Thursday 19 April 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 9

Emma Bennett – Bird Talk

Alex Kelly and Annie Lloyd – The Dust Archive

Dan Canham – 30 Cecil Street

Nice varied programme. Three artists. Still out quite early. Nice. Let's talk about the work, shall we?

Apparently Emma Bennett has something of a cult following. Possibly because she's primarily based in Bristol, and hadn't appeared at Forest Fringe before, I'd been previously oblivious. Which is frustrating because, on the strength of this performance, she really does seem to be Very Good Indeed and I want to see more*.

Bird Talk is, what? I think I'd like to categorise it as a performance of a poem. But it has an intrinsic element of video incorporated into it. And, arguably, it is performed “in character”.

Overall, it most reminded me of Chris Goode's An Introduction to Speed Reading (and also Hippo World Guest Book), but that's slightly misleading. While, it shares with both an illustration of a hurtling toward entropy, it is performed, initially at least, far more gently.

There is a basic set-up, which is that Bennett (or, “Bennett”) is delivering an slideshow-illustrated lecture on how to recognise different sorts of birds. However, the slides – well, it's a film or something more akin to a powerpoint presentation really, but there's a retro- quality to the pictures used, giving the impression that they *should* be slides *really* – the slides aren't behaving themselves. Controlled by an unseen force, they switch back and forth, then jamming, holding on one particular image for too long. Often this is a long shot of a bird table.

“Bennett”, meanwhile, tries to deliver the appropriate bit of text which should be matched to each image. At first, while the slides are behaving in a reasonably orderly fashion, this is easy enough, but gradually, as slides flicker in and out of vision, sometimes with alarming rapidity, her spoken text becomes fractured and fragmentary.

Of course, since Bennett will have edited this film together herself – and I'd be interested to know whether she did this to illustrate the text, or wrote the text to accompany the film – this impression is of course completely misleading, but it's odd how effective as an impression it is. Instead of automatically thinking of the piece as *a text*, it does actually take some active remembering to do so. Which I liked a lot.

If it owes something to difficult modernist poetry it also feels like it owes a slight debt to someone like Anna Russell or Joyce Grenfell. Well, no. That's over-selling it somewhat, but Emma Bennett, as befitting someone who sounds like two Austen heroines at once, or rather “Emma Bennett” the character in this piece, does have a delivery style that owes more to Blue Peter than something more confrontational. In the context of this piece, and generally, this is A Good Thing.

It also, I think, allows Bennett to get an awful long way on charm charm and amusement alone.

I do sometimes wonder if it's entirely helpful to British, well, to British anything really, that we're so apparently addicted to charm and laughter. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm as British as the next person, and I fall for it every time, but I do sometimes wonder if it doesn't wrong-foot a few things. Because, while Bennett's piece emphatically *was* both funny and charming, I'm not sure everyone needed to laugh *quite* so much. And it felt like maybe a few members of the audience we deliberately laughing in preference to actually thinking or receiving the piece differently. None of which is a criticism of Bennett – nor the audience really. I should probably be a whole lot less intolerant and judgemental about such things.

(it's worth noting 30 Cecil Streetalso got a few laughs last night, while I don't remember it getting any on Monday).

Another interesting aspect of Bennett's piece – and this is far and away the most tendentious bit of analysis I've offered all week – is the possible detection of a sexualised undercurrent. On one hand, I think it's probably only my age and addiction to appalling wordplay that makes me wonder if the “Bird” in the title could also be the sixties slang version of “woman”. But then there's some of Bennett's odd phrasings, emphasis on “rumps” and birds' legs. And the recurrent motif “get some action on the table” every time the picture of the bird table repeatedly flashes up. And, given what a thorough bit of writing this seems to be, I find it hard to imagine it's a complete coincidence.

Towards the end, as the slides/images have broken down, not only sentence structure, but even individual words, angrier fragments can be heard. From the cooing tone of appreciation of the birds' “cute little legs”, the commentary becomes “fucking little legs”. And as the words break down yet further, the sound of disorganisation turns to panic and a large birds face staring directly into the camera briefly flashes up a number of times.

I think once probably isn't enough times to see this intricate little piece enough to fully appreciate what it might be up to, but once is certainly enough to make me want to search out more of Bennett's work and see more of it.

Next up, and off in a totally different direction, Alex Kelly (already seen at FT@TG what now seems like aeons ago on the first night) and Annie Lloyd basically presented the book they've made about the now-defunct Studio Theatre at Leeds Met Uni., The Dust Archive.

Now, I don't know what watching this was like for anyone else, but since I was at Leeds University proper between 1996 and 1999, and it was there that I first got into theatre at all, the Leeds Met. Studio was one of the most vital theatres I ever went to.

The thing that was special about the Leeds Met Studio Theatre was that it programmed touring productions by all the important small-scale alternative theatre companies, as well as giving space to home-grown companies to develop work and to local companies to put on shows. While the University theatre gave me a grounding in usually quite standard student productions of classics from Shakespeare to Pinter; the Theatre Studies department put on student-acted productions of obscure bits of early Howard Brenton (I surely must be one of only about fifty people in this country who's seen a revival of Sore Throats) or Wole Soyinka; and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, then under the doleful iron heel of Jude Kelly, put on mostly rubbish. And Northern Broadsides; it was the Met Studio Theatre where I got to see really early stuff by Imitating the Dog and Third Angel and Unlimited Theatre and even my first Forced Entertainment show – which I *so* didn't even faintly begin to understand at the time.

But, as a consequence of all the above, my experience of what was essentially not really a performance lecture, or even an actual lecture, so much as a bit of a talk with some video and some anecdotes.

In a way, I'd quite like to see it worked up into an *actual* performance – with perhaps *more*, and more varied documentary materials. But also perhaps a bit more context on the artists who are being talked about – at one stage there was a list of the sorts of people they were talking about, and I'm pretty sure the look that the two girls in the row in front of me exchanged was basically saying “Who? Nope, I've not heard of any of these people, have you?”

At the same time, for me, it was a lovely wander down MemoryStraße. And, actually, quite a jolt to think that it was 13 years ago when I first saw Chris Thorpe's Static at the Met Studio, and probably a year or two before that when I first saw Unlimited doing No Brave World (which I think was also the first professional show I ever reviewed. For Leeds University Theatre Group's newsletter. Dear God). Or seeing John Donnelly's second play Personal Matters there, being done by Tony Singh's company Conspiracy Theatre before it went to BAC, or indeed, seeing John in Conspiracy's production of Caryl Churchill's Thyestes. Even odder that I'm still seeing these people only last week and still in the context of, well, a small black box slightly outside the mainstream.

So, yes; a lot of personal memories, possibly crowding out what I was actually watching and listening to. And yet, I think this piece would have legs for anyone who has any history of going to a specific venue – perhaps most of all if it was to see any of those artists associated with this one.

Another really interesting effect of the piece was the effect that its proximity to the final piece of the evening, 30 Cecil Street, had on the latter.

Returning to it last night after first seeing it on Monday, it was fascinating to see the piece go from effectively being framed as “the second thing about Limerick/Ireland” on the night, to “the next thing about theatres that have closed”.

As a pairing, I felt that The Dust Archive did a lot more for 30 Cecil Street than the bleakness of Hammer and Bell.

The piece opens with Canham switching on a reel-to-reel tape player (although the actual sound comes from the theatre's sound system, and probably an MP3 plugged into the sound-desk, but...). He then marks out the floor with masking tape. The resonance between this and the floorplans on every page of The Dust Archive was so strong that you almost wish they'd had it as a motif as well. Or you wanted them to get Canham to do it during their piece too.

All the while that he's marking out the floor, an interview with someone (two people, actually) who was obviously very connected to the Theatre Royal which stands/stood at the titular address in Limerick. There's an older man and a younger woman. The older man talks about the place being turned into a club, or a venue for bands. He remembers fights. The girl doesn't remember any fights.

The memories continue until they are interrupted by music. Lyrical, orchestral music at first. Canham, seated in a chair, begins to twitch and move in time with the music. Then he's out of the chair, the music switching around him as his body seems to be physically buffeted by the changes of style and pace. There's house music, and then suddenly there's old fashion dancing music: waltzes, hot jazz, whatever music it is that people used to tap dance to...

Then there's a section where Canham is dancing only to the sound of recorded footfalls on a bigger, more echoing, more hollow stage. We suppose it is him dancing on the stage of this old abandoned theatre in Limerick. This is perhaps the most successful moment of the piece – there is a satisfying level of technical skill watching someone dance so precisely – their feet hitting the ground exactly in time with the beat of the recorded dancer. The quality of the sound recording is also lovely. These echoing footsteps are an effective way of evoking the larger space in the smaller one.

Gradually these footsteps too fade away and the voices return as Canham leaves the stage and a spotlight fades on the reel-to-reel tape machine as the voices reflect “it takes a long time to build up a scene, and a very short time to kill it.” “Or a town,” the other voice reflects. “And they've have a bloody good go at this one”.

*happily, we *can* all see a bit more Emma Bennett as she has a Vimeo channel. Yay.

post-script: also, something about the qualities of retro-looking images and increasingly fractured delivery in Bird Talk also reminded me of this short “KFC commercial” made by Peter Serafinowicz (definitely worth two minutes of your time):

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a lovely read. I directed Sore Throats in the early 90s. We ran for 5 performances in a 200 seat theatre and had a total audience of 18. I don't know for sure but I think it was one of the best things I've ever done.