Tag Archives: Cambridge Junction

'The Wind in the Willows', Cambridge Junction 2019, credit Claire Haigh

The Wind in the Willows by the Figs in Wigs at Cambridge Junction

16 December 2019.

(Originally published in The Stage on 16 December 2019)

Performance collective Figs in Wigs applies its distinctive style of joyous, high-concept whimsy to the pantomime format in a fantastically imagined and enjoyable production of The Wind in the Willows at Cambridge Junction.

Written by Rachel Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots (of Figs in Wigs), the show takes the beloved characters from the Wild Wood on a space odyssey, with abundant laughs for both children and adults along the way.

Toad (endearingly played by Sarah Moore) is re-imagined as a fun-loving, reckless amphibian who can’t keep herself out of trouble, especially with her arch-enemy Weasel (Rachel Gammon) prowling around. Toad’s latest craze is rocket ships, and when she blasts into space with Weasel unwittingly on board, her friends from the Riverbank must find a way to save her.

Delightfully inventive visual effects are laced throughout: a giant iPhone dials Shrew Perkins, Rabbit DeNiro and Justin Beaver, who knows a ‘Nick’ with ‘a magical flying vehicle’ which they can borrow to rescue Toad.

Space is sweetly conjured via Tim Spooner’s set design and Tom Parkinson’s thoughtful and bright electro-musical soundscapes, as the lovably comic trio of Badger, Ratty and Mole (respectively Suzanna Hurst, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots) fly in Nick’s sleigh, contemplating the vastness of the universe.

The plot is resolved with a single resounding joke that landed riotously with the children in the audience, while the adults are peppered throughout with ticklish theatrical ironies. Altogether, the whirling conceptual play between micro and macrocosms – woods, rivers, small furry animals, technology and the cosmos – are  deftly woven together into a deliciously alternative and modern Christmas panto.

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.

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.


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


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.


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


Cambridge Junction

Aw, Shucks. The Cambridge Junction Makes Me Their Blogger in Residence…Some Opening Remarks About Criticism

I am very honoured to say that the Cambridge Junction – our city’s most diverse and serious home for the arts, which sits out on the skirt of the city centre by the train station, inhaling and exhaling the arts and audiences – has made me their Blogger in Residence for the 2014-15 arts programme. My friends there asked me to write this introductory post about the arts, culture and criticism for their new blog, and, well…hmm…’critic’ is a funny word, isn’t it?

To be honest, I don’t feel like ‘A Critic’….although what ‘A Critic’ is exists differently, separately, in your mind and my mind and everybody else’s mind and can’t be reliably nailed down as a concept. It is a word that can crack and break apart under the spinning force of changing meaning; but at this point in history it is heavily associated with negative appraisal, and with certain rhetorical traditions in journalism and academia. I dislike the condescending archness of much traditional journalistic criticism. I think this has slid seductively into journalistic arts writing because it is sensationalist, and sells. The reason why it frustrates me is that the bitchy rhetorical register often adopted as a common tone warps the critical lens. Academic criticism is generally more beautiful and pure in spirit, but it is often inaccessibly, pointlessly complex. But it’s interesting to think that journalistic and academic criticism are housed things - within traditions, editorial structures, expectations. However, after several hundred years of criticism being contained and shaped in these traditional publishing edifices, there is a new and peculiar publishing space: the internet.

When I started writing about the arts, I stood at a crossroads and looked down the two paths: traditional arts journalism or blogging. The decision took less than a second, because my heart was clamouring for complete creative freedom. I remember thinking, ‘If I have my own website, I could write a poem as a response! A 7,000-word essay! A transcribed dialogue! A poetic version of a transcribed dialogue!’ And then I discovered that this is a trend, a brilliant trend, where writers, enabled by the abundant freedom of the web, are breaking free of traditional publishing pathways, and expectations, and creating a wildly diverse and creative new type of arts response, one which is particularly championed by the Junction, who started an arts writing group last year to foster exactly this sort of new response to the arts in Cambridge.

I do share the original impulse behind journalistic or academic criticism, which is to attempt to provide a clear, meaningful explanation for why a piece of art is powerful, beautiful or valuable, or why one isn’t. But I guess my way of doing that exists in a different paradigm that, to me, feels more like, well, appreciation than criticism. I have a heart-pounding, dewy-eyed, deep, deep love for all art, for the mere fact of its existence. I have always been aware that it is real magic that we live amongst.

An old English teacher from high school, the Michigan poet Michael Delp, used to ask our class over and over again, ‘What is it about Huckleberry Finn that makes you want to build a raft and sail down a river?’ He never answered this question for us, because how could he? But because of that, I have always asked the question of art: ‘how deeply have you moved me?’ and ‘will I change the way I see and live because of you?’

Along with my love for creativity is a responsible-feeling desire to see art clearly and truthfully, asking each work ‘what do you intend?, and ‘what is your potential?’ and crucially, ‘where are you are in the rough and ragged journey of realising that potential?’ Because a fully-realised artistic idea is the most powerful, the most moving.

A friend who recently read some of the posts on my blog mirrorlamp.co.uk asked me, ‘Do you ever dislike anything you see?’, because all of the posts are positive responses. I thought about this for several days, and then My Appraisal Apparatus appeared in my imagination as a clanking wooden and metal contraption inside me capable of measuring Value, Power, and Beauty in Art. Once it took shape, I contemplated it: structurally it is built out of thousands of hours of reading, listening, and watching. There are highly polished sections, embellished with ideas from my degrees in the humanities (literature, music and theatre), and a couple of rougher areas I have built on my own with hours but no schooling (film, visual art and popular music). What powers the whole thing it is a heart full of love for the arts. And I saw that the amount of hours I’ve spent contemplating art have given me a deep sensitivity to how skill, technique, and craft allow an artistic idea either to flourish or falter, and that this is a valuable aspect that helps me to see a work of art clearly.

I do, of course, see things I feel are underdeveloped or unskilled – and some of them are at the Junction, which on the whole programmes brilliant work from the finest range of the cutting edge in the country, but inevitably very occasionally doesn’t, because the cutting edge is a tricksy place. However, I realised that alongside the axis of idea-realisation-or-not-via-craft, I have another axis, which is about resonance, and I saw that I only enjoy writing about shows that resonate with me.  This resonance is mysterious…as mysterious as art, and as mysterious as me. In general, I tend to resonate with art that is more fully realised; but sometimes I resonate with a flawed beauty, whose potential shines through an underdeveloped technique.

And now we have wandered into The Big Question Mark of Aesthetics: where does individual resonance overlap with power and value, and where do we draw the lines? I don’t know…who does? But I like hanging out on this Question Mark…there is an inviting, cradling curve to it, and some tilts, shadowed nuances and sharp edges, and a wondrous dot that I could look at for hours…and I really like the other people who come here.


‘The Hand That Takes’ by C J Mahony and Georgie Grace, A Response

Following my encounter with Beckett last week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and the ensuing roaring hunger of my being for more like it (more deep, dark, delicious artistic abstraction), the Cambridge theatre world gave me The Hand That Takes by artists CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace at the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday night.

The Hand That Takes is a spiky title that reflects the fiery, crackling political theme of the show, ‘the sleight-of-hand trick that transformed bank debt into our collective debt and ushered in austerity measures, cuts and privatisation’.  The show is described as ‘an immersive promenade performance using live voice, recorded sound and darkness…’.

I wondered about the term ‘promenade performance’: this meant that I would walk into the black cube of the Junction’s studio theatre, J3, and be plunged into complete darkness, that I would need to put one arm up defensively as if it were holding a shield, and use the other hand to feel, that my feet would step forward tentatively and fearfully, at first.   What my hands felt on either side of me were the smooth, wooden walls of a maze.  At regular intervals, there were interruptions in the walls – gaps – which were puzzling, and after the first two minutes or so, they began to glow red.  It was too dark to see the identities of the other audience members – we were all just dark figures moving slowly around – but when the red began to glow through the gaps, we all drifted towards the meagre light.

What we saw were enclosures that each held a huge speaker emitting the cavernous, thunderous bass-filled soundscape that filled our ears and which sent reverberations through the wood walls we were holding onto as we walked slowly around.  The red glow came from messages running across stock ticker machines next to the speakers…the market needs to believe…sources are knowledgeable…the market is telling us we got it right…futures are up this morning…this government is on your side… The darkness, deep bass drone and hypnotic and coded messages were heavily evocative of the subterranean dread that I can feel running through our society around the issues of how we are governed and what politicians are doing with our money.  There was a sense of barely-suppressed, angry glee in the deployment of artistic effects that symbolise, frankly, evil: glowing red lights, electric chords signifying ‘dread’, loss of identity and power in darkness, a maze.

And then nature, beauty and truth cut through dread and darkness, and the dimensions of the piece broke out of the surface themes of ‘debt’ and ‘politics’ into the philosophic realms where we contemplate our humanity: the singing started.  A trio of male voices, I think two tenors and a bass, suddenly rang out loudly in lush harmonies, forming an exhilarating contrast to the electronic soundscape and flashing machine messages.  It reminded me of middle-period Richard Strauss choral music: it contained the strange aches of twentieth century atonality mixed with reassuring returns to harmonies in deep agreement.  It was beautifully composed (by Cheryl Francis-Hoad), and beautifully, powerfully sung (by Sheridan Edward, Aris Nadirian and Jon Stainsby), and I was transfixed by it.  It was hard to tell in the dark where the singers were, and I assumed they were ‘off-stage’, i.e off this curious, interactive, maze-stage – until during one of the breaks in the singing, a figure came to stand at one of the glowing red gaps in the maze walls near to me and after a moment started singing – and then I realised the singers were walking around immersed in the audience.  The text for the songs was the same messages that were running across the stock ticker machines.  The moment where this piece deeply captured me came while watching the singer beside me as he sang the words, ‘Growth without end…without purpose…this government is on your side…’   It reminded me of the doxology we sang every Sunday in my childhood church back in Michigan: ’World without end…a-men…a-men’, and this resonance made me shiver, as I thought of the alignment between the pillars of our establishment – religion, banks, politicians, media – and their practice of co-opting language to hide, code, and euphemise behaviours that are essentially base and rotten.  This was a beautiful moment where the slippery, silvery nuances of the piece’s themes came together in a little artistic vortex: //fear-debt-darkness//; //beauty-truth-Nature-humanity-(and the poignance of their lack) symbolised by the human voice (enacted by a voice achieving its fullest potential…a master tenor singing two feet away, really going for it, which resonated me head-to-toe, body, mind and soul)//; //the fullness and integrity of meaning in words (and the poignance of their lack)//.

At this point a memory rose up of Robert Wilson’s Walking, a large-scale, immersive, participatory modern theatre piece which was staged on the Norfolk coast in August 2012.  I worked as a volunteer on the production, and while I was there I met the wonderful Boukje Schweigman, Dutch theatre-maker and Wilson’s artistic collaborator.  She gave a talk where she used the phrase, ‘artistic language’ to describe the modes – the facets or tools – of expression that are unique to every individual artist.  The Hand That Takes was my first encounter with the art of CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace, and when the singing started, I felt then that I heard and understood their ‘language’: it was heavily political in theme and enacted within a visual art installation framework, with embellishments that crossed the line over into performance.  It was large, three-dimensional and sensorally immersive.  It wanted to cradle the audience in its largeness and largesse.  It was compelling and beautiful, and the counterpoint of the classical singing against the darkness and technologized sound felt symbolic of both a generalised feeling of hopelessness about the inability of our raised voices to fight the dark forces in our government and the immutability and irrepressibility of truth, beauty and humanity.

In other ways, The Hand That Takes had resonances with Wilson’s work: there was a measured slowness of staging that encouraged a gentle participation of imagination and senses with the piece, which allowed a gradual unfolding of the themes.  It was participatory, with large-scale, strange constructions inviting contemplation.  And most importantly, there was an exciting fertility rising out of its use of abstraction.  When the singing started, and this other, more philosophic dimension in the piece opened, a rush of ideas flooded my mind: how the voice is a symbol for our personal contribution to society, to self-governance, to protest.  The beauty of the singing evoked the idea of fineness in human nature, but at the same time, it also asked, ‘what singing or speaking is questionable…is a lie hidden in silky words?’, ‘ What does the government and media sing to us?’  The programme for the show mentions the story of the Minotaur – a Greek myth in which, on the advice of the Delphic oracle, the children of Athens are sacrificed to pay a debt they didn’t create.  This allusion was another fascinating dimension in the show because Athens was the birthplace of Western democracy.  And the idea of the ‘oracle’ suggested the mysterious nature of the market and the significance it casts over our lives, our society, our humanity – as well as questioning the motives of the modern ‘oracles’ who claim the role of interpreters of the mysteries of the market.  It was interesting that the show also occupied this ancient/modern axis.

As I’m sure you can tell, I deeply enjoyed this experience.  It sent a controlled current of anger through me that reactivated my awareness of my rights and power as a citizen of a democracy, and that felt really good.  And it was another validation of my deeply-held belief that the arts are powerful and important to our humanity.  As Liv Ullmann was quoted as saying recently in The Guardian (12/9/14), ‘We still think we are the audience to everything; we don’t understand we are not witnesses, we are participants.  You cannot save the world, I cannot…but if we do allow beauty, if we don’t kill movies and concerts and ballets and books, we still have a chance.’  The arts are powerful because they are a choir for unique raised voices countering – questioning – the way our society works, the conduct of the government.  I could see that The Hand That Takes was still rough around the edges, that it was a work in progress – and, in fact, this was its first iteration in preparation for a fuller staging later this year – but it was already coherent, powerful and fascinating, both artistically and politically, and I look forward to seeing the next round of its evolution and refinement.


Nightwatch, the Day After…

Sunday 15 June, 21:32

So I left the house yesterday afternoon around 4pm, cycled to Clifton Way and fell down a rabbit hole, and I have just returned home. My skin is still gently exhaling Leffe-scented molecules, several large strands of my hair are twined with a delicate cement of dried applesauce, my right thumb is dyed red, and the spider-bite on my left arm is now the size of an espresso cup’s mouth.  I feel like a liminal creature, still between-worlds.

Where did I go?  And what happened to me there?  For nearly a full spin of the planet I have been in the Cambridge Junction for the Nightwatch festival.  It was, literally, a junction for 24 hours – with doors, vortexes and permeable mirrors into the parallel universe of modern theatre, from 12 noon yesterday (Saturday 14 June) to 12 noon today.  The acts included Figs in Wigs, Sleepwalk Collective, Search Party, Christopher Brett Bailey, GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, Ann Liv Young, The Anna Williams Trust and Lemonade and Laughing Gas, to name just a few.

I arrived at the festival yesterday in the early evening.  The sun had begun to gentle down, and the light in the paved plaza outside the theatre was starting to look a little rosy.  The Junction had added a couple of picnic tables to the space just outside its doors, and a bright red burger van that looked like a child’s toy truck was parked there, too. The only other adornments in honour of the festival were several square, steel flower pots containing rosebushes, thick with clustered pink buds. I went inside to the Box Office and was presented with my ticket to the adventures of the next 18 hours, which was a pink paper wristband.

Then I saw Jennifer Pick from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN on the stairs up to the theatre. I went to tell her that I’m me, curious to know if she read my recent review of their latest show.  She and her performing partner Lucy McCormick were the Comperes of the festival and were vamping around in slinky red dresses with microphones (in a conscious and satirical performance of presenting), holding the edges of the festival magic intact with their commentary.  I was a little nervous to talk to Jen, because I like her and Lucy so much.  (Do you know the space inside yourself where laughter starts?  And how the light that emits from that space awakens multiple layers of seeing and understanding stacked on top of each other in your mind?  And how it feels warm, joyous, delicious?  My favourite people and performers activate this inner glowing, and seeing Jen and Lucy always sets me alight.)

So I said, ‘Hi Jen.  I’m Joy – .  I don’t know if you – . Um, I wrote a review – .  Did you – ?’  These fragments tumbled out of me inarticulately. Layered over the top of the last two, Jen said, ‘You’re Joy? I love what you wrote.’  I don’t know what I said after that – something – because my brain was popping and fizzing, to find love on the stairs. My writing confidence has been a bit crumbly lately, and to hear this was to be given a foundation stone.

Next, I saw my friend Christopher Brett Bailey outside by the burger van, surrounded by the musicians for his new show This is How We Die, which was about to play in a few hours.  His hair, which we have never discussed, as usual hovered timelessly suspended 6 inches up from his face, like the wild and vivid concepts he conjures in his performances.  It gives the impression that he is upside-down in this reality.  After a hug and introduction to his band, the first thing we said was how excited we were that Nightwatch had a big room for sleeping, which made the whole thing feel like a giant kids’ sleepover, except with liquor and great theatre performances.  Also, the sleeping room looked really, really cool: the Junction had transformed the black-painted, cavernous gig room in J1 into a cuddly, peaceful space, with a white, tented ceiling hanging over a flotilla of smooth-sheeted double mattresses piled with pillows.  A giant disco ball hung at the peak of the tent like a mobile.  It epitomised cosiness.  It also made you feel at home, to have this safe place – a bed, some quietness, a retreat – there, whenever you might need it.

Then Chris and the band went off for pre-show prep, I got my first beer, saw that my spider-bite had grown smaller – it was now about the size of a tea cup’s rim – and I went into my first show, which was Karaoke by Spain-based company Sleepwalk Collective, at 7pm.

I was six hours late for Nightwatch, which started at noon, because I’ve been living inside a tin of molasses for a couple of weeks.  I think over here you call it treacle. I’ve been in the UK for fifteen years, but I still call treacle molasses.  I’ve been trying to write a new essay for Mirrorlamp, but it’s been impossible because my laptop doesn’t fit inside my tin of molasses.  (Something happened to me two weeks ago, which I can’t tell you about, and it was the kind of thing that makes you seek a hiding place, fast, and stay there for a long time.  It was the kind of thing that makes you feel like your voice disappears, and like you can’t hear or see or think very well.)  But after two weeks of dark, sticky slowness, the night before Nightwatch, my friends Hayley and Rob invited me for a drink at the Mill Pond, and this felt like the lid popping off the tin and a glimpse of sky.

Rob Baskerville – how can I describe him?  He’s the kind of a man who breaks the river speed limit with his Dutch barge (4 mph) so he can ride a surfboard attached to the back (which rocks the other boats, and the old people inside probably spill their tea), who attaches a zip line between the Stourbridge Common railway bridge and his boat so he can fly down into the river on a hot day, who gets a leftover house foundation lining from his father-in-law and decides to manually dig a big, big hole in the garden, line it, fill it with the garden hose and make a pool so he can do cannonballs off the roof, who says ‘I love you’ to his wife Hayley on her birthday by stripping naked, laying down in the party-filled back garden at midnight with only a firework cassette to cover his modesty and setting light to it.  He is like a human embodiment of the Native American trickster Coyote.  After my friend Julie met him, she said with wonder in her voice, ‘He’s Loki’.

When I arrived at the Mill Pond, Rob, Hayley, Ali, Will, and Jesse were all lounging by the weir on the bridge, just across from the pub.  As I hugged round the circle in hello, with my back to Rob, Hayley said, ‘Rob, no!’, and I realised the back of my skirt was lifted up and my pants were on view to the evening crowd.  When I twirled around, Rob held his hands up, then pointed at Ali.  He does a very convincing innocent face.  Although it could have been Ali.  Sometimes he is innocent. The laugh arrived in my chest like medicine.  Then they said, ‘We’re moving to the Fort St. George (another pub on the river).  Come with us…we’re going by canoe.’  Rob is the kind of man who travels through Cambridge by canoe.

I love canoeing.  As mentioned in previous Mirrorlamp essays, being in water is bliss to me. But, I was very treacly, and at first I hesitated while worries broadcast across my mind – I had my bike and it would be a pain to have to get it later, maybe I should cycle and meet them there, it’s easy to tip a canoe, what if the canoe tipped and me and Louis (my dog) fell in the river and I lost my phone and I got that disease you get from from rat’s pee; but of course, these were all just fear and suppression – they are the thugs of my psyche, and although I am compassionate for the reasons why they haunt me, I don’t want them to choose which roads I travel through life.  This decision about how to get to the pub felt strangely important, because I was so conscious of the real psychic junction it symbolised, with paths leading off in two directions: one toward fear, one toward joy. The path I clearly wanted and deserved was the river in the sun-suffused evening, in a boat with friends.

So I told my fear to fuck off, right off, and I chose well – and ten minutes later I was sitting on the front seat of an American canoe paddling quietly through the lush, enclaved gardens of the ancient colleges on the river, delight blossoming in my core, with Will at the back, and Ali holding Louis perfectly safely in the middle, and Rob, Hayley and Jesse darting around us in kayaks. It’s probably been ten years since I was in a canoe, and I felt the Cherokee in my blood wake up.  We arrived at the Fort St. George, pulled the boats out of the water, and I drank beer and laughed and laughed and laughed as the day gave way to night.  I went to sleep happy.

When I woke up in the morning, I discovered that I had a spider-bite on my left arm that had swollen up in a circle the size of a coffee mug ring imprinted on a piece of paper.  With the Cherokee part of me still awake, I remembered how Native Americans believe that a spider is a symbol for the infinite possibilities of creation, because the two lobes of its body mirror the number 8, the symbol for infinity, and because it weaves its web.  I have always interpreted tête-à-têtes with spiders as a message from the esoteric forces telling me to get busy creating, writing, choosing, and living.  So this enormous spider-bite, discovered the morning of Nightwatch after two weeks of being unable to write, felt interesting.

But even so, I was still treacly when I woke up, and under the influence of a gentle hangover, so I was stuck to my bed all morning, and I was six hours late to Nightwatch.  But finally I made it and took my seat in the J2 theatre for my first show: Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke.  The stage setting was interesting and strange: a black box and karaoke monitor facing away from the audience, a fluffy, pastel blue piñata in the shape of a bomb suspended from above, and an oasis of plastic, inflatable palm trees.  A large projector screen covered the back of the stage. A beautiful, Spanish roller-girl stood on stage next to a boyish man who was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘I love Sarajevo’.  She held a microphone and stood in front of the karaoke machine, watching it and projecting an air of skittish fragility.  When the show started, the words of the karaoke machine were projected onto the screen behind them, so we could read the words, too.

From the beginning, the dialogue between the karaoke machine, roller-girl and boy was highly poetic, and I could feel the poetry fucking with my mind, in a way I liked; it was elegant and existential, like the koans that Zen masters pose to their students, to encourage their minds to tip into a state of perfect clarity.  It told us to ‘stretch our ears toward silence.’ I inhaled, deeply grateful, when the first poetry started to wash over me.  This was why I came to Nightwatch – so that art could reach inside of me, shake me up and light me up so I could perceive in a new way, a truer way.  The pace of the piece was languid, contemplative, lulling.  The experience made for a gentle emergence of my soul from its molasses coating, and I was grateful for this.

The karaoke machine symbolised the elements in our psyches that unconsciously sing words that someone else tells us to sing.  But it also felt like the voice of a universal consciousness, speaking through a machine. It reminded me of the otherworld poetry that is broadcast through the car radio to Orpheus in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.  It was light and charming to start with – like when the machine gave a long list of instructions, ordering the boy and girl to pose in a variety of ways – for ‘a holiday snap’, ‘like porn stars’ (and we all laughed).  But then it asked them to pose ‘like newlyweds’, then ‘like two people deeply in love’, and at that point, they both stopped posing and stared sadly down at the ground, like they wanted to play the game, but they just couldn’t because it seemed to hurt them too much, in a moment that made you wonder about their real relationship and which was quietly heartbreaking.

Towards the end, when the show’s main metaphor was dyed deeply in itself, and the words from the karaoke machine felt like the pure, abstract sublime, and beyond theatre somehow, the words that appeared on the screen were ‘I love you’, and then repeated again, ‘I love you’, and then repeated again, ‘I love you’.  And even though it was (just) theatre, I felt loved, truly, simply by the air around me, the world around me.

(I found love in all of the worlds at the festival – they all cracked open at some point to reveal that love was at their core, that they were spinning around love, and that love was holding all of us there like gravity.)

Afterwards, I went to the burger van parked outside the Junction’s main doors.  As I was handed my hot, paper-wrapped Classic, I asked where the ketchup was.  The lady in the van paused and replied politely, but with a significant look in her eye that caught my attention, ‘we’ve already put…everything on it’, and that was the first moment I realised that this burger might be special.  When I took my first bite, it was confirmed: this burger was made by burger artists.  There was an ideal balance of bun, perfectly seasoned (incredibly juicy) medium-rare beef, red onion, ketchup, mustard and pickle.  The elements felt curated, to be quintessential but also fine.  On bite 4, a thin stream of beef juice escaped the wrapping and coursed down my arm.  With my consciousness totally absorbed and chewing meditatively, I walked slowly back into the Junction and got caught up in the eddying stream of people headed into the next show.  I wondered if I should go in – I kind of just wanted to be alone with my burger.  When I paused at the door of the theatre, the steward, my friend Lewis, noticing my furrowed, questioning brow and obsessive fixation, said, ‘it’s okay, you can take it in with you’.  So I tried to lick the juice somewhat surreptitiously off my arm as I walked into J3, the studio theatre space hidden away behind the box office that most people don’t realise exists.  Oh boy, did I like what happened next.

I hadn’t checked the line-up board and didn’t know what I was about to see, so I pushed my epicurean rapture to one side for a moment, swallowed, and asked the person next to me what the show was.  It was called My Son and Heir by the company Search Party.  I had decided not to take notes at Nightwatch for this write-up – I wanted to absorb all of the shows naturally and see what floated to the surface afterwards (and to be honest, I wanted to absorb a gentle but adequate amount of fine lager and feel free from responsibility, post-treacle tin time)…but five minutes into show, after my burger and I finished becoming one, I dove into my bag for pen and notebook and wrote My Son and Heir, OMG so fucking good!!! and started scribbling away as the show unfolded.  And then the idea of writing about it didn’t feel like a chore or constraint on freedom, it felt like an act of freedom.  I wanted to write, for you, the way Search Party constructed My Son and Heir for me (and also for you…even though maybe you didn’t go. But that’s okay, because I went, and I took notes).

The stage set-up for Search Party was tubular: the audience sat on either side of the room in long rows, looking across at each other, with the performance space in between.  It was carpeted (in beige), with children’s toys scattered around it.  At one end of the space there was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of their royal highnesses Kate, Wills and George and a small television soundlessly playing a Disney princess film. ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ by Elgar started blasting loudly and tinnily over the sound system, and then Search Party artists Pete Phillips and Jodie Hawkes walked into the warmly-lit, faux suburban living room, with Jodie in a big, white wedding dress, with layers and layers of gauzy fabric.  They started playing paddle-tether-ball with each other in the middle of the space, comically, teasingly, at first, and then they started hitting harder and harder, and grunting with each hit, which escalated to deadly intensity and screaming, animal-like groans; and all of a sudden, we were at Wimbledon, and it was a hilariously satirical moment that conjured Britishness with a capital B.

The show playfully explored the fairy tale frame around the royals, Kate, Wills and baby George and the images of happy families, and, most particularly, manhood, that are soaked into our culture by the media, via the parallel story of Jodie, Pete and their baby son, born the same year as Prince George. The show modulated interestingly between different movements, from Wimbledon-reminiscent paddle-tether-ball to wedding toast monologue, to dialogue, to wordless vignettes; and it was highly, delectably entertaining throughout.  I didn’t want it to end.  It had the appeal of a candy-coated Hollywood vehicle that has been engineered solely to carry you to dreamland for two hours, which is evidence of pure storytelling power, but what it did with the power and humour was crack your mind open once you were laughing and in thrall to make a serious social and philosophical point.

One of the most brilliant parts of the show was a comic monologue by Jodie in the form of a wedding toast to Pete, which cycled through types of man via the media tropes used to symbolise exemplary manhood in our culture – ‘the kind of man who is…’ bearded, tough, tender, a rock musician, a knight (meanwhile, Pete’s face was obscured by a medieval knight’s helmet while he played rock guitar for us), and strong, ‘with his rough hands and dusty face…’  It built to a rousing rhetorical peak that felt on the surface like a celebration of manhood, until the sheer length of the chain of images revealed itself to be just images flickering past on the telly – just flat, surface, fictional pictures – showing these to be essentially hollow.  This was contrasted with a second monologue on manhood later in the show, a ‘toast to the man of the house – the rented house’, which turned dark:  into a suburban housewife’s bitter, sneering harangue of her husband for not living up to those images, bitchily saying: ‘he does this thing…he is so funny – come on, Pete, put on the dress.  Come on, you do it all the time at home’.  Meanwhile, Pete’s shoulders slumped and he went very still and silent, with his eyes on the floor, with occasional pained looks at Jodie; and it was really awkward and sad.  There was an interesting ambiguity in the moment: it had echoes of both the story of Desmond from Ob-la-dee, Ob-la-dah, with its idea of hidden, repressed transvestism, as well as of the perceived emasculation of men from switching/sharing household roles traditionally associated with women.  Then he sadly puts the dress on and starts vacuuming while the harangue goes on and moves to his ability as a father: ‘What sort of father would do it like that? Where are the boys’ toys, Pete?  Why is he so lazy and so selfish, Pete? Why isn’t he in private school, Pete?  Why isn’t he in a field galloping around on his own fucking pony, Pete? What about Spanish lessons, Pete?  What do you do all day, Pete?  Why doesn’t he listen to you, Pete?’ and then, screamed, ‘Why aren’t you getting it right, Pete?!’   Then it feels like she breaks out of the theatre, out of the role, and walks around muttering.

I found the way the show explored manhood, and the ‘kind of man’ men seem to be on the surface and feel expected to be by society, poignant and fascinating; and it drew out, and felt based upon, the artists’ very real anxiety about the ‘kind of man’ Jodie and Pete’s real son would grow up to be.  After Jodie’s sneering monologue/toast, Pete took off his dress and gave a toast to his son.  ‘…he’s going to be one of those strong, silent, don’t cry, happily-ever-after-men.  He’s not going to be one of those men with power and no integrity.  He’s not going to be one of those in-and-out-of-prison men, caught-on-CCTV-robbing-an-offie men.  He’ll stay calm.  He’s not going to be one of those aggressive men.  He’s not going to be one of those in-the-car-in-the-garage-with-a-hosepipe men. One of those in-the-loft-with-a-rope-and-a-chair men, is he, Jodie?  No, he’s going to be all right.’

Amongst the mirth, the toy pink castle tent, the giant silver platter filled with peas, wedding dresses, skanky, snarled Kate wigs, knight’s helmet and guitar, the booming orchestral British hymns, the processions and toasts, the fairy tales, peppa pig bubble machine and simulated cunnilingus – the  heart of the show beat with naked love for Jodie and Pete’s real son.  After Pete processed in a satire of a coronation, in a cape lined with Barclaycard bills, and was crowned, there was one final monologue from Jodie about their son: ‘We have nothing for him.  There’s nothing for him.  There’s no fucking duchy…  But he can have bike rides, trips to the seaside, laughter, being chased up the stairs, games of pirate and spaceman that go on for hours, kisses, cuddles and smiles…it’s all his.’  This was really beautiful, and so tenderly said by Jodie…and I loved how in that moment, as in a lot of modern theatre, the real overlaps with the fiction.  And like I said before, every theatrical world I stepped into at Nightwatch cracked open to reveal love at the heart of everything.

So…by this point (9pm), I had been soothed and gently piqued into a brighter state of being by Karaoke, I had come further back to life via a sublime hamburger, had soaked up every crackling, rich, joyous bit of the excellent My Son and Heir, had two Leffe’s steeping happily in my blood, and now it was time for my own friend’s show, This is How We Die by Christopher Brett Bailey.  It would be an interesting fulfilment of the pattern set in motion in this paragraph, and the narrative arc of the essay, for Chris’s show to combine mind-bending poetry, sublimity, and joyous theatrical excellence in a highlight performance of the whole festival for me…and – although not fulfilling patterns and playfully departing from narrative tradition is what modern theatre excels at - that’s what happened next.

The crowd was back in the J2 theatre for this one, and it was interesting to sense the space rising up two stories above us to the balcony, and stretching behind the stage all the way back to a black-painted wall, in contrast to the smaller studio of J3.  Chris appeared in a retro Americana western button-down shirt with flat mother of pearl buttons and took a seat at a smallish wooden table, upon which rested a sheaf of papers.  His hair, as previously mentioned, hovered.  The stage around him was dark, and he sat in a spotlight.  It had the feel of being his own writing desk in his bedroom somewhere in London, and as though we were voyeurs in the process that happens between his mind and the empty page.

He picked up the papers, shuffled them and started talking – really fast, and my brain had to jump and start running to keep up with the stream of motoring words. But it did – I could follow it, because the high concepts and lightning-bright poetry were wrapped around a solid, magic beanstalk core of a story that transported the imagination and pulled your attention effortlessly along with it.  And he is funny – like stand-up comedy funny.  (The minutes on Earth that I spend in laughter feel, um, just better than most of the other minutes.  I also like minutes of sublime joy sourced from observing the beauty of life.  And crystalline clarity is also nice.)  So I sat quietly, radiating a lush, delighted glow in my core to be having this experience, to be absorbed in total enjoyment.  And actually it is this quality, this kind of storytelling magic, that all of my favourite arts consumables have: Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Judd Apatow, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell.  They all have a delicious arc that keeps you hanging from second-to-second, and spins your emotions in loops, and sometimes withholds, and sometimes satisfyingly delivers, but always keeps you pleasurably absorbed.  But what was happening here during Chris’s show, and generally at the Junction during Nightwatch, was more than just absorption – it is the thing that makes the literary jewellers sit back in their chairs, take their monocle eyeglass off for a moment and decide to put a particular diamond in the ‘canon’ tray.  It was fineness, a dance of idea and execution – a play of beauty, truth and philosophy deployed within virtuosic poetic or theatrical technique.  I wish more people had come to see it.  I wish more people understood how brilliant, appealing and rich the edges of modern theatre are right now.  We’re so blessed, and the audiences are too small.

Anyway, I was there. I was absorbed. And I was having a brilliant time.  Chris’s poetry is particularly vivid; he conjures an imaginary world that feels distinctly cinematic and magical, but the magic comes from metaphor: the metaphors actually come to life in the story.  His fictional world is highly conscious of itself, and this meta-consciousness also seems to be conscious of itself (I guess we are living in the post-post-modern era).  One of my notes was simply ‘metametametametameta’.  The story flavours are retro Americana noir, with a love story at its heart, and with embedded musings upon language, masculinity, the deconstruction of materiality, religion, sex and violence.  It is told in first-person, and Chris and his narrator-hero shimmer over each other interestingly.

The story begins when our narrator meets his girlfriend at the school gate: she is dressed in black, her beehive is ‘immaculate’, and she has given up smoking and outsourced it as an activity to a mouse that sits on her shoulder, who is smoking. They go to her house for dinner, and Chris discovers that when she has said that her mother is ‘the strong, silent type’, it means that her mother is actually a body-builder who has stapled her own mouth shut, and that her father, who she has described as ‘a walking swastika’, was actually involved in a body-crushing accident and chose to have his bones re-set in the shape of a swastika.  ‘You are so literal; I love that’, he thinks towards Beehive.  In these living character-metaphors, there is the sense of facades peeled away to reveal the viscerality of the truth underneath.  This is poetry discussing itself, and cracking open the conceptual spaces that exist between language and the realm of meaning that lies behind the symbols, the codes. It’s dark but deliciously sugar-coated by its literariness.

After dinner has been interrupted by a car crashing through the dining room wall and decapitating Beehive’s father (the car is a Volkswagon with a bumper sticker that says ‘Anti-Fascist League’), and the couple are alone again, they have an argument about the way language puts boundaries around concepts, as in the case of ‘-isms’.  And here there was a virtuosic display of wordplay that kind of made my mouth hang open in respect and awe, and which ended, hilariously, childishly, rudely, with the destruction of a word and its meaning through the game of repeating it over and over until it ceases to be itself and turns into nonsense, non-sense.  And the word was ‘jism’: ‘Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism.’  At this point Beehive tells our narrator to go fuck himself, and he says ‘I knew she meant this literally.  So I started texting myself a couple of times a day, messages that started with “heyyyy”.  I asked myself out for dinner, and when I arrived at my house, I kept myself waiting.  At the restaurant, I made a lot of jokes and paid for everything, and then towards the end of the evening stared into my eyes just a second too long…’ And then follows a tenderly poetic description of wanking… I kept thinking of the surprising delicacy of the layers of elements in this performance.  Because the viscerality, violence and profanity are shocking, and because they share the limelight with jokes punching your funny button delightfully all the way through, it might be easy to not particularly notice the complexity of this fabric’s weave:  for example, the audience roared at this bit, and wanking is always funny, but the social observation was as fine-toothed and witty as Jane Austen, and there was a shadowing poignance in its very bravado.  It was one of my favourite parts of the show.

After this, Beehive and our narrator take the money she inherits from her dead Nazi father and travel across America’s dusty route 66 in a Cadillac, pursued by a Hell’s Angel-style priest who righteously attempts to purge their sinning through violence, and who gradually morphs into a copy of Chris during their battle at a deserted gas station in the desert. I found this twinning of Chris and the Priest to be an interesting element of the show: on the surface, it is comical magical-realism and cinema-noir, but underneath it’s revelatory about my friend (and you and me): it’s symbolic of the ways we can stalk ourselves, haunt ourselves, hurt ourselves with judgement and hate.  And that stirred my compassion for both of us – for me, personally, my self-judgement has been strangling my ability to write, and I had been locked in a pretty vicious and depressing battle in the two weeks leading up to the show.

This is How We Die has some of the crashing, epic feel of The Odyssey and Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, but mixed with a childish/serious, Bill Hicks kind of dark irreverence. It is profane and blasphemous – the priest’s car has a metal hood ornament in the shape of Jesus, who comes to life and wanks during the violent battle of sin-purging between Christ and Priest Chris – but the profanity contains a sacred-feeling contemplation of itself: it asks, ‘What am I?’, ‘Where are my edges?’ and ‘Am I word, a concept, a slippery, spiralling meaning?’  The story’s metaphors are laden with echoing corridors leading off to various nuances and subtleties, so the poetry feels LOUDER from all its echoes.  They resonate in the background like chords accompanying the moving melody of the surface story. The themes in the corridors were many: the edges words, concepts and material reality, the edges or particulation of selves – the way our selves can feel fragmented and dual – the way language defines being, the destruction of concepts and paradigms via the deconstruction of language, and the processing that transforms one state of being into another.  The echoes and tremors from the subterranean activity under the language and story gradually felt louder and increasing in intensity and complexity…

And then the story ends because the language…b r e a k s, the stage goes black, and Chris disappears into the darkness behind the desk.

Then music – heavy, metal, classical chords – starts grinding out from the darkness, and car headlights on the stage floor switch on and beam out into the audience, so we were caught in pure sound and pure glare.  It felt like an exhilarated expression of ‘fuck the fucking boundaries in this fucking language…only music can say what I need to say now.’  And the music, like the literary tonality of the story, was a mix of ancient and modern on an epic scale, with electric guitars and strings and long, slow, sublimely beautiful chords; and it was really, really fucking loud.  And then it got louder.  The music was so loud you could feel it physically as vibration in your body, and I felt it most in my heart.  It felt like the sound and beauty was actually transforming my heart into a different state of being itself.  I started to feel a pure, ferocious joy.  The lights dimmed for just a moment at one point, to reveal the musicians standing behind the lights, and then came back – and I loved this flickering moment that reminded me that artists were engineering this experience.  As it went on, and the joy arrived, and I could feel the end of the piece approaching, I knew I wanted to jump to my feet and yell out my thanks, clap and stomp and whistle, and I wondered about the other people, but didn’t care; but then it ended, and we all went crazy.

Having this experience at Nightwatch and seeing how small the audience was, even though the Guardian’s uber-critic Lyn Gardner picked the festival as the best theatre event nationwide for the weekend, made me think about ancient Greek tragedy, and how theatre-going for 4th century BCE Athenians was a sacred event.  The whole city of Athens attended the drama competitions as a part of the Festival of Dionysus, and theatre was recognised for its power to move souls and ‘accomplish a catharsis of pity and fear’ (Aristotle, Poetics).  This happened for me at Nightwatch – but it makes me perplexed, and a bit sad, that the Junction provided this feast of incredibly powerful and enjoyable modern theatre to the city of Cambridge, and that Cambridge chose not to come.  Just sayin’.

So afterwards, I congratulated Chris in the J2 bar, and we had drinks.  I chatted some more with Chris’ musicians, and then we went to see more stuff.  The edges of my memories from this point onward are fluffier.  I remember that around 1 a.m. we all went up to the Mezzanine level, where the arty caterers Lemonade and Laughing Gas invited us to make bread with them. They dressed us in white boiler suits and hairnets, and handed us little wands covered in thick, paint-like food dye – red, yellow, green and blue – to flick into the mix, and we kneaded bright-coloured bread.  But they were playing excellent dance music, and we kept neglecting our work to dance to the sick beats like derelict oompa-loompahs.

Then at 2.30am we went to see Ann Liv Young (hot performance art import from the New York scene – everyone was buzzing about her), and her show Us was great…it was set in an Emo poetry class and explored friendships between outcasts.  It was a breath of culture from America that reminded me that it’s harder to be different there.  It’s one of the reasons I can’t live there anymore. You have to be strong to resist the bullying demand to conform to a painfully unhealthy mainstream way of living and being.  There were enjoyably slippery edges of nuance in the show, and like my other favourite work, it wrapped me around with its story and was extremely enjoyable – even the part where she and her best friend took a shit in a couple of buckets and then started flinging it at the crowd.  Ah, theatre, though!: it was applesauce, playing the role of shit.  The crowd started shouting, laughing and diving for cover.  Significantly, I think, this made me bond with my new mate Nicky, because we sheltered in each others’ arms.  Afterwards, Ann stayed in character and sold eclectic kitsch in the theatre lobby.

Then there’s an hour or so I can’t really remember, and around 5.30am I went to the mattresses.  When I lay down, I realised the room was spinning, and I debated whether I should go throw up, but during this conversation with myself, I drifted off mid-thought.  I had set my alarm for 6.20, so I could see Figs in Wigs at 6.30, because I heard they were wonderful, but I woke up at 8.30 with my alarm still going off quietly under my pillow and a sleeping body next to me.  I got up and wandered out, and discovered that I woke up just in time for breakfast.  I was handed my bacon breakfast sandwich by Lemonade and Laughing Gas, out of a ‘hatch’ in a giant cardboard ‘breakfast machine’, and the bread was bright red.  I reflected that the poor attendance numbers meant I could probably get away with drinking three glasses of strawberry juice, so I did that, and then I got a coffee from the little coffee truck that had appeared outside.  Then I watched the absolutely brilliant Woman’s Hour by The Anna Williams Trust. I would like to write more about this show, but might save that for another post.

Afterwards, I wandered around and found Chris on a bench outside the sleeping area, and we had a lazy, tired, post-party chat, where we told each other stories about the night and pieced together the hazy bits, and laughed again at the funny parts.  I told him that I had been asking people at breakfast about their highlights from the night before, and most people said it was his show.  I knew it would mean a lot to him to hear this.  And I told him that I had drifted off with the room spinning.  And he said, ‘you know, what’s interesting is that the disco ball in there wasn’t spinning’, and we found it funny that for me, it was.  And then he told me that when he finally crashed, the only space available was on an already-occupied mattress, and he was worried how close he had to sleep to a strange girl, and then he realised that it was me…and so he knew it was just fine, and went contentedly off to sleep. When I got up, I hadn’t realised it was him next to me.  I liked that we discovered the whole, sweet story of our friends’ sleepover by piecing together our two halves.

I love being friends with Chris.  He is kind and supportive, and he will occasionally start an e-mail with things like ‘yo, nigga’, which is interestingly transgressive and also funny.  I remember I replied to that one with ‘hey, blood’; and I never mentioned this to him, but at that point, I stopped writing the e-mail and thought about that slang – ‘blood’: it means ‘you’re my kin – you’re mine’.  I thought about how that is the thing that always makes me start crying at the end of Million Dollar Baby: the main character Maggie Fitzgerald, who is a people-less, kind, lonely, hard-working wanderer, is re-named by someone who loves her, but she doesn’t find out what her new name means until the very end: ‘Mo Cuishle’ : ‘my darling, my blood.’  It is so hard to be lonely, to wander, and then it feels so good to find your people. Because sometimes the people who are supposed to be your people, aren’t actually your people.  And then you have to search and wander, sometimes for a long, long time.  But you keep going, and then one day you find them.

And the thing I like about art with a story in it is the thing I like about friendship: we tell stories to each other, about each other, and the stories make the hours spinning by on this planet more magical, but they also cast light that helps us understand ourselves, and sometimes they help heal our broken parts, our broken hearts.

There is more to write about Nightwatch – it was a high-class, utterly delectable feast of modern theatre, and I’m so grateful to the two Daniels at the Cambridge Junction (Daniel Brine, Artistic Director, and Daniel Pitt, Arts Producer and lead curator of Nightwatch) for making it happen – but it’s time to wind this essay down.  It’s mid-afternoon on Thursday, and you can see that my writer’s block has been, demonstrably, demolished.  I think I am going to sleep now.  My spider-bite is almost completely gone – it is now the size of a drop of green tea.


Review of Number 1, The Plaza by GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN

I’ve written about the Live Art company GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN before.  I saw their 2012 show Big Hits at the Cambridge Junction, and it was one of the most powerful pieces I had ever seen performed in the theatre up to that point.  It took one element of my mind – the part that up until then had quite sleepily accepted the inappropriate, hyper-sexualisation of women in the music industry – and slapped it awake, so that I walked out of the theatre feeling slapped, but grateful to be awake.  That show led to a permanent change in the way I perceive our culture, and I was very grateful for that and respectful of the artistic power that created it.

So I was eager to see their next show, and I was curious to see what issues they would choose to rumble next, and how they would use theatre (and the strange bag of tricks and techniques special to live art – abstraction, duration, awkwardness, shock, hyper-realism, etc.) to raise the issues and tangle with them.  Their new show is called Number 1, The Plaza, and I saw it at the Cambridge Junction last week, on 10 April 2014.

I settled into my seat in the Cambridge Junction curious, but also a little apprehensive, because last time they slapped me, conceptually…though I knew it was for my own good.  Also, the mood music playing as the audience came into the theatre was ‘Send in the Clowns’ – a subtle opening tickle/provocation in the show’s performer/audience relationship.  It suggested, delicately, and within a honeyed coating, one of the themes that would emerge in the show: the power dynamic contained within entertainment and media – that once we came into the theatre, we were in their space, their house, and we were under their control. They were free to choose what they did with us once we were there (for example, insult us incredibly subtly as we took our seats).

One of the interesting things about live art is that it purposefully re-considers how the audience encounters the work.  For example, Big Hits was an intentionally awkward encounter for the audience.  In that piece GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN defused, straight away, the usual theatrical mechanisms that construct a sense of otherworldly enchantment that can take place in a theatre, like the darkening of house lights and bringing up of stage lights.  I remember that the first thing they did was stare at us without speaking with the house lights up, for ages, which made me feel uncomfortable, and which dislodged any old-fashioned expectations or theatrical dreaminess that might have otherwise conditioned my mind ahead of the piece.

This time around, in Number 1, The Plaza, I felt much more lulled, much more entertained, and also, somewhat seduced. There was smooth, jazzy music, with a lot of saxophone and synthesizers, and slinky, sparkly dresses.  There was humour and shiny, flowing hair extensions.  There was a drinks bar.  They opened with a show tune, sung dazzlingly well.  It was, as they would tell us, ‘An Evening With…’  This time around they invited us into their ‘house’, which I saw as a metaphor for their theatre space, for entertainment, for media, for the conceptual space over which they have complete control once the audience/performer relationship has been entered into by both parties.  The show would go on to explore the idea of the audience’s relationship to its entertainment via the portrayal of Lucy and Jen’s relationship with each other.  It was enacted as an intimate, seductive, power-imbalanced and conflict-laden relationship.

The show shimmered with meta-levels about the idea of entertainment, using its entertainment of us (with songs, humour, sexy dresses) to comment on both the powers and the dangers of entertainment.  It suggested that once someone is entertained, they can be in a sort of enchanted thrall and soaking in an implied and poisoned ethos embedded quietly in the entertainment.  But because they were using entertainment to give us this message, they were also exploring the positive  power of artistic entertainment to pull one’s consciousness forcibly by the hand, saying ‘come here with me to look – really, deeply look at this issue.’

And because they were exploring the power dynamic in the performer/media/audience relationship via the metaphor of Jen and Lucy’s relationship, this gathered up the characteristics from personal relationships and heaved them back onto the performer/audience relationship.  It was a violent, abusive relationship.  At one point, they simply started physically fighting each other and freezing in long, held poses of conflict.  But amidst the fighting, they paused to embrace, kiss, lick, inhale the other person, in moments of intense, passionate connection.  When Jen started to be verbally abusive to Lucy (‘I fucking hate you, you little cunt’), Lucy’s humanity and sanity seemed to break down and apart.  It reflected powerfully back upon the media/audience relationship and made me consider where the entertainment that surrounds us in our society has the power to break down our humanity, and our sanity.  It also made me question passive acceptance of entertainment, and wonder how aware we are as a society of the subtle, implied messages in the media that surrounds us.

As I first took my seat and realised that the melody gently piped into the pre-show, chatting, drinking atmosphere of the theatre was ‘Send in the Clowns’, I had a quiet laugh to myself; but later the brilliance and delicacy of this choice struck me.  Its quietness, its underneath-ness, amplified a sense of the unseen, unrecognised power of implied messages in our entertainment.  Implied messages are powerful because they slip into our minds under the radar, underneath our ability to perceive…and fight them.  This opening was a statement about the power of the entertainer – the controller of the interaction, the chooser – and the lack of power of the audience, the absorber.  If they wanted to imply we were clowns, or call us clowns outright, or tell us to fuck off, or shit on the stage, or say that women were stupid, pointless animals, or dance around naked, or get naked and rub shit on each other, they could do it; and we would be held, mute, within the ideas embedded in our minds about our role as the audience in a relationship to a piece of theatre, bringing up the question of passivity in the audience role.  They could do, say, or imply whatever they wanted, and we would have to absorb it.  I’m not saying that they did any or all of those things, and I will leave it for you to wonder whether the show actually goes to any of those places, especially if you haven’t seen it yet – but the point they made is that they could have done all of that, if they wanted to.

It is interesting to me that as I walked out of the show, my first impression was that the show didn’t contain the artistic coherence and power that Big Hits did.  But I realised later that the show was simply different and breathtakingly subtle and complex in its exploration of its themes.  So it worked a little differently on my psyche.  What happened was that its powerful social and philosophical themes and artistic coherence slipped into my mind via a backdoor, like an implied message – like  background music.


GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN are Artistic Director Hester Chillingworth and performers Lucy McCormick and Jennifer Pick.  Their stated artistic mission is to make ‘broken genre performance’, and explore how ‘text does not always say what it says that it says it is saying.’  Number 1, The Plaza will tour to The ShowRoom, Chichester on April 24th; BUZZCUT, Glasgow on April 26th; Tom Thumb Theatre, Margate on May 23rd; and Norwich Arts Centre on June 25th.  More dates will probably be announced during the Spring.


On Gym Party, Beauty and Marshmallows

On Wednesday 19 February 2014, the live art company Made in China brought their show Gym Party to the Cambridge Junction.  It was the first night of a national tour which will take them to 15 venues over the next 3 months, including the Edinburgh Traverse, Manchester Royal Exchange, Colchester Arts Centre and Pulse Festival in Ipswich.  Made in China was founded by Jessica Latowski and playwright Tim Cowbury.  I’m friends with the other two people in the company, Christopher Brett Bailey and Ira Brand.

I work at the Cambridge Junction, and so for several months I have been looking up from my computer to gaze at the large wall in the theatre’s foyer opposite the Box Office, which houses a profuse jostling of closely-pasted theatre, music and comedy posters.  My eyes would travel across the wall and pause at the pictures of Chris and Ira on the Gym Party poster, because it was interesting to know the flesh-and-blood human counterparts to the tiny, flat avatars on the paper, to have gotten drunk with the human Chris the last time he was in Cambridge and staying in my spare room.

Gym Party is situated on the nebulous borderline between theatre and ‘live art’, a genre of artistic performance that struggles with conventional definitions and boundaries, but which is usually an experimental, conceptual, raw type of live performance.  Gym Party is scripted and theatrically conceived, but it is also interactive and highly conceptual.  It draws heavily on the true personal experiences of the performers, who use their real names and perform as their real selves (to a certain, unknown extent).  It obeys the ancient formula of theatre by weaving a dramatic narrative to please, entice and entertain the audience; but into the enchanted space that Gym Party creates, it heaves vast philosophical questions and both the light and darkness embedded in the human experience. This is the story of how Gym Party would interact with me, particularly, and how it would tease up from the subconscious mulch of my psyche several poignant matters for consideration.

On the night that Gym Party came to Cambridge, Oberon had also drifted through town on a fairy whim and instructed Puck to smear wild pansy juice on my eyelids; or, to put it more plainly: just before the show started, and after a long, long spell of mourning my last relationship and being single, I was asked on a date by a man I had known for a while and liked very much – a drink in The Flying Pig, to happen immediately after Gym Party finished.  So I settled into my seat in J2 (the Cambridge Junction’s theatre space) with Amazonian butterflies flapping around in my stomach, and with my heart and mind peculiarly opened to hear what Gym Party might have to say.

The house lights went down, and against the black of the stage appeared three names in glowing, cursive, neon tubing: ‘CHRIS’, ‘JESS, and ‘IRA’.  Then more of the stage lights came up, and the three of them bounded onto the stage, dressed in identical outfits of white tank tops and white gym shorts, reminiscent of school PE kits, each wearing a differently-coloured chin-length wig from the spectrum of improbable hair colours that ultra-cool Japanese teenagers would favour: apple green, bubblegum pink and chemical blue.  They introduced themselves and their individual ‘theme tunes’ – three pumping, popular anthems – and they explained that there were now going to be a series of ‘contests’, and only one of them could win each one.  Then a man’s deep, stylish voice boomed out over the theatre’s sound system like the announcer on an American game show from the Eighties – a voice that is only ever a voice and never connected back to a real person – who organised, controlled and summarised the contests.  This was a type of voice I knew well from my childhood in America, which was spent watching a lot of television, prior to my permanent transplantation to the UK at the age of 23. At this point, all was light and happy.


Round 1

The first contest in Round 1 was Marshmallows.  How many marshmallows could Chris, Jess and Ira fit into their mouths before being compelled by their gag reflexes to spit them all out?  Winner: Jess! The second contest in Round 1 was Skittles.  How many Skittles thrown in bursts from the audience could each of them catch?  Winner: Chris!  The third contest in Round 1 was Dizzy Racing.  Who could run to the finish line first after spinning around ‘lots and lots of times’?  Winner: Jess!

Gym Party marshmallows

It was genuinely hilarious and sweet.  In Dizzy Racing, Ira simply fell down with her legs splayed like a toddler and sat, dazed, not even attempting the finish line.  And, of course, these are the types of games that little kids would think of playing. The audience was thoroughly entertained and laughed uproariously.  The feel of the piece was jokey, safe, well-lit.

But towards the end of Round 1, the perfectly conceived, childlike abstraction of the games began to subtly reflect the philosophical questions that Gym Party would ask in various ways throughout, and much more directly towards the end: Why do we play the games we do, as adults?  Are they the right games?  Who is a ‘winner’?  Who is a ‘loser’?

At the end of Round 1, Chris, Jess and Ira put their arms around each other and spoke of their togetherness, taking turns finishing each others’ sentences.  They said that they were really close: they were ‘one, a pack, a whole’.  This would become a refrain they would chime throughout the piece.  It was a significant conceptual shift that highlighted the different ways we can we view other people: moving from a paradigm of competition and separation to an idea of dissolved boundaries and oneness.  The movement between these two conceptual poles would continue during the rest of the show; but the show would also explore deeper nuances in these concepts than simply aligning togetherness with ‘good’ and separateness with ‘bad’.  However, this moment of togetherness was warm and felt good.  Then the announcer informed the audience that it was now time for the winner, Jess, to give her winner’s speech.  Her neon name on the back of the stage was lit up, the other two names went dark, and Chris and Ira left the stage.  Jess gave a comic, effusive speech.

After Jess finished speaking, the announcer told us that it was time for the losers to do their ‘Penalisation’.  When Chris and Ira came back on stage, a thin trickle of blood spilled from each of their noses.  The red from the blood was in sharp contrast to their pale faces, their white gym outfits, and to the upbeat game show atmosphere they had created in the first part of the piece.  It was a bit chilling.  Then the stage lights went dark and they each stood in a small pool of white light and hit themselves, hard, on the chest, with a fist, in a slow rhythm, with the sound of each smack reverberating out into the now completely silent audience.  You could see the force they were using in the shaking rebound of their hands and hear the volume of each hit as it landed.

The silence in the audience became thick as we absorbed the change in atmosphere.  This dramatic emotional gear-shift was a powerful re-enactment of the outward re-positioning in life that follows ‘outcomes’, and the psychological darkness that can fall inside ourselves when we have ‘lost’.  The physical violence suggested by the nosebleeds evoked both the penalisations we suffer from society for ‘losing’ at something, and the inner violence we feel…like when we ‘beat ourselves up’ after we’ve lost.  It was a bold, violent, dark dramatic move that showed Made in China’s artistic prowess.  It showed us that as much as they intended to explore this issue playfully, abstractly, humorously, and philosophically – they were also going to explore it darkly.

For me, this part of the show struck a personal chord.  All of my close friends at one point or another have pointed out that I am extraordinarily hard on myself when I feel I have failed at something.  I don’t think this is actually a natural characteristic.  I think it results from the particular nature of the philosophies woven around me by my parents and culture as I grew up.  I can remember being about 11-years-old and with my Mom in the changing room in the Holiday Inn in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, where I grew up.  They had an indoor pool and a little hot-tub and sauna, and you could pay $10 to go there and swim.  I was crazy for water.  I was one of those naturally fish-like children who can amuse themselves for hours in water.  When I was older and doing casual jobs as a teenager, I worked as a lifeguard at various pools and waterfronts, and when I came to Cambridge to study, I worked as a tour guide on the river here – I went for any job that would let me be near water.  My middle name is Lorelei, which is German for ‘mermaid’, and that’s what I felt like.  And occasionally for a treat, my Mom would take me to the Holiday Inn pool.

There was another woman in the changing room with us, and as American women will do when they are getting completely naked with each other, the two of them began to chat.  I remember being in my usual water-junkie state of agitation when the payoff was close – I just wanted to get to the pool as quickly as possible.  The changing room at the Holiday Inn was a tiny labyrinth, with little, separate areas for the different elements – lockers, benches, toilets, showers, mirrors – branching off in different directions, with different corridors and doors leading to the hotel shop, main hotel area, outdoor patio, and –the only direction I cared about – the POOL.  We were not a well-off family, and this was a rare treat, so I could never remember which door led to the pool, but I used to find it by smell: the sweet cleanness of chlorine water dripped on stone and warmed by the tropical temperature in the pool area would seep through the edges of the pool door.  But first I had to get my swimsuit on.  I couldn’t help but listen to what they were saying as I stripped off my clothes and pulled my swimsuit out of the plastic carrier bag we used to take our stuff in.  I remember being half-naked as they started to discuss the nice range of swimsuits available for sale in the hotel shop.  ‘Of course, there’s nothing in there that would fit me’, my overweight mother said…‘they don’t sell swimsuits for baby whales’.  I remember sensing the discomfort radiating from the other woman, who didn’t know what to say and fell silent.  And I remember looking down at my chubby body and feeling really fat and ugly, like my mom thought she was.  And it felt like we were outsiders to regular female beauty, like it was a club we could never get into, because the size and shape of our body was just wrong.  Imbibing this philosophy about self-image from my mother during my childhood and adolescence eventually resulted in a violent form of self-hate based on how I looked.  It was the memory of this past damage and its still-existing shards that were summoned up from the bottom of my psyche by the sound of Chris and Ira’s fists striking themselves.


Teen Dance

Into the contemplative mood introduced by Penalisation and the new knowledge that Gym Party was going to entertain and delight us, but possibly also rend us, came the Teen Dance.  A rock ballad from the late 80’s played over the sound system, and Chris and Ira began to slow dance together in a spotlight, with straight arms and a square, awkward, poignant gap of air between them –the position that teens dance when they dance slow, paired off for the first time.  While Chris and Ira danced, Jess spoke a monologue about a moment from her adolescence when she was rejected from her group of friends and made an outcast.  Her monologue depicted her teen anguish and, significantly, its transformation into a blunt wish to be ‘be prettier, thinner, smarter, go with better looking boys than them’ .  I thought there was something very profound about the way Gym Party went into the past to examine the provenance and power of these moments of painful awakening to competitive aspects in our society.  For example, as in Jess’ story, school groups will form around power dynamics, where secretly insecure kids will dominate and reject other kids to make themselves feel stronger, creating a competitive hierarchy of social power.

Gym Party’s scrutiny of this issue helps unfold an awareness of how these moments reverberate into our adult lives, and of how these reverberations have the power to become our society – how these moments can become collectivised competitive wishes born out of unexamined past hurts and insecurities.   Gym Party subtly suggests that these moments could be both the result and the cause of the way things work at the moment – that we are all, to some extent, participating in a giant, regenerating chain of loss, hurt, betrayal, suppression that is asleep to its own nature – and which is transformed into the philosophies that surround us in our current culture: it’s better to be rich, powerful, pretty, and smart.  Gym Party would also explore the transformation of the ‘it’s better’ philosophy into its ugly cousin, ‘You are better if you are rich, powerful, pretty, smart.’

Of course not all kids will grow up and unconsciously recycle their hurts into competitive wishes, and therefore unconsciously uphold the dominant cultural philosophies in our society. Some of the kids will grow up to be artists and will thoughtfully explore their pain.  They will become conscious of what it’s about, where it came from, and then question the set of philosophies governing their culture, like the kids in Made in China.  They will ask, with a sense of childlike innocence, ‘Should society really be like this?’  In a way, the childlike innocence of the games in the first part of Gym Party becomes a philosophical vantage point in the piece, asking simply ‘Why can’t society be nicer?  Have nicer values?  Value people whether they win or lose?  Include everybody no matter what they look like or how much money they have?  Be one, a pack, a whole?’  Ask, ‘How much of the competition that surrounds us in society is actually unconscious, unexamined units of past pain?  Ask, ‘How asleep are we to all the ways we are unconsciously recycling old hurts…that we didn’t deserve and never should have had in the first place?’

Ira and Chris had stories, too…while Jess danced with Chris, Ira told a story about the sports day where suddenly losing meant that she was a loser, in the view of another girl.  And then, while Jess and Ira danced, Chris told his story about the time he was at a school dance and liked a girl, and confided this to his friend, who agreed to help him get her.  A ‘friend’ who Chris would discover later kissing the girl he liked in a dark corner of the school.   At the end of Chris’s story, he said, ‘And then I did this…’, and he walked over to a platform on the stage, climbed up onto it, picked up a guitar and sang a heart-wrenching indie-rock ballad, beautifully.  To me this felt symbolic of the bravery of art and art’s power during moments of loss to help us deconstruct our personal pain, strip it down to its elements, take its strength and insight, defuse its harmful aspects, and then transform ourselves into something new in its presence.  It was interesting that because he had moved from telling the story in a monologue to acting it out, his past self shimmered over his present self during the song, which was an evocation of how we are our past selves, our past stories, but we have become something new, too.

I don’t want to spoil the Gym Party for you if you haven’t seen it yet, so I won’t describe much more of the show, but I will tell you that in Rounds 2 and 3 it continues to thoughtfully explore these questions in surprising, rich, nuanced, and thought-provoking ways.  Also, because it is a hybrid of theatre and live art, it has a kaleidoscopic feel – its elements are like variously coloured beads scrambled together in different patterns by the audience interaction – so the show will be slightly different each time it is performed, which is quite a fascinating update of the theatrical artistic medium.  I will tell you that there is a rousing bit of kissing that worked its charm particularly well on me, who was sitting in the audience speculating upon whether I was about to be kissed in roughly two hours’ time.  [Answer: I was.]

However, what came with the sweetness of a first kiss was the discovery of a few still-active shards of my old self-hate in the days after Gym Party and my first date.  It was as if they were shaken up to the top layer of my psyche by the warmth and turbulence of new romantic feelings combined with the magnifying glass of art which Gym Party trained upon these issues.  There was a particularly raw and salient moment in a later round of Penalisation, when Jess climbed up onto a pedestal, stripped to her underwear and stood in a spotlight, while Chris voiced a series of cutting remarks about her body (which had the feel of being her inner thoughts): ‘…for someone who is otherwise in pretty good shape – your thighs, Jess… the only polite word for your thighs would be chunky.   And the thing about that is that it’s just genetics.  It doesn’t matter how much you work out or go to the gym, they’re just gonna get bigger and bigger and bigger…You get this heat rash, this little constellation of pimples on your inner thigh, when you sweat.  It is disgusting to the audience and has been a major turn off to anyone who has been unlucky enough to go down on you.’

But the thing is, the moment had raw artistic power derived from its raw truth, because she stood there looking, well, physically beautiful, in the epicentre of a piece of art that she helped create with her mind and rich creative intuition.  The interplay of her actual beauty and power with the sneering criticism made up of broken units of psyche from a broken system showed each element in starker definition through their contrast with each other.

So, post-Gym Party, I had a heightened awareness of these ideas.  Having known the new man casually for six months, I also knew his ex-girlfriend through the same friend network.  She is small, lithe and pretty.  I am not small or lithe, and I have never been sure whether I am pretty or not.  Gradually, in the days following our first date, the sweetness of looking forward to our second date kept being interrupted by a pop-up window in my mind comparing myself to her, unfavourably, and an uncomfortable, gnawing feeling of unworthiness.

I spent my adolescence measuring my appearance against girls in films, girls on television, descriptions of girls in books, and other girls in my high school – where our female social hierarchy was arranged around perceived beauty and wealth.  But the place I charted my own appearance, in line with the I Am A Baby Whale philosophy taught to me by my mother (and let’s not blame her – it was a gift from her mother and culture), was not even in the competition. As far as I was concerned, I was already a loser in that game.  I guess that a philosophical positioning on this for each child comes first from their parents, and then from the stories that surround them.  In the stories that surrounded me from American television, movies and books, only pretty girls ever had boys fall in love with them.  Have you ever noticed that 98% of romantic stories are only about attractive people?

So, something significant happened in my psyche – the birth of a logic theorem – which was a natural outcome of these two cultural/familial philosophies in combination (which I accepted as absolutely true, being only a child): ‘If only pretty girls experience romantic love, and I am not pretty – therefore I cannot experience romantic love’.  I experienced a sort of strange and stifled adolescent sexual awakening as a result of this blight in my psyche.

There was a really awesome teenage boy in my high school who really liked me when I was 15 – Chad.  He was like the real equivalent of Seth Cohen from the O.C.  He was a hot nerd.  He used to gaze at me across the cafeteria table and say sexily intelligent and inappropriate things like, ‘I want to lick your mouth’.  His naked teenage-boy desire, the constancy of his affection (lasting a year or two), the way he harnessed the combined social power of our friends to persuade me to go to the Homecoming Dance with him – all of this fell into a void inside myself created by my unquestioning acceptance of the Romance/Beauty Theorem in my psyche, where instead there should have been a normal, instinctive romantic and sexual response.  At the Homecoming Dance, when we were slow dancing, he said he wanted to kiss me.  I remember just feeling numb and saying, ‘no, no…no’.  I was unable to compute this situation.  It did not align with the program that my mother and culture had written for me.  I was like a robot whose wires were short-circuiting.  I still remember how we continued our shuffling two-step, straight-armed dance to an 80’s rock ballad, like Chris, Ira and Jess, in mutual sadness and confusion.

I had followed a broken path away from my natural child-like sense of feeling like a mermaid, a lorelei, towards a conception of female beauty as a competitive grid in which people with the ‘wrong’ shapes are ‘losers’ and ‘unworthy’ of love.  And I think my moment in the Holiday Inn changing room with my mother is so vivid in my memory because that was my moment of waking up to the broken game.  In many ways, Gym Party is an exploration of the sweet sleepiness of teenagers and the sad shock of waking up to discover these strange contests embedded in adult life.  Like how in Gym Party the childlike wonder and gaiety of dizzy racing turns into nosebleeds and penance, as a kid becoming an adult you play these games, and then things get dark and sad.  You lose, but you don’t know why.

At some point several years later, I realised that I had really liked Chad, too.  We would have probably had a really sweet teen relationship.  He was obsessed with lizards.  He still is, as I see on Facebook.  I would have totally supported his fanaticism about lizards.

Two years after my slow-dance with Chad, I won a music scholarship to attend a high school for the performing arts, a boarding school in northern Michigan, and so I transferred away for our senior year.  My new high school, called Interlochen Arts Academy, was a strange and wondrous place compared to regular American high school.  We lived in dormitories, with two girls to each tiny room, with pairs of rooms connected by a bathroom, forming a ‘suite’.  Everyone studied their art form – music, dance, theatre, visual art, creative writing or photography – intensively for several hours a day, in addition to the usual academic subjects.  The school was a collection of scattered buildings in a forest between two big inland lakes, only about fifteen miles from the shore of Lake Michigan.  My suitemates were three robustly instinctive and healthy girls who loved me unreservedly from the beginning.

Interlochen girls dorm

One of the first things they did was strip off my two-sizes too big, unfashionable clothes one afternoon in the first week of school and put their own clothes on me.  I kept saying, ‘No, no – nothing you guys have will fit me.  I’m too big.  Stop – this is pointless.’  They just plowed on and had to actually manhandle me into Valerie’s navy Gap jeans while I protested and tried to stop them.  Valerie, you see, was beautiful.  She was tall with gorgeous legs, a skinny waist and lovely, full breasts.  I wanted them to stop because it would just hurt to have my ugliness displayed so nakedly to them; I already loved them and wanted them to love me back.  But when they pulled the jeans over my hips, I realised that they fit over my hips, and then they lifted my arms up like a baby and fastened the button around my waist, and I was wearing the jeans as if my body was similarly proportioned to Valerie’s body.   I can still remember my conceptual confusion over this.  Like the way my Romance/Beauty logic theorem collided with Chad’s behaviour towards me (which I had been unable to process), this moment of buttoning collided with the I Am An Ugly Baby Whale theorem.

I kept looking down at myself, puzzled.  Then they took my top off, and put one of Hilary’s pale blue jersey ballerina tops on me, which terrified me because a wide swath of skin from bra strap to bra strap and plunging down to the top slope of my breasts was alarmingly bare.  Then they put make up on me and pulled me into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror.  I still couldn’t see anything good there, but I was in a state of shock.  Then they pushed me out into the corridor, said, ‘Don’t come back until you’ve talked to a boy’, and slammed the door.  I found a boy to talk to in the dining hall, whom I had met briefly the day before, called Nick, and after chatting to him for several minutes, I realised that he thought I was a different girl.  Many years later and after several years of counselling, I would realise that I probably had some form of body dysmorphic disorder.

But I still believed in the Romance/Beauty Theorem and Chart, and what changed was that evidence kept appearing suggesting that I was, possibly, sometimes in the ‘pretty’ range of the beauty chart.  I would spend my twenties and early thirties stacking and weighing evidence, still obeying the paradigm of a Romance/Beauty Theorem, but cautiously encouraged by certain evidence to believe I had a right to at least play the game.

[Monologuic Aside:

Once in 11th grade French, in my normal high school, Mrs. Johnson, noticing that I was staring out the window at the teacher’s parking lot and trying to attract my attention back to the lesson, said: ‘And Joy thinks she’s a natural beauty’, obviously commenting on the fact that I never did my hair or wore make-up, a bit unusually in comparison to the other 16-year-old girls in my high school.

Joy, aged 38, finally replies to Mrs Johnson (Joy, aged 16, had no fucking idea what to say to that): ‘Mrs. Johnson, I didn’t know how to do my hair or make-up, and I didn’t think I was any kind of beauty at all, and I was shocked to hear that word used in reference to me.  But I want to take this opportunity to tell you that even though your calling was to be a stand-up comedienne, I’m so glad that you were my teacher instead, because I could tell you genuinely cared about me and were trying to tell me something about the importance of developing womanly arts. And I also want to tell you that because you stood in front of the class and lost your shit when we said ‘femme’ to rhyme with ‘them’ (incorrect), and shouted the correct pronunciation, ‘femme’ to rhyme with ‘on’, ‘Femme! Femme! Femme!’, my correct pronunciation years later in actual France would convince many French people that I know French much better than I actually do, and assist me when two French men, who had just waged a quiet war to bed me, discussed me between them en Francais, the victor to the loser saying, ‘Elle et une belle femme’, with a quintessential Gallic shrug.  Because I really needed to hear that.]

Now in my late thirties, and more awake to the destructive and incorrect nature of many of the programs that were written into me, I am trying to un-write them out of my psyche.  My perception of beauty (and romantic and sexual desirability) is much different, much more natural, and based on the idea that every single person has an intrinsic beauty that goes way beyond form, but which also animates form.  I am more likely to get angry and throw the fucking chart out of the window whenever it pops up in my consciousness.

However, the psychic damage from spilled toxic waste can go deep.  With my e-mail inbox peppered with sweet missives from the new man, and a second date scheduled and sitting like a red rose amongst the other entries in my diary, I discovered that my psyche trembled with fear and sadness because rogue elements in my sub-conscious still measure whether I deserve love on an axis of beauty, that my perception of my own beauty can still be tremulous and inclining downward to ‘not beautiful and, therefore, not deserving of love’.

But there is a cleansing power in art.  On the day that these issues and feelings crystallised out of vague, uncomfortable feelings and into a sharp, painful awareness, I walked into my house to find my Spanish housemate Jose playing his new ukulele and singing ‘Tree Hugger’ by Kimya Dawson. The lyrics are

‘The flower said “I wish I was a tree”

The tree said “I wish I could be

A different kind of tree”

The cat wished that it was a bee

The turtle wished that it could fly

Really high into the sky

Over rooftops and then dive

Deep into the sea.


And in the sea there is a fish

A fish that has a secret wish

A wish to be a big cactus

With a pink flower on it…


And the flower

Would be its offering

Of love

To the desert

So dry and lonely

That the creatures all appreciate the effort.’


I sat down and really listened as he sang.  Then I went up to my room and cried hard about how sad it is for intrinsically beautiful people (i.e. all of us, including me) to doubt their own beauty because the messages from our mothers and culture are broken.  Then I carried the song, the thought of Jess’ beauty winning out over her hating internal thoughts, and Gym Party’s courage around with me for several days, and gradually my belief in my own intrinsic, unique beauty grew stronger again.

(By the way, I didn’t make this up for thematic consistency in this essay.  It really happened.  You can ask Jose.)

To wind down towards a conclusion, this essay is really about the power of art to bring transformation and enlightenment to the psyche.  Aesthetic theory is a vast field, and there are many possible ways to value the gem that is Gym Party, but as a humanities student and amateur logician seeing the immutable subjectivity of art valuation, in the end it only makes sense to claim value for pieces of art based on the personal value they have to me.  This essay has considered Gym Party’s comment upon what I have referred to as ‘broken philosophies’ in our culture; and I see art, with its abstraction and ability to engage individually with each gaze that falls upon it, as a powerful means for reflection, illumination and awakening.  Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, discusses the need for theatre to be ‘necessary’ to society and not simply a pleasurable accessory to it. He gives an example of the truest type of ‘necessary theatre-going’, which is ‘a psycho-drama session in an asylum’, where the inmates participate in a therapeutic drama session. He writes,

‘They may laugh.  They may cry.  They may not react at all.  But behind all that goes on, amongst the so-called insane, lurks a very simple, very sane basis.  They all share a wish to be helped to emerge from their anguish, even if they don’t know what this help may be, or what form it could take… In the immediate event there is an unmistakable result…something is more animated, something flows more freely, some embryonic contacts are being made between previously sealed-off souls.  When they leave the room, they are not quite the same as when they entered.’ (Peter Brook, The Empty Space, pp 148 – 149, Penguin, 1990.)

For me, Gym Party was a brilliant piece of necessary theatre, and I was not quite the same afterwards.


Epilogue, part 1

Ok, so what happened after the second date?  At a certain point during this experience, I realised that I had wild pansy juice on my eyelids – i.e. that I was strongly gripped by a romantic enchantment – and I knew that sometimes pansy juice is just puckish meddling with the heart, and sometimes it turns into real love.  As I was going through this, it was interesting to think about how the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are all passing into sleep, through enchantments, and then into awakening.  Some of the enchantments dissolve into nothingness upon awakening – they are just a dream – but some of them hold true in the light of day.   This one turned out to be the kind of enchantment that dissolves in sunlight…but it was nice to have a wander through the forest at night, still.


Epilogue, part 2

After all this, I bet you want to know what I look like.  Well, I am descended from the German and Scandinavian immigrants who settled Michigan in the 19th century.  My eyes are dark blue, the same colour as Lake Michigan.   My hair is the colour of the golden sand at the lakeshore.  My skin is pale white, like the froth on top of the waves.  I have strong shoulders and long, graceful arms and legs – a good body for swimming.