Tuesday 1 September 2009

Postcards from Edinburgh

An unexpected by-product of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe was that it reawakened my interest in blogging and desire to write. This year, it felt like several interesting conversations were starting and that they would need sites to take place and people setting out the new fields of engagement. Or something. Suffice it to say, Postcards... is back – hopefully with a vengeance – and fully re-engaged.

One possible reason for this was the number of conversation type events that seemed to spring up this year. Andrea Brook’s panel debate on the issue of training, held as a kind of launch for the number of young East 15 graduate companies, kick-started my Fringe. Chaired by Chris Wilkinson, with Ian Shuttleworth, Dorothy Max-Prior, Andy Field, Jamie Wood and Sebastian Lawson alongside Andrea on the panel, it felt a bit like The Blogosphere, circa 2007, Live! – with Wood and Lawson as Chris Goode’s representatives on earth.

Having a pretty wide-ranging and comprehensive think about how work is made, who makes it, where they are coming from – particularly in terms of thinking and training – so early on in the festival was enormously helpful. The following week, during the British Council Showcase, the production company Fuel held a series of (free) lunches at each of which three speakers offered brief “provocations” on a series of pre-selected themes. I managed to catch “Global or green: international arts in the 21st century” and “It’ll do you good: why so much theatre is boring”. Again, the mixture of intelligent contributors and audience members made for some very useful conversations.

Following on from this first provocation, it is worth noting that the question of climate change loomed very large in a broadly unacknowledged way throughout the festival. Indeed, ice, the colour white and the polar bear all kept on cropping up as recurrent motifs throughout the shows I happened to see. Not necessarily connected to climate change, but nonetheless repeatedly, insistently. Aside from their place in more obvious shows like Lucy Foster’s adorable, heartbreaking O, My Green Soapbox and the much-acclaimed 6.0: How Heap and Pebble Took on the World and Won, white seemed to be the recurrent colour haunting the painter in Dea Loher’s Land Without Words, while in Kursk, quite incidentally (although quite naturally, given the setting), ice floes and polar bears were once again invoked.

What was fascinating about O My Green Soapbox was that for me it was much less a piece about melting polar ice-caps, global warming and climate change and much more a piece about emotional devastation – about the real aching, endless sense of loss you experience when a loved one leaves you or dies. Indeed, ...Soapbox was pretty much a perfect thematic bridge, linking one of the two main themes of the festival, climate change, to the other: bereavement.
This year you could hardly move for dead babies and dead parents. Perhaps this shouldn’t really be surprising – after all, the grief experienced at the death of a parent or child is about as close to a universal as humanity is ever going to get. Nonetheless, it started to feel unnervingly coincidental when several dramas on the same day all produced dead infants as a main subject and on another the death of a parent.

The other interesting thing to arise repeatedly at the festival, which I touched on very briefly in my most recent blog for the Guardian, was the idea of one-to-one performances (Internal, Live Art Speed-Dating, Adrian Howells, various other bits and pieces at Forest Fringe, etc.) and shows for deliberately tiny audiences (Guru Guru, Iris Brunette, Our Father’s Ears, Love Letters Straight to Your Heart). The main issue that seemed to arise – largely applied to Ontroerend Goed’s Internal – was the ethical questions that such one-to-one performances seemed to raise.

Ont. G. seem to be quite good at pinging British ethical sensibilities. Their last show Once and For All We Are Gonna Tell You Who We Are, So Shut Up and Listen had everyone quietly wondering about the young age of the performers and their ownership of the material – questions, in short, of exploitation – particularly when coupled with the knowledge that one of the teenage girls was dating one of the show’s 30-something creators. It all seemed a bit, oh, well, y’know. Of course, no one really said anything, but there was a bit of an atmosphere about it. This year, conversely, the concern was primarily focused on concerns over the possible exploitation of the audience.

The format of the show – if you’ve been living under a rock for the last month – is that five audience members stand in front of a curtain, the curtain is drawn back to reveal the five performers who each then select a member of the audience and take them away to a little booth at the far side of the space. Said audience member is then flirted with, asked questions about themselves, and apparently in some cases shown naked photographs of the performer and/or kissed, etc. (for the record, I was diffident to the point of frigidity and my poor ‘date’ was given precious little to work with: “I want you to close your eyes and imagine we are somewhere together,” she said. “Where are we?” “The corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street at lunchtime,” I replied, ever the romantic, “It’s very hard to cross the road”). After this [SPOILER ALERT] the five performers lead their ‘dates’ back to a circle of chairs and discuss them with each other.

On the particular occasion I saw the show, this was a pretty civilised affair. Everyone in the audience was attached; no one had really given very much away; no one seemed to have indulged in outrageous flirting and the subsequent potential criticism was limited to reflecting that I might smoke a bit much and didn’t like sport. I understand other sessions have been less forgiving or more full-on, with breasts being revealed, knickers slipped off and audience members subjected to wholesale character assassination.

Of course, one problem our group had was that we were all pretty much industry professionals, we all also knew each other, albeit at one or two removes, and we all had a pretty good idea of what was coming. Actually, I’d known since a post-Burst discussion last Easter. So, on one hand, we were prepared; on the other, we might have been a bit too guarded, too knowing to experience the ‘full effect’.

And it’s this Full Effect that seems to raise the ethical questions. There’s an important detail that none of the reviews I’ve read has pointed out: when the audience goes to the curtained area at the start of the show, they walk past five dressing tables with what we assume are the actors clothes and personal effects. In other words, we are explicitly reminded that the people we are about to meet are performers. We, the audience, however, remain real, don’t we? Or do we? As the curtain goes back – a symbolic removal of the fourth wall, which is emphasised when each member of the audience is taken by the hand and led singly into the space – do we not become conscious performers of ourselves? Is our passivity (ok, that’s a problematic construction of a theatre audience member, but let’s leave it for the time being) not replaced by active agency? We are actually granted actual power. This isn’t just standing in the space of an “immersive” performance, like, say, Kursk, and being ignored entirely by the actors. Nor is it being co-opted as kind of co-experiencers albeit with no agency of our own as was the case with last year’s show The F*ct*ry, which ended so acrimoniously when certain audience members tried to test the boundaries of how much agency they really had.

In Internal what you say is responded to by the performer. You are reacting simultaneously to one another in the moment. Of course, they have a certain amount of elements of the performance that they want to get through. Or at least they have a few pre-prepared questions and strategies for engaging with you, but that’s about it. Perhaps they are playing themselves. Perhaps it really is them. Perhaps they are playing someone else altogether. And this is part of where the dislocation, the disquiet stems from. Having established that you have to interact with them, thus already breaking more traditional theatrical rules, you are then in the strange position of not knowing precisely who or what you’re interacting *with*. Are we meant to be suspending our disbelief and thinking ourselves into a fictional situation? Is the booth we’re sat in meant to be somewhere else, or are we allowed to acknowledge the degree of fakery that is going on? In the booth that I was in, I was offered a perfectly real glass of red wine; my ‘date’ also had one. I asked whether she didn’t find herself getting rather drunk what with the number of performances she had in a day. She looked slightly phased by the question – as if I wasn’t really allowed to acknowledge that she was doing this all day. That was interesting. It felt like there was a certain spirit of the thing we were required to enter into which had never been explained to us.

Talking to a lot of people about the show afterwards – if nothing else, and if only by dint of having such small audiences and nearly infinite possibilities, Internal certainly became a talking point of the Fringe – it seemed that the performers most wanted audiences to react entirely genuinely. To take this being flirted with as *real* in some way, so that when the rug-pulling “reveal” comes, it is actually a real surprise and quite genuinely worrying. Other friends report couples leaving the show in various advanced stages of acrimony after one partner or other goes a bit too far and then is revealed to have done so in the second part. But then this also raises an interesting question – how *real* is it to even kiss someone who is playing someone who is interested in kissing you? (Assuming *you* is an audience member) Who are you at that moment? Are you still yourself, or someone playing the part of yourself? Moreover, should your boyfriend be cross?

These were the sorts of questions that the piece raised. Because it was framed so consistently around questions of intimacy, it felt as if people’s reactions were more than usually touchy. As a counter example, in Jeremy Hardingham’s Unfolding King Lear A Model, there was a moment when he stepped over to the small audience and – completely out of character (ok, ok, or performing himself, or something similar) said to me “When I say “bastard” I want you to hit me”. He didn’t give me time to ask how hard, but when the moment arrived I gingerly slapped him. I didn’t feel especially concerned at having had to interact. If he’d asked me to really hurt him, I might have felt differently. However, because Internal was about flirting, and flirting with *us* as *ourselves*, it stuck many as intrusive. Perhaps it was also due to the show not really having any clear point or purpose, not appearing to make much of a discernable commentary on anything beyond itself, or perhaps ourselves. Maybe this is my failure in reading, but it felt entirely experiential and the experience it was offering was at once entirely random, and one which could be interpreted any way the interpreter fancied. I’d be fascinated to learn what the company’s impulse to make the piece was and moreover whether they felt it had achieved the goals they’d set themselves.

Perhaps all this talk of goals and points is a bit schematic and prescriptive, but even with work that doesn’t have such things, per se, there is usually some sort of sense of a discernable reason for its existing. Here, while feeling completely successfully staged and realised, it also seemed oddly distant – curious given how much of the show revolved around an absolute sense of presence.

Anyway. I’m going to stop this post here, but suspect that I’ll end up returning to a lot of themes in subsequent reviews and comment pieces.

For the time being, I’ve left a lot of the shows mentioned here either unlinked or provisionally linked to Matt Trueman’s excellent Allen Wright award winning reviews over at Carousel of Fantasies. I’m hoping – although I think we all know we’ve been here before with me saying “I’m feeling much better now, look forward to more posts”- that at least some of these shows will turn into reviews and or spring-boards for other think-pieces later on.

Apols in the meantime for this one being so long, rambly and baggy. I just wanted to get something put out on the 1st as a kind of marker to myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"But then this also raises an interesting question – how *real* is it to even kiss someone who is playing someone who is interested in kissing you?"

I'm going to add that to my list of putative excuses for all manner of nobbery. It's up there with 'research' when my wife queries my internet history.

"But sweetheart, I wasn't shagging her, I was just exploring the boundaries of metatheatricali-OW! NOT MY FACE! NOT MY FACE!"