Author Archives: Joy L. Martin

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.

Kim noble

Guest Reviewer-Poet Rosalind Bouverie on Kim Noble’s ‘You Are Not Alone’ at Cambridge Junction

7 May 2015.  Sombre and tender he recounts a tale of woes to a handpicked listener but the story fans outward to us who sit in the dark then in the light. The straggling text of online chats are magnified in their littleness as we watch it all scroll down.  On stage there are wigs and masks and shoes and pants. They conjure the elusive loved ones. Body parts are fixed and changed and tried; it takes guts to show us how soft it is, how hard it is. His travails cut across the lines of the world. It’s shameful, honest!

Kim Noble drills through walls, he changes his shape, voice, hair, clothes. He goes through bins and shows us shit and rubbish. He sends every emoticon. His yearning is particular and a blur. His home technologies call up humans. He films us awake, he films us asleep, he films the guy across his road.  He asks Ian to do up his bra, he asks us to listen, he asks us to Nandos, he asks the computer screen, he joins us at work, he gives us awards, he asks us on dates, he asks. He gathers people to dance with each other on stage at comedy’s end.

Then Kim Noble mounts a white horse, like Don Quixote or the saddest rider of the apocalypse, and goes off stage. A camera follows him.  We see him slowly ride away from the Junction. Someone walks alongside him. It is hard to clap because the act has strayed off stage, and whether it was an act feels doubtful. He journeys through the carpark. It’s the end of a storm torn western, the reconciled end of a riven and sorrow filled fable. There’s a man in sad drag on a nag going to Nandos. People are nearby.

around-the-world-in-80-days-joyce-kimble-smith

Around the World in 80 Days…A Glowing Review

I went to see the Cambridge Junction’s Christmas show Around the World in 80 Days on Thursday night, and my heart is still warm and glowing from it, as if there is a nonchalant heap of red and gold coal behind an iron grate on the front of my chest.   I had my first mulled wine of the Christmas season just before the show, and the first vibrant taste made me reflect that every year I cycle through forgetting and remembrance of the ornaments of the Christmas season.  This diminishing glassful was the beginning of the remembering of the forgotten loveliness of mulling.  Another forgotten loveliness, the story of Around the World in 80 Days, was also languishing, very, very dusty, in the far reaches of my memory, and it was brilliantly brought to life in this production by the award-winning company New International Encounter, with real Christmas charm, artistry, wonderful acting and a sumptuous revelling in the magic tricks of the theatre.

As I took my seat the house lights were still up, and the Victorian-costumed actors were gathered casually around an upright piano on stage, listening, as one of them played a sweet, simple, nostalgic tune.  This excellent show would unfold many delights, but I particularly enjoyed this company’s handling of the fourth wall, that funny, strange, ethereal barrier between the show itself (the actors, stage and backstage) and the audience.  This production’s fourth wall felt gentle, dismantled even, the cast aware of how the open space between us, if delicately handled, would charm us and absorb us into the story.

The story is about Phileas Fogg, an extraordinarily precise and punctual gentleman from London, who makes a bet with the other gentlemen at his club that he can travel around the world in 80 days (arriving just before Christmas).  But this jaunt, accompanied by his faithful French manservant Passepartout, coincides with a robbery of the Bank of England, and looks suspiciously like a-run-for-it to the villain of the piece, the ‘extremely unpleasant’ Inspector Fix, who pursues Fogg all the way around the world.  I read Around the World in 80 Days when I was about 11, so it was fascinating to see the story again through grown-up eyes.  The story really belongs to its time: written by Jules Verne, the visionary science fiction writer of the Victorian age, it is about a moment when the world changed, a great hinge point in history when the scientific advances of the Enlightenment enabled people to move much more quickly around the Earth, powered by steam engines, on trains and ships, and, famously for this story, the hot air balloon.  The show captures this sense of wonder for the scientific age, and for me, the wonder felt like a Victorian echo of our current technological leap forward.  The production is a lush celebration of the aesthetic world of Victorian England: the stage was littered with potted palms, silk lampshades with bobble tassels, Chesterfield chairs, top hats, an upright piano on wheels.  And the theme of time is enjoyably explored, through Phileas Fogg’s obsession with precision, the repetition of train and boat times, time’s collision with the chaos of adventures (a railway that runs out of track in the Indian jungle, a snowstorm on the American prairie).

One of the principle enjoyments of watching this production was seeing how the illusions of theatre were used to take us around the world: from Fogg’s gentlemen’s club in London, with its top-hatted and cigar-puffing men; to Egypt, with fez hats and dripping sweat; the Indian jungle, featuring fronds and an elephant…(yes, you heard me right, an ELEPHANT), Hong Kong, with pentatonic scales and lanterns on long bamboo poles, and on…the whole way around the world.  An interesting part of this production’s deliciously permeable fourth wall was the backstage area, which was open for all our eyes to see, with props and instruments casually scattered everywhere, and trunks open and spilling costumes out.   And out of this jumble of stuff, the company conjured scene after scene like a running magic show.  When I came back from intermission, full of chocolate ice cream, one of the actors was abroad in the audience, doing rope tricks for the children.  At one point he said, ‘you have to believe in magic for it to work’, and this struck me as symbolic of the show, and of theatre in general.  And my heart skipped happily, and I couldn’t help smiling, because I still believe in magic, and in the theatre.

It’s also a story celebrating the values of Victorian England and the British Empire.  Erm…I can’t write a post-colonial review in a post-colonial world without discreetly murmuring ‘ahem’ over the idea of ‘celebrating’ the British Empire…but [Gallic shrug], it’s a Christmas show.  It’s for fun, isn’t it?  This made me think about the larger context of theatre, of what and who it is for, and on reflection, I decided that this show was just for creating warmth and a sense of fantasy, to transport a theatre full of children around the world in 80 days and the adults with them back into a childlike appreciation of A Good Story, Well Told.  And Jules Verne was writing from within his paradigm, his time.  So there was an interesting element of temporality surrounding the story, the staging.  And it made me consider that there are still unjust paradigms at play in our world, in our time, and society only deconstructs them in a very slow process of awakening.  After this philosophical reconciliation of the issue, I relaxed about it, and then my eyes became sweet and misty at the thought of good, old England: its silliness, gentleness, the poignance of emotion felt but contained, its obsession with tea.  These were all qualities embodied by Phileas Fogg, who is played ably and with a heart-warming vulnerability subtly glowing through a very English punctiliousness by Martin Bonger.   Once Jose, my Spanish housemate who is also living permanently in the UK, said after a trip to Seville, ‘It’s a relief to be back.  I come from such a savage culture’.  [And then he sipped his tea, daintily.]  And I feel the same, as an American living permanently abroad in England.  It was a relief to come to England and find so much gentleness and peace everywhere. Of course it is not perfect – what society is?  But it has these qualities, these very endearing English qualities. A funny refrain chiming throughout the show is Phileas importuning the passionate, French Passepartout, ‘Passepartout, please control your emotions!’

Ah…and now we come to Passepartout (‘It ees pronounced with a silentt ‘T’!!’).  The friendship between Passepartout and Fogg is the emotional centre of the story, the warm hearth of the whole production.  Although the various elements of the show were all extremely strong and fine, the performance of Passepartout by the immensely talented Stefanie Mueller (playing across gender, with a delicious French accent) was the standout highlight of the show for me.  The French qualities of pragmatism joined to lyrical emotionality that she brought to the part were a beautiful counterpoint to the Englishness of Fogg.  One of the only elements of the show that could be improved was the depiction of Fogg’s growing affection and returned loyalty to Passepartout, but I got the feeling this is one of the (very few) nuances that were a bit blunt on opening night, but which will mature as the show goes through its long holiday run.  I’m going to see the show again next week, because I feel pulled back, irresistibly, to see Stefanie as Passepartout, and I want to take my friends to see it.  Also, the Elephant – I want to see the Elephant again.  And have more mulled wine and chocolate ice cream.  And see more magic tricks.  And have the heap of warm coals presently, metaphorically, serving as my heart gently stirred, the gold glowing, the ash drifting, the warmth catching.

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From the New International Encounter Website:

Featuring a cast of six, the show will be playing from 8 December – 4 January 2015 in Cambridge with further touring planned in 2015. Director: Alex Byrne Set & Costume Design: Stefanie Mueller Lighting Designer: Christopher Nairne Musical Director: Carly Davis Cast: Martin Bonger, Carly Davis, Kieran Edwards, Ben Frimston, Keshini Misha, Stefanie Mueller Production Manager: Tom Cotterill

 

Don quijote 2

Some Thoughts About Dreams via an Avant-Garde Remix of Don Quijote

I went to see Don Quijote, a show by Emma Frankland and Keir Cooper, in association with Ultimo Comboio, which came to the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday 24 September.  I have a dear Spanish friend, José, so I invited him to come with me.  As we entered J3, the Junction’s smaller studio theatre, we were seated like a kindergarten class on the floor in the middle of the space; and then it transpired that the show would spin around us like a new galaxy in mixed theatrical materials, jumping from wall to wall, then into our midst – and we, the audience, were in a state of continuing scatter and scramble, re-mixed like Cervantes’ four hundred-year-old work.

It was a show where book love dripped through the theatre: serif’d words about the Spanish knight on cream backgrounds glowed, large, on the walls around us, and a live circular saw sheared through the binding of a fat edition so fluttering pages could be thrown joyously through the air at us.  Don Quixote was a she in this imagining, and she chose José, my José, to be her Sancho Panza and took him away on an adventure outside the theatre, only returning him at the very end of the show.

His departure left a strange gap by my side, and I kept wondering where he was and what was happening to him, while the performance stirred me in increasingly profound ways.  I’m a lover of the tensile strength of a story, and I watch the way stories travel across time and culture, how they hide, survive, and kaleidoscope into variances; and beholding this story was like looking at one of the grandfather trees in the forest, mighty and still alive.  The production used a pleasingly chaotic mix of theatrical materials, including projected shadow animation that travelled the walls, vignette, absurdity, storytelling, collage, flamenco and rock ‘n roll to explore the ancient story, all the while showing a fierce and reverent respect for the original.

The show played with the idea of whether a story is true by telling us a story that confidently announced its truth (like Cervantes’ novel) — and then, when a live skyped teleconference revealed that the storyteller was telling us a fiction, the layering of story/truth was set spinning in the same way as the original…thereby catching the audience in the question mark, where we hung, our senses aroused more sharply for a philosophical hunt: asking What is Really True…about Anything?

And then, delectably, satisfyingly, the show traced the aspect of human nature that the original story curves lovingly around, by telling us a fast-paced stream of true stories about quixotic real-life people:  Steven Gough, the Naked Rambler, who has been told by the highest court in the land that it is not his right to ramble naked; Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot, who said upon being released from prison, ‘If I had the right to refuse freedom, I would’, because she knew the idea – the dream – behind her protest lived stronger behind bars.  These are the ones who dream big and bear accusations of madness, and keep dreaming, and give everything for their dream.

I wished so deeply that José could be with me, because there was a particular, increasing-in-intensity, flavour of Spanish political passion infused into the show that I knew he would love with his part-political activist, part artist, and fully passionate heart…and also because he rocks pretty hard and loves music, and The Matador, played by Emma Frankland, our guide through the deeply affecting and intelligent chaos of the show – after stoking the dreams burning in our hearts via the true stories of the Quixotes who live among us, for real – busted out an electric guitar and set them fully alight via REALLY LOUD AND AWESOME GUITAR ROCK N’ ROLL.

Ah.  Art.  This is why I love it so much.  Have you ever had a dream?  How much daylight do you give your dream?  How much oxygen?  How much fire?  Is it buried?  How deep?  The show was brilliant, beautiful, complex, mysterious.  There were many layers, angles and nuances.  I have only explored a small corner of the show’s significance and wonder.  But these were the questions, the highly important questions, the show unearthed…and they aren’t just personal questions.  They are questions to be asked about our collective dreams, for things like truth and freedom.

At the end of the show, Don Quijote came back with Sancho, played by José Delgado of Seville (now resident in Cambridge), and we learned they had been on a quest.  José had been having a singular theatrical experience, one that delved deeply into his individual Quixote nature, and he was aglow with the magic of it.  So aglow, I ceased regretting he hadn’t had the same experience as me, and simply enjoyed the light emitting from him.  I realised he had just had a different shake of the kaleidoscope.