Saturday, 25 August 2012

Teenage Superpowers

[this is NOT A REVIEW of The TEAM's 45-minute, work-in-progress showing as winners of the EIF Fringe Prize 2011]

It didn't look exactly like this yesterday...

A new critical strategy I've been talking about and experimenting with during this Festival is the following: How about assuming that the people who made this know what they're doing?

It's an approach that has stemmed partly from reading reviews like this or this which read like the critic believes that they know some fundamental truth or other about theatre which has somehow eluded an internationally renowned director.

The next step of this strategy could be formulated thus: Now try trust that everything is deliberate/on purpose and then working out why they've done it.

I've found that applying this formula has made writing reviews a whole lot more interesting. Rather than trying to re-write or re-direct shows, I've been thinking about what it is I've actually seen, and writing about how that was, how it looked and what it seemed to be saying/said to me.

[I should confess, it's much easier to apply to stuff you're enjoying. I've been having an impossible time thinking about Mnouchkine's Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores) and trying to fathom a) what the fuck she thought she was doing, b) how the fuck anyone could have liked it]

What's interesting, however, is that having been generally using this strategy as a thought process, I've now got to a stage where it feels second nature.

And it was this strategy that I brought into the room with me for this afternoon's work-in-progress showing of The TEAM's Primer for a Failed Superpower.

Which was an interesting experience.

The piece opens with eight TEAM members on stage performing as a hardcore band. (Which means, a hardcore band with two vocalists, three guitarists, a bassist and a drummer. Plus someone operating the live-video-feed.) “This is the only song we know how to play,” they say.

The song is by Fugazi (I think she said). It isn't especially recognisable. The TEAM have only been learning to play their instruments for two weeks. It shows. The sound is reminiscent of the hundred garage bands I was in as a teenager. Sludgy guitars, stilted drums, too many people, plenty of enthusiasm and next to no technical or musical ability. The spectacle as a whole feels at once energising and pregnant with metaphor. Like a statement right there encompassing their critique of the United States.

TEAM director Rachel Chavkin then comes out and talks to the audience.

I imagine that instead of being a confident, intelligent, articulate, slightly improvised explanation, this is a perfect reproduction of a word- – -and-stumble-over-word- – -for-word, precise, ultra-naturalistic script in which every hesitation is painstakingly indicated. Or like the Wooster Group's preoccupation with reproducing videoed material of themselves (or others) as the key to their mode of performance. Or Recorded Delivery or the __'s (do The Citizens also do this?)'s use of earphones for verbatim work.

It works really well like that too.

It wouldn't be the first show this Fringe (OK, so this is technically EIF), or historically, which had played this game. The *Live* presentation of an imaginary show is after all at the heart of Caroline Horton's Mess at the Traverse; Daniel Kitson's ___ (apparently, I've not seen it); and of Forced Entertainment's Spectacular, to name but three.

So, The TEAM's new show, that we're “not being shown”, is about the following:


American hardcore punk bands (like Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains, et al.)

America's diminution as a world power

The rationale followed the lines that when members of The TEAM were teenagers, they first gained an awareness of the world at roughly the point when the Berlin Wall came down. Today's teenagers, they falteringly argue, gained that same kind of realisation with the destruction of the World Trade Center. They argue that both events redefined America's position in the world. The first plainly marking the apex of its ascendancy at the close of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the second the beginning of its decline across the past decade as it became mired in unwinnable wars, ever-increasing financial collapse and eclipsed by the ever lengthening shadow of China's superiority.

I was forcibly reminded of the moment over a decade ago in Cambridge when I was watching Khalid Abdalla's superlative production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A week after the WTC attacks. There's a line in the play “Well, they never bombed New York” that absolutely silenced the whole theatre like nothing I've ever seen before or since. It is possibly the moment in a theatre that has stayed with me most powerfully until today. It felt like you could actually feel something physically shift as that line landed.

Chavkin tells us things they'd like in the show – a band, a chorus of teenagers (I think of the Karin Beier production of Das Werk), and to perform the show in a non-theatre space (ironically, I think of the Volksbühne, which also does a fine line in gig-venue-ness (here's Current 93 playing there, for example)).

But, yes. The show I'm imagining now is an awesome show. And imagining it feels amazing. It's one of the most exciting shows I've thought about during the Fringe. But that sense of excitement is totally real and in-this-moment. Which means this "work-in-progress" show is exciting in itself. And we're only about ten minutes in.

The next bit is the performance of a technical hitch.

Sure, it probably is a real technical hitch, but let's assume it's deliberate. Because it's really good.

If this is a show about a failing superpower, then the odd power failure is going to be par-for-the-course, right? This is a failure of a video projection; not live, like the band, but pre-recorded.

The screen shows a still of _ _. It plays a brief burst of speech. The screen glows blank – that “live” bright, dark grey colour of a TV on stand-by. The picture filters back. And disappears. The screen glows grey again. Then white. Then grey. The sound plays without the image.

If you were Bruce Nauman, you could stick this in Tate Modern and ask money for it.

Rachel' voice shouts in the darkness about restarting the tape.

Jessica's voice jokes that now would be a great time for another song. If they knew how to play another song.

It still feels like it could just as easily be art.

The video-proper starts. It's _ _ playing a young teenager (herself?) and an older teenager (a boy?), there's stuff about sexual attraction and smoking.

The scene shifts from video to stage and she's with _ _ and _ _, who are her parents. Her dad isn't happy about the low-cut top she proposes to go out in. Her parents want her to stop calling them “Mom and dad”. They worry they're losing their identities.

If they'd had kids in their early twenties these are conversations that The TEAM could be having with some real live teenagers of their own right now. Indeed, I wonder if part of the show is also about a missed teenage-hood – hardcore/straight-edge being music the heyday of which actually pre-dates them by a good decade – and now missed, or starting-to-be-missed parenthood. And of course it feels like their country is suddenly crashing down around their ears. Or maybe that's just my stuff.

It's interesting, of course, to note that alongside being “a show that describes an absent show”, Primer for a Failed State is another show about teenagers. Indeed, so of-the-moment is this presentation of a show-that-does-not-yet-exist, about-teenagers, that I worry that it might feel *a bit 2012* when it does finally materialise as a “real” piece...

Of course, I'm being silly. I'm watching the show through the sleep-deprived prism of three weeks of shows appearing to suggest common themes. As a result, I'm hardly talking about the other major preoccupation of the show – the decline of a global superpower. Perhaps this will end up being the element that resonates.

In the mean time, I get to sit here and feel energised and excited just through the act of imagining that in a couple of years there's going to be a theatre company in some found-space/railway shed/hangar who are going to create a massed chorus of teenagers with electric guitars and microphones all smashing through some hardcore punk in an attempt to understand another empire down.

Hopefully some of this, too:

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