Tuesday 9 August 2016

Two Man Show – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 08/08/16]

Rash Dash’s latest piece, Two Man Show, is one of those shows that renders criticism (in some/many senses) entirely redundant. Of course, that depends on what you think theatre criticism is/is for, but if you’re in the Yes/No, Thumbs-up/Thumbs-down or analytical dissection camps, then you’re out of luck; the piece already contains such a pinpoint accurate review of itself, reflecting all the nagging concerns that you as a critic might have been nursing, that you might as well pack up your note-pad and go home now.

Because there is that sense, isn’t there, that a critic is writing to the company explaining what they’ve done “wrong,” in some reviews? It doesn’t seem too fanciful to imagine that this point in the show is maybe directed at those reviews of We Want You To Watch (Rash Dash’s previous show), which rather went on about what the show should have done instead of what it did do, and those reviews completely failed to engage with or understand what was in fact being presented.

Still, reviews can do more than just give a verdict or a dramaturgical telling-off. So, for the sake of theatre history/posterity (rather than ticket sales or lecturing the company), what Two Man Show is, is this:

It starts in a kind of futuristic/seventies-looking setting, wherein Abbi and Helen unwrite the patriarchal explanation of male dominance, and putting forward more recent archaelogical/anthropological thinking on how hunter-gatherer societies were, broadly speaking, equal. And then looks at early, matriarchal, goddess-dominated societies.

There is singing and dancing (with additional musician, Becky [sorry about this first-names-only thing, those are the only credits I can find...])

Then, unexpectedly, the thing resolves itself into what is essentially a very “straight” British, naturalistic play – think mid-nineties Bush Theatre – about an estranged brother returning to his family home, where his brother is caring for their senile, incontinent, dying father. Of course, the two brothers are played by Abbi and Helen, so it doesn’t look as naturalistic as all that, but the mode, the writing, the style of acting are all hugely evocative of that style of theatre.

Then, almost as unexpectedly, there is more dancing (I think it’s during this first scene that the two women have taken off their tops – the sightlines in the Northern Stage auditorium at Summerhall aren’t especially clear.  This also seems an important tool of both liberation and distanciation).

The show then follows this alternating between the “Bush play” and the dance sequences. One or two of the dance sequences feel explicitly legible – in one, Abbi, sort of dressed in an “artist’s smock” poses Helen in alternate famous “male” statue poses, and poses of “female” coquettry, while the music pastiches Mozart, Beethoven and Delibes.

And, if the show had continued like this, with nothing else, it would have been a perfectly good, interesting show, with plenty to think about, if maybe “misgivings about the slightly obvious structure, and clunky exposition/exploration of its themes” (if one were that sort of critic).

But it doesn’t. Instead [SPOILER, if “SPOILER” is applicable here], it veers off into this remarkable scene where Abbi isn’t Abbi, she’s her character, John. In one of the bits that have been strictly set up as “the dance bit”. “John” has some pretty trenchant criticisms of “the dancing bits”. Helen’s got some defence; ideas about language being too patriarchal, but “John”’s got some pretty good come-backs about that. I. Suddenly. Have. No. Idea. Who. Is. *Meant*. To. Be. “Right”. Both? Neither? Abbi? Helen? John? It’s kind of brilliant, but also kind of scary, given that we’re so used to being spoonfed in this sort of piece; so very used to being positioned, as an audience, in terms of who or what we’re meant to be agreeing with.

In turn, though, just as with We Want You To Watch turning out not to be about pornography, but about capitalism, Two Man Show turns out not to be about gender but about British theatre. Yes, sure, gender’s a complete mess, and patriarchy sucks, but everyone who sees this show already knew that. What Two Man Show is about, is about British theatre’s failures as a machine for communication. Or rather, the shortcomings of its success as a machine for communication. The piece is angry at the need/drive-toward “meaning”. Toward well-balanced arguments. Against the deadening reliance on dialectics for issues that clearly go beyond a binary.

What I found striking, however, was just how insular these arguments actually felt. I mean, if you took this piece to, say, Belgium (since there’s so much of their work here), and plonked it down in one of their dance festivals, it would seem suddenly incredibly strange*. Why is it arguing with this 19th century dramatic form? they might ask. Why are there *warnings* about nudity? It’s a dance piece! Of course there is nudity; this is Europe! Etc. I don’t say this as a criticism of Rash Dash, but as a realisation that I had about the show and the culture it’s been made in relation to. I mean, sure, Belgium’s probably *nearly* as screwed up in terms of gender equality as Britain. Maybe even more so (although it never looks like it from their theatre/dance). I dunno. I guess, it just makes me sad that Two Man Show has to be how it is, and has to argue with what it has to argue with, because the UK is so entirely backwards. I’d be really fascinated to see Rash Dash make a show with, say, Miet Warlop next time. Or at least, some foreign dramaturgs and choreographers.

But, yes. There we are. Two Man Show: quintessentially English, but kinda vital viewing (at least for Englanders) nonetheless. Everyone should go and see it, and have a jolly good think about it (and, instead of responding to it by trying to mentally *correct it*, should instead try thinking about what the things they see as “mistakes” might mean if they aren’t mistakes).

* Conversely, if I'd seen this in Germany as a mainstream theatre staging of this made-up 90er Bush play, I probably wouldn't have blinked once, and would have thought it was genius...

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