Thursday 19 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 8

Tassos Stevens – Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits)

Dan Canham –
30 Cecil Street (not reviewed here)

In what appears to be my mad rush to break all the rules of theatre criticism in a fortnight, my confession for today's Forest Fringe review is twofold. Firstly, I read other reviews of the show. Second, Tassos and I had a bit of a chat about the show over a drink afterwards. And, third, I left at the interval. As you'll notice, leaving at the interval doesn't actually mean anything, since afterwards it was another performance of Dan Canham's 30 Cecil Street, which I'd watched the night before.

So this is just a review of Tassos Stevens's Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits). And, if it starts to feel like the word count is slightly smaller than usual, you can bet your ass I'm going to be using that full title throughout...

As it happens, I'd read Maddy Costa's brilliant review of Jimmy Stewart... before Christmas, when I just assumed I probably wouldn't ever get round to seeing it. But then I read it again today, and I also read Miriam Gillinson's excellent account of last night's show, and went back and had a re-read of Matt Trueman's review of the thing at BAC.

There is actually a reason for this beyond sheer impish perversity.

Something I've found incredibly liberating about reviewing all these Forest Fringe shows at the Gate is the fact that I've been pretty much the only one doing it. Ok, it's true, Diana Damian has written a couple up brilliantly for Exeunt, and Lyn Gardner came to the first one, as previously discussed - and now Miriam saw last night's. But I'm the only person who's doing nearly the whole lot.

And I have to say, it's made me feel a whole lot more inclined to write, and indeed feel some responsibility for writing these reviews. Precisely because, if I don't write it, then some of those nights will never get written up. And I think there's been stuff too good to get lost, and an overall sense of trajectory which is incredibly valuable and important as well.

Ok, this would be a separate blog if I had time, but I don't think I do so... Another element of why I'm finding this fortnight a more conducive and congenial way of writing, as well as the “embedded” thing, is that being the only person writing about a show makes the whole thing feel a lot less competitive and a whole lot less *fighty*.

I'm sure I'll get that urge back at some point sooner or later, but it does feel quite relaxing not writing in a way that feels subconsciously like you're largely writing only to contradict someone else's opinion, and in some way mentally bludgeon their opinion to death by way of superior argument, better understanding, and cleverer insights. But even that is better than just discovering you've knocked up a differently worded part of an overwhelming consensus.

It may or may not even be significant that knowing there are already at least three other really very well-written reviews of Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits) is why this is the first review I haven't managed to write/finish/post the day after I saw the show.

And, if I keep waffling on about reviewing it, and therefore not actually reviewing it, that is likely to remain the case, and will doubtless push last night (Wednesday)'s review over to tomorrow and everything will go wrong. Etc.

It's almost tempting, given the existence of those other reviews, to try to include only things that no one else has said yet, but frankly, that would be harder than simply writing up the whole thing, and you kind of need to describe the whole *as you see it* to put your take on it out there anyway.

So, Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits)...

Well, it's essentially a story. Apparently exactly 57 minutes long. The story posits the theory that James Stewart – yes, *that* James Stewart, the actor famous for Rear Window and It's a Wonderful Life and Harvey – is in fact from Mars. And, Mork and Mindy-style, finds himself on Earth, reporting back to a mysterious controlling agency on Mars about life here. There's some neatly observed stuff about how long it takes sound to travel to Mars (eight minutes and 20? seconds), and so whenever Stewart receives a phone call, he knows that he's going to have to wait 16 minutes for a reply to what he replies.

The story itself concerns Stewart's attempts to understand and define the human emotion love. A process which Stewart begins to undertake, in the 80s, by listening to a lot of radio. Stevens rattles through a section in which the lyrics from many 80s pop songs are held up as attempted working definitions of love, with Stewart analysing them, and wanting to know what love is as fervently as Foreigner.

From here, Stewart leaves his flat (was that a Rear Window reference I missed?) and goes off into town and wanders around. He meets a rabbit. Not a giant pink one, like in Harvey (which I haven't seen, but clearly need to – and doubtless there are hundreds more references that are lost on me, although I think I did ok on the pop lyrics round), but one which Stevens describes as “looking exactly like the rabbit you've just imagined” [paraphrase - I don't take notes].

There's quite a lot of that sort of thing – drawing our attention to the level of collaborative agency we have in the making of this piece with our imaginations. Stevens also uses a “synaesthetic soundtrack”, to wit, an A3 pad with the sounds he wants us to hear written down. This starts off as quite normal descriptions of sounds, gradually becoming more impressionistic, surreal and specific. Oddly, it reminded me most of Simon Stephens's “impossible” stage directions between the individual sections of P*rnography - “Images of hell. They are silent”. Except these ones tend to be kinder, more pleasant sonic pictures.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me, though, about Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits) was how much of it I Just. Didn't. Get.

Now, let me put this in context. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed watching the piece. I thought it had a lot of interesting, or funny, or humane things to say. It was a nicely made piece of work. And it seemed quite clever, if perhaps a bit more whimsical at times that I might opt for if I got to pick how whimsical everything was. And I thought at the end, I'd pretty much *got it*.

Thing is, I'd gone to see the show with someone who studied anthropology, and she immediately starting telling me how interesting it was that Stevens had used all this stuff that I Had Never Even Heard Of.

For instance, there's the Oliver Sacks book An Anthropologist on Mars about the autistic anthropologist Temple Grandin. Who also invented the Hugging Machine, several of which feature at one point in the story. I thought these were just a whimsical invention on Stevens's part. There was also his mention of the indeterminacy of translation. Apparently that's a real thing too. Coined by this guy.

All this post-fact information was interesting to me on many levels. First, I was interested that I'd been perfectly able to enjoy the show while plainly not really knowing the half of it. Second, I was interested that it hadn't really been flagged up in the show as something that it was *possible to know*. Third, I wondered what bearing receiving all this information retrospectively was having on what I could now think about the show. Was some of the whimsy that I'd detected, actually *Not Whimsy At All*? I mean, the hugging machines weren't and they were about as whimsical as it got.

So my understanding of that scene went from thinking of it as, well, something quite Douglas Adams-y to something quite different. (although, along with Ben Moor and Daniel Kitson, I'd still include Adams as one of the writers of whose work this piece quite reminded me – all compliments, to my mind, btw).

I've known Tassos for a while (*everyone* knows Tassos, right?) and I guess I knew he was pretty damn clever, but to suddenly have to reset your coodinates on a piece you've just watched quite so sharply is an interesting sensation.

And perhaps mentioning all the above, I've just done the same to a few people who also saw the show, but didn't have the conversation with an anthropologist and with Tassos himself (who has a doctorate in psychology, I learnt), and share my total lack of general knowledge about science and the social sciences.

I dunno, maybe I've been living under an arty rock for too long, and everyone else knows all this stuff, but it was news to me. It also made me want to know, if I kept on asking, how much else within the show also directly referenced stuf I'd never heard of.

And, at the same time, always this constant knowledge that *Not Knowing* at the time, hadn't stopped me enjoying the show, and, possibly, had the footnotes/references been included in it, the thought that perhaps I'd have enjoyed it less, but maybe at the same time, been able to map a more informed course through it.

It was good way to reflect on what part personal knowledge plays in how one ultimately *understands* or receives a piece of theatre.

So that was interesting.
But kind of not actually *about* the show itself.

So, the show – well, it has a lot of clever ideas in it. It is pleasingly witty, and also enjoys putting some really terrible jokes out there too (one pun on paws/pause is particularly excellent/terrible). And it's distressingly tender and comforting.

I say distressing, since I sat in the theatre reflecting inwardly to myself that it was strage that I honestly found watching a show about love somehow more unsettling than Chris Thorpe's pieces about violence, extremism, terrorism and horrific accidents. Which was an interesting reaction, but possibly not one inherent in the piece itself.

So, there we go. Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits) is very good, and also prompted me to think about, and end up writing about, a lot of things that *weren't* actually in the show at all. Or were, but I didn't know it at the time.

Which felt like quite a new experience for something that clearly so much a part of a very familiar artform. Which I liked a lot.

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