Friday, 13 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 4

Chris Thorpe

Hannah Jane Walker

Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker - The Oh Fuck Moment

Jess Latowicki

Well, I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. Last night, Night 4 of Forest Fringe at the Gate, there was a piece that I didn't happen to really go for.

This is difficult on a number of levels. Primarily, it's difficult because the piece of work in question happens to have been a scratch performance at a pretty early stage of its development. So on that level I certainly don't want to say anything that's going to put the maker of the work off developing it further. (No. I don't think I'm in the least bit influential in that way, but no one really wants cold water poured all over their work by anyone, do they?)

But then, if my basic brief is to write about all the stuff I see at FF@TG then I reckon I should at least describe it. And then, beyond that, well, it doesn't feel entirely illegitimate to share my thoughts about the piece, and perhaps say which bits didn't work for me so much, in the vague hope that these thoughts might turn out to be useful.

On the other hand, is it helpful to have those thoughts shared in such a public space/forum/way?

I'm open to persuasion on this, but I suppose the flip-side of Forest being a “community of artists” is that communities kind of need a basic level of honesty, and beyond honesty preparedness to actually *say* the honest thing out loud.

Since I've burbled on about this so much, I might as well start off by talking about the piece in question. It was Jess Latowicki's
A Faultline. It's a one-person, solo piece and the basic set up involves Latowicki standing on stage in two different lighting states, each of which accompanied by a different voice-over.

On a technical level, it was just bad luck that the sound levels for one of the voice-overs – a kind of beauty contest compère – wasn't really played at the volume it needed. And it's hard to know how much that sort of thing actually impacts on how one ends up watching a piece. So perhaps some of my lukewarm-ness toward the thing could be down to that.

I should say, I didn't actually *dislike* the piece. And Latowicki is definitely an engaging performer. And at no point during the piece was I bored.

In fact, if anything, I think my discomfort with the piece stemmed largely from its premises. Or rather, how it sought to explore its premises. The piece was essentially about female body image – both self-image and external judgements placed on women's bodies. Which, I should confess a) isn't my favourite topic (give me international politics, war, terrorism, torture and the clash of political ideologies any day) and b) isn't something I'm ideally positioned to discuss. I don't, after all, have a woman's body. I never have had, and it's unlikely I ever will have.

On the other hand, unless the piece has been made solely for women, this shouldn't necessarily feel like a massive bar to watching/appreciating/enjoying a piece of theatre.

But I don't think this was really where my problem with the piece came from either.

I think it might, in part, have stemmed from the fact that as it stood last night, The Faultline felt a lot more descriptive of the problem than analytical or opposional. Which, interestingly, felt kind of at odds with the Forest Fringe ethos. Which isn't even something I'd ever consciously noticed before. But it felt, in comparison to, say, Chris Goode's Infinite Lives, or Lucy Ellinson's TORYCORE™ or any of Chris Thorpe's short stories, a lot more defeatist and hope-less. Which feels like a funny thing to find myself saying, given how incredibly bleak on many, many levels those pieces can be.

It felt like there was a slight problem with the way Latowicki positioned herself on stage. The basic set-up is that she's in a beauty contest. The contest, in theory, is about charm, manners and intelligence, but the voiceover repeatedly makes it clear that she's being assessed mostly on her looks. Which is a perfectly fair point for Latowicki to want to make. But in its current form, and because it is a self-generated solo-project – it almost felt like Latowicki was pretty much dis-empowering herself. How to do “objectification” on stage is definitely a tricky thing. But this approach of essentially demonstrating how people get objectified, by putting yourself on stage and objectifying yourself, feels slightly counter-productive.

Or perhaps it was/is effective precisely because it was uncomfortable. I'm honestly not sure.

There were some nice moments, though. Toward the end, the piece became increasingly absurd. Latowicki spent a few minutes running very hard into a wall (which was properly uncomfortable to watch, even if she did have a crash-helmet on), and there was a nice bit where she tried to put on six evening gowns at the same time.

The parts with the second voice over – lit with a single footlight (definitely the best lighting state anyone's used so far in FF@TG, btw) – were also interesting. It felt like the writing here might want to go further/do more, but this felt like a much more interesting and fertile strand to develop.

But anyway, it was an early scratch performance, which could well end up bearing little or no relation to the finished article. And hopefully, if this “review”/report/scratch-account of it has any bearing at all on anything, then I hope it is entirely helpful/constructive.

Latowicki's piece was, however, only a quarter of what was on offer last night.

The first piece was another of Chris Thorpe's short stories.

Actually, was yesterday's piece a “short story”? It was originally written for Slung Low's astonishing Beyond the Front Line project (my review of the whole thing here, my Guardian blog about it here) so I suppose it could equally be accounted a monologue. Thorpe did kick off by wryly noting that he was “going to do some acting”.

The original performance took place with an audience of about 8 or 12 in the back of one of four army trucks parked round the side of Salford's Lowry Centre.

Taken out of this context, the piece almost makes more sense as a stand-alone entity, rather than as one story of a possible four set in amongst other spectacles and different voices.

And again, it's a really good bit of writing. In short it a monologue spoken by a computer programmer who has just designed a bit of software that allows soldiers in the field to fire missiles more quickly. The programmer's problem is that while he has solved the technical issue that was his brief, while he's managed to upgrade the equipment, no one has upgraded the people using it. And so perhaps he's responsible for people making more mistakes. Killing more innocent people, or more people on their own side.

Taken out of the context of Beyond the Frontline, you also get to notice how much the text is of-a-piece with Thorpe's other work. There's certainly a similarity of themes running between this and Monday's piece that could be characterised as a concern with the way that computers can magnify the consequences of human error.

This is a theme which is picked up and turned into a central plank of The Oh Fuck Moment, the show which Thorpe made with Hannah Jane Walker for last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the actual one, not the Forest bit), where I believe it won a bunch of awards. The version they performed last night for FF@TG was a slightly pared-down version, kind of like a relaxed walk-through, rather than the full-fat version.

The original show is interactive, and takes place with an audience of 25 all sat round a table in an ordinary office space. This version, well, I think they just cut that parts that were interactive and instead just delivered a lot of the text that they say in the piece.

The interesting idea at the heart of The Oh Fuck Moment is that the rush of adrenalin that we get when we accidentally send a text to the wrong person, or wipe hard-drive at work, or whatever, is actually an evolutionary hangover from when panic was actually useful – like noticing a sabre-toothed tiger and having to run away. They note that in most instances the petty cock-ups of modern life are not commensurate with the level of panic they induce. And, moreover, that the panic instinct is pretty useless as a response anyway. But, at that moment, as they beautifully put it, you are standing on top of a massive pyramid of all your ancestors who all know exactly the same stomach-dropping sensation that you're experiencing.

I didn't actually get round to seeing Oh Fuck in Edinburgh last year (thanks to a longish series of my own fuck-ups, in fact), so it was nice to at least get a sense of the show for the first time. And actually, it felt good to be seeing it in the context of seeing a lot of Thorpe's other work, since, in a funny way, Oh Fuck almost ties together and makes explicit a lot of the elements that do recur elsewhere in his work. I say “in a funny way” partly because, of course, the piece isn't just Thorpe. In fact it feels like a pretty fair 50/50 split between himself and his co-performer and creator Hannah Jane Walker.

We get to check this out too, since before the interval, Walker also reads a selection of her own work. Apart from having made the Oh Fuck Moment with Thorpe, she's mainly a poet, apparently. Annoyingly for me (and doubtless for her too, and for anyone else who wants to read an informed opinion on this quarter of the night), I don't know a lot about contemporary poetry. I've somehow managed to miss ever going to a performance poetry night (at least, I don't remember ever having been to one), and I don't get round to reading much of it myself, so unless people stick it on in front of me in a theatre, I tend to miss it. With the net result that I've got literally no useful coordinates when it comes to trying to compare Walker's verse to anyone else's.

Well, I know a few contemporary poets. I can happily say that Walker is nothing like Andrew Motion or Simon Armitage. She might be a tiny bit more like Carole Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope, but mostly only because she's female and frequently quite funny.

If I was going to have a stab at summing her work up, Walker's stuff seems to tend to be about everyday life stuff. There's a poem to/about girls who she doesn't like the look of on account of their OTT personal grooming regimes. There's one to her as-yet unborn niece, there's one about blokes who do performance poetry (which is very funny), and there's a touching on about her hippy mother.

I've just noticed, thinking about it, that my poetry preferences are overwhelmingly male (T.S. Eliot, JH Prynne, Drew Milne, Luke Kennard, Chris Goode and that's about it), so this is possibly not really my department.

I will note in passing, however, that Walker is the first person to mention Grazia mgazine at FF this week, (Latowicki later becomes the second). I'd rather no one ever mentioned that magazine within my earshot even if they are being disparaging about it (both were). I'm tempted to suggest that one of the reasons I go to theatre, and prefer leftfield/upstream work is precisely the distance away from Grazia it is. I'm not sure I'm happy to accept that Grazia is a fact of life. I don't think it needs to be. If we all ignored it, it might go away.

My favourite of all Walker's poems is also the most abstract. Abstract enough that I couldn't actually tell you what it was about, but it did contain something about twin shrimp babies and a certain crackle and fizz of ideas and the sound of words hitting against other, right words. Which is how poetry works best, to my mind.

So, yes. An interesting night, all told. Certainly it's the night that I've found most difficult to write up so far, and have had to think about why-I-thought-what-I-thought most.

[no essay today, due variously to: tiredness, doing things other than writing solidly all day, size of subject. Should be with us tomorrow, though, along with a review of tonight's show...]

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