Wednesday, 14 July 2010

You Me Bum Bum Train - LEB Building

Ok. So the review I really want to write of You Me Bum Bum Train can’t be published until the piece has finished its run, because I’d like to engage with specifics, but to engage with them, I’d have to say what they were, which would be a pain for anyone who was going to see the thing.

Until such time, in order to fulfil my contract with the Barbican (under whose auspices, this Oxford Samuel Beckett Trust Award-funded show is presented, and by whom press tickets are granted), I’ll offer some general comments and a lot of encouragement for you to try to get hold of a ticket.

You know the basic premise, right (you’d have to have been living under a rock to have missed all the advance publicity)? You turn up, on your own, at the LEB Building in Bethnal Green at an allotted time, wearing practical clothes and with no small amount of apprehension. You are greeted, hand over everything to a cloakroom assistant and are then seated in a wheelchair and pushed out of the lobby.

Then, for the next forty minutes (is it really forty? It seems like about five minutes) you are catapulted through a series of scenes, the precise nature of which it seems only fair not to reveal until they’ve ceased to exist. Suffice it to say, one is variously impressed, delighted, amused, mildly worried, occasionally embarrassed and sometimes made to jump a little, with the result that by the end your awareness is heightened, your pulse has risen, and you’ve got something of the reckless, energetic fearlessness usually only available through a hard night’s drinking.

YMBBT’s creators, Morgan Lloyd and Kate Bond, trained as visual artists rather than theatre-makers. I have no idea how much theatre they might have undertaken to see for themselves in the meantime, but my guess is: not much. In this instance, it works to their advantage. Instead of recognisable theatrical references, what we have here is a fascinating mixture of the logic of dreams, the visual language of cinema and the unexpectedness of late-night channel surfing, unhampered by a reverence for theatre’s history or current trends.

In fact, one of the most striking things about YMBBT is how few of the scenarios into which you’re plunged are ever seen in theatre. And it’s not simply because of the perspective change. Of course the immersion factor does completely alter the way in which you experience the scenes – being “inside”, either as participant or observer, is different to looking though a fourth wall – but the “subjects” or “situations” themselves that are also new. Or rather, they are nearly all stock scenarios, but stock scenarios from film or TV, rather than the usual subjects of theatre.

In a way, YMBBT is like a hectic fast-paced exam in pop-cultural knowledge. The game is almost like a matter of correctly identifying the new trope in which you’ve found yourself, and then adjusting your behaviour accordingly (or not).

In fact, I’d be very interested to know what strategies other participants adopted either throughout or in particular scenes.

There’s more than a hint of narcissism about the piece, which ends up perhaps reflecting more on you and how you deal with situations than on the situations themselves. Or maybe that’s just my own narcissistic reading.

But beyond this, when it’s possible to talk about the actual scenes themselves, there are interesting observations to be made about the world that the piece chooses to construct, in terms of what has been included and excluded. Analysis of the state-of-the-nation-ness on display here also wouldn’t go amiss, but is impossible until the thing closes.

Suffice it to say, for now, it’s an impressively broad landscape that YMBBT offers but an interestingly selective one, and it’d be interesting to hear, somewhere down the line, whether there were specific rationales behind the choices and whether there were any particular themes, unified or disparate, that the company were interested in drawing out for their audiences. Or perhaps the thing should be read more as a collection of pieces in a gallery. Curated, to an extent, but not necessarily with the aim of telling a story, per se.

Anyway, more when possible. Until then, although it’s sold out, it might still be worth seeing if there are returns, or even whether it’s possible to swell the ranks of the volunteer “audiences”...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Kinemaatiline Müsteerium – an old barn, Rakvere

For some reason, more and more people seem to be doing “photo-essays” at the moment. Happily, Estonians Erik Alalooga and Hans Gunter Lock’s site-something piece, Kinematic Mystery, offers a perfect opportunity to do likewise.

The blurb for Kinematic Mystery cutely notes that it “is an interactive performance that cannot happen if the audience is too passive!”

However, in common with Answer Me, there are absolutely no suggestions as to how to be usefully *active*. Presumably this is the mystery.

The audience is bussed over to the “site” and stand around in the yard.

Many have been given keys. We then go through the lengthy rigmarole of finding which key fits the door to allow us to enter. The odd encouragement, or perhaps insult is shouted in Estonian. I don’t speak Estonian, but even those who do look pretty non-plussed.

Eventually, some poor soul (a plant?) finds the key and we get to enter via one of the least safe ladders I have ever used.

Once inside the space – perhaps the dustiest room I’ve ever been in, in my life (Estonian theatre really isn’t a victim of Health and Safety regulations, or indeed any regulations, so far as you can tell)

- one is confronted with a range of Heath Robinson-esque machines.

They’re a little reminiscent of Eduard Bersudsky’s creations for Sharmanka’s Gothic Circus, as seen at LIMF ’09 in the Shunt Vaults.

The piece’s blurb continues:
“If there is a red switch and you don’t know its function, would you push it?
Would you have enough courage?
There is always the possibility to deny the suggested chance and contribute to the retardation of the process.
But you must take full responsibility if you decide to switch the switch!
What dominates at the moment of choice – conservatism or adventurousness?
The red switch is waiting for you!”

On this showing, plenty of people had plenty of courage, but the purpose of the machines remained obscure.

People gamely prodded and poked at them, but not a whole lot seemed to happen. No further instructions were forthcoming. The rules of engagement remained somewhere between opaque and non-existent.

Then, someone went into the wrong place and knocked a rather lethal looking axe which wasn’t apparently meant to be knocked, and severed all the power in the barn.

Someone else found another key and the audience exited again.

Apparently into someone’s back garden

Perhaps an object lesson for companies making interactive work not to obscure the channels and purposes of the interaction too much? Or maybe I’m just too used to being spoon-fed.

Answer Me – Dood Paard – Rahu Hall

[I’m afraid this is less a review and more like a 2,000 word exercise in catharsis. Feel free to skip it. It’s mostly just a dialogue with myself checking that I hadn’t missed the point. I’m pretty sure I didn’t and that this really was the worst thing I’ve seen since Making Ugly in 2006. Oh, and the tenses skip about like nobody's business, but I just can't be bothered to correct them all]

Veteran Dutch company Dood Paard’s new show Answer Me is one of the most comprehensive failures I have ever witnessed in a theatre.

That it failed is undisputed. Of a starting audience of maybe 300, roughly a third left before the end. Of those who remained until it finished half simply left instead of applauding. And, judging by every conversation I had or overheard afterwards, those who did clap were just being polite. What is more interesting is how and why it failed. And, moreover, why it provoked such an actively hostile response.

Answer Me is billed as a performance about interrogation. This is just about a fair description of its starting point. Four performers stage take to the stage dressed in a mixture of military uniform and spangly, tarty kitsch. Think Rocky Horror Show in a mixture of khaki and gold lamé. They immediately begin by barking a series of questions at the audience:
“Who are you? What's your name? How old are you? Where do you come from? Are you a journalist? Do you love me? Are you Dutch? Turkish? Portuguese? Do you even know where that is, Portugal? What they speak there? What do you speak, actually? Can you even speak? Why are you here? What were you doing in Pakistan? What were you doing in Utrecht? What were you doing in Riga? Are you married and if yes, why? Was there a woman who wanted to marry you? A man perhaps? Where do you come from? What're you after here? What have you done? Name? Age? Profession? Keep your head up! You are a terrorist! We’ve got you now! And we’ll give it to you good! You fuckers! Have you ever worn blue shoes? Have you ever seen kid’s films? Do you drink water! Do you love your mother? Do you love your father? Did Tommy Cooper pay for your ticket? Have you ever had a pet? A dog, a cat, or a marmot? Or a Negro? Have you ever experimented with explosives? Would you like to work for us? You’ll mix in interesting circles. Harley bikers’ circles. Would you tell us something interesting? Can we arrange a fine place for you to spend the night? Nice and warm. With a mattress. And a blanket. A shower. If you cooperate with us you’ll be able to sleep in peace. As long as you want. I know that your God gives you power. You’ve been living in those tiny cages for so long. No one could keep that up. You all pray and your God helps you. Otherwise you’d go crazy of course. Do you love me? Answer me! Bastard! I love you.”
(copied and pasted from their website, here)

You get a rough sense from the above of the tone of the thing, but perhaps not quite enough of an idea of just how childish it sounded. And then, working against this already underwhelming text are the unspeakably bad performances. The basic mode is that of the grotesque. To this end, the performers gurn like mad and shout in deliberately ugly voices, while twisting their bodies like a line of schoolchildren desperate for the loo. It is so one-note as to be almost a parody of how to bore on stage – how to perform in a way guaranteed to switch any audience off.

The lines are distributed apparently at random between the four performers (joined later by a fifth). They are shouted at the audience. Sometimes they are addressed to a single person, sometimes thrown open to the whole audience. The “you” here pings between singular and plural.

Pretty quickly you get a sense of the piece’s concerns: terrorism, perhaps most specifically Islamist terrorism, state homophobia and state racism. Beyond this, there then begins a series of more pointed accusations that could increasingly be read as attacks on the audience for being complacent, apathetic dupes of Western capitalism.

This is pretty galling. We’ve all read (and maybe even seen) Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, but now the thing that’s most offending this audience is seeing a very old idea trotted out again quite so flagrantly and ineptly. But I’m not quite sure that’s the whole story.

There are two far more basic, central problems. Firstly, there was the irritating inaccuracy of the accusations combined with the sheer stupidity of the assumptions behind them which the company were making, added to the fact that they were on stage in front of us wasting our time with this stupid, boring, patronising, clichéd, GCSE-Marxist stuff as if they were possessed of some new, radical bits of thinking.

Following on from this irritation, the second major problem was that either singly or collectively we were being asked questions. And there was no indication whatsoever whether or not we were meant to respond. So, we sit there listening to these trite constructions of ourselves framed as questions and completely unsure if we’re meant to respond in any way. Since, through the piece, an increasing number of the insults hinge on the fact that we don’t have thought enough in our heads to respond, this presents an interesting dilemma. Patently a vast majority of the people in that theatre had plenty to say. One got the sense that everyone was not responding out of politeness either to the performers on stage or to their fellow audience members.

It’s really hard to know what the company imagine the show achieves.

It also feels almost impossible to write about it without giving the impression that this was “edgy”, “challenging”, or “confrontational”. You’ll just have to trust me.

The sloganeering is rubbish. Every observation is a commonplace. The performances are just terrible. You get the impression that everyone on stage thinks they’re being terribly shocking – that they’re really presenting you with ideas you’ve never heard before – making connections between things that you could never have thought of, when in fact they are compiling the most banal, over-exposed list of associations imaginable.

And of course it occurs to you that maybe this is the point. Maybe it’s about the boredom and how rubbish the performances are, and about how shallow and idiotic the politics are. And about how everything everyone says on stage is manifestly less intelligent than the stupidest thought anyone in the audience had before breakfast. But even if that is the point (and there’s a worrying sense that it isn’t) it isn’t a very good one, or an interesting one, or even one that’s being very well made or pointfully prosecuted.

It amounts a sort of checklist of the most trite list of observations of life under advanced Western capitalism imaginable. The sort of thing that a disaffected Rage Against The Machine fan could have knocked up in half an hour.

By this point, people had started to leave in a steady tickle that was turning into a stream.

Then, as if to demonstrate a complete lack of their grasp of stagecraft or even of the meaning of what they were doing, about half way through the performers produce a chair and one of them sits in it. From this moment, half the questions still being yelled by the other performers are directed at him, while other questions were still thrown out to the audience or barked at individual audience members. The on-stage interrogation could in no way be said to amount to anything even slightly approaching drama (or post-drama), while the other questioning remained as superficial as before. What the change of focus does do, however, is demonstrate that even the performers didn’t have enough faith in the original format to believe it could sustain an hour.

By this stage the hostility in the audience had reached the stage where several clumps of people who hadn’t left were chatting quite openly amongst themselves, phones were being flagrantly checked, the rudeness from the stage was essentially being responded to in kind.

Sadly, the performers didn’t really seem to have the faintest idea what to do with all this negative energy they’d produced. Apparently this wasn’t the aim at all. They all looked a bit uncomfortable. In between trying to shout lines aggressively at us, they looked a bit worried by the number of people leaving. Again, it’s hard to convey how clear it was that this wasn’t the point. Even writing this, it sounds interesting, and perhaps like the sort of thing that Forced Entertainment might have made, and which would have been good.

But, still the performers continued to act in a way that was at once unwatchable and perfectly suited to their obnoxious text. And still people kept on filing out of the theatre.

It’s very hard to pin down precisely what it was that pissed everyone off more: the fact that nothing about the material being presented was anything new or the fact that the whole thing was just so childishly obnoxious. It was one of those pieces that, if it had been created by students whose sole purpose had been an experiment in getting a reaction out of an audience, provoking real hostility, then one might have been able to credit them with having at least achieved this aim, regardless of one’s view of such a purpose. But the problem here was that the piece really did seem to think it was being clever.

Infrequently there were bits where the performers on stage broke into ironic (or perhaps it wasn’t ironic) applause. They encourage the audience to join in. The audience joined in. We were still being asked questions. Still no one had really responded. No. That’s not true. At one point in the middle a girl in the front row had been asked what her name was and she’d said. No one else had said anything in response to anything.

It was during one of the rounds of applause that I decided to see what level of engagement was being asked for. The applause stopped. I didn’t. I kept clapping for a bit. I was interested to see what would happen next. I was also interested to know whether anyone else would join in. If I’m entirely honest, part of me hoped that if everyone had immediately joined in, then we might be able to close the show early with a display of group solidarity suggesting that the show was over whether the performers liked it or not.

The performers looked surprised. I had at least assumed they’d have some sort of contingency plan for dealing with responses from the audience. After all, this is a text which asks between 20 and 60 questions a minute for an hour. And apparently there’s no back up plan as to what to do if anyone actually responds all the accusations of being bovine and empty-headed by refusing to play along.

This demonstrated the piece’s greatest and most ugly weakness. Here was a show all about accusing the audience of being weak and complicit in their own servitude and of not having a clue, and yet it could only present this argument if the audience were polite enough to sit there and let that accusation be the case.

And even this might be fine if the audience were meant or allowed to challenge these accusations, but since the show’s producer later told me that it wasn’t meant to be what happened, then it really is impossible to see what conceivable value there was to any of it.

I shan’t even go into the extent to which it felt embarrassing watching Dutch performers doing such a terrible show that about totalitarianism, homophobia or state interrogation in front of a largely Estonian (and other Baltic states) audience who have only been free of Soviet occupation for 19 years. The combination of terrible text and terrible performances coupled with distinct impression that these people really thought they were doing us a favour by telling us about what a terrible place they thought the world was only heightened one’s embarrassment for them. The sheer arrogance of it was quite breathtaking.

The most worrying thing was that afterwards the company really didn’t seem to have grasped just how utterly, terribly, offensively, dreadfully misguided the whole thing was. Apparently it had worked perfectly well in a smaller space in Portugal. Excuses about the size of the venue and the audience’s comprehension of the (poorly delivered) English text abounded.

I hope that on sober, mature reflection, the company bin the project entirely and start something else altogether. It is a piece of theatre with absolutely no value whatsoever. It is trite, simplistic and patronising. It doesn’t understand its own relationship to the stage or to its audience.

Sometimes, the only constructive criticism possible is: You’re wrong. This doesn’t work on any level. Please, please stop.

Big Bang – Philippe Quesne/Vivarium Studio – Baltoscandal 6

[written for Baltoscandali Ajaleht]
[the above pic is from Quesne's previous show, but still gives a rough idea of the sort of staging. Will post a properly relevant photo as and when I get hold of one]

It is possible for a performance to remind you of a show you haven’t seen? For reasons that I find slightly suspect, Philippe Quesne/Vivarium Studio’s Big Bang reminded me hugely of Forced Entertainment’s World in Pictures. Which I’ve never seen.

Ok, there are some good reasons. For a start Big Bang seems to have a similar topic: a kind of potted history of humanity -- or perhaps the planet -- from the ice age up to our own ecologically concerned times. I say “seems” – the work doesn’t exactly bend over backwards to fix or underline what various sequences actually mean/represent.

There’s also the comparable sort-of-clownish, sort-of-ramshackle sense of humour and aesthetic: the piece starts, for example, with performers shuffling about on their hands and knees, first under white plastic sheeting before emerging from under this to similarly shuffle under white and then brown fake furs, suggesting a rudimentary vision of ice caps melting, polar bears evolving and then brown bears or perhaps walruses turning up. The stage lights conspire with this impression, rapidly suggesting suns rising and setting, while a smoke machine delivers stuff that could easily be read as arctic mists. All this is also very funny and, when the bears start speaking with cute French accents, tres charment.

Quickly, the bears evolve into cavemen wearing furs in some cases, and a small group of apparently multicultural French designers in others. The stage rapidly fills with the detritus of ancient and modern life: wood fires, an upturned car and, for some reason, an ever-growing pile of inflatable dinghies. The cavemen sit in the upturned car reading graphic novels drinking Lilt. Such is progress.

The back wall of the stage is lowered to reveal a further similarly sized stage behind it, this time in green. Water rains down from a shower hidden in the ceiling. There’s more smoke. Music plays. Some players don green overalls, blending into the backdrop and performing obscure tasks. A ‘cello is moved across the back of scene. A small heap of material at the back of the growing onstage lake becomes a silhouetted island, vaguely discernable through the mist. The scale bounces between miniature and actual. Other performers wear space helmets and pose tableaux. A small lonely astronaut sits in the abandoned overturned car downstage reading a graphic novel. Inflatable dinghies pile up in the pond.

It is uplifting, optimistic, funny, pretty, wistful and melancholy. Sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once.

There’s a sense that there might be the tale of a society naïvely driving itself toward eco-catastrophe though joie-de-innovation in amongst all the fun and romance, but it could equally claim to be the world’s most innovative staging of The Tempest. There’s care and attention behind the creation of the stage-pictures which repays whatever level of investment you might bring to bear on reading them, and enough archetypes at play to offer any number of satisfying variations of the story they might be telling.

above: the ante-room of the venue "Baltoscandal 6" - a massive deserted factory on the outskirts of Rakvere.

Muki Munad – Cabaret Rhizome – Väikese Maja Kolakamber

[written for Baltoscandali Ajaleht]

If part of the job of the theatre critic is to explain the context of work (or at least their perception of a work’s context) to their readers, then in one’s own country, this is pretty standard stuff. Indeed, familiarity with current climates and forms of work is the backbone of one’s practice.

Watching work from another country is more complex. Doubly so in the context of seeing national work at an international festival. Does the work’s inclusion point to it symbolising a particular apex of a national form, or is it, even in the context of its home country, unusual work which has been selected for that very reason?

It doesn’t help that Cabaret Rhizome’s Muki Munad (or Muki’s Balls in English – Muki being the most popular Estonian name for a dog and “balls” carrying the same full set of connotations as it does in English from “courage” through “nonsense” to “testicles”) has to be one of the oddest things you’re likely to see in any language for quite a while.

It’s a kind of physical comedy show about the end of mankind, as enacted by four guys in white dressing gowns, one guy dressed as a dog and a fairly sizeable white rooster bathed in red light.

Beyond post-Python clowning routines revolving around some schtick with hard-boiled eggs, a much-fetishised wig and dress standing in for womankind, and a lot of Sesame Street-style running around and screaming (think: Beaker meets Beckett), it’s very hard to know what the thing’s driving at. Is this simple love of absurdity for absurdity’s sake, or do the stentorian narrative voiceovers – apparently delivered by the aforementioned rooster – signify something more satirical or philosophical?

There seems to be some sort of satire of gender politics or the eternal failure of the sexes to comprehend one another thrown into the mix, but whether this is really meant to be taken seriously or is just a springboard for more mucking about is unclear.

Apparently the company have their own space in Tallinn in which small audiences are sat in comfy sofas and get to watch the entertainment as if in the comfort of their own living room. Perhaps this is the most significant missing bit of context. Seeing it while crammed past capacity into a Very, Very Hot Room and sandwiched between other shows with barely time to draw breath, perhaps some of the necessary relaxation of the original article is lost.

Nevertheless, it’s testament to something about that show that one leaves such conditions in a slightly better mood, if not, perhaps, much wiser.