Author Archives: Joy L. Martin

Writing cup black and white photo

I am writing a novel…

5 May 2016. It gives me great pleasure to share a few extracts from the first few chapters of my novel-in-progress here on Mirrorlamp.  These were featured in my recent reading with my wonderful mentor, Ros Barber (rosbarber.com) at the Espresso Library in Cambridge on 28 April 2016.

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Extract 1

(This is from the beginning of the novel, and it is where we meet our main character and learn that our narrator is a ghost. The scene is set in Manchester, England.)

She is staying in a hotel on Princess Street, in a room with an avant-garde colour scheme – fuchsia and black – Chinese-themed decorative motifs, and a modernist four-poster bed.  I watch her always now, with the love that goes beyond death…although all real love goes beyond death.  What is not real disappears. This is not something you know for sure until you have died.

At the moment, she thinks I am still alive and simply that our relationship is over.  It is midnight, and she is entertaining a clown, a jester who she met at the club across the street, and who has charmed his way into her room for a cup of tea.  He is tall, lean and rangy, dark-haired and unkempt.  But she finds his tall roughness attractive - a wild Northern poet, she thinks.  The kettle has just boiled and clicked itself off, and she is making tea self-consciously as he talks about his work, stand-up poetry…the audiences in the States are just so open and willing to applaud and cheer, not like the cynical fuckers in this country…he pauses and gives an impression of a British person, clapping grudgingly (she looks over, smiling)…no, in the States, they properly stand up and give it some if they like you.  He moves over to where she is standing at the counter of the room’s little kitchenette, and before she can turn around and hand him a cup of tea, says, you’re lovely, and bends down to kiss her neck, pressing her against the counter with his hips.

She closes her eyes while her mind flies around, measuring the situation, the time of night, and how she feels.  And then she asks herself if this is a betrayal of me and answers to herself, sadly, no.  And then the hunger of the jester floods into an emptiness inside her left by me, and she decides – and turns around and offers up her mouth.

I don’t hate him (I can feel hate as if it is one colour in a spectrum, but I am simply all of the colours at once now…), and for the next hour, I become him…and her. I am reminded of how the blood rushes into her lips and cheeks, and the startling contrast between her pinks and whites, and the metallic blonde of her hair – but discover how alive her nerves are, how she feels everything with the range and power of an orchestra.  He senses that her sublimity is closer to the surface than most he’s met, because he is a poet; but he has fucked hundreds of women, and in his mind she is also merely ‘this one’: he thinks this one moves like a dancer and this one has lovely, rosy nipples. She thinks she is ready to have sex with him, but when his hands slide into her jeans, she feels like she is falling off a cliff edge, feels sick, and pulls his hands out.  He keeps trying, his attitude pragmatic, and eventually she rolls away from him and says Sorry – I can’t.  She is thinking Why should I feel sorry? Jesus.

After he leaves, she falls asleep and dreams that he – the poet – is calling out for her in a forest, but with all the wrong names… ‘Eve!’… ‘Poppy!’ … ‘Ruby!’ … She is wandering in the dark under the trees, and I realise for the first time that I can communicate to her through her dreams.  I make myself appear as an image on the trees, as if cast there by our old film projector, with its broken pixels in the same place.  And then I point to the sky, where the stars have clustered together to spell out her name: ‘S-T-E-L-L-A’.

She wakes and stares up at the ceiling.  The thought that hits her first is that she means nothing to the poet, and she feels a spitting fury mixed with rejection.  This dies down and leads her deeper into herself, where she finds the fat toad of pain that crouches in her stomach, because I have left her and because she thinks that I don’t love her.

She cries then, her face wrinkled and one hand clutching the white pillow and her body shaking with sobs.  She is good at crying.  She knows that it cleans away pain.  It is what makes her heart so strong – much stronger than mine was.  Her mind tries to measure the amount of tears she will need to cry over me, but at this point, it is too many, and she can’t see the end.  She cries herself out while her memory plays, like short films, the little moments when I started to leave her – and then the time I walked away across the Sunday afternoon park and never came back.  She finishes as dawn begins to light the edges of the room’s shutters, asks God to help her understand it, looks once at the clock, and then, exhausted, falls back asleep.

——-

Extract 2

(Stella works as a lighting designer for the theatre, and she is in Manchester working on The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter at the Royal Exchange Theatre.  This next extract takes place two days after she has found out that Tom, our narrator-ghost, has died.  It is opening night of the play.)

She rummages in her bag for her ticket, and queues at one of the stairways, fervently hoping nobody talks to her.  The force of this thought surrounds her like a cloud, and it doesn’t happen.  Inside the theatre, she finds her seat, one on the aisle, and sits down.  The scene is already set on the round, central stage encircled by the audience’s seats – a humble, retro English living room.  She listens to the murmuring crowd and breathes in the smell, a chemistry from the theatre’s ongoing creation of illusory worlds: fresh paint from the sets mixed with the must of old clothes and bric-a-brac for costumes and props, and raw wood, recently carpentered, and actors’ greasepaint and sweat – all of it stewed more intensely together by the warmth of her own beloved lanterns, floating above the stage, casting heat and light through precisely designed gels.

She automatically looks up at the lighting rigs, and from where she is sitting, they look correct, as she designed their placement, as she left them three days ago.  At this thought, three days ago, a thought of the time before she found out I was dead, she is momentarily catapulted back into full pain, into the before and after-ness of it, and she stiffens, but she is held outwardly still by her situation – by the crowd around her, by her awareness of the woman in a long floral dress sitting on her left, by the theatre itself somehow, its red plush carpet in the aisle and the black painted circular stage – and it passes.

And then the house lights go down, the audience quiets, and this triggers an automatic response in Stella. When we were together, and I was alive, I always used to glance sideways at her in this moment, just as the lights went down, to catch the look on her face, and watch for the gentle spasm of happiness that would flash through her body.  It was mostly internal, but sometimes it showed…and then only to someone who was looking very closely. And now I can feel the energy of habitual delight moving around inside her, mingled in with her grief, because I am there, inside, too.  I can see and feel it all now.

There is much beauty and pleasure in being released from a body into this other state of being.  The individual human consciousness may pipe in only relatively small channels of love, compared to all there actually is.  It is wonderful to be released into pure seeing, and pure being.  All humans are pulled moment by moment through their lives, via the consequences of their actions, to experience more and more of this truth.  But in release, in transformation out of the body, what humans call ‘death’, the limitations fall away, and now I am as I truly am, a specific flowing current of love.  I love her, and she both knows it and doesn’t know it.  I am still here, loving her, my specific love loving specifically her, as she is, both human and spirit.  Now the pain will pull her to knowledge.  The pain is not what The Energies wish for us, but it is a tool to bring us light when we are dark.

Now the play begins, and Pinter’s words, laden with fertility, but abstract, buzz harmonically together, meaningful but meaningless, and melancholy – and Stella relaxes into it like it is music.  In this state, and as the minutes flow by, her psyche begins to reconfigure her sense of loss, and endogenous compounds rush to her heart, which is stressed from the biochemical reactions of the past two days’ emotional pain, and begin repair work.  She doesn’t know at all what is happening.  Most alive people do not.  She just knows she feels a little better for the first time since Matty’s phone call.

After two hours’ thoughtful yet thoughtless absorption in the brightly lit circle of the stage, she is tranquil, except for the small snag on her attention that the technicians missed one of the light cues in the second act.  The play comes to an end, and the stage goes dark, and then all the stage and house lights come up as the actors join together in a line, holding hands.  The applause is so loud it makes Stella jump, and her transition out of the dream world of the play back into reality takes much longer than usual.  She shakes her head and blinks.  She comes back better than she was before.

As she claps, she remembers that now she has to go speak to people backstage and act normal, and she makes her plan: a double vodka in…orange juice. Clean, but effective.  And a quick talk with Sam – just hi and congratulations…and Antonio about that missed cue.  And then back to the hotel. And then tomorrow: home.

She walks towards the backstage area via a brightly lit bar in the Great Hall, where she stops to order a drink.  She downs her double vodka and orange juice in one long drink of several gulps, handing the glass straight back to the surprised barman.  Outwardly, she looks elegant, like a serious grown-up theatregoer in her black cocktail dress, her blonde hair pulled up on top of her head.

She realises how wild, how incongruous she just acted, and she glances down and laughs a little to herself for the first time since she heard the news about me.  That’s my girl.  She has a strong heart, full of light.  Her intuitive channel is bright, with clearly defined edges, and she has strong instincts against the untrue.  However, right now Stella is poised at the fertile place where two paths diverge.  I have no control over the future, although I can see the likeliness of patterns linked to people’s choices as they stretch forward into the dimension of time.  Two tracks of possibility lay patterned ahead of her, one dark, one bright, and she will choose.

When I turned out of my body and into space, one of the things I learned about her was the number of times she has thought about killing herself: 1,604.  Eight of those thoughts have occurred in the past two days. But her soul keeps urging to her to brightness. The Energies will bring her the stories and messages she needs, and when she hears them, the words will glow inside her.

As Stella stands at the bar, her chuckle at herself for her behaviour turns into a thought thread that leads her mind back to Tom is dead.  Reality seems to ripple around her, and her knees go weak for a moment.  She leans against the bar and concentrates on breathing. She only wants to look down at the ground.  Her head is so heavy, it feels weighted with steel balls, and it seems to tip forward and to the side with a rolling lurch, as she tries to move it.

The Energies whisper chandelier inside her mind. At this thought, she turns herself around and looks up at the chandelier hanging above her here, in the Great Hall.  She has asked around the building stewards to see if they know who made it, but nobody she has met knows, so she has been trying to unlock the secrets of its making by repeated, attentive observation.  She  chokes back a sob and bites the inside of her cheek, trying to keep her control.  Its beauty distracts her, begins to soothe her, and after a few moments, her mind starts to play the game: It is Bohemian style, not Venetian, because the droplets are lead crystal, not Murano glass.  It looks as if it was originally made for candles, then converted for electricity, which with its styling would make it 18th not 19th century, and therefore it must have been originally made for a different building. Where, though? Neoclassical, 5 tiers of concentric festoons, and roughly 6 feet across.  It must weigh nearly a ton. Spectacular light refraction…some master crafter…the crystal drops have been ingeniously cut so the light explodes outwards.  She takes a deep breath and decides to keep going with the night.

——-

Extract 3

(At the opening night reception backstage, Stella sees her friend Rory, who is an actor playing the lead role of Stanley Webber in The Birthday Party, and they go out in Manchester afterwards, to a pub, a club, and then an underground arts festival in an abandoned mansion.)

After the cab driver drops them off, Rory and Stella head down the lane. They can hear the crowd before they see it.  There is a wooden gate set into a tall, overgrown hedge, behind which are towering ancient plane trees.  They go through the gate into a dirt courtyard sheltered under the leaves of the massive trees.  There are marquees set up around the outer edge of the courtyard, and on the other side is the mansion, with a door at ground level, and a flight of steps leading up to another door a level above.  Music is pouring out of the top door, and the sound of applause comes splashing out of one of the marquees on the side.  People are milling around, some of them dressed fancifully, and most are holding drinks, and there are circles of smokers. Stella tips her head back to look up at the dark blue night sky filtered through the leaves.  The sight of the strings of coloured bulbs threaded above them in the tree branches makes her happy. Their specific beauty, a small, sweet beauty, plays in Stella’s heart.  It is like this – I found out when I died – that the beauty of the world may play in a human heart and as it does so, it lights up that person’s being in relative magnitudes.  Although different people see different beauties, and define the edges of what they think is beautiful, and decide that what is outside their edges is not beautiful, is ugly.  To The Energies, all is beautiful.  Even dysfunction is beautiful.  All is beautiful.  To The Energies, even hate, murder, pain are beautiful, because they are the instruments of growth, and what grows is love out of those dark experiences.

Rory is looking busily around for anyone they might know.  He suggests they check out what is going on inside.  They walk up the stairs to the upper level where they can hear music, and make their way through a corridor lined with people into a foyer, which has doors leading off of it and a grand staircase with an ornate balustrade winding gracefully up several more storeys.  Paint in exquisite antique colours, eggshell blue and pond green, is in interesting and elegant decay, peeling from the ceilings and walls, and debris – old dust covers, two legs from a long-gone piano, dried leaves and twigs – are scattered strangely around.  They follow the sound of the music and eventually walk into an enormous room, with parquet flooring, the old ballroom, probably, which is dark and filled with a crowd listening to tiered, layered, faceted electronic music pouring out of speakers on either side of a small stage. The musician is dressed as a spaceman, in a silver fabric suit with a glass ball helmet, and he is surrounded by synthesizers, computers, power cables, and wires.  People around the edges are standing and bouncing their heads with the music’s funk beat, but the centre of the floor is a roil of dancing.

Stella drops her bag and coat by the wall at the edge of the room and jumps in.  She stops thinking.  She is like a wire, with energy flowing from the music to her, through her body, and into the floor.  Pain is shoved completely to the side, and her molecules are energetically rewriting, as they did during the play, although in a different way this time.  Rory joins her, and then they dance together, the dance floor in almost pitch dark, the only light in the room reflected off the stage, and Stella feels safe in the dark, safe with Rory, safe inside the music.  After five songs which Stella and the rest of the crowd deem to be excellent, the musician finishes to thunderous applause, whistles, shouts and pleas for encores. Stella and Rory whistle along with the rest, and clap their hands high over their heads.  Then, sweaty and happy, they head back into the foyer, where amidst the jostling crowd Rory sees his friend Benjamin, a performance artist with wild brown hair and soulful dark eyes in a brown corduroy jacket.

[Then later, still at the festival...]

They take a break to smoke cigarettes in the tree and dirt courtyard outside, and Stella keeps looking up at the lights woven into the darkness of the tree leaves above them.  They talk about performance theatre, and Benjamin asks Stella to light his next show, and she agrees and hopes she will remember tomorrow.

Three women performance artists dressed in black bodystockings, with gold-painted faces and wigs of wild colours are moving like human mercury around the outside crowd, exploring the space with a primal grace and luxurious tactility that captivates Stella. They trace the outlines of smoke rising from cigarettes with their fingers, curve their bodies sideways around the massive old tree trunks, and turn upside down to walk on their hands.  They are deeply in their trance of expression and focused intently on the flow of energy that comes from the crack in the worlds that artistic creation opens up.  The dancer in the dark purple wig has learned how to feel her way into the other planes of existence, where I am, and she can sense me around Stella like a loving cloud.  She is standing still for just a moment now, watching Stella. Then she mimes pulling an arrow from a quiver on her back, grandly brings up a bow, and arcing backward, releases her arrow up into the sky.  She catches an imaginary star that falls and reverently holding this shows the other two dancers.  The three huddle, staring into the purple-haired dancer’s empty hands, and when they look up into her dark-lined eyes, she holds their gazes and then glances over at Stella.

They move towards Stella liquidly, like wild creatures.  As they draw close, they link hands and encircle her completely, dance slowly around her like the Three Graces.  Rory and Benjamin who are in a giddy flow of conversation about the rise of devised theatre and problems of commercialism, step back to give them room.  Stella stands quietly in the centre of this turning circle of women, and then she notices that each dancer’s black-lined eyes are sweeping over her every angle with deep, long looks – their eyes sliding from the smooth, blonde crown of her head, to the curve of her ear, the arch of her eyebrow, the sharp corner her elbow makes as her hand comes up to touch her throat – the attentive, slow, adoring gazes of a mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother.  She is shocked by the way this feels, raw as she is right now.  Her head falls forward, and she looks down at the ground and takes a deep breath.  She closes her eyes for a moment and quiets down, accepting it, and then feeling it, love, wash over her. Finally, they break hands, and one by one, embrace her.  The last one, the purple dancer hugs her and says, ‘he is still here’.  Stella’s eyes go wide, and this message flashes through every one of her molecules, lighting her up for a moment like a firework.  Rory, overhearing, says, who?  And then Stella says, Rory, can we go?  And in the cab with Rory and Benjamin, she tells them I am dead, and Rory’s eyes and mouth gape, and he just says, Oh, Stella.  Oh, Stella.  Oh, Stella.  And Benjamin silently passes her the whiskey bottle.

She wakes up late the next morning in her hotel room on Princess St, with Rory fully clothed and curled around her on the bed, snoring, and Benjamin asleep on the floor under the window, and she thinks, Today, home.  

 

 

Wail image

Singing with the Whales at BAC: I review WAIL! by Little Bulb Theatre Company

14 April 2016.  I have always been curious to see Little Bulb Theatre Company, because I have noticed that whenever their name comes up, people who have seen them perform will pause for a moment, put their hand on their heart, close their eyes briefly, take a deep breath and say, ‘Oh, Little Bulb’. So on my way to see their new show this week, I wondered, ‘What sort of theatre prompts this kind of uniform and reverent response?’, and, ‘Will I feel the same way?’ Reader, hand on heart, sigh, I did.

WAIL is described as ‘part-gig, part-lecture, part-your-lips-and-WAIL!’, and it is a gorgeous cabaret piece of devised theatre and original songs framed by the watery questions, ‘Why do whales sing?’ and ‘Why do humans wail?’ At the start, the space is lit with a low, blue light, the stage dark, and whale song is playing faintly, just under the decibel level of audience murmur. The stage holds a motley array of instruments: an upright double-bass sticking out of a low, blue-painted box, two timpani next to a large splash cymbal, a mandolin, two guitars – one electric and one acoustic.

Into this musical playground, Little Bulb’s writers/performers/directors Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway bound as the lights come up. They open with a song in aural primary colours with lyrics charmingly composed of facts about whales, jokes falling on the same beats as the rhymes, and the audience is thereby promptly whisked right under their spell. When the song finishes, they begin the first of the witty, intelligent, poetic and riotously funny dialogues in which they explore the large themes: Whale/Song/Why?

This is bare theatre, stripped back to essentials, with naked staging and a pervasively, purposely childlike aesthetic, from the plain grey t-shirts and jeans that Beresford and Conway wear, to the varied musical instruments strewn across the stage and the paper cut-out letters spelling ‘WAIL!’ taped against the wooden-panelled back of the stage. One of the interesting effects of this back-to-basics, lo-fi approach to production is that the pure craft of Little Bulb’s theatre shines through like the sun. No extra production is necessary, because Beresford and Conway conjure a rich, entertaining, subversive and comic theatrical tapestry out of the air with just words, performance and songs.

This choice of childlike aesthetic chimes in support of one of the finer and more subtle currents running through the show: the evocation of a pure, innocent wonder in the human at the sight of a whale (which also works as a symbol for all of Nature – one of the ways this unpretentious, lovely show opens out to larger ideas). Their sweetly comic series of sketches and songs sweep around the circumference of their questions, exploring angle-by-angle, the Big ‘Why?’ of whale song, and of human song.

The show burbles along like ocean foam, light and bright, with a mature sure-handedness of performance from Beresford and Conway. Beresford is an enchanting dynamo of a performer, and a beautiful and accomplished singer. There was a limitless feel in her range of expression, and I thought, ‘she could probably play anything or anybody, any character, colour, feeling or…sea mammal.’ Conway is likewise charming and plays the notes of comedy and poignance in his character with as much sure-fire skill as the ‘hot riffs’ he rocked on his axe. One of the delights of the show, in fact, was how rich the homemade songs and music were, and I kept feeling like it was an ur-musical, with all the pure theatricality and quality of a big show, but with, well, grey t-shirts and paper cut-out props. They involved the audience, who were turned into a whale chorus at one point, and play a game show with us at another point, which ramped up a light-hearted feelings in the room. And there were several moments of enjoyable rebellion, where, having created a tapestry of theatre, Beresford and Conway would comically unravel a few threads in a playful subversion of their created reality.

But the show also paused at times, its lightness juxtaposed with depth, to allow moments of contemplation on the sublimity of the ocean, as well as the complex relationship and history between humans and whales. At one point, Beresford sings an old Scottish folksong about the sea, ‘Farewell to Tarwathie’, with a delicate and subtle accompaniment on mandolin from Conway, above a traditional celtic drone, created here electronically: ‘I am bound out for Greenland, and ready to sail/In hopes to find riches/In hunting the whale…The cold land of Greenland is barren and bare/No seedtime or harvest is ever known there/The birds here sing sweetly on mountain and dale/But there isn’t a bird there to sing to the whale’. It was an interesting moment of depth, darkness and quiet that rounded the show.

This fascinating theatrical exploration of a large idea, ‘whale/wail’, arrives in the end at a fine moment of coherence in a final song about why we sing, with all the poetry of their beautiful writing tuned to finest form. All the riotous conceits of the sketches, large questions and songs come home at this point, and it is a profound and fulfilling mixture of all the energies they had conjured in the show: ‘A song is a place where you need not pretend/For there’s times when relief isn’t easily found/Then you just sing the same song for round after round/And start it again when it gets to the end’.

The rest of the audience loved it as much as I did, and amongst the thunderous applause at the end of the show, there was a spontaneous happening of the whale song they had taught us, a melee of ‘door creaks’, ‘moans’ and ‘woops’ laced into our clapping, which felt like a fitting homage to the brilliance of the show. And I just thought, ‘Oh, Little Bulb’.

[This review was originally published in Exeunt Magazine on 13 April 2016]

 

Snow White and Rose Red

Snow White and Rose Red: RashDash’s Dazzling Alternative Panto

15 December 2015.

Snow White and Rose Red, one of the lesser known fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, has two sisters as the heroes, making it a natural choice for RashDash. The result is entertaining, brilliant and feminist alternative panto.

In the original story, the sisters welcome a friendly bear into their home and do kind deeds for an evil dwarf who curses them even though they have helped him. Snow White falls in love with the bear, who turns out to be a man enspelled by the dwarf.

The design by Lucy Sierra combines dreamy fairy tale atmosphere with interestingly naked stagecraft. The narrator, the Snow Angel, is beautifully played by Becky Wilkie with an ancient-feeling storytelling cadence in her voice that effectively conjures up this magical world.  She stands on a platform constructed of bare scaffolding, the poles artfully arranged into arcs and whirls around her. As the show begins, she is surrounded by mist and sings a haunting melody about ‘a place where snow always falls, and the light can’t breathe…’, while looking into a large, clear glass ball, filled with mysterious looking light. It feels incongruous, but it also works, spinning the ancient and modern into each other.

RashDash – theatre makers Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland – play the two sisters, young women living happily together in Bluebell Cottage, with its green Chesterfield chair, colourful circular rag rug, warm fire and collection of storybooks, watched over by the Snow Angel.

One day they discover a new storybook in their cottage, about a small town high up in the mountains which is buried one day in an avalanche. The town’s only survivor is Graham, a Very Small Man with a Very Long Beard. When he discovers the deaths of his family and community, his heart freezes, and he goes searching for other people to make as miserable as he is.

This show doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of this tragedy, and the dark thread of this other story runs importantly through the show and is woven into the larger story’s resolution. Of course Graham is the evil dwarf of the original fairy tale, and RashDash’s production amplifies his backstory in order to trace the psychological origins of dark human behaviour. As the sisters contemplate the blank pages at the end of the book and realise the story is unfinished, a knock comes at the door. It’s a bear, and the rest of the story unfolds, with ensuing romance and adventure.

As in the original fairy tale, the two sisters represent different aspects of femininity: Goalen’s Snow White is a gentle, whimsical daydreamer, and Greenland’s Rose Red is brash, physical, and loud, dressed in a mini-tartan kilt, zebra pattern leggings and red roses in high-up alt-girl hair bunches. They are both rambunctious, strong, brave, and kind, and their femininity is thoughtfully presented as multi-faceted and valuable: Snow White’s gentleness sits alongside her bravery, and Rose Red’s physicality sits alongside her deeply felt emotions.

The show is stuffed full of delights: bawdy jokes, excellent songs (including a Joan Jett-esque rock number about danger by Rose Red), shadow puppetry, and perfectly tuned performances from the entire company, which also includes Tom Penn as a charming, urbane Bear, who has ‘a predilection for flowery notes in [his] tea’ and a beautiful singing voice, and Ed Wren as the Very Small Man, who had us rolling in the aisles, practically, with his effete, posh, evil cringing and spluttering, and hilariously lush hip action during the twerking section of the rap song. The show is so well-written that the bright bursts of brilliant wordplay, which were delightful surprises at first, felt normalised by the end, like having a firework display that keeps going for two hours.

But what I loved most about this show was the way it wove its modern moral fabric out of the old story: women are heroes, love may appear in contours that surprise us, and being loving in response to hate is the only way to heal the darkness in the world.

Originally published in Exeunt Magazine on 15 December 2015.

Rotterdam

Rotterdam, a new play by Jon Brittain

6 November 2015.

Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam is a play which makes you contemplate the nature of labels – ‘gay’, ‘queer’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘transgender’ – and the way language clusters around our self-definition, the different ways we say ‘I am this’ or ‘I am not that’, and the fixity or fluidity of actually being or becoming ‘this’ or ‘that’.

Rotterdam is a brilliant, subtle and engaging exploration of how these questions and pressures are activated in a couple who are in love, but at a point of radical and honest change. Alice and Fiona  have been living as a couple for seven years and are very much in love. Brittain’s play explores what happens to their relationship when one of them transitions into being a man.

Ellan Parry’s set is a bright and flexible space that does a good job of feeling like a stylish couple’s flat in Rotterdam, with a distinctly Dutch-feeling, sub-Ikea aesthetic and a weightless plasticity that helps it transform at will into a club, office, coffeehouse, and winter’s night frozen canal. The overarching feel of the piece is comedic, with the bright colours of the set and warm lighting suggestive of the playful tones of sitcom, but this doesn’t limit the expressive range of the show, and it descends poignantly into the deepest, darkest and most sensitive places in intimate relationships. At those points, the comedy continues to drop sublimely into the depths carved into the story.

Alice and Fiona are English expats living in Rotterdam. The opening scene, which takes place the day before New Year’s Eve, sees Alice sitting in front of a computer in their flat, trying and failing to send her parents the email she has written to explain that she is, according to spell-check at least, ’a Lebanon’.

Fiona teases Alice about her reluctance to send this email, and the first lines of their characters are drawn: Alice is hesitant and struggling to define herself as a lesbian to the world at large, and Fiona has an easy confidence and has been out since she was seventeen. The plot is set in motion right away as Alice tells Fiona, ‘You’ve always known who you are, you’ve never felt like you had anything to hide.’ And then Fiona reveals something that she has been hiding – that she feels she is meant to be a man, to be Adrian. This sends Alice down her own rabbit hole, wondering, ‘then what does that make me?’

The central pairing is supported by Lelani, a 21-year-old Dutch lesbian who works in Alice’s office at a shipping firm, played wonderfully by Jessica Clark, and Josh, Fiona/Adrian’s older brother as well as the ex-boyfriend and current best friend of Alice, equally brilliantly played by Ed Eales-White. Together the four characters are a relational quadrangle, and as the play moves into increasingly serious territory and shows the painful, angry stages of breakdown between Alice and Fiona/Adrian, both Clark and Eales-White bring a deliciously reliable humour to their roles, which is a bright counterpoint to the darker themes.

But beyond the humour they bring to the piece, both Clark and Eales-White thoughtfully portray the more difficult nuances of feeling that arise as the bombs keep exploding in the main relationship, and the two of them experience the collateral damage. Clark’s sexy, bold, creatural and straight- talking Lelani is recognisably Dutch, very funny, and yet still young, still vulnerable. And Eales-White’s comedic timing is spot-on as Josh, the sort of character you fall a little in love with, because he emanates so much kindness for both Alice and Adrian.

This is a very fine production, with different elements spinning together to make something magical. The performances of Alice McCarthy as Alice and Anna Martine as Adrian are superb, with McCarthy trembling on poignant verges between prim English repression and inner unravelling, her tightly controlled exterior masking extreme sadness and rage, as she experiences the arrival of Adrian primarily as the loss of Fiona. Anna Martine brings real artistry to her performance, from the delicate balances required on the gender/sexuality tightropes she walks, to the heart-rending moments at the plot’s climax, which brought me to tears.

The play has echoing significances that are only lightly alluded to but which make the explorations of society, gender and sexual identity feel rich, real and tangled, like the way in which the fear of parental abandonment for breaking sexual or gender moulds is set at different intensities for Alice and Adrian.

The choice of setting is important too; the play takes place in a time and location which are both symbols for change and upheaval: Rotterdam is described as a place where ‘You’re not supposed to stay…It’s a port. Everything’s moving on, it’s all just passing through, nothing’s standing still. It’s all on its way somewhere…else.’ And the main scenes take place around New Year’s Eve, with its resonances of endings and beginnings, and later, the Dutch national holiday Koningsnacht, or ‘King’s Night’, which until recently had been ‘Queen’s Night’ in the Netherlands.

Another powerful element of this show was its constant engagement with the question of who a person really is: Alice and Adrian’s questioning dance with the labels which they have chosen, but also the labels assigned to them by our culture. Underneath this the play, beautifully and importantly, keeps pointing out that they are just two people, who are vast in the fullness of their humanness, and searching for the truest and most fulfilling expressions of themselves in terms of gender and sexuality, and frustrated by a society that won’t recognise or accept their specific, innate way of being human. And this thoughtful philosophical inquiry isn’t incidental embroidery – it is the whirring engine that drives the plot and characters.

Rotterdam unpacks the tender complexities surrounding self-discovery, self-definition and love in a way that honours the paradoxical glimmering of universal human beingness with the expression of specific identity. It is a brilliant piece of writing and I am still thinking about it all.

Originally published in Exeunt Magazine on 6 November 2015

Without Stars James Cousins

Without Stars/There We Have Been: this bird has flown

24 October 2015.

The Cambridge Junction presented a double bill of dance pieces last week by the James Cousins Company, and when I found out that the show was based on the novel Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, I went to buy the book a few days beforehand. The first, longer piece is called Without Stars and the second, shorter piece There We Have Been.

I only read the first two chapters before seeing the show, so I had the interesting experience of being told one story across two different art forms: it began as words and continued as dance. The second piece was a retelling of the story from a different character’s perspective, so it felt like seeing a single thread of story, refracted.

The performance begins with the dropping of complete darkness in the theatre, which felt like being washed with black, while a metallic, dystopian roar sounded. And then the roar stopped, and the stage lights came up to show us three people dancing to a scratchy, vintage record, ‘You Always Hurt the Ones You Love’ by an old crooner. Love, hurt and memory are the themes of this story by Murakami.

The main character is a young man called Toru, who is in love with Naoko, who was the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki. The plot bombshell that drops in the second chapter is that Kizuki committed suicide just before they all left school to go off to university. Toru and Naoko embark on a romance that is inextricably bound up with Kizuki’s death.

At this point, I moved from discovering the story in words to discovering it through the dance. The staging played constantly and thoughtfully with light and shadow, and the dancer playing the part of Naoko, Chihiro Kawasaki, would dance alone in patchy low light so that flashes of a sinewed leg curved into a shape of perfect beauty would be both there and not there. This was a significant foreshadowing, as well as an evocative portrayal of the aching tension in the two lovers’ relationship, with Toru trying to keep Naoko in the world, in the present, via his love, as she brokenly drifts back again and again to the memory of Kizuki, to the past. It was also a beautiful way of exploring Murakami’s play with the idea of memory, and how it can be there and then…not there.

The first piece feels like it is told from Toru’s perspective, and it travels through different moods of love, depicting tenderness, sensuality, longing, and the ravages of loss. The four dancers – portraying the two main lovers, the memory/ghost of Kizuki, and another lover for Toru – twist and tangle together in patterns that form, break apart and reconfigure, melting into each other with luxurious tactility and an ethereal grace, the lightness of which felt symbolic of the emotional realms of loving. The depiction of grief is stark and powerful: Kawasaki curls and caves her chest as if shockwaves of grief are resounding through it, and her face is a perfect, shocked, mad blankness during Without Stars, as if her spirit has been spun away from her body by this trauma, and she is not really there as Toru tries to save her, to bring her back by loving her.

The second piece There We Have Been reflected differently on the novel, and I enjoyed the ambiguous energies of the way the two different perspectives combined with each other. This piece allows us into Naoko’s inner world, which is so poignantly impenetrable in Without Stars. In this piece, she tenderly returns Toru’s love. There is much more light and hope, with a bright horizontal beam of yellow light shining on the dancers portraying Naoko and Toru, and this time Kawasaki gazes lovingly at the dancer playing Toru as he holds her up, supporting her in various ways while she turns, contorts, climbs up and out, it seems, of this world. It feels as if this second reflection of the novel looks upon death with a gentler existential gaze, seeing it as a transformation, and something peaceful, in contrast to the agonisingly dark portrayal of it from Toru’s perspective in the first piece.

I really enjoyed this show, and I felt quite dreamy, sated and contemplative by the end of it. I would have happily drifted out of the theatre and home in solitude. But the lobby after the show was like a pinball machine of friends as I headed for the door, and each of them gave me their impressions of the piece. To each person I asked, ‘Have you read the book?’ And so I collected refractions of perceptions of this story that came to me already refracted. One friend said that he didn’t engage with it particularly well, but then he paused and wondered if that was because he had something else on his mind. He said that he hadn’t read the book but pointed out how important it is for the work to stand on its own. I agree, and it made me consider the power of allusion and the way our prior knowledge affects our perception of any piece heavily drawing upon another work.

Another friend said that she thought the show lacked dynamism, that it played out within too narrow a frame of expression. She also hadn’t read the book. I thought a lot about this and came to the conclusion that I agreed with her, too – because although I deeply enjoyed the expressions of the show, I could see that I already had the frame of the story in my mind – setting, characters, plot arc and themes – and they weren’t all really fully brought to life by the two pieces; part of my exhilarated admiration for many of the artistic choices came from already knowing what aspect of the original they were drawing upon – dancing with. My imagination, via the power of imported allusory material, supplied what the dance did not always provide in its separate act of storytelling. But then a third person I spoke with who had not read the book was completely, utterly besotted with the piece.

Allusion is tricky artistic material to work with… I’ve always been fascinated by it – it calls to me, too. The specific beauty of a particular piece of art is such a seductive, beckoning thing. It is compelling to want to explore, play, dance with these beauties – to pay homage, to unearth seams of gold laying unexplored in the original, to import, reflect, re-consider. Without Stars/There We Have Beenreflected much beauty and depth in its dance with another artwork, and my response was more towards the besotted end of the spectrum, and so perhaps some of this difference in perception we need to consign to the question mark that spins at the intercepts of the axes of personal taste and quality in artistic expression.

This essay was published originally in Exeunt Magazine on 24 October 2015.

 

stand up comedy

The Artistry of Stand Up Comedy

1 October 2015.  I think there is a quiet prejudice against comedy as an art form circulating in our current cultural environment, and I think I unconsciously absorbed this prejudice without realising it.  The Arts Council does not fund comedians, and in August The Independent reported on a letter sent from prominent comedy organisations to the Arts Council’s Chief Executive, asking that comedy be supported alongside the other art forms, particularly emerging comedians.  The Arts Council’s rationale is not that comedy is not a relevant art form, but that it is already commercially self-sustaining as a sector. But I wonder if there is something a bit unconscious, a bit ambiguous at work here.  The nature of my own prejudice was like that – unconscious, ambiguous, ambient – but it seems as if the trickster spirit of the Edinburgh festival this year decided it was time for me to understand, explore and ultimately transform this into a more mature awareness of comedy as a serious art form, with its own powers, techniques and peculiarities of expression.

I could feel the jostling of different artistic worlds at the festival – dance, comedy, burlesque, circus, visual art, and of course the full spectrum of theatres – and it was almost as if they were tribes, assigned the colours that flag their category in the pages of the huge festival programme. This year the festival seemed to unfurl a yellow brick road of comedy in front of me, in a slightly insistent way, and which was somewhat contrary to my inclinations.  I was extremely curious about the way this happened, and it made me realise I was unconsciously harbouring a quiet prejudice against comedy, which felt like something that was floating in the air, something I accidentally picked up along with my flyers on the Royal Mile. It was a refrain you heard: ‘comedy is taking over the festival’. And at first I judged that comedy would not answer my deeper soul’s urgings to be moved in a profound way by artistry. Of course I was wrong.

Of the comedians I saw at Edinburgh this year, there were two young, newish comics, a seasoned regular and one Old Master that tipped me into deep consideration of the artistry in comedy: Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee. 

Sofie Hagen is a Danish comedian based in London who enchanted me with her show Bubblewrap.  She has perfect, whimsical, poetic English, is deliciously funny, and I was deeply impressed by the power, vision and subtlety of her mind and material.

Sofie’s show laid bare a deeply personal and painful aspect of her childhood and explored her teen self’s mentally disordered coping mechanism in response to it, which was an obsession with the boy band Westlife.  She became Denmark’s Number One Westlife fan and was somewhat famous herself in this capacity, appearing on television and radio, and getting the chance to meet the band on several occasions.

The Westlife material was presented as an illustrative flashback to a story from her more recent life that explored her journey to accept her beauty and sexuality, against a backdrop of self-harm and self-rejection.  This makes it sound dark, but every idea Sofie touched turned into mirth, so that the show as a whole was a balanced tragicomic shimmer.  I found this act of excavation of the most deeply personal aspects of self very powerful, because it was as if she was saying, ‘here, let’s look at this together, because it is my personal experience of a universal aspect of being human, and I’ll show you how to laugh about it, and by laughing we can transform it together in this theatrical space.’

Another show I had seen earlier in the day was Rituals for Change by None of Us is Yet a Robot, featuring Emma Frankland, whose performance in Don Quijote  (when she was Tom Frankland) was one of my favourites of late.  In Rituals for Change I found Emma using the same kind of theatrical expression that had enthralled me in Don Quijote, this time to explore her gender transformation.  The show was a progression of physical theatre gestures that were brilliant and rich metaphors exploring progressive angles of Emma’s transformation – the set was a building site, fertile with piled dirt, buckets of water, planks of wood, tools and scaffolding, which was constructed, de-constructed, moulded, made, and un-made in a beautiful evocation of the fluid materiality of the human body and gender.

The two shows were similar for the raw depths of personal excavation in their respective theatrical spaces.  It made me reflect that similar artistic magics were being performed, though one performer used a serious tone, physical theatre staging and props, a structure of linked vignettes, narrative and music, and the other used a comedic tone, a long thread of linked autobiographical stories, the setting of a warmly lit room, a different and more direct dialogue with the audience and sophisticated wordplay with frequent full-chord presses of the multiple levels of meaning, which made the audience laugh a lot.

At this point, I began to realise that comedy is just a different quadrant on the spectrum of theatres, with its own particular artistic materials, and to see that there are some artists making this sort of theatre with depth, nuance and subtlety (and some who are not, of course). Brecht was famously influenced by the comedians Karl Valentin and Charlie Chaplin, and he traced the origins of his idea of the epic (or dialectical) theatre to them.   In a way, the different theories of theatre all ask the same questions:  ‘what is the point of theatre?’ and ‘what does it do to the audience’ and ‘is this valuable?’

The belief behind Brecht’s ideology of the epic theatre was that the emotional catharsis that came from an audience’s immersion in a piece of theatre was not effective for moving the audience to change the real society outside the theatre.  He believed that in order to effect change, the theatre needed to encourage the audience to develop a critical perspective on society, to stand back and reflect upon it from a distance.  And he believed that this was best done by reminding the audience that the theatre was a representation of reality and not reality itself.

Stand-up comedy is so very Brechtian.  It is as if all comedians, consciously or unconsciously, exist at this pole of theatrical theory.  The frame of comedy itself is a large, obviously unreal, artistic construction, where every element of life is turned on its head and viewed from a comedic distance. And one of the most important aspects of comedy’s artistic world is its social conscience.  This is like the passionately beating heart around which all good comedy comes to life.

And it is interesting that wrapping the dark stuff of human existence around with laughter makes us feel more distant from it, and then perhaps more safe, more comfortable, and maybe more able to act in our own lives and societies…?  Although I’m not arguing here against immersion as a theatrical technique…how could I?  I’m so into it.  But there is room for both theories, for different ways of affecting people using art.  And it is true that catharsis and immersion feel really good – I had gone to Edinburgh hungry for it.  But the artistry of the comedians I saw also moved me, also changed me, but in a different way, and using different theatrical effects.

And speaking of Chaplin, the second comedy newcomer whose show made a deep impression on me was Mark Dean Quinn.  His show More Observation Without Comedy was a fascinating, poignant and extremely entertaining study in deadpan tragicomedy.  Quinn has an exquisitely light touch as a performer using comic materials, which is one of the ways it reminded me of Chaplin – he used silence, space, symbolic gestures, and gentle self-mockery to show glimpses of a real and private pain.

Like Emma Frankland’s show, it was a progression of vignettes and gestures, which explored the power dynamics in the unspoken social agreements we make in relationships, like, ‘I’ve just met you – can I trust you? At what point does trust begin between us?’ He unearthed profound and universal questions from the general field of ambiguity that we all live in, and it was fascinating to watch him explore them using a beautiful comedic language of absurdity and surreality.  He was a sad clown, exploring his sadness.  It was a beautiful and powerful show.

Both Hagen’s and Quinn’s shows are still carved into my imagination and memory several weeks later, in a way I can still go back to revisit.  They both had a sort of piercing quality.  This is not a definitive (or even clear) way of measuring their quality, but it feels significant to me.  And they felt different from the other ha-ha, laugh-a-minute, still enjoyable, but more blunt and less memorable comedy shows I saw.  It felt like they were both real artists who had chosen the materials of comedy as their frame and philosophical stance.

I saw both Hagen and Quinn in rooms in pubs, in tiny, cosy venues where I could practically reach out and touch them.  By contrast, I saw the famous comedian Stewart Lee in grander style in the Georgian Assembly Rooms: there were chandeliers, velvety seats, a big crowd of adoring fans, and a much larger literal distance from us to him.  He came on stage to the music from Bill’s death scene in Kill Bill, which I thought was a tremendously subtle and interesting opening flourish, considering that the common slang for a comedian’s failure is ‘dying’.

His comedy is like a series of concentric rings of meta-awareness, like inception inside the world of a single joke.  His whole set is one amazing joke, and within this he tells really, really long stories, each of which turns out to be a single, amazing joke, and these relate ironically, harmonically to the overarching joke, and when everything comes home in a big moment of coherence, it is hilarious, ingenious and satisfying.

His language is deeply poetic, and he pushes the boundaries of concepts practically off the edge of meaning, in a fascinating and thematically conscious way.  One of the most powerful themes he contemplated was the Fatal Risk of Doing Comedy.  He compared being a comedian to being a war hero and called the ghosts of dead clowns, like Robin Williams and Bill Hicks, onto the stage.

This was profound because it was a palpable reminder of the personal mechanics at work in comedy: that what a comedian does for his or her art is excavate  innermost soul and psyche, bring its deepest material up to the light, and ring this around with irony in a transformative way…and that he or she does this for the audience, for the greater good of society, because this process transforms what is deep, dark, ambiguous and scary into a new, enlightening awareness, which helps us to handle it and understand it.

It was serious and tragic at the same time that it was brilliant, funny, enlightening and reflective of the art of comedy, because it reminded us that some of the artists who are called to this sort of service don’t make it, because the dark is too dark, and the fear is too much, and the ambiguity too overwhelming.  And so here it was again: that tragicomic shimmering of things that were funny/sad/true/universal… and I felt contemplative, expanded and lit up on different levels by this Old Master.

And I need to at least mention James Acaster.  I want to tell you how much I liked him and why.  But his was the last show I saw in Edinburgh, and by the time I reached his comedy doorway and fell through it, I was pretty much like the guy who sits in the middle of the backseat of Wayne Campbell’s Pacer during Wayne’s World’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene.  That is to say, I was partied out.  I was barely hanging onto consciousness and sanity at that point…but James, sweet James, kept me hanging on a bit longer, until I could have another coffee and crawl back to the absinthe bar.  I do remember that his show included a rather adorable and deft depiction of an existential crisis, and that through the haze of my exhaustion, I kept thinking ‘…beautiful, theatrical, beautiful writing…oh my God, the end of the show is incredible…I wish I could lift my pen to take noteszzzzz.’

Of course I partied a lot in Edinburgh.  It was brilliant. And exhausting.  But my exhaustion revealed another interesting thing about comedy – its physiological effects, which are different to the other arts.  I started thinking about this on my second morning, when I was talking to my friend and Edinburgh roommate Sarah in a post-party haze of desultory girl chat, both of us just awake but not really ready to get out of bed.

Sarah is a doctor, a consultant in palliative medicine at a hospice, and we were talking about her upcoming course in acupuncture.  She was explaining the theory behind it, which is that the human body makes its own medicinal molecular cures for itself, which are called ‘endogenous compounds’, and apparently acupuncture stimulates the production of these healing compounds, which fit onto our broken cells in a perfectly complementary way that drugs can only clumsily replicate. I kept thinking about this all through my festival whirl, about how endogenous compounds were bubbling up inside me every time I laughed, circulating around in my blood, and it was as if the laughter kept healing and re-charging me.

It is nearly time to kiss you on both cheeks and say good-bye, but I have one more point to make about comedy, which I’ll make via Shaun Keaveny.  For those of you who don’t know, he is the morning show DJ on BBC Radio 6. I started listening to him eight years ago, and he is the purveyor of comedy who drops into my life in the most regular way, because of the format of his distribution.  He is brilliant, lyrical, high-concept and deeply silly in a way that I particularly adore.  He is right at the top of my Fantasy Boyfriend list, fighting it out with Jon Stewart.  One of the only painful parts of my festival was that I missed seeing his Edinburgh run of stand-up by only hours because of my travel.  Deep sigh.

But on my last night I was standing in a queue for the ladies loo in the Pleasance Courtyard, and at some point I glanced up to the wall of posters running up the stairs beside me, and I saw the man himself, in flat avatar poster form, posed in a suave GQ kind of way, of thoughtful mien and looking absolutely gorgeous in a grey jumper, advertising his show: ‘Shaun Keaveny: Live and Languorous’.  So I ripped the poster off the wall, along with a fair few fragments of baby blue Pleasance wall paint, rolled it up and put in my bag, and he’s now living on the wall in my writing nook, my first pin-up in 25 years.

It has been interesting to write this essay and think about Shaun in terms of comedic artistry.  It has prompted me to deconstruct and understand my adoration of him, which until now has been instinctive but unexamined.  And what I think about Shaun is that he is like swans.  I live in Cambridge on a street that goes down to the river, and I see swans every day.  I see them quiet in the dawn with the sun rising over the river, and I see them sleeping and still, floating with their heads tucked away, with one awake sentry, when I am cycling home along the river late at night in the dark.  And I never think that they are less sublime and beautiful because they are so common.  I think, ‘if they were rare, people would travel from all over the world to see them – just to get one glimpse!’  And Shaun’s comedy feels like that to me…like artistry that happens to be just easily available.

And in general, this is what comedy feels like to me – like something powerful, sublime and special that is everywhere, and which perhaps as a result is somewhat taken for granted as an art form.  And perhaps it is the case that the commercial success of more blunt, less artistic comedy has tainted our perception of the whole genre.  But I think it’s time to have a closer look at the way subtle, nuanced and artistic comedy is valued in our cultural oeuvre.  I found truth, beauty and depth in some of the comedy I saw at Edinburgh, which are the subtle fragrances that, to me, signal artistry.  And I felt that parts of me were healed and enlightened by these encounters.  And, of course, I laughed and laughed and laughed.  For which, Sofie Hagen, Mark Dean Quinn, James Acaster and Stewart Lee, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

[An edited version of this essay was published in Exeunt Magazine on 1 October 2015.]

Of Riders and Running Horses

Of Riders and Running Horses: the roof under our feet

17 September 2015.  It’s Thursday night in Cambridge, and the way into the show I am about to see,Of Riders and Running Horses by Dan Canham’s dance theatre company Still House, is a long climb up a winding, breezeblock stairwell to the top of the five-storey car park next to the Cambridge Junction. I eventually emerge into open sky on the rooftop, and it is real dusk. The remaining daylight is bright strips of colour smudged together over in the west, and it’s fully dark in the east. Live, energetic Afro-Cuban music is blasting from speaker towers around the perimeter of a brightly lit performance space, made by a live band of two musicians, Sam Halmarack and Luke Harney (AKA Typesun), who are nested within a tightly packed cluster of varied percussion instruments, guitars and electronic music kit at one end.

The audience settles, the drumming goes quiet, and then into the silence, Sam Halmarack sings a cappella – a beautiful, simple melody and interesting, subtle lyrics, which after a time is grabbed by electronics and amplified, sustained, and layered. And then percussion comes back in, with fierce drums and surprising syncopations, building to an intense, exciting jungle beat. The first dancer jumps in, and her movement is like an exact embodiment of the music in dance form. Then four other dancers come out of the audience one by one to join her, five women in urban street clothes, and I wish I could join them, too, because the music is so strongly beckoning.

They spin in interlocking patterns of individual movements, and I wonder how much of the music and dance is improvised, because it’s tight, but there are ripples where they catch ideas and energy from each other, clearly listening to each other with their bodies. Eventually, after what feels like a long time, they fall into unison, and this feels wonderful to me on some deep, primal level – it feels like an expression of the constant elemental progression from times of wildness into harmony.

Then the music quiets again, and together they explore small, subtle movement, stillness, pauses and they are still like a human embodiment of the percussive music – which is now slow, with shakers and rattling metal – and it is as if the women are cymbals themselves, or streams of air shaken by percussive vibrations. Then four dancers drift away, and one is left, moving quietly to a long, low, electric bass drone.

She moves like she is underwater, and again it occurs to me that this piece feels elemental, like a depiction of nature. But whenever my mind tries to capture this show and cage it within a description or theme, the abstract fights wildly back, the performance saying, ‘I just am’ and the dance saying, ‘I just am…the music’ and the music saying ‘I just am…the dance’. This piece is a lush, abstract expression and exploration of feelings.

And at this point, when I have been fully captured by the performance, and I have been prompted into thoughtful consideration of the axis between programmatic and abstract art, the dancers shift into a section of the piece that is like the interplay of different musical voices working in harmony: they line up and combine like fingers pressing down the keys of a piano, overlapping in different patterns like individual notes making different chords. Then they start calling out, noises that sound like animal calls, and the music grows bright and joyous underneath them, and eventually they break out of the patterns into pure wildness again, and I notice their dance is sending rumbling vibrations through the roof under our feet.

I loved every moment and every element of this piece. The musicians created walls and waves and trickles and forests of sound, moving expertly and creatively through Electro-Indie, Techno, Electronic, Afro-Cuban and Santaria music. The dancers – Anna Kaszuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tanya Richam-Odoi, Tilly Webber and Stephanie McMann – were brilliant and energetically, symbiotically connected to the music in a way that was extremely satisfying and fertile. The staging – the night sky, big sound and bright lights – created a sense that we were at a rare, artistic, rooftop rave. And after an hour of having all the cells in my body dancing to the music, but having to hold myself outwardly still, the thing I was hoping for happened: the last thing the dancers did after our final claps and cheers was to pull the audience into the dance, and the musicians kept playing, for us now.

Produced by MAYK

Directed by Dan Canham with associate director Laura Dannequin
Cast Includes Anna Kaszuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tanya Richam-Odoi, Tilly Webber, and Stephanie McMann
Original Music Luke Harney and Sam Halmarack

[This review was originally published in Exeunt Magazine 17 September 2015.]

ofmiraclesweb1

The BE Festival: Democratic and Delicious

3 July 2015.  The BE Festival is a gathering of contemporary European performance and takes place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre; when my mate Nicky and I arrive we are told to go around the back of the building.  It’s a strange, deserted alleyway that we walk down at first, and then, turning a corner, we see a smoking enclosure on the pavement filled with women wearing tea dresses accessorized edgily and men in retro blazers.  We look at each other, at our own edgily accessorized tea dresses, and laugh.  I say, ‘I think we have found our people.’  And then we talk about the strangeness of the urge to join a tribe, how mysterious a thing it is to be compelled to align, to dress this way and not another, how complex are the patterns of society as they weave together.  I have always had complicated feelings about this urge in myself, because I want to love everybody, to align with everybody.  The theme of the festival this year is Democracy, and so this question of how we align, malign, agree, dissent and weave together was running through the various artistic explorations in many different fascinating and complex ways.

The prevailing aesthetic of the festival is this edgy, retro style: the festival Hub was the massive loading bay at the back of the theatre, which was dressed with curated selections of antique furniture clustered cosily in a large seating area with a bar, and antique bric-a-brac adorning the wide corridors leading off to the studio theatre and the main theatre stage. A mixture of audience, performers and festival workers were drinking, lounging and talking in the sofas. A pale rose chaise longue was enjoyably incongruous against the concrete floor and breeze block bricks of this backstage turned into a new sort of theatre.  The democracy-themed visual arts installations occupied space like wild oases, where people clustered to observe and participate.

The first show of the night was Correction by the VerTeDance contemporary dance company from the Czech Republic.  The piece began with the stage in darkness and beautiful melodic electronic music with voices singing in harmony, accompanied by a live clarinet ensemble called the Clarinet Factory.

Seven dancers were revealed when the stage lights came up, standing in a straight line, all wearing the same brown workman’s boots and dressed in casual street clothes.  The introductory music faded into silence, and the dancers began to move, with their feet locked onto the stage floor in their identical boots, swaying into each other like a Newton’s Cradle, passing the energy of motion along the line, recalling the properties of physics, the finite energies of material reality – but also the way we as people touch and influence each other with our human energy.

The dance would go on to explore the different patterns of our energetic interactions, first in sweet and funny moments of capitulation and rebellion to the charge being passed along, and then in increasingly disturbing displays of aggression.  This was a performance that struck a deep chord with all of the people I spoke to on this night of the festival, and I think this was because it revealed patterns of behaviour operating between all of us, all of the time, much of the time unconsciously, and these patterns of energy operate on both micro and macro levels of society.

In one part of the dance, one of the dancers was pushed down and left to struggle back up on his own, and then once he was back up he lashed out viciously to the next person along, in a complete tracery of the dynamic of recycled violence.  This is something that nations do (Israel, I’m looking at you, bra) and that families, friends, politicians, workmates, lovers and strangers do.  And then the dance takes the expenditure of energy on conflict to its extreme point, and all the dancers fight each other violently until finally they are exhausted, spent and lifeless on the floor.  The sense that came ringing clearly out of this moment was that violence is just a waste of human energy and beauty.

And then the music came back, recorded voices singing in harmony, and the clarinets fluttered back into a thoughtful, hopeful swell, and gradually the dancers pulled themselves up to standing.  What happened next reminded me of something Aristotle said about fiction/art/’poetry’ – that poetry is more important than history, because ‘the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.’  I felt a frustrated exhaustion and sad recognition of the futile cycles of conflict the dancers portrayed as the piece wound to its conclusion, our sad, shared history.  And then when it felt like I/we couldn’t take it anymore, a shift happened, and then came the surprising introduction of a hopeful ‘what if?’ into the dance.

The dancers slowly began introverted, soulful dances all on their own, eyes shut. Then gradually they harmonised, opened their eyes, and the dance became wild, joyous, free, individual and shared.  My heart rose up, and I wished hard that all our interactions as a society ‘might be’…like this.  Another reason why the show was so powerful was its technical beauty – the movement of the dancers was precise, agile and evocative, and perfectly orchestrated according to the thematic progression of the piece.  It was brilliant.  It was hard to believe this piece was only a half hour.

The next show shocked the hell out of me, for various reasons, and explored a sharply realistic and extremely important corner of the democracy theme: if you don’t already have it, how, how, how, do you create it? How does revolution feel, what are the details, what do you actually do, what does it do to you?  This was a theatre piece for three actors called MOUVMA! by Collectif Corps Citoyen, a collaboration between Tunisian and Italian artists, presented in Arabic, French and Italian with subtitles.  It was about the beginning of democratic revolt in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

Before this show started, the festival co-directors, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, came out on stage and read a statement written by the actors.  I hadn’t seen the news – it was Friday 26 June, the day that Islamic State gunmen from Tunisia opened fire on a beach in the Tunisian resort town of Port EL Kantaoui and killed 35 people, mostly foreign tourists.  The statement said, ‘We will have to explain to the world that we are not like them.  This show is our only tool to ask questions and keep hope alive’.

The show began with the house lights up and the three actors, one man and two women, chatting brightly, lightly to the audience: ‘Hi!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hello!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hi!’  This devolved into a comic confusion in different languages, with the three talking over each other, all saying ‘Are you okay? So what’s up? How are you? How are your Studies? Your job? Your family? Your Friends? For Me, it’s going so well, very well thank you.’ Then the falsity of the surface greeting crumbled, the idea of ‘being okay’ crumbled, and they were not okay, and ‘nowhere’ was anything ‘okay’.

Then the scene broke up and they scrambled into various patterns, exploring and depicting the actions and details of revolt. One of the most powerful moments was when we are told an eyewitness’s account of a man who sets himself on fire for a political protest.  We hear the details:

‘But I was close enough to see that the man was wearing glasses. He took the can and threw it. He shook. He took the lighter again with the same gesture.’

At another point, the stage lights went dark, and a film was projected on the whole of the backstage wall, which was real footage of the chaos during the political revolt.  Because of the darkness on stage, the actors in grey light blended into the moving shadows of the projection.  They shouted out, became like people in the film made real on stage.  They tell us, tell each other, ‘we have to protect our heads’, and ‘the police have orders to kill’.  One of the powerful effects of this show was that the dimensions of theatre and reality warped together, to bring the audience across the separating devices of time, distance, culture, the almost fictional-feeling remove of the news on telly and in newspapers.  The show was exploding the line between real and not-real, near and far, using the magical properties of the un-real theatre to collapse distance.

After this the scene dissolves and the lights come up again, and quietly, seriously, they ask each other, ‘Ça va?’  And this question,Are you ok? meant so much more now than at the innocent beginning of the show.  It meant, ‘have you survived?’ This circling back the idea of being okay, now heavy with the deeper weight of love and fear of loss amidst the breaking passion of revolution, was beautiful theatre.

The show ended with one of the actors staring at canisters filled with green fluid that have been on the stage all along.  He moves towards one of them, and the other two rush to stop him.  He keeps lunging for the canisters, and they keep trying to stop him.  The lights go out, and he splashes the liquid around himself, the house lights go dark, and then they start striking matches.  In the dim light of the matches, he says, ‘And so I did it, right?  Because I had a rotten life before.’

This show felt like all the words I have ever read about political protest and revolution come to life in 3-D, several metres away from me.  And what came through most clearly is that it is an edge in the mind, reached collectively, a tipping point in the mind, in many minds.  It felt like desperate, urgent reportage more than theatre, and like we were brushing up against the particular elements, the details and nuances of revolution. It was powerful and brilliant.

The format of the festival is designed around sociability, and every night during a hiatus in the performances the audience, performers and festival staff sit down together to a dinner cooked by London-based food artists Blanch and Shock. Nicky and I had Toulouse sausages, a duck egg, lentil, tomato and red pepper stew, fennel, spring onion and parsley salad and yoghurt. I kept asking myself, ‘what is artistic about this food?’ as I chewed and talked to Nicky and a lovely older couple called Liz and Peter (who were avid Birmingham theatre goers), and in the end I decided that the way each different flavour mixed with the others on the plate in perfect harmony was extremely democratic, as well as delicious.

The festival programmed lighter offerings post-dinner; the first was a thoughtful and humorous solo circus performance by Darragh McLoughlin, called The Whistle, which was produced by Squarehead Productions of Ireland.  Darragh asked us to close our eyes then open our eyes in patterns as he blew a whistle hanging around his neck, playing with illusion and perception (and our honesty) in charming and interesting ways.  The piece had the feel of gentle clowning and juggling mixed with a sort of zen minimalism and showed some touches of real abstract artistic brilliance.  At one point when we were supposed to have our eyes closed, Darragh asked us, ‘Am I still performing if no one is watching me?’

The show traced the trajectory of learning and failure in the moments where Darragh allowed us to open our eyes to the backstage moments of a juggling trick, to the dropped balls and failed attempts.  He reminded me afterwards, during the disco party in the festival Hub that closed the night, that circus is an art with an intensely crystallised focus on perfection, and it was poignant to be shown the circus performer’s private moments of struggle, out of which radiated a more expansive philosophical significance.  It was a lovely show.

The final performance of the night was my personal favourite.  It was a contemporary theatre piece called Of Miracles and Wonders, Optimistic Conference by Fundación Collado Van Hoestenberghe of Spain, which is the artistic partnership of the two performers, Ernesto Collado of Spain and Barbara Van Hoestenberghe of Belgium.

Ernesto was dressed in a powder blue suit, and Barbara in a white minidress.  Onstage there were two desks with laptops, some musical instruments on Barbara’s side of the stage, including electric guitar and small bar chimes, and on Ernesto’s desk a pitcher of red juice.  There were some potted plants scattered around and a large projection screen at the back of the stage.  The show begins in silence, with text appearing on the projection screen, in imperfect English, one line at a time:

‘I love this moment.

All this expectations…

It’s like a pear.

More precisely like the stalk of a pear.

Because the stalk of a pear is not yet a pear.

It’s still the branch.

This is to say, the tree.

And this is to say a fractal infinity of possibilities.

And this takes us directly to quantum physics.’

After each line appears, the audience laughs, and this is the first sound of the piece.  I started to feel the building of an irrepressible exuberance and delight at the way these ideas were unfolding, and this only deepened with every revolution of the show, which was a succession of sweet, absurd, comic, poetic vignettes.

After the silent dialogue and laughter of the beginning, Ernesto takes over as our guide through the show, and we are whooshed down many more rabbit holes and twirled through dancing concepts, which left me feeling pleasantly drunk on ideas.  We go though philosophical contemplations of loss – lost words, lost time – via  a lost lighter; through consciousness, dreams, conscience, and peaceful societies via the Spanish siesta; through the inscription on the Delphic oracle’s temple, ‘know thyself’ via Ikea, with interjections of Shakespeare and musings on John Wayne.

The show was so eclectic, allusory and sporadic, that it is natural to question its unity, its framing, which narratively was the ‘Optimistic Conference’ of the title, but the wildly veering angles felt oddly well connected – I think by the thickness of the sense of wonder, the other material under consideration in the show, which was being quite consciously and deliberately spun by the staging, the wonderfully poetic text and thoughtful performances by Ernesto and Barbara.  At one point Ernesto quotes Montaigne: ‘If we give the name of miracles and wonder to everything our reason cannot comprehend, are they not continually presented before our eyes?’, and I felt this was the unifying element of the show, the contemplation of the quality of wonder.

Aftewards, talking about this show with Nicky, she said, ‘I wanted the crazy to flower more’, sagely guessing that this was a longer show cut down to fit the parameters of the festival.  The design of the festival is structured so that the shows are about 30 minutes, to fit four performances into each evening more comfortably for the audience.  Ernesto told us afterwards that the show is normally an hour, and they found it difficult to cut it down to a smaller size.  It was, ahem, wonderful, anyway, but I would love to see the full version sometime.

We felt this was true for ‘MOUVMA!’ as well, and we reflected that most contemporary theatre pieces are about an hour, and that it is rare to see shorter ones – but interestingly, I felt the power of both shows despite the truncation, and I deeply enjoyed all of the shows I saw and was grateful to the festival for giving me such a generous offering of brilliant European performance.  I was also grateful to the festival for giving us a disco in the festival Hub with DJ Glyn Phillips until 2 a.m. after all the shows finished. I was crackling with wonder, with art, theatre, humanity, hope, and what I really needed was a dance.

[This review was published in Exeunt Magazine on 3 July 2015]

 

Figs in Wigs

The Watch Out Festival at Cambridge Junction, A Review

On Saturday 23 May 2015 the Cambridge Junction presented Watch Out, a day-long festival of contemporary performance which follows in the footsteps of their previous festivals Night Watch and Sampled. I studied the line-up ahead of time, and it was interesting, as always, to consider the different dimensions of theatrical experience: The Before, The During, and The After.

When I was looking at the programme during The Before, I was excited and curious, and aware that this flat piece of paper with its marketing words and images would become something else – something large, 3D, and stuffed with glitter, humanity, sound and significance in The During. And I knew that in The After, some of the ideas would take root in my being and reconfigure my understanding of myself and the world around me.

And that felt like the distinguishing curatorial impulse behind the festival: to explore the power of new ideas and the way they radiate through performance. And in this Watch Outwas a roaring success: every single show had a steely, spiky, sharp, bright or brilliant idea around which the performative elements cohered in riotously inventive and engaging ways. Many of the shows were previews or premieres, so there was a newness and rawness to some of them, but it was a testament to the quality of the assembled performers that they all delivered artistically.

There was a range of different types of performance – theatre, dance, spoken word, burlesque, music, digital – and so often in this historical moment genres tangle together in fascinating ways.  To some extent, most of the shows were tangles, but with a predominating performance type. Two of these pleasing tangles were A Room for All Our Tomorrows by Igor and Moreno and Swagga by Project O with Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt. Both came under the category of dance in the programme, but they both incorporated sound, singing and spoken words. Swagga was the first show I saw, and it was an interesting study of the themes of fat, femininity, otherness and acceptance. The performance felt like the second hand of a clock, sweeping around the angles of the issues one by one and arriving at a conclusion where roundness and largeness finally cast off society’s aspersions and recall the goddess aspect of femininity. I particularly enjoyed the spoken word elements of the show and the song lyrics, which were poetic and deeply affecting. This show didn’t completely coalesce, in the sense that its different explorations felt slightly unconnected to each other, but it was powerful and engaging.

A Room for All Our Tomorrows is one of the shows that is still glowing brightly in my imagination. Maybe that’s partly because Igor and Moreno’s production team have such a strong grasp of the craft of light and staging.In a warmly-lit space with a stylish, square wooden table and chairs, over coffee, Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas use movement, sound and singing to portray the elemental cycles that move through relationships as two people trigger fury, frustration, and finally healing, in each other. The set and costume design by Kasper Hansen created an Ikea-esque ideal appearance and environment for the two characters in this piece, against which the real tensions that arise in an intimate relationship poignantly raged. As artists, Igor and Moreno are interested in exploring catharsis through live performance, and the way they expressed frustration – by a ‘conversation’ of grunts and screams – had the audience falling apart with laughter … and probably sent everyone home infused with a greater degree of humorous compassion for their own relationships. It was a pure, unadulterated delight.

Watch Out balanced the different flavours of artistic transmission well and programmed an engaging set of spoken word, burlesque, digital and live art in contrast to the more abstract explorations of the dance shows. The poet Rowan James gave a preview of his new show Easy for You to Say, which is spoken word refracted into different forms – poetry, storytelling and rap – in collaboration with beatboxer Marv Radio. It was an energetic and intelligent show about the question of ‘normality’ and perceptions of ability via James’ personal story of being diagnosed with a disability. Some of the word formulations were incredibly beautiful – proper silvery poetry, deep and bright, and I really enjoyed it.

The Cube by digital arts company Circa69 was one of the most surprising and exciting shows at Watch Out, and everyone was talking about it. It was a one-on-one performance with the artist, Simon Wilkinson, the director of Circa69, where I was fitted with the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset designed for 3-D gaming. Here it was turned to the purpose of engineering an artistic encounter in a new world, and it blew my mind, with its newness, the Dali-esque imagined American desert that appeared around me in a small room upstairs in the Junction, and a compelling story.

My favourite show at the festival was Show Off by Figs in Wigs, a group of five conceptual artists who are all women – Rachel Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots. I’ve been hearing great things about them for years, but I have always managed to narrowly miss seeing them (because of, um, either lateness or drunkenness, as at last year’s Night Watch festival). And when I say, ‘I’ve heard great things’, I mean that I’ve seen the people saying the great things come out at the end of a show, and they are sort of glowing phosphorescently with irrepressible smiles and look like they are about to break into song and dance, and their eyes are darting around looking at the world faster than usual because their minds have been so deliciously stoked.

Now that I’ve finally seen a Figs in Wigs show, I understand why that is. They are a real riot. Show Off is ostensibly a burlesque, with silly, glitzy costumes, jokes, songs, dances and a very impressive hula-hoop sequence, but underneath all of this, it’s a highly intelligent Theatre of the Absurd. They are aware of this, and the show contains the telling line: ‘If you want to go deep, you must first go shallow’. Show Off is deeply self-reflective, as if the five girls are peering at themselves as they peer at themselves, like those halls of mirrors with endless reflections. The theme they are self-reflectively studying is … self-reflection (in art and social media). It was rich, wild, lushly comedic, absorbing and fascinating.

Another highlight was a new show by an old favourite – Lucy McCormick from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, doing a premiere of a show called Calendar Girl.  When I was looking through the festival programme, I saw the show listed and read, ‘Lucy McCormick presents this late night performance as part of a biblical series in which she casts herself as Jesus Christ, in an attempt to find greater connection to her own moral conscience’. So I was already chuckling at this, days before, and also wondering how this theme would play out within Lucy’s favoured live art performance techniques of nakedness, shock, profanity and pop power ballads – and she didn’t let me down.

In fact, the show was about ascension – the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The show was sharply feminist, as much of GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’s work is, and it was also shockingly sexually graphic, but as in her previous work, there is one bomb blast of a theatrical moment when a profound concept crystallises. It was the moment where Lucy did something pornographic with her body, the woman standing next to me walked out, and I thought, ‘huh – that’s a fascinating way to ironically depict Christianity’s relationship to, and devaluing  of, older goddess-based religions’. It was a hilarious, shocking and profound show, which is what I have come to expect from Lucy McCormick.

As I look back, I realise how confident I was at the start that Watch Out would be excellent, and I was right. You know how sometimes you have friends who are a sure thing? How there are these solid, encircling parameters that deliver awesome results every time you see them? Like, every time, the conversation is a delicious mixture of funny and deep. Every time you feel relaxed, warmed and nourished. Every time you lose track of time because you’ve entered some charmed space together. I feel this way about the Cambridge Junction’s programming of contemporary performance under Artistic Director Daniel Brine and Arts Producer Daniel Pitt, who was the lead curator for Watch Out. Although the encircling parameters are slightly spikier, and they have a different purpose: to challenge me, shake some of the broken ideas out of me, reflect me, light me up and give me something new to think about.  In The After dimension, I walked out grateful, light-hearted and soaked in new ideas.

*Originally published in Exeunt Magazine

Gandini Juggling Rosalind Post

Guest Reviewer-Poet Rosalind Bouverie on Gandini Juggling’s ’4×4′ at Cambridge Junction

20 May 2015. The dancers dart and glide between the patterns of falling and rising juggling clubs, gently varying their steady geometry.  These airy diamonds hold the dance momentarily in a live force field. Then there is flow and escape. The violins, viola, cello, and double bass make a harmonious landscape of sound to move in; faces and bodies glow with energy and delight. And we hear the voices of the players; rhythmic speech matching their careful steps and balletic moves, catching and releasing. Sometimes there is an intense and emotional pairing. Then the group joins in and a wider set of links and bonds unfurl in limbs and throws and colours. Juggling hoops turn into wings, turn into halos, turn into dresses of splendour. Loose and endless falling and rising of white circles up there in the dark steady the mind, while below the human arrangements endlessly revolve and evolve. There is love and knowledge of the spaces between each person, other people. We see just how close you can get and still make a beautiful pattern. Then it shifts and breaks into something new. It makes you wonder how this moving marvel is made.