Wednesday 2 May 2012

Forest Fringe at the Gate – 12

[Coney – Playful Documentary Unit]

Sleep Dogs – The Bullet and the Bass Trombone

[Dan Canham – 30 Cecil Street]

First things first: plainly I owe Sleep Dogs a massive apology. Having spent two weeks bashing out day-after reviews of *everything* at Forest Fringe at The Gate (FF@TG) – with the usual apologies to Gemma Brockis, Melanie Wilson and Chris Thorpe, whose Day 6 I missed due to Laibach – after getting my laptop snaffled on the Friday night (FF@TG – 11), my work-rate for the subsequent week consequently plummeted.

This is doubly unfair, since – along with Sam Halmarack and the Miserablites, Augusto Corrieri and Emma Bennett – I'd count them as one of my favourite “discoveries” of the fortnight (scare quotes for “discovery”, since I plainly didn't do any of the discovering any more than Livingstone "discovered" bits of Africa).

Sleep Dogs's M.O. – at least on this occasion, an occasion which, it should also be noted, was the first public outing for much of this material – could be reductively described as the “Live Radio Play”. The lights come up on a bare stage. Well, bare save for a single figure stood behind a table on which sits a keyboard, a laptop and various other electrical bits and bobs of obscure purpose. A voiceover starts. A woman's voice. It sounds like an interview or a reading from a diary (it's actually quite specific which it sounds like, but I've cleverly left it two weeks to start writing this review again, so I'm a tool and can't remember exactly).

The woman is telling a story about staying in a hotel in a city in an unnamed country – possibly, probably, South American; there are shades of Rio de Janiero, and the native language is Portuguese (?). As her story moves on, it becomes clear that she is a member of a symphony orchestra (an Oboeist?) that has found itself landing in a city on the verge of an unspecified coup – military? Marxist? No one seems to know. Eventually she finds herself on a street surrounded by a gang of children with guns.

The tape stops.

Which, I confess, was a slight relief. While the voice played, the chap on stage underscored the speech with a live musical accompaniment (and possibly ambient street noises?), but, knowing that the piece was to be roughly, what? 50 minutes in total, it felt like it might be a bit of a hard watch if this were to be the format throughout.

[that said, with hindsight, I'm not sure I'd have necessarily change it/switch it/introduce it with a “spoken live” section. It made us, the audience, concentrate pretty damn hard, making subsequent live speech feel like a positive gift]

From here the figure on stage steps from behind the table to tell us some background information. This is Tim Atack, one of the two extant members of Sleep Dogs (I'm afraid I don't know who the female voice/s belonged to – I am now not only separated from the performance by two weeks but from both my programme *and*, at present, the internet).

In the spirit of much in the previous two weeks of FF@TG, Atack's *presence* on stage is at once himself and a character without any overdone *acting*. I mean, apart from anything else, he's also nakedly The Bloke Playing Keyboard – although, since this is a tale about an orchestra, and a story in which he seems to have personal investment, his musical ability sits well within the compass of his *character*.

What is far less clear is whether or not the piece is *entirely* fictional, or whether it is Atack/Sleep Dogs (it feels inexcusable not to acknowledge this is company work, and that, apart from the actual performing on stage, it is impossible to know what member of the company (of two?) has done what – even though it *looks* like a solo show) imagining “himself” into an actual event.


I was so intrigued by this, that I asked him afterwards in the pub (The Prince Albert on Pembridge Road – don't take your laptops in there, folks). Apparently it is totally made up. I was at once very pleased, relieved and impressed. The level of detail on display here is immaculate. Really, it is one of the most detailed, plausible made-up events I've ever seen *done* in a theatre. There is a moment where Atack describes “one of those photos”. And you know the ones he means: World Famous Photos – the child burning with Napalm in Vietnam, Thich Quang Duc on fire in Saigon, the summary execution in Cambodia. Except you don't know the one he means. Which felt like the most tangible clue. But even this photo – of a Double-Bassist sprinting across a runway with machine gun bullets shooting shafts of dust around his feet – is described in such clear detail that you picture it perfectly in your mind, and then start to wonder if you have actually seen it.


From here, I forget precisely what follows what until the final sequence. Which is frankly stunning. It is very simple. There is another voice-over, a different woman, possibly Spanish, a violinist with the orchestra, reads out her diary – although we don't know if she's “being played by an actress” (on two levels). Part of the reason we don't know if she's being played by an actress, since this is a diary, is that we don't know if the person who wrote it will still be alive after the last entry. As such, it is incredibly tense. This tension is underscored by Atack's score which here offers a relentless slow build using delays and loops into a kind of massive orchestral serialism/minimalism. The piece of extant music it most resembles (that I can think of) is Michael Nyman's Memorial for the Heysel Stadium disaster. There's a similar sickening lurch-y quality combined with growing emotional force, all the while totally responive to the recorded female voice, making it almost not matter that the voice is the not-live element, rather than the music, as is more usually the case in theatre.

I'm not doing a very good job of conveying it, but, to state it baldly, this ending really did feel like you'd been well and truly put through the wringer by the conclusion.

During the course of the show, I had hundreds of ideas of things I might change about it, and yet, by the end it felt like this first-scratch outing of something that will doubtless develop enormously, precisely what we'd just experienced as an audience was just about perfect in that time and space. Harrowing, intelligent, beautifully crafted and deftly performed. And ultimately incredibly uplifting in an impossible-to-describe kind of way.

1 comment:

Stephen Unwin said...

This does sound very interesting indeed.
We had a spat some time ago about Shakespeare, but I'd love you to see the Manfred Karge play I've (re)directed at the Arcola: THE CONQUEST OF TEH SOUTH POLE. I premiered it years back at the Traverse and the Royal Court and it's fascinating revisiting it.
Anyway, you're sympathetic to the German theatre, so come if you can. It's on for the nextortnight
Stephen Unwin