Sunday 13 May 2012

Make Better Please - BAC

I liked bits of The Uninvited Guests' new show, Make Better Please a lot. In fact, I liked the show overall a lot. But it also has some interesting problems.

Now, I'm aware that there's sort of nothing worse than theatre reviews that seem to try to re-direct the shows they are reporting upon, so I hope the bits that discuss my difficulties with elements of the show still work as a report of the event I attended.

As shows go, Make Better Please is kind of “review-proof” (although, it's a shame that the star-rating system can't actually acknowledge this), since well over fifty per cent of the show will be totally different every time it plays. The reason for this is that the show opens with the audience sitting in groups of eight or nine around several large, low, circular wooden tables each containing that day's papers a plate of biscuits and an enormous pot of tea (Yes! More tea and biscuits! One more instance and it's a New Movement in British Theatre™!), reading those specific papers and talking to the people they happen to find themselves with about what's in them.

On the night I saw it (Thursday 10th – long after press night), this section worked like a dream. The idea of this first section was for us to look through the papers individually and each select a story that we found saddening, or that made us angry (no prizes for guessing which review in Thursday's Guardian I happened to light upon).

Others in my group opted for a story about Basque/Spanish football in the Times, a short story about the Portuguese losing Saints-day holidays due to austerity, a local Battersea pub being pulled down to make room for a block of flats being built by property developers, and a particularly depressingly stupid article about “workaholic women” in TV shows from the Evening Standard.

Once we'd each picked a story, we discussed which one of these we'd like to present as a group to the other groups. We ended up opting for a kind of melange which drew parallels between the tendencies in a number of the stories which seemed to suggest a worsening of living standards, the further erosion of work/life balance, and the general catastrophes of living through late-Capitalism.

We then put our chairs into a wide circle in the middle of the room and listened to what stories the other groups had chosen, these included dismay over the opposition to Barack Obama coming out in favour of gay marriage and the coverage of the sexual abuse trial in Rochdale.

However, following this initial period of total audience participation, the Uninvited Guests – introducing themselves as Richard, Jessica and Lewis – start to, well, *perform* *for* us. Ok, no, that's not strictly true. The first thing they do (I think) is essentially some silent “hot-seating”. “I'm so-and-so, what would you like to ask me?” Which was fine when they were Barack Obama or David Cameron, or the Queen, or George Osborne. They didn't do any “pretending to be” (or, uh, “acting”). They just sat there claiming to be another person while the audience asked them questions. They didn't reply to the questions.

This struck me as a better idea than if they had tried to inhabit the roles at all.

The exercise felt far more problematic when it came to one of them *being* “an Asian gang-member from Rochdale”, or “a girl who had been raped by 25 men while in care”.

Although, to give the the audience its due, the shifts between quite light, if politically-charged material and the deeply traumatic realities of these personal tragedies was afforded full respect and the atmosphere in the room totally changed in split seconds.

On one hand, it was a credit to everyone in the room. At the same time it did feel like a lot of people were deeply uncomfortable with it (I certainly had reservations), and I wasn't sure whether the mechanisms of this particular show were fully up to being able to cope with such material.

After this bit (the shifts weren't terribly organic, so apologies for the “and then, and then, and then...” structure when describing...), various people in the audience were pointed to and designated as major players in various news stories: the Greek election results, [something else], and finally various parties in a roadside bombing in Syria. This was much more effective than you might imagine – it was just a slight exercise in thinking yourself into someone else's shoes for a minute in the most painless way possible, but it did still make you stop and think a bit. It did, if only momentarily, stop you thinking about the news being something happened somewhere else to someone else.

Obviously it'd be crass to suggest that a moment of imagining you're someone else is in any way comparable to living through any of these situations, but it was also a very different experience to just watching someone else on a stage quite a way away pretending to be a person so you could watch, and maybe imagine it mustn't be nice for the real person who they're pretending to be.

At the same time, I was very glad they stopped short of asking me to imagine I was either a child sex-offender or a sexually abused child.

The next section was a kind of breakdown into a kind of atavistic ritual in which Richard gradually stripped down to his briefs, had cups of cold tea thrown at him, while strutting around performing a kind of grotesque burlesque of being David Cameron, George Osborne, Andrew Lansley, Nick Clegg and various other ne'er-do-wells of the current news cycle.

Now, regular Postcards... readers may once or twice have spotted I'm not much of a fan of the Conservative Party, but this section did feel by far the least successful. I can appreciate that it made sense as an intermediate stage between what had gone before and what was going to come next, and I think I understood the sort of thing is was aiming at, which it even achieved (the back of the programme consists of a long list of “influences” and while trying not to spoiler my own “critical insights” mention of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi did jump out at me).

The problem – which I freely concede might just be down to me and my tastes – didn't so much seem to be the thing itself, but how much it jarred with what had come before. On top of this, we'd not specifically dealt much, as a group, with national UK politics, except obliquely, and this burlesque seemed much more plugged into a more generalised attack on the Austerity Coalition, so it felt like something had been brought in from the rehearsal room that now didn't sit especially well, either stylistically or content-wise with the content we'd so far generated in the performance.

Where this was going, however was toward a section where Richard was partially transformed by the addition of a large corpulent stomach and huge prosthetic cock, both made out of newspaper. We, the audience, donned photocopied masks of the faces of those who had appeared on recent obituaries pages, and the space gradually transformed into a kind of cathartic Throbbing Gristle concert (not unlike #TORYCORE™ actually, or this). It's worth noting that this ambition of catharsis was explictly mentioned as the aim: “We're going to take all that into ourselves” they said. Which, philosophically, I also had an issue with, but maybe I was taking it all a bit too seriously.

After this sequence ends, the lights – which had faded down to an angry red glow – come back up on the machine-smoke filled room, and Jessica (I think, although it might have been Lewis – at this point my Lemsip had worn off and I was mostly concentrating on not coughing). Sat down and recounted an optimistic story from a newspaper. Members of the audience were invited to share optimistic stories that they'd recently read [I'm afraid I nipped outside for a long cough during this bit, so my experience of how successful this was is compromised – on the other hand, prior to having to go and have a cough, I'd pretty much decided I didn't buy the premise].

After this, we were led downstairs and outside the BAC where the headlines of the stories we'd first discussed were ceremonially burnt with the words “make better please” recited as each flashed into flame and blew away on the wind (see photo, top).

I have to say, I can't deny hearing “Michael Billington's review of Three Kingdoms: make better please” didn't make me smile, but that was a relatively trivial subject. I was less convinced that a few performers burning headlines about child sex abuse was going to make anyone feel much better about it. And indeed ran dangerously close to rather trivialising the issue.

Perhaps there was an extent to which the futility of the gesture was the point. Perhaps, in part, this is a show that explores the failures of the consolations of art/theatre/performance.

Uninvited Guests' last show, Love Letters Straight To Your Heart worked well because it wasn't dealing with utterly insurmountable problems (at least for the most part). The massive, massive range of problems featured in our daily newspapers are of a rather different order.

There are a couple of other interesting difficulties about the show. One is that it barely interrogates the extent to which its content is dictated by the choices made by the British newspaper industry. Granted that could be discussed within the groups, but it feels dangerous to let the whole core of the show be so wholly dominated by organisations that are, for the most part, part of the problem.

The other issue was the make-up of the audience. I tend to switch off when right-wing commentators characterise theatre as irredeemably left-wing. That said, talking to the group I was in, and listening to the responses by other groups, it would have been very hard to deny that there was an overwhelming left-wing consensus in the room. We were a community with a surprising amount of shared beliefs and assumptions about the world, I think.

(for the record, I think I went on a pretty excellent night – the audience included at least one artist whose latest work recently I'd seen and one academic whose last book I'd read, as well as various other obviously intelligent, talented and prolific makers and activists)

I'd have been interested to see what a more mixed group would have made of the show and whether there'd have been more of a frisson in the room if there hadn't been total agreement about what was good and bad in the world.

Beyond this, I'm not sure I was convinced by the piece's apparent philosophy that things would be made better by our attendance of a piece of theatre. I also thought the exorcism section – while also philosophically questionable – could also have gone further. But I should reiterate my basic underlying problem is with the whole concept of the performers “taking the sins of the world onto themselves” and seeking to purge us of them with a not-very-long bit of ersatz Throbbing Gristle.

Or at least, I do in the current form. I don't think the Christ thing is ever going to come off, but I think the model of discussion and extreme, violent noise as a counterpoint is definitely something worth developing much further.

Going on about this any more in the context of “a review” seems slightly pointless, but it's a subject to which I'd like to return, not least because, again, Make Better Please seems to fit incredibly closely into what seem like some new, or re-emerging currents in new stuff that's coming out at the moment. And it feels like it would be interesting to talk about it in the context of those.

So, while the BAC run ended last night, I believe Make Better Please will be doing the rounds and I must emphasise, that despite having banged on more about my issues with it, I think this is a terrifically enjoyable show, sharp intakes of breath notwithstanding.

Besides that, partially you'll be a deciding factor in whether or not its any good the night you see it, and partially, I have no way of know how well the pre-rehearsed bits will fit with the news that the papers decide to print on the day you see it.

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