently going to transfer to the Barbican. At this point, it becomes legitimate to start treating the show as a piece of theatre. As such, uncomfortable though it is to say so, and without wishing to cast the slightest aspersions on writer, puppet-maker, prop-maker, costume-maker, camera operator and performer Kristin Fredricksson’s feelings for her father, it fails.

The piece itself offers a slightly choppy look back over Karl Fredricksson’s life, from his conception to old age, noting a wealth of eccentric traits – he got his taps metered and then did his utmost to get his water from elsewhere, for example – and showing films of him as a young man and giant blown up cut-out photos of him through his life. And that’s about it, really. There’s some moving around. A bit of half-hearted puppetry, a rather ill-advised sing-along with
Serge Gainsbourg’s Lemon Incest
. The problem is, the show isn’t affecting because of its content, the skill with which it’s made, or its insights into grief. It is affecting (if it is affecting at all) because the person on stage in front of us is actually very sad. It’s not a performance of grief, it’s not even an overt display of grief, it’s simply our knowledge that losing a parent hurts like hell and that the person in front of us is telling us about a parent who died two months earlier.

I couldn’t help wishing that the whole show was an elaborate meta-theatrical game. That “Karen Fredricksson” was a made up character, that the man of whom she had photographs and with whom she’d videoed interviews was simply another performer. That he was safe and well somewhere else and that her dad was similarly alive and well. Somehow then the scrappy, charmless aesthetic would just about make sense.

It’s hard to see, for example, how the show would have worked if he had lived. His absence, though loud and clear throughout the show, didn’t make any actual sense in terms of where he was missing in the piece. Obviously the show will have been rethought, but even so, it’s hard to see how it might have worked any better had he not died. So, morbidly, the piece seems to depend on his death. Were it not suddenly a piece about loss and bereavement, this would have been perhaps at best an eccentric father-daughter piece about an odd life well-lived. Although, with a terminal cancer patient on stage, I can’t quite see how it wouldn’t still have been more than a little exploitative.

The thing is, without the death there’d be nothing here. And somehow bringing the actual fact of an actual death onto the stage feels here like the worst sort of emotional pornography. I’m pretty sure other performers have made similar work, and that their work has been good. Everything Must Go, on a very basic level, is not good. It is poorly designed and poorly executed. Fredricksson is not a very engaging performer. She is, however, unimpeachably unhappy. And that invites us to reflect on our own sadness. I don’t doubt some people got an awful lot out of the piece, and for entirely honourable reasons. I’m afraid, though, that the whole exercise left me utterly cold and with a taste of unwitting exploitation in my mouth.

Put simply, nothing about the piece suggests that Fredricksson has anything that even approaches another show in her, and praising this piece because of its proximity to a sad event is to promote her well beyond her abilities as an artist.


Anonymous said...

Haven't seen the show.
Gosh, Andrew, I admire your honesty, but that last paragraph's pretty harsh. Do you really mean that? Your blog, your rules and all, but it feels like it's tilted over into something personal.


Unknown said...

I haven't seen the show either, though, having seen Fredricksson in a previous solo fringe show (admittedly ten or more years ago), I'm not inclined to distrust out of hand your assessment of this performance. Worth noting, as an aside, that she's therefore not the ingenue you somewhat paint her as...

And I can certainly see how all this might be uncomfortable: but I'd have wished you'd rejected the too-easy snipe about the piece "demand[ing] to be put beyond criticism" -- the echo of the notoriously revolting response of critic Arlene Croce to Bill T. Jones's "Still / Here" in 1994 resounds horribly. It seems to me the challenge is a really profound structural one: how does the critic respond to a stage space that is seeking to make a virtue out of containing and presenting the real (or, at least, the unfictional)? In saying "It is affecting (if it is affecting at all) because the person on stage in front of us is actually very sad," you seem essentially to be complaining that Fredricksson has cheated. If the whole thing had turned out to be "an elaborate meta-theatrical game", would it have been a better piece? Surely not; but if not, why wish for it to have been so?

I'm wanting to call you on this not because of any particular desire to protect Fredricksson from your lambasting of this work and denigration of her skills or otherwise as an artist, but because I think this is going to be a genuinely crucial question over the next few years, as the tendency increases: how theatre can stage unmatrixed realities, and how critics can (or will or won't) help us to make sense not only of the ethics of that procedure but also its aesthetic ramifications.

avanti, xx

Unknown said...

p.s. Difficult to be sure, not having seen the show, but is it perhaps the case that "Karen Fredricksson" really is a made-up character -- made up, I mean, by you, as a proxy for Kristin of that ilk?