I don’t know who’s in charge of the theatre programming at EIF, but whoever it is urgently needs replacing. Ok, that’s not quite fair. Real Magic *is* brilliant, it’s just a pity I’d already seen it. The thought of Zinnie Harris’s 4hrs30 Oresteia wasn’t enough to keep me in Edinburgh to see it (indeed, may have prompted me to leave early), and the reviews of the six hour Ayckbourn were enough to make me return my press ticket.
Thank God, then, for John Eliot Gardner’s Monteverdi concerts and Nederlands Dans Theater.
The NDS triple bill (which I characterised at the first interval as “a mixed programme of applause, queuing, intervals and a bit of dance” (total dance-time: 84 minutes, total running time: getting on for three hours)), was, overall, pretty good.
I was maybe a bit crabby in the first interval, as the first piece, Shoot The Moon, was merely “fine,” with many points lost for their use of Philip Glass’s Tirol Symphony, movement 2 (made available here on YouTube as “motivational music” to “start your own business,” one idly notes).
The basic dance set-up involved a three-walled revolve, creating three different rooms, with windows and/or doors, with an additional live-stream screen above it. Seven dancers seemed to tell a fairly hum-drum story of suffocated marriages, yearning and infidelity(?), which, when scored by Glass’s identikit music, made it look like the movement bits in a(n imagined) Katie Mitchell adaptation of The Hours (perhaps performed on the set of Heiner Goebbels’s I Went To The House But Did Not Enter). But, yeah, things I concluded during Shoot The Moon: a) I prefer contemporary dance where they don’t dance *to* the music (if there has to be “music” at all), and b) I’m pretty over my adolescent thing for Philip Glass now. Especially his soupy, trying-to-be-emotional stuff.
Annoyingly, the third piece – Stop-Motion – is also choreographed by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, this time to the strains of some soupy Max Richter. And is an open-stage version of much the same register, albeit with a different plot/arc – this one somehow more like a deconstructed group Swan Lake in many repeated vignette-like iterations of character. And with some tediously tasteful black and white projections of a woman wearing a black black dress on a hanging screen on the right hand side of the stage. For a while. Until it lifts up and disappears.
The stand out here is Gabriela Carrizo’s The Missing Door – for all the world like a compressed model of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. On a loop...
Mercifully, this being Sh!t Theatre, the piece gives critics a fair bit of room for speculation. The thing itself – as with Windsor House – is a kind of investigative reality travelogue, this time to the Dollywood theme park that Parton bought a share in and rebranded for herself and her fans in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This narrative is intercut with repeated fragments from interviews with Parton (some absolutely breathtaking male-chauvinism); digressions about Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep; a bunch of stuff about (inevitably, apparently) breasts; Parton’s secret-not-secret lesbianism; and Pigeon Forge’s other merch-laden “tourist attraction” a “body farm” where donated corpses are allowed to decompose forever in various states, presumably for the researches of CSI types and etc.
All this feeds into ideas (as discussed in the Jen Harvie podcast) about mortality/immortality, Parton’s signifiers and signifieds, her semiotics, the idea of it being possible to be “more Dolly than Dolly” (as exemplified by the fact she entered herself into a Dolly Parton-themed drag contest and lost). These themes are carried on through the clone sheep Dolly, and a question of whether reproduction diminishes quality (the Sh!ts never quite get as far as quoting Benjamin, but they might as well).
Matt Trueman links this tendency to Andy Warhol – and I don’t disagree. But for me, the unshakeable image here was that of Donald John Trump, 45th President of the USA. I mean, sure, Parton seems as much like a force for good as a theme-park owning, self-merchandising singer in the genre of white supremacist music can do, but... y’know, it’s still “Country and Western,” isn’t it? Essentially: music for lynchings. (Don’t get me started on my “all folk music is essentially fascist” thing, we’ll be here all day.)
It feels like a strange year for self-ironising, big-haired blondes anyway, right? Trump seems to spring from the same school of turn-self-into-brand; so is Parton basically the prolonged period of shelling before Trump’s over-the-top assault? In some sort of cultural studies meltdown, I’d say she probably is. Never mind that her Imagination Library apparently gives books to 35,000+ registered UK children; until relatively recently, we had actual libraries in the UK. Sure, books paid for by an American country singer’s private philanthropy are better than no books at all, but equally, it’s not exactly socialism either...
So, yes; I had quite a few thoughts during Dolly Would, most of them probably unrelated directly to what was going on in front of me, and a lot more related to the terrible catastrophe that is the world today. (There you go, Sh!t Theatre; you can put whatever you want on stage, I’m still going to see a depressing version.)
So, it’s not scientific, what I was thinking, and it was probably a somewhat overdone train of thought for a piece that seeks (on the surface at least) to be no more than eccentric, likeable entertainment. But that idea that you can’t switch off ideology is an annoyingly persistent one. And, while Parton herself might be Capital at its most benign and charitable, Dollywood seems to me to be a horribly prescient vision of Trumpland...
[Would end by quoting something out of that Sontag essay on kitsch if I had a copy to hand, but I’ve got a vague feeling she’s not nearly as hardline as I’d need her to be anyway.]
When we were about 17, my mate Alan and I used to write ridiculous (and terrible) “plays.” What strikes me as interesting now, is that there was basically Pinter, Beckett, and Orton for inspiration and precedent. That’s all the “contemporary theatre” there was in 1993 in Birmingham. All there was, it seemed, was grimy men in grimy rooms, indulging in faintly amusing, mostly disconcerting, entirely inconsequential dialogue.
You can see where this is going, right?
What’s strange and disconcerting about Give Me Your Love – devised into a buyable playscript by Ridiculusmus – is that all the material around it concentrates on the company’s research into presenting mental health issues on stage. Strange and disconcerting, because it is more or less entirely impossible to discern any difference between this piece, and the plays that Alan and I wrote 25 years ago.
What happens in GMYL is that __ (_ _), a war veteran with PTSD, stands in a room yelling at his front door, behind which various visitors stand (alll voiced by _ _). From inside a cardboard box. _ _ doesn’t get out of the cardboard box until the curtain call. _ _ (in any of his many voice guises) never enters the room.
But also, indistinguishable from a comic play by two adolescent boys who just found mad people really funny. So, my point is this: if it’s impossible to tell the difference between a play that proudly wears its research into mental health on its sleeve, and one which has done exactly no research at all, isn’t it a bit of a problem?
It seems harsh to suggest it, but without a hand-picked audience who know the company, know how to make all the right noises, and have done all the background reading etc., this could easily be construed as somewhere between nonsense and deeply offensive/problematic, etc. “But it’s not! It’s the product of research!” defenders will argue. Sure. Fine. But theatre itself isn’t a good format in which to present the findings of research, is it? I mean, a lecture theatre is, but this wasn’t a lecture, was it? It was a comic and surreal (non-)narrative drama. It was pretty much 4th Wall naturalism, in fact. Even the walls of the set were realistically begrimed. There was all sorts of attention to realist details. And to what end? To display comic Welsh accents (I guess at some point audiences outside of Wales will stop finding the Welsh accent funny, and start finding their laughter racist, but not today, apparently), and a bloke stood in a box for an hour. Which also made the audience laugh.
I get that laughter *can* enhance the poignancy and humanity of a person’s suffering. We can feel the cruelty of a situation all the more keenly through the absurdity... Except here we really don’t. (Or at least, it really, really didn’t work for me.) It’s a shame, because you can completely see what’s been/being aimed at, but I reckon it’s occasionally worth noting when a thing really hasn’t come off. And this, for me, really didn’t.
How To Act does one thing, and it does that one thing in two or three successive ways. Ultimately, they are all the same way, but with increasingly levels of transparency. The thing it is doing is essentially pointing out white/Western/colonialist attitudes can exist even within the best of intentions.
Does anyone fancy disagreeing with that?
The piece might be stronger were it to also attempt to mount some sort of defence, but then there probably isn’t one. At which point, we enter the realm of stating the bleeding obvious to the converted.
What happens in phase one is that a Peter Brook-ish director is giving one of those masterclasses that they used to have on telly at the end of the seventies. (For younger readers, here’s a young Gandalf explaining Macbeth, and then Fry and Laurie taking the piss out of these sorts of programmes.) In fact, the director is so Peter Brook-ish that I reckon, with a half decent lawyer, Brook could probably win a legal case against NTS. I mean, who wants to face the possibility that Brook’s Mahabharata (for example) might be the most misguided exercise in cultural appropriation ever? (Actually, I’d be fine with that. Fuck him and his empty space. Seems a bit much though, non?)
Phase one is quite good. It’s good because it’s relatively subtle. The discerning audience member can see that there is a very uncomfortable imbalance of power between the director and his volunteer actor, who happens to be a much younger, mixed-race woman.
Phase two makes sure that everyone else in the audience, who might have been happy taking phase one at face value – as a workshop situation in which we might not bother considering the power relations between (older, white, male) director and (younger, mixed-race, female) actor – is brought up to speed. Phase two is consequently a bit tiring for everyone who got it during phase one.
Phase three amps up the entire thing by revealing – in a plot twist that brighter audience members will have seen coming a mile off – that older white male director is younger mixed-race female actor’s father. Then, when she reveals this to him, he smacks her in the face, or something. Phase three can basically fuck off altogether.
Now, y’know, I’m a good leftie, so I tend to agree with the overall message – that imperialism and exploitation are naughty. But I knew that when I walked in. Having it reiterated to me at some length – with no credible new information or analysis – does nothing for me, I’m afraid. Indeed, I’m enough of a leftie to actually quite fancy a bit of a dialectic. Or something that at least offers my default anti-imperialism a thoughtful critique. What I don’t particularly need to watch is a kangaroo court on behalf of my beliefs which is so one-sided that it almost embarrasses me out of holding them.
I’ll start with my only real grumble: “[Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari,] being a non-fiction book, with no characters or plot... the creative team and ensemble...” made some up. I mean, Secret Life of Humans is a pretty good play, very much in the Complicité (circa Mnemonic and Disappearing Number) mode of “how to devise a play about a big subject around a smaller human story.” My grumble is just the implication that it’s impossible to do it differently. I absolutely don’t mind that this was the choice taken, I just wish people would recognise and admit that there were/are choices.
So, yeah. Secret Life of Humans – written by David Byrne, directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley, devised by the company (no, I’ve no idea how that works/what that really means, but that’s fine) – is basically a Complicité show of a Richard Curtis film. On stage. About the origin of the species. Or: it’s essentially a detective story about what Jacob “The Ascent of Man” Bronowski did in WWII [spoiler: he essentially devised the mathematical formula that made the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg so horrifyingly effective]. In it, his grandson, Jamie (made up?), meets up with Ava, a researcher in the same field, on the world’s most coincidental Tinder date (definitely made up, right?). He takes her back to his (dead) folk’s place, for a one-night-stand, and a quick look into his grandfather’s locked and alarmed room in which he keeps all his secret papers related to this source of great personal horror and anxiety. Suddenly, the patrician BBC documentary-maker with an inaccurately upbeat prognosis for human progress is a lot more complicated. We see episodes from his life in flashback, intercut with his grandson’s coming to terms with what it all means, and talking about the big theories of evolution, etc.
What’s fascinating, watching Secret Life... for all its undoubted theatrical achievements (for a Fringe show, it really does have a couple of remarkable special effects, as well as a decent set and excellent video projections, etc.) is the extent to which it also seems hell bent on coming up with an optimistic ending. I have to say, I found that about as convincing as Bronowski’s “Ascent” thesis. Much more interesting is the pessimistic underbelly: that Homo Sapiens started life as an uncontrollably vicious, genocidal species – apparently the world is littered with the mass graves of Neanderthals, our nearest biological cousins, suggesting that the human race systematically slaughtered every last one of them to achieve our current position of global superiority.
Standing, as we now do, on the brink of certain environmental catastrophe, accompanied by a likely succession of international and civil wars, fought along every conceivable division imaginable (east against west, white against black, Islam against Christianity, men against women, etc. etc. etc.), it’s pretty difficult to get excited about any possibility of the human race’s survival. Or, really, why anyone would want it to. Sure, there are some nice people, but there’ll probably be some really lovely talking cockroaches soon enough.
Conclusion: if you want people to care about your characters, don’t remind us that they’re human, much less what “human” really means.
Like Sasquatch, Mercer & Hyde’s The Marriage of Kim K feels like the sort of improbable insanity that the Fringe was designed to accommodate. I mean, who actually felt that what their life was missing was a rom-com mash-up of Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries – as told by camp TV series Keeping Up With The Kardashians (and possibly Sam Riviere) – and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro?
In the very small Cons corner, if I’m brutally honest, I could have lived without the audience-hand-holding bridging-device-between-two-worlds: a put-upon composer and his new qualified lawyer wife, bickering over what to watch on the television (Keeping Up... or Mozart, natch), even unto near-marital breakdown. That said, it’s this element that also makes the thing feel democratic and accessible (even if most couples aren’t composers and lawyers). And, y’know, most people probably relate more to squabbling couples than to comparative studies of high and low culture and their unexpected intersections. Also, the staging is kinda terrible, but in a likeably shambolic, Fringe-y way.
But, yeah, the Pros side here is huge. The six-strong singing cast – particularly the two opera singers – are a marvel, and the (sadly invisible/hidden) band + string quartet are excellent. There is always something so much more exciting about hearing all the music played and sung live. And then there’s the script/book/lyrics/libretto. In an early witty touch, the couple on the sofa watching Mozart put the subtitles on, and the Mozart singers switch from Italian to English. And this translation (slight adaptation?) of Figaro seems to me to be world-beating, what there is of it (I would happily watch the whole thing at ENO). And then there’s the Kardashian bits. Now, it’ll surprise none of you at all, that I haven’t watched a single minute of Keeping Up With... until I sat down to write this review, but it’s my guess that the lyrics for the musical Kardashian bits are quite plausibly lifted wholesale from the show, maybe it even includes “famous” quotes, combined with the rigours of writing rhyming musical theatre songs. (Do I suspect that Hamilton might be the defining influence here? Probably, but as we also know, I’m not *as* enamoured of (the recorded version of) that musical as everyone else on the planet seems to be – I mean, it’s clever an’ all, but there’s still just a bit too much fondness for musical theatre songs to let me actually love it.)
So, on several levels, I’m maybe exactly the wrong person to be reviewing this, being perhaps one of a handful of people who prefers opera to reality TV. What’s actually rather nice, though, is that while I suspect that the piece’s main concern is trying to de-fang Mozart for scaredy-proles, it also works just as well the other way round, and sells the idea of Keeping Up With The Kardashians as a completely riveting bit of modern tragedy on a par with Euripides or Seneca. So, yeah, (mostly) excellent work all round; although if Mercer and Hyde could now put down the soupy musical theatre stuff from here on in, and concentrate on the witty, musically intelligent side of their arsenal, that’d be perfect.
Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s début solo-show is the only thing I’ve seen at the Fringe so far (or at all, it turned out) that connects Edinburgh to the biggest question being examined at the Manchester International Festival this year (well, by two shows, anyway); the question of “class betrayal”.
Like both Eribon and Stephens (et al.), Atkinson-Lord takes herself as the main example, and extrapolates outwards. A-L, those of us who have ever met her before are surprised to discover, is in fact from the West Midlands. She sings us a neato historical folk song about the bread and butter riots of 1766, and talks to us in her “native” accent. An accent I confess I’d never particularly noticed she had before.
Moving between three clearly demarcated sections of the stage (which probably represented something, but I was too woolly-brained to work out what), she changes clothes, writes on a chalk board, and – most engagingly – delivers a pretty faultless, three-character, headphones-on, verbatim theatre section of a car journey she took with her parents. Through these various sections, she gives a pretty good potted account of English history, her own accent and how she’s basically ditched the one she grew up with in favour of a “posh” one, and, well, the curse of the English class system.
It’s very striking, I think, that of the three shows – Returning to Reims, Fatherland, and The Class Project – it’s the only one that deals with “accent”. Stephens, as we probably know, has pretty much retained some version of his Stockport accent, and accent just doesn’t seem to be a factor with real class connotations in Germany in the same way (there are regional accents, but lacking a centralised point of resentment (i.e. upper-middle-class London), none of them seem particularly privileged above the others?), so if it was a thing in Eribon’s (French) memoir, it certainly didn’t become a major factor in Ostermeier’s German-thought, English-performed production (a factor clearly further complicated by the fact that Nina Hoss as the narrator was a German speaking in English, so her accent was “German” – a totally classless proposition as far as an English audience is concerned; “foreigners” always seeming “a bit posh.” At least, until they’re “immigrants,” right?).
I mean, I probably have *some thoughts* about accents myself, but they’re pretty unformed and imprecise, so I won’t go on about them here. Instead, let’s note that – while not “perfect” (whatever “perfect” means) – The Class Project is an interesting, intelligent, engaging hour, picking over and reopening what is pretty much an evergreen subject for the English, but a subject that, nevertheless, No One Else At All seemed to be talking about this Fringe. (That I saw.) (With the exception of All We Ever Wanted...).
Playing at 11a.m., on a day that I was prepared to swear blind was a Sunday, Rachel Mars’s Our Carnal Hearts is basically church. (Yes, I am just going to read this whole thing through my gentile filter*. Because that’s what everyone does anyway, right? And changing my filters would be more ethically dubious (and unsuccessful) than just carrying on as normal, so.) It’s got a choir (music by Louise Mothersole, heavily influenced by Philip Glass?). It’s got hymns (well, Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’). And it’s got a sermon. Of sorts.
What’s interesting is what the sermon actually is. There are basically two ways you can read the show: one) taking basic message at face value; that greed, envy, avarice, etc. are basic human traits; and we should let ourselves off and not beat ourselves up too much for feeling those things; and that we should even celebrate them, maybe. Essentially the Church of Satan approach, if you will. Two) taking the show to be a slightly scattergun satire on all of the above, and seeing all politics as the politics of envy, each revolution as the product of selfishness and jealousy, and maybe even every genocide rooted in thinking someone else always seems to be better off than yourself.
It’s hard to get a real fix on which of these two messages – if either – the show ultimately believes. Perhaps the show is ultimately a piece in praise of the postmodern paradox of knowing too much to commit to either option in a binary; having strong feelings and no particularly clear outlet for them. Or, to put it another way, I’m reasonably hopeful that I didn’t just see a show in which my mate Rachel seriously suggested that we lock everyone we’re jealous of in a wooden barn and set fire to it.
I should say at this point that the show itself is also very funny, Rachel Mars is a brilliant performer, the music is lovely, and this is a delightful way to spend an hour.
But, IDK, now we live in Trumpworld, where a bunch of Charlottesville Nazis give in to their feelings of envy (all Supremacist ideologies are rooted in their adherents’ feelings of powerlessness, envy at those who they perceive to be more powerful than them, and comforting nonsense about how they are in fact “superior” to whichever group they’ve decided is more powerful than them), and where America is presided over by the most hysterically jealous and venal person it is possible to imagine, letting ourselves off for the root of our Trumpian feelings – however natural they may be – seems like it might the wrong call to me. But, as I say, that’s probably also part of what the show’s saying; by denying it’s saying it.
It’s clearly got to that point in the Fringe where I can’t deal with moral ambiguity any more. Just give me nice straightforward answers to easy questions, please.
* As it happens, I chatted to Rachel about this, after writing the above, and she told me that the structure of the piece had indeed been influenced by an evangelical order-of-service found in New York(?) when she was making the show. So, phew. Good to know my intuitions aren’t entirely religio-colonialist.
This new piece from the Almeida Theatre’s Young Company is surprisingly sophisticated. Surprising until you see that the “writer” responsible for it is Joeri Smet, of Ontrorend Goed fame. Indeed, in many ways this feels like it is an O.G. Show in all but name, and specifically a follow-up to 2013’s Fight Night.
Where Fight Night explored the frustrations of the political landscape with a series of anonymous votes that led to a bunch of candidates that no one really wanted being whittled down to a winner/leader who no one in their right mind would have chosen (prescient, non?), From The Ground Up seems to focus on the construction of people’s “political identities” or “sense of self”.
Now, I don’t know if the Almeida Young Company or Joeri Smet had a definitive plan for the overarching dramaturgy/architecture of the piece to tell the real story here, but that was certainly my take-home. Essentially, we’re told that we can only answer yes or no to a series of questions. They are “only interested in black and white. There’s not room for grey here.” (Which, as I go ever more grey, and racial politics seem ever more disastrously polarised, seems a horrible acute stand-alone obseervation anyway...). Of course, the way that the questions are phrased leaves a hell of a lot of mental wriggle-room, but the interesting idea here is confronting the sense that ultimately you can only agree or disagree. We maybe spend a lot of time in this life not really committing to any sort of opinion or action but instead spend a lot of time finessing the questions. So in that sense, it is a useful exercise. But then, many of the questions are phrased in such a way as to elicit knee-jerk responses, and there’s very little time to think.
The object of all this is to gradually corral the small audience – here huddled together into a low-ceiled room in a church crypt with whitewashed walls – into a selection of “political parties”: maybe more points on a political compass (old ideas of libertarian left, authoritarian left, libertarian right and so on... feel very present). Old binaries such as “family-loyalty or self-actualisation” rub up against more contemporary sounding questions relating to our opinions on whether sexuality is fixed or mutable (what is the progressive answer to that? Really? What if it was phased differently?)
The piece doesn’t really make points of its own (Ok: there’s a nice enough take-home about nuance being a good thing, I think), but instead mostly leaves us in this room – each audience member feeling incredibly isolated, I think – thinking furiously about what we actually do think, about a dizzying range of subjects. If anything, for me it made me reflect on the deeply unhelpful ways in which certain affiliations being traditionally allied to particular political (i.e. economic) positions has recently flipped, and made modern politics almost incomprehensible with a few astutely volte-faces. (Like, since when was “right wing” the first choice for “free speech,” FFS?)
If I’ve got an issue with From The Ground Up, I expect most of that issue isn’t with the piece itself, but with modern politics, which are, by-and-large, a disgusting farce. (A view I probably share with Steve Bannon. Eye roll.) Lacking any sort of didactic message, ultimately the piece serves partly as an exercise in confirmation bias, and partly as a study in futility: giving us all-too-familiar binary choices from the modern world, and asking us to exercise our meaningless “democratic” choices between two options that we had no say in formulating (and then seeing people whose “party” we’ve inadvertently joined making a mockery of that support. Hello Leave/Remain).
So, yeah. Loads of fun, until it reminds you how bleak everything in the world is, basically.
It’s worth saying at the outset: Team Viking is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Period.
And, annoyingly for me, it basically doesn’t fit in with a single one of the things that I tend to think I love about theatre, but there we go; brilliance doesn’t have to fit in. Annoyingly for you, last night’s performance was a one-off this year. But I think Team Viking has a hell of a lot of life left in it yet.
It’s basically a long story. Told in first person by James Rowland, who also “wrote” it. [I happened to chat to him afterwards and I don’t think he’d choose “wrote” as the most honest description of how it came into being – more improvised storytelling, transcription, editing, re-editing, re-telling etc. Director Dan Goldman also deserves much credit here, possibly more for a role as chief dramaturg, than for “blocking” but, y’know, whatever it takes, right?]
I’m loathe to give away a single detail of the thing, suffice it to say that it’s about friendship, love and loss, and it’s got more properly brilliant jokes and comic scenarios than it has any right to. It’s your full-on “I laughed, I cried” (I didn’t actually cry, but it’s definitely good for several wellings-up). It’s certainly the best story I’ve heard since Every Brilliant Thing, and – not that stories should ever be a competition – I might even have loved it more than that.
Traditionally, I tend to put in disclaimers round about this point in a review, where I suggest it’s only my opinion, but here it isn’t. It’s objective fact. It is scientifically impossible to not love Team Viking. It should be prescribed on the NHS, it should be put on the curriculum, it should be shown nightly on television (and radio). And it should be dropped on the United States of America as a matter of extreme urgency. Team Viking really is that good.
Ever since I saw David Marton’s wildly deconstructed version of Monteverdi’s proto-opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, at the Schaubühne in 2011(?), I’ve been kind of fascinated by it. Not least because I quite wanted to see *everything else*. [Sure. I’ve got old. I sometimes like to see “properly” as well now. Sue me. (tbf, Marton’s version had removed 95% of the music, and I didn’t want to see historical costumes or anything, so I think my former-self can relax)]
This version performed by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and directed (brillantly) in a semi-staged concert setting by Elsa Rooke is nigh on perfect. [The cheap seats round the side of the Upper Circle, however, are some of the most uncomfortable I’ve ever experienced, however. Brutally uncomfortable, with no leg-room, to the point of absurdity.] And what a strange piece it is. The first half (1hr35) is pretty much entirely made up of new characters being introduced. The “plot,” such as it is, barely moves forward at all. I think we get maybe one or two returns to *really* central characters, but mostly it’s just “Hey, let’s meet *this* new guy now!” Bizarrely, this completely suicidal (not least because of cost) dramatic structure is actually pretty entertaining. Or at least, quite funny. And not unsuccessful. You do get repeatedly drawn in, wondering who all these people are, and whether the plot will ever really kick off. And the music is pretty relentlessly gorgeous, so there’s that too.
Given how old this opera is (1640-ish), and how much it played a part in inventing the form, I was weirdly reminded of Middle Child’s new forays into gig theatre. Indeed, aside from the complete opposite-ends-of-the-musical-spectrum approaches, there is something astonishing about sitting in a hall in Edinburgh watching what is essentially a (largely context free) recreation of the invention of opera and it feeling similarly exciting and inventive now. The instruments used here seem to be largely authentic, early-modern/Renaissance ones, rather than a re-orchestration of Monteverdi’s score, but rather than feeling like this being museum-y for the sake of it, their very tones and unfamiliarity actually act to make the music feel more strange, rather than “more traditional” (Globe modernisers, take note).
In this original-form, you can maybe hear influences from more unexpected sources (maybe a hint of Arabic and perhaps even Balkan/Bulgarian) as well as the more “traditional” “Western” styles that it itself went on to extert influence over. (Geographically, historically, politically, this all makes a lot of sense – and maybe with current events raging so loudly outside/on-our-minds/etc. it’s particularly good to be forcibly reminded that the crucible of “Western” civilisation in the Mediterranean was (x2; both in classical times and during the Renaissance) not just some monolith of “whiteness” (whatever the fuck that’s meant to mean anyway) but a crossroads of cultures, all appropriating each others’ better ideas with nary a thought to political correctness).
So, yeah. What an incredibly rich experience on several different levels. One might wish that, for all its insides are *evocative*, the good people of Edinburgh might consent to having the seating in the Usher Hall made fit for the C21st, and one might also wish that this concert hadn’t been a one-off [although a) it wasn’t full, and b) it still probably sold more tickets than it’s possible for, say, Barrel Organ to sell for their entire run...]. Nevertheless, a far more convincing example of what the International Festival is for than The Divide, by all accounts.
Barrel Organ’s third show is a slight departure-from/reshuffle-of the familiar elements in this unruly, horizonally-organised theatre company. Written by Jack Perkins, directed by Joe Boylan and Dan Hutton, and performed by Bryony Davies and Rosie Gray, with Ali Pidsley on dramaturgy duties, it still somehow manages to feel entirely like a logical next step for this exciting company...
Jack Perkins’s Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – directed by Joe Boylan and Dan Hutton – is as impressive a New Writing debut as you could hope to see on the Fringe...
Getting the beginning right is a right bugger. In the manner of Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life, Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here allows itself several stabs at a beginning...
Davies and Gray stand on the empty stage and tell us how they’re in a car, tell us how they know each other (several possibilities, is one ever marked out as definitive?), tell us about Robin Hood, tell us about the ending of Thelma and Louise...
Have you been watching the new series of Twin Peaks? For me, it’s been making almost all the theatre I’ve seen since it started seem wilfully, timidly linear. Like, if you haven’t seen and taken on board Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, what’s even the point... Like, if your characters are still basically the same person (i.e. played by the same actor) at the end as they were at the beginning... Like, if you’re not prepared to spin out a shaggy dog story for more or less ever, and then interrupt it halfway through with the most insane, hallucinogenic interventions, then how can you call yourself an artist?
Anyone’s Guess... admirably picks up that Lynch-challenge ball and runs with it well over the touchline. This is a kind of kaleidoscopic, spiralling, fever-dream of a piece. A haunted house story about household debt. A play that manages to conjure an atmosphere of tension and suspense, and then press it into service as an exploration of he human story at the heart of a socio-economic problem. What’s astonishing about the piece is the way that it manages to work on so many levels at once and, by-and-large, make all of them feel satisfying in and of themselves.
As this is Edinburgh (and presumably touring for an age thereafter), I’m loathe to spell out precisely all the things I got from the piece while it’s still such early days. Suffice it to say, that – oddly – over the course of the “credit crunch” and beyond, I don’t remember seeing all that many stories about the actual human cost of household debt (Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money remains an outlier, unless I’m forgetting lots of somethings), and Anyone’s Guess... feels like an important corrective. At the same time, it fits perfectly into Barrel Organ’s oeuvre – proving (yucky word, but) that they really do have an identity *as a collective* which can withstand changes of both writer and director, which feels valuable and exciting in and of itself. It also fits excitingly into the world of contemporary New Writing – easily standing comparison with the work of Alice Birch or Ali McDowall. Similarly, Hutton and Boylan’s direction is fresh and inventive (enhanced brilliantly by Lucy Adams’s lighting and (once again) Kieran Lucas’s superlative sound design). Davies and Gray are also brilliant (and, as per usual with actors, I have no useful adjectives).
But, yeah; if it’s not already clear: Very Much Recommended. Go And See This.
I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that (Faith No More keyboardist) Roddy Bottum’s Sasquatch: The Opera is *the* Must-See event at this year’s Fringe. It’s probably the strangest thing here – and yet most comfortingly familiar – by a country mile; it’s got a massive cast, by Fringe standards (six named characters, six musicians, and a further six-strong chorus – I’m sure the heavy metal 6/6/6 configuration is purely coincidental); it’s hugely ambitious; it’s remarkably executed; and it still manages to feel admirably “Fringe-y” – with Ahmed Ibrahim’s staging (not to mention Joshua Rose’s lighting) very definitely not aiming for “polish” (although I dare say, given a less improvised space than Summerhall’s black-curtained Old Hall, it could look a lot more space-age if it wanted to). But the main thing about it is its strangeness.
At a Fringe where much else seems to be tending ever more toward a polite, consensus-driven agreement about “what constitutes good theatre/performance/whatever” (not such a bad thing, in the abstract), it is exciting to see something that appears to neither know nor care. It’s like finding a completely unironic greasy spoon in a street full of tasteful concrete and wood coffee shops. (Again, nothing wrong with tasteful coffee shops, per se. I *like* nice coffee. But it’s pretty exciting to find a show offering the equivalent of sugary Nescafé instant in a polystyrene cup for 30p.)
Musically, it seems to exist in an unexpected intersection between Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and ‘Pretty Hate Machine’. Similarly, the story – which definitely feels like it’s whizzed through to make it fit an hour-long slot, and could easily accommodate more complexity – feels like a cross between the heightened emotions of (say) Romeo and Juliet, and the less-heightened emotions of (say) South Park. There are both some very funny and/or absurd jokes, and also an emotional arc – at least for the Sasquatch himself – that is genuinely rather heartbreaking.
Visually, perhaps due in large part to a lot of footlights, I kept thinking of those photos you occasionally see of the sorts of things they used to put on at Tristan Tzara’s Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich. This feels of-a-piece with that sort of WWI-era surrealism (and now, plausibly coming from a similar sort of psychological place – total horror in the face of the state of the world, and maybe a loss of any faith in rational responses to it: at the end, the group hold a minute’s silence in memorial of Heather Heyer and in protest at the ongoing collapse of the US.)
In terms of deeper meanings actually contained within the show, well, I wasn’t hugely aware of any (not *all* the libretto is entirely 100% audible/comprehensible, let us generously say). I mean, it offers some broad-brushstroke stuff about oppression/slavery/servitude/exploitation being bad (Sasquatch’s nemesis seems to be a sort of travelling showman who keeps his daughter on an actual leash, and makes his son dress up as a parodic Sasquatch in a kind of freakshow?). Also bad is loneliness (Sasquatch is lonely). Love, on the other hand, is nice (if liable to end tragically). But then, that’s pretty much operas, right? It still makes a tonne more sense than The Magic Flute...
So, yes. Despite being (apparently) impossible to write up convincingly – at least as a strong thesis goes – this is one hell of an experience, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen at the Fringe for years.
All We Ever Wanted... is an absolute belter of a show. Big story, big noise, big heart. I bloody loved it. Sure, there are probably a few bits and pieces you could quibble about, but basically it’s brilliant.
It’s by (EU City of Culture 2017) Hull’s (Leave 66%) Middle Child Theatre, who are pretty much still the only company in the UK who make “gig-theatre” – that is to say, the story here (written by Luke Barnes) is told through a mixture of narration, short dialogues scenes (directed by Paul Smith), and punky-poppy songs (music by James Frewer). Songs which, in this fast trot from 1987 to 2017, err toward light-touch period pastiches. There are also some excellent period-piece observations (and the odd old Nokia).
[Quite spoilery for a while, now. Maybe just buy a ticket and read later...]
The story itself starts in Hull in 1987, when Kimberley (Emma Bright) and
Brian (Joshua Meredith) are in hospital waiting for the births of their respective children Chris (James Stanyer) and Leah (Bryony Davies). Ten years almost instantaneously pass, through the magic of M.C. Marc Graham’s narration, and Kimberley and Brian meet in a [bookshop?] over the last copy of the first Harry Potter novel. Tony Blair has been swept to power, Britpop [and Brit-Art] and “Cool Britannia” [and the plays of Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane in Germany] are Making Britain Great Again, even if Kimberley’s and Brian’s relationships have gone ass up. They arrange a play-date for their children. Chris and Leah get on like a house on fire and decide they’ll get married. Their parents, more aware of their class differences, don’t quite manage the same thing. Fast forward another ten years to War on Terror 2007 and middle-class Chris is at Manchester Uni hating every minute of it, while working-class Leah seems to be having a lovely time working in Build-A-Bear, but a chance encounter with her old school rival Holly (Alice Beaumont) turns all that around when she decides she wants to make a lot more money...
There’s *a lot* of welcome and unexpected complexity in this class-conscious narrative. From 1987 to the start of the 2007 segment, you’re struck by bleak thoughts on Britain’s sheer lack of social mobility. Then, Barnes pretty much turns those sympathies on their head. Firstly, by reminding us that there’s nothing *wrong* with being working class; second, by suggesting that being middle-class (for this particular character) isn’t necessarily a whole lot of fun; and then, thirdly, by having Leah go on to make quite a lot of money, we’re reminded that class and wealth aren’t inextricably linked (and, fourthly, that it’s kinda stupid putting a bunch of energy into hating the middle-classes at the same time as encouraging social mobility anyway...). It’s fascinating. Essentially, Barnes is both a subtle and a completely unsubtle moralist At The Same Time. And, lest all this sound a bit serious, it’s not even about “morality” (class-based or otherwise). Those ideas are in there to have a think about, if you like, but let’s not forget this is basically a banging episode of Doctor Who with songs. (“Doctor Who? What?” Oh, I forgot to tell you about the singing asteroid that’s about to destroy the earth, BY CHOICE... And the fact that Paines Plough’s Roundabout still looks like the Tardis...)
So, yes. Total fun, and enough *stuff* in it to be worth thinking about too. And moving! It’s really moving! And there’s a bit at the end where Marc Graham gets to deliver a speech that might as well be David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston’s Doctors at their very best. So, yeah. Go and see this. It might be not perfect, but it’s a bloody good argument against perfection.
[Absolutely no reference at all to this, though...
As regular readers will know, I absolutely loathe and detest 99.999% of me-theatre, confessional monologues, true-life solo-shows, etc. In general, I fucking hate every self-pitying, sentimental, oversharey, emotionally-bullying last one of them. They are (almost without exception) a terrible, terrible error of thinking, the antithesis of theatre, and should be actively boycotted, if not banned outright. :-)
I’m not fully sure why it is, then, that I thought YesYesNoNo/Sam Ward’s 5 Encounters... was in any way acceptable. I think, in part (assuming that it is all “true” in the first place – insofar as one person’s version of anything can ever be called “the truth”) it’s because a) it’s not really complaining or demanding our sympathy or understanding, b) if anything – a bit like The Shape of The Pain – it is partly about the impossibility of ever really explaining or understanding anything, c) it’s almost like a bleak, black, ironic joke at the expense of “me-theatre”. It offers neither a glib feel-good message nor a sententious telling-off to its audience. Instead, at root, it’s a theatrical exploration of a philosophical problem. Interestingly, it’s also interactive – which is another thing I often hate. Here the interactivity/voluntary-participation is managed tactfully and carefully, rather than as a device for achieving cheap laughs through bullying or ridicule.
The meat of the piece is Sam talking about these titular five encounters. They’re essentially anonymous encounters for sex with other men. The piece basically takes us through each encounter, from the posting of an advert by Sam, through to whatever end-point he decides; sometimes when he physically leaves the encounter, once a couple of emails after that. The descriptions are deadpan, and as matter-of-fact and un-erotic as descriptions of sexual activity can be. Audience members in search of titillation will have to work extremely hard to find any (unless, of course, deadpan anti-erotica is your fetish, in which case: bingo). These encounters are played off against Sam talking us through those “36 Questions On The Way To Love” (Ward has actually done proper research, and traced them back to their 1970s origin point, rather than their 2000s reincarnation as pieces like the that one I’ve just linked to). In this way, alongside the rather bleak, grinding descriptions of loveless, mostly quite joyless-sounding sex, there are also these questions apparently designed to achieve “intimacy” and/or “love”. At one point, a volunteer couple stand in front of a big fan and name all the things they like about each other while Sam drops pink confetti petals into the wind blowing between them while “romantic” music plays. It’s both actually rather touching, and also a) completely contrived/constructed, b) an enjoyably sardonic commentary on at least the bullshit trappings that surround “love” and/or “romance”.
Being pretty-much old enough to be Sam’s dad, I’ll admit that maybe I didn’t fully empathise with this level of Liebesangst, so much as recognise it from when I was much younger. But it’s a clear-sighted, sincere enough piece for that to worry me a bit, rather than make me feel condescending toward it. There is something admirable, I think, about having theatremakers worrying about the quality of truth, or empathy, or honesty that is possible. Indeed, it seems fundamental to the very core of (some of) what theatre’s about.
Have you read Angela Nagle’s brilliant Kill All Normies? Javaad Alipoor’s The Brothers... is almost the hi-tech, multi-media, stage show of the book. Ok, it’s not. Instead of considering the online culture wars from a Left/Right perspective, it instead looks at the “East”/West version. Or rather, the version of violent online “masculinity”that manifests as 4chan (even unto Trump) in the West and as online Jihadism even unto ISIS-membership – kind of also “in the West,” but on into the Middle East. (These highly political “geographical” distinctions are essentially rendered absurd by the piece’s relentless good sense.)
It’s a pretty simple structure – part performance lecture, and part triple-stranded narrative monologue about three very different blokes, who all watch the same video of a girl being blown up by a bomb in Syria – interspersed with some whizzy projections and live texting in a What’sApp group. This last innovation, believe it or not, I’ve never seen used before, and it’s strikingly effective here. Indeed, there’s a bit where Alipoor – echoing Oliver Frljić’s Klątwa – points out that he could just text us all links to what he’s talking about, but in the theatrical context 4chan would probably contravene the Obscene Publications Act, and sending links to ISIS recruitment sites would fall foul of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But even without, the way that the entire room/audience is suddenly networked, like a little encrypted cell all of our very own, reflects the content, and “the world of the play” beautifully. “The world of the play” being *precisely the world,* after all.
Alipoor writes rather brilliantly, and performs with a northern swagger that I reckon could even make the phone book sound pretty cool. [Incidentally, when are we going to get a new stock phrase for “makes the phone book sound exciting”? Young people won’t even believe that they even existed. I mean, you know this “doxing” thing that the show also talks about? British Telecom used to publish a book containing everyone’s name, address and phone number as a simple courtesy, FFS.] Alipoor is pretty much the ideal poster-boy for solid, sensible, old-left, atheist-Islam; not to mention even making “theatre” seem a whole lot less stale than it may often be perceived as. The form of the thing feels urgent and mobile, and the set (Ben Pacey) looks a bit like something out of Spooks (indeed, even the stories bear passing similarities (I intend this as a compliment; I like Spooks, even if it does have *significant problems*)).
If there’s a gripe, it’s maybe that (like Kill All Normies), it’s so good and interesting that you could happily wish it was two or three times as long. And it’s basically an overview of an analysis that’s very easy to agree with. I’d have been interested if ...Believers had also added a consideration of what the various factions of the disastrous “left” are up to; sitting in their own bedrooms being baited by 14-year-old boys who have learned how to wind them up, while drawing up ever more elaborate LARP-style rules about what people can and can’t say, admiring the thinness of each others’ skin, and codifying “left” politics into the most exclusive jargon possible.
Nonetheless, for all that Billington-style backseat dramaturgy, this is a a thrilling, urgent, blackly funny piece of work that at least makes one of the apparently inexorable impending global conflagrations seem comprehensible, and even maybe avoidable.
Seen the day after Palmyra, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that, a) Lands is the ideal counterpart to Palmyra, b) they compliment each other beautifully, c) while Palmyra *may* explore the macro, external, “bigger picture” of geopolitics, *maybe* Lands explores the micro, internal, psychological landscape; the first half of Blasted to Palmyra’s second half of Blasted, if you like. I couch all this in “maybe”s, because I reckon – like Palmyra – Lands functions on so many levels at once, that it would be just as possible to read it as an exploration of, say, the rise to power of Donald Trump, as it is to accept it at something closer to face value...
What that face value is is two women (Leah Brotherhead and Sophie Steer) and their relationship. Because they’re on a nearly-empty stage they could be anywhere. For some reason, I imagined them into a pretty normal flatshare arrangement – either as friends or partners. But they could just be on that stage (same as Bert and Nasi). Leah has done one jigsaw puzzle and is doing another. She is describing each piece of the puzzle in turn into her iPhone for “documentation.” Sophie, on the other hand, is bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Eventually, it becomes clear that she can’t stop this. Rapidly, “bouncing on a trampoline” goes from being bouncing on a trampoline to anything from drug or alcohol addiction, to mental illness, to physical illness, or even just another person’s irritating habits or quirks that they can’t or won’t give up. Similarly, Leah is maybe *a bit too invested* in her work with jigsaw puzzles.
The way that the piece unfolds (credits: directed and devised by Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart, co-devised by cast, additional devising by Richard Perryman and Nasi Voutsas) is, by turns incisive, tender, tough and heartbreaking. I mean, it really is a lovely, beautifully made show. Yes, it takes a couple of unexpected turns, one or two of which might occasionally seem to make it a bit too on-the-nose for a few moments, but then it somehow seems to turn again, shift our sympathies some more, and return to the sort of “compassionate Beckett”(?) thing that seems to form its core.
In Palmyra, Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas have created a strong contender for “Best Piece of ‘Political Theatre,’ Edinburgh 2017.” Like their previous hit, Euro House, it is ostensibly a tightly rehearsed set of comic scenes exploring the deteriorating relationship between the two performers. Upon entering the stage to take their chairs, they discover Bert’s plate has been smashed. Nasi’s plate is fine. We don’t know how Bert’s plate got broken. We never find out. They put it behind them and carry on with their thing – here: whizzing about the stage on those little industrial trolley stands, to the strains of ostentatiously Western Classical Music (what precisely I couldn’t tell you off-hand). And this is the way that the piece builds its suggestive relationship to its title. As we know, Palmyra is the name of the ancient Semitic city, in modern-day Syria, which was the target of a massive campaign of destruction by ISIS. Palmyra here seems to stand, plausibly, for the entire region, and all the warfare and politics that that entails.
The dynamic between Bert and Nasi is crucial here. Bert is French, unnecessarily handsome, charming, and also frequently In The Wrong. Early on, he takes Nasi’s plate to the top of a ladder and drops it. Absolutely on purpose. When Nasi – bearded, shorter than Bert, more of a working class accent, maybe – reacts (over-reacts?), Bert appeals to the audience to recognise what a psychopath Nasi is. The entire show is a gradual amping up of this bullying dynamic. In the actual room it’s fine. It doesn’t feel so cruel that it’s no longer funny. It’s played – by both of them – for laughs, after all. Sure, there are set-pieces where it gets genuinely more tense than funny, but always in service of setting up another laugh rather than for the sake of it.
And this is the genius of the thing. Because the surface level of “two blokes making a funny clown show about making their funny clown show” is always there, we never have to get bogged down in mapping specific moments onto particular aspects of global politics. As a result, with that political commentary track running loudly in the background, I reckon we end up working at thinking harder about the links between the two dynamics than we would if all of it were being explicitly rammed down our throats. We’re not “being told what to think” at all. Of course, as a result, part of the reason I think this is the most intelligent show about American/Western Imperialism versus the savage retaliation of ISIS is because the entire thing could be seen to work as an enormous exercise in confirmation bias (or, more, I read onto it exactly what I believe, and then pat them on the back for being so acute). That said, it’s not as if the show is formless or says nothing. And it even throws up some “difficulty”. I mean, in the way I read it, “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys becomes an Anthem for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the “you” of that song’s chorus suddenly seeming to be America, the “God” suddenly seeming much more present.
Indeed, the whole feels so finely tuned that you can read the piece in relation to any number of unequal power-dynamics, and indeed it feels so accurate (at least, to how I read politics) that it feels like at particularly acute analysis of power and abuse; any situation at all where one power is greater than another, and the ways in which the greater power uses charm and “reason” to excuse their own abuses and pathologise resistance. It doesn’t endorse or excuse anyone or anything. It just keeps on showing us this one analogous situation and, to an extent, it insolubility. As such, it’s a bloody good job it’s also funny, or this would also be the most depressing show on the Fringe too. To be honest, it probably still is. That’s probably what makes the jokes funny.
But, yes. Proper genius, this. Incredible pity it’s not on for longer. Here’s hoping it has a long, long post-Edinburgh life.
Together Alone is probably impossible to describe usefully. Look at the photo. It’s basically that. But moving around. To (various) Music. For 45 minutes. I thought it was (mostly) brilliant Chen-Wei Lee and Zoltán Vakulya – naked throughout – are in incredible physical condition, and make nearly an hour of intense physical exercise look almost effortless.
The game in this piece is that for the entire duration, some part or other of Lee and Vakulya’s bodies must be touching. There is obvious stuff: hand-holding, swinging each other round, clambering over each other, etc. But there is also stranger contact; heads pressed lightly against shoulders, shoulders pressed into arms, hips against hips.
I can’t imagine anyone reading this review being overly bothered by nudity anyway, but I will add that it’s fascinating, in the context of a theatre culture in which nudity still often feels difficult, awkward or exploitative, it was a joy to see something where simply not having any clothes on felt like nothing except a practical and aesthetic decision. And also – given that this practicality was manifestly the case – how an entire audience will immediately accept this.
Criticisms: I suppose I worried that some of the music balanced a bit on the knife-edge between being quite good, and “a bit too new-age relaxation tape”. But it never actually tipped over. And maybe other people are ok with new age relaxation tapes anyway.
In terms of “message” or “meaning,” I don’t think I came away with *much*, although there was something palpable about two dancers from such totally different backgrounds and (I presume) dance/training cultures making work together, especially such a) successful, and b) contemporary work together. But it didn’t feel like this was a piece that functioned in that way. I mean, what “meaning” do you get from (wordless) Bach? Sometimes formal experimentation and inexplicable beauty are easily more than enough. Warmly recommended.
Joan Clevillé’s The North is probably as a good an entry-level bit of contemporary dance as you’re likely to find at the Fringe. Theatre-refugees in particular will find much to delight them. For a start, it’s dramaturged by Ella Hickson (I presume the Ella Hickson); for seconds, it’s got a script and honest-to-God dialogue; and then there’s the venue, which... Well, if like me you’re bracing yourself for a month of watching plays, pieces, whatevers, mostly in damp basements, sweaty attics, and dusty back-rooms, there’s something intensely refreshing about a large clean white room, with beautiful concrete architecture, a purpose built lighting rig, and a first-rate sound system.
The piece itself is a lot of fun too, with the added bonus that – as well as being fun, and having bits of dialogue – it’s performed by people who (unless you’re a trained dancer too) can just do amazing stuff that you can’t. And can do it without breaking a sweat, at the same time as doing all the normal stuff you can do. Which is a pretty excellent thing to go and see.
In terms of The Actual Show, well, it kicks off with a bloke (John Kendall) being dragged on stage in a huge plastic bag and emptied out onto the stage, by a pair of women/dancers/shape-shifting-mythic-creatures (Eve Ganneau and Solène Weinachter). He has arrived in The North – essentially an amusing assemblage of tropes. The landscape is represented (surprisingly effectively) by a single small fir tree, and its inhabitants are dressed in gold jeans, Lundpers, and sometimes antlers. They speak an incomprehensible language that sounds like Donald Duck (very funny). The plot (yes! Even a plot) basically sees him trying to get to grips with living in this cold, remote, unfamiliar place; never quite knowing whether he’s “doing it right” or not. In fact, it feels for all the world like a Nordic remake of Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist.
It’s not maybe the absolute “deepest,” “most urgent” or “necessary” thing you’ll see this year, but it’s a very, very well done version of itself, and I imagine might fire the imaginations of more earth-bound theatremakers with the sheer range of additional possibilities offered by dance. Very much worth checking out (maybe especially when you’re completely sick of black drapes hung up in store rooms).
Possibly the most interesting 250-word review I’ve ever had to try and write. And interesting to compare my review with (almost all) the responses I’ve seen online. Mostly from people who have “never seen anything like it before”. Because I have. But, I really wish I hadn’t, so I could be one of those people, rather than the jaded git thinking “it’s not as good as Alain Platel’s Out of Context, For Pina” (which I happened to see at Kampnagel Hamburg, which is a similar sort of warehouse-y space), or “nowhere near as fun as Un Peu Tendresse, Bordel de merde!”. Which, in turn, maybe I wouldn’t have loved quite so much if I’d seen the things they were like... Hm.
This is (along with With If...) also co-produced by the new administration of the Volksbühne...
I can’t remember the last time I went to the theatre with my expectations so “managed”. Away from the largely positive reviews in the press, there has been *a lot* of eye-rolling about Fatherland – the verbatim, “physical theatre” “musical” made by Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – amongst Manchester’s theatre community. And, for much of the show, it’s actually quite difficult to see why. Or at least, if you go in having been primed to expect an absolute catastrophe, you spend a good long while wondering why everyone’s so grumpy. It’s fine!
I mean, sure, there is the fact that – with its narrative of Stockport, Corby and Bewdley’s most famous sons returning to where they grew up for an afternoon or so – it weakly recalls Didier Eribon’s extraordinary memoir Returning to Reims, which Thomas Ostermeier has brought to such vivid theatrical life at HOME. That comparison throws much light on the problems here. Where Eribon has defined a clear set of things to reflect on, Fatherland is far, far too diffuse.
The piece opens nicely enough. We pretty much know what to expect, verbally, visually and even sonically. We’ve seen verbatim theatre before, we’ve seen Frantic Assembly before, we’ve heard Underworld. And it’s exactly that. On a large rusty grille floor, which revolves. The verbatim scenes have been intercut a bit, so there are some bits where people who (presumably) never met seem to give each other looks. And some of it is given physical presentation, be it largely literal (a ladder is extricated from the iron grille floor to illustrate a bit about being a fireman) or largely metaphorical (some post-Hofesh shuffly dancing).
The subject is interesting. Moving even. Sons talk about their dads. Dads talk about their sons (or daughters). Having got a dad of my own, I could relate to this concept. It works partly just because when the verbatimeers ask questions of their interviewees, you can answer them yourself; it’s not like one of those shows where they interview people with a special interest; like terrorism or racism. Of course, this is also why it’s not super-exciting. They do interview someone who never met their dad too, though. Although, perhaps understandably, he doesn’t really have much to say on the subject to three perfect strangers, so that’s a bit of a blind alley.
There’s also the decision to have Stephens, Graham and Hyde played by actors on stage. A lot of people have grumbled about this. And before I’d seen it, I couldn’t really understand why. I mean, it might be a bit clumsy, but at least it’s honest, right? When verbatim theatre hides its constructedness, its interviewiness, everyone grumbles about that too. So – I thought – there’s a certain level of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
However, by the end of Fatherland you do see the problem: that, by choosing to honour – nay, foreground – the (really quite sharp) objections of one of their interviewees, the makers inadvertently turn the piece into a narrative about themselves. Now, again, this *could* be quite interesting. Working-class guilt at successfully-executed class-treachery is, after all, half the subject of Eribon’s perceptive, incisive, searching 245 page memoir. The problem on that score here is, I suspect, a lack of time. And perhaps a lack of substantial enough reflection. And perhaps of failing to see the wood for the trees once in production, maybe.
There’s then also the fact that the piece isn’t just about “Fathers” at all. Indeed, from the title, we can perhaps even guess that it’s not even fully intended to be. Presumably conceived in the aftermath of Brexit, and with Stephens, Graham and Hyde all hailing from working (or lower-middle) class backgrounds, and now all (presumably) earning rather significantly more than the average salary, living in fancy old London. The problem is, because “Brexit” is never really directly addressed as a subject, it seems to come out in the cracks, and the authors have inadvertently set themselves up as “the Establishment”. Which is, I’m sure, not how any of them feel, or especially deserve to be treated, but there it is nonetheless. (There’s also the slight problem that, for my money, Ferdy Roberts’s version of Simon Stephens comes across as snide and patronising in a way that I’ve never once seen Simon be in real life, but maybe that’s a matter of Simon beating himself up in the making process and putting a version of all his worst self-criticisms on stage.)
Looked at as generously as is possible: the creative team met this person who challenged the ethics of their project, and rather than ignore that person or hush them up, they put those objections centre stage. The problem is, they didn’t answer the objections in the interview (as far as we’re shown), they’re not answered anywhere else by the piece, and the fact that they’re the focus of so many of the questions means that Fatherland turns into a piece about Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – *because* they want to prove that they’re not above sharing the same information about themselves as everyone else. As a result you have this one extraordinary moment where on-stage Simon Stephens is bellowing “I don’t think I could have written the plays I did, if my father hadn’t drunk the way he did” (I paraphrase) while music and crowds of men swirl around him, and it feels like it’s actually the point of the show. And I’m not sure I understand what exactly that point is.
Yes, there’s still lots of other material, much of it touching. But most of that also fairly inconclusive. It feels like the creative team duck the central challenge of the piece: to name the problems of inequality (in terms of both economics and social capital); to examine the extent to which they are complicit in their making; and beyond that, to look properly at the even tougher problems of working class violence, racism, far-right sympathies (which they touch on), and either find counter-narratives, or to say something about their conclusions.
There’s a repeated motif in Gary Owens’s new play, in which the effect of fear on the male body is described thus: “your arse grips tight shut, but the muscle in your cock goes loose, and you really have to clench not to piss yourself.” This also describes the structure of the piece: the first half is very tight, the second half goes loose.
It’s also remarkably unpleasant. Which is fine, in the abstract, I guess. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for yesterday afternoon (or ever). But I will say, it’s remarkably well-done unpleasantness, for the most part. The piece consists of three monologues, although very occasionally the speakers interact with each other, but it’s largely direct-address story telling. One of the speakers is telling the story of himself, aged 12, being brought up (badly) by his lone mum, and getting bullied and beaten up. It feels perfectly observed, and it is incredibly horrible.
[spoilers ahead. Impossible to discuss what happens without saying what happens]
Basically, after this poor kid gets his dog murdered by his area’s local hard lads [some real manipulative Amis-style bathos and sentimentality there], he goes off the rails a bit, and ends up riding down the dual-carriageway on a seven-year-old girl’s stolen birthday-present bike; pissing about by slowing down in front of a family car; which also turns out to be stolen; and then being rammed off the bike by the car thieves [more Amis-y stuff about teeth being smashed. I seem to remember teeth being a Drowned World thing as well...], taken back to their flat, and tortured to death, in the manner of a video game called Killology.
Another speaker is the inventor of this game, Killology, who is an unsympathetically imagined, thinly-drawn, public-school sociopath – albeit, interestingly, one from a cynical ex-union father, who made a killing in industry, hiring out protective suits for cleaning out industrial-something-or-other, having successfully sued his former employers for not using them. The idea behind Killology is that no one who plays about video games much cares about the wandering around bits, so he invented one which just focusses on torturing and then killing. With extra points for being inventive.
The last speaker is the murdered boy’s father. At the start – he’s the first speaker – we hear about him gaining admission to an expensive luxury flat with a colleague, and then successfully pretending to leave again, so that when his colleague leaves with the concierge, he’s in there, waiting for the occupant to return.
The occupant turns out out to be Mr Killology, and the dad is there to sort-of avenge at least the inspiration for the manner of his son’s death. He is going to watch the video of his son’s torture with the man who he blames for its genesis, and then put him to death in the same way. (Basically, imagine Denise Fergus turning up at Jack Bender’s condo with a big bag of rocks)
[That’s the first half. In the second half, Mr Posh Killology knocks the dad out, the dad gets put away for attempted murder. In a secure mental facility, the dad resurrects a vision of his son who’d carried on living, who in turn narrates getting a job in the NHS, and then nursing his dying father in his final days. In the very last moments we’re shown the “real” son, back at age 15, behaving like a shit, stealing the little girl’s bike, and setting off on the path that leads to his torture and murder. Posh Killology guy has moved to America and sends a child he adopted back to the agency.]
And, look, now I’m explaining it, it does all come together intelligently and sound quite satisfying. And it is undeniably compellingly written. And, yes, in its unflinchingly sadistic depictions of social and emotional deprivation and violence, it is undoubtedly bang on the money. I don’t even think it’s “bad” (whatever “bad” means). I just didn’t like it. I don’t suppose I was meant to “like” it. And it makes me wonder about myself “liking” Iphigenia in Splott. (Which I really did.) What does that mean?
In reviewing terms, this is really stupid territory, because – having not “liked” a thing – you then find yourself scrabbling round for “reasons”. And then, with those “reasons” you (generally) build a case against the thing being “good”. Except, in the main, I think this is “good”. Just not “like”able.
Although, I then worry that I’m overcompensating for not-liking it, by being too nice about the construction. Basically, some bits are a lot stronger than others. The narrative stuff is very, very well done. The philosophical angles raised by the characters, less so. I mean, they’re only the characters’ moral universes, not Gary Owen’s, but. And I know that the characters are characters, not ciphers, but.
I mean, just I don’t know what we’re meant to do with the piece at all. I tend to agree with the sociopathic creator of torture video games that video games really aren’t to blame for violence or torture. The dad finds one instance in the internet of humanity’s prior incapacity for violence (at sites of American civil war battles, they found lots of unfired rifles, suggesting that Americans didn’t used to be as fond of shooting each other), and proceeds to deduce that wars are now more violent because soldiers have played video games. This is patently nonsense*, but who wants to side with a public-school psycho who ends up the play torturing his own dementia-riddled father? Also, what is watching this play meant to do for our humanity?
Similarly, sure, some people in some working class neighbourhoods are also violent. And violence probably does sometimes breed more violence in some people. And this is a convincing story of some of that. But presumably Gary Owen isn’t suggesting that we ban video games and incinerate anyone who’s ever been brutalised (by anything, real or imaginary) to stop the spread of the infection. (Because, quite apart from anything else, who will incinerate the incinerators, right?) So is this just a dark story in the midnight of the human soul, to just point out to us that just about everything is particularly shit, and there’s literally no way of even remotely improving it, and not one shred of historical proof that anything’s ever been even slightly better? I mean, it doesn’t offer much else. It certainly doesn’t suggest solutions (although I can imagine thinking it were cheap if it tried).
So is it just *art*, in the way that, say, Kafka and Beckett are art? I think it probably must be, except that it’s so tightly clothed in the outward appearances of social realism (which isn’t art), that it feels on first sight like it must be those.
As always, in this sort of situation, I kind of want to see a German production to sort it out for me. Rachel O’Riordan’s production is well done, and horribly intense where it can be. It’s set in a kind of dank, Aliens-esque set (Gary McCann), but even this still feels more like an abstract set for social realist thinking than something that adds a further dimension. Rather – with an actual pink seven-year-old’s bike tangled up in electrical wires of the ceiling – it seems intent on reinforcing the realist parameters of a dreamlike story, rather than fragmenting them/adding something that disrupts the claimed reality.
So, it seems that what’s ultimately worried me most about Killology are questions of taxonomy and genre. Which definitely isn’t how I felt when I came out for the interval yesterday afternoon (at that point it was more “a bit sad about the sad story”). But, I wonder if it’s a point worth making that I think “*just* upsetting people” isn’t really a very effective strategy (at least, it isn’t with me). Because, a) people have defences (generally flippancy) that they can use to avoid being upset (see intro.), and b) because people can deconstruct the means used to create the upsetting thing, and end up criticising the thing that’s tried to upset them, rather than the things they could more usefully be upset about.
There’s probably also a lot of stuff about Tragedy and agency that’s pertinent here too, but I’m going to stop here, I think.
So, Killology: it’s very well written, it’s pretty horrible, I didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean it’s not good. I didn’t know what it was for. I don’t think things have to be “for” anything. But I do like to have a sense of what’s being asked of me. Which I don’t think I got.
Or: Ok, let’s say Killology is about cycles of violence, and the question of how you stop them once they start – which, let’s face it, isn’t the most remote question we could be asking at the moment. I think I find its thesis – which I took to be you can’t stop it, it’s inexorable, horrible, depressing and real – both credible and pointlessly pessimistic. I mean, yes, on one level that’s right. The if the entire history of humanity is proof of anything, it’s that. And what does the play show us? That being the victor sucks, and so does being the loser. Using force to put an end to the misuse of force never puts an end to the misuse of force. And not using force to put an end to the misuse of force allows the misuse of force to continue. There is no right answer. Life is a sewer. It is irresponsible to look away, and it is grotesque to look at it – and with the chance that just looking at it gets you involved, but you’re involved even if you’re not looking... And so on and so on.
AT LEAST WITH IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT WE COULD JUST FUND THE NHS BETTER.
So, yeah: Killology: probably right, but – as per the rest of the play – winning by having the worst argument seems like no sort of victory at all.
* I mean, wars are now mostly fought by drone “pilots” anyway, who are absolutely just some cunts in Nevada playing video games. And, yeah, sure; boo hoo, Grounded. But compared with being murdered by some cunt in Nevada, the cunt in Nevada feeling bad about it afterwards is pretty small beans.