Wednesday 4 February 2015

The Life and Loves of a Nobody – The Albany

[seen 03/02/15]

I should come clean straight away and say that I didn’t get on with Third Angel’s new show at all. What was more interesting to me, was that at last night’s performance I happened to be sat pretty much exactly behind Tom Morton-Smith, whose new play Oppenheimer I had just eviscerated after seeing it at the RSC. Which was sobering. It’s one thing to give “the RSC” a kicking. It’s quite another thing when you’re forced to remember that “the RSC” is made up of individual people – like Tom, who is a fellow-human being, whose feelings you might have recently hurt – not just a faceless, powerful monolith (which, of course, it also is). It is hard to attack the monolith made of people without hurting those people. I don’t know the answer to this yet, but will think on.

Of course, the other thing that distinguished last week was the David Edgar Question. And, of course, Oppenheimer falls squarely into the camp of His Most Favoured, whereas The Life and Loves of a Nobody is an example of Edgar’s false binary opposite: devised. So there’s a temptation to let both works become symbolic. Which should be resisted.

But enough preamble. Let’s talk about the show.  Life and Loves... is essentially an hour long play-within-a-play sandwiched between two segments of very thin postmodern defence or something akin to it. The postmodern defence essentially runs thus: “Yes, this is crap, but we know it’s crap, and it’s crap on purpose, so that’s good”. This isn’t actually “postmodern defence” proper, because the company have actually written in the defence too. As such it’s more like a version of The Seagull which mostly comprises Konstantin’s play, and then a bit before and after establishing that Chekhov knows that K’s play isn’t very good.

The before and after sections are set in a futuristic dystopia. In the before section, we, the present-day audience, are welcomed as the futuristic audience and apologised to for the “protestors outside” who have thrown shit and stones at us. So, the thing we’re going to see is controversial or contentious for some reason.

The “after” section reveals why: the intervening “play” we’ve seen, in which the life of an “ordinary” 36-year-old woman is shown through a series of lack-lustre scenes, is the evidence we, the futuristic audience, have been given before deciding if we vote for her to be “immortalised” by being murdered (with her consent) on stage, or to return to her life and essentially be forgotten.

It is, I suppose, an intriguing, if slightly clunky, and definitely under-explored premise. The problem with the show is more the entire hour-long middle-section which feel like it hasn’t quite found its feet in terms of the compromise between showing how a regime/future-theatre would present this woman’s life, and possibly remainders from before the postmodern defence was added.

Yes, the show asks questions about who decides what’s important. And highlights the way that “ordinary people” (always a vile concept) are presented. And probably has a pop at that whole X-Factor (or whatever) narrativising of contestant’s lives. And all sorts of other stuff that I suspect the audiences of Fringe theatre already have a perspective on. (And probably a similarly concerned, leftie perspective to that of the creative team.) But here it mostly seems unsure as to what register to adopt. There was also the problem that because it was playing with ideas of the presentation of someone’s life by people entirely refusing to engage with it. People completely disinterested and uninterested in the person (but without enough set up as to why). There weren’t enough tensions in this portrayal of the portrayers, in short. They, not the story they seemed to be telling, should have been the real focus, perhaps.

During the hour, I wondered about Forced Entertainment, and their exploration of boredom; Caroline Horton’s Islands and critics too keen to judge and on the wrong terms; and even how to watch work as sculpture rather than the acting and engagement itself. I also wondered about the ceiling of the venue, the people sitting opposite me in the traverse space, the contents of the other brochures at the Albany’s season launch (some good stuff, people), and what I was going to have for supper (chicken casserole and mash, as it turned out).

Not all of this was directly the company’s doing. Amongst the last to take a seat in the space, I found myself parked in front of the giant speakers providing ALL THE SOUND FOR THE SHOW. These were about a foot away from my ears, so that any time any music or a sound effect was used, I couldn’t hear a bloody thing on stage. Even the humming and feedback made it tricky.

Aesthetically, I suppose the thing is part attempt on Mr Burns and part Hat Parade in Churchill’s Far Away. But it really doesn’t come anywhere near the awesome grandeur of either as an artistic statement or visceral experience.

So, yes, I (think I) could see what the company were driving at. But the central hour neither had its cake nor ate it, and this felt like a real problem.

To return to my initial starting point, though, what is curious is that I liked Life and Loves *far* less than I liked Oppenheimer, and yet this review would almost certainly be an easier read for those involved. Partly, I think this might be that watching the entire show over the shoulder of a man whose play you’ve just tried to murder is a humanising experience. But also, because Third Angel aren’t a monolith. Their people-ness is a much clearer factor. There isn’t the feeling of endless institutional buffers, and five-star reviews in high places. Which is an interesting thing to realise in a show that’s trying to make you consider a similar kind of ethical question.

1 comment:

Phil Porter said...

If anything, I think I take reviews more personally if my work is being produced by a big company like the rsc. This is partly just because the general exposure is greater, so the potential for public humiliation is amplified, and humiliation is a feeling that can only be really be experienced personally rather than collectively. But I also project onto any criticism a feeling of 'why did they get HIM to do it when they have so much choice? Just think of all the people who could have used that great opportunity better.' Which is silly but very much how it feels nonetheless.