August 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Here are the shows I saw at Edinburgh Fringe this year, and what I thought of them. Two main reviews are followed by ten mini-reviews.
Liberation by The Alchemist Theatre Company
In Liberation, five performers, stark naked, through dance and elements of mime, create a poetic allegory about human existence, and the possibility of rebelling from society’s demands. A young woman is born, taught to be ashamed of her nakedness, clothed (with paint), and soon brought in line with pre-ordained ways of interacting: how to eat properly, how to work properly, how to love properly, how to be properly. These ways of being are wrong, shallow, meaningless. We know that, because the narrator tells us so as the show begins.
Quite quickly it becomes apparent that these young artists are angry. And why not? There is lots in this life to be angry about: climate change denial, near-constant conflict in the Middle East, food banks prevalent in one of the world’s richest countries… The Alchemist Theatre Company here, however, is more concerned with celebrity culture, materialism, the drudgery of a life of work. The narration had no storytelling purpose, instead serving as a kind of political manifesto. Any sense of story was conveyed by the interactions between the mostly silent performers.
The problem here was that there was no clarity in the delineation of one character from another: the personas were all too fluid, meaning that the story became chaotic, with scenes seeming to be more concerned with visual effect than progressive complication for a distinctive protagonist. Any sense of threat was too generic to create any real tension or drama, leaving for a flat, bland experience.
If The Alchemist Theatre Company wanted to explore societal rebellion through the body, I wondered why they didn’t look at The Body itself as the material and meaning of revolution. History is littered with such causes, from physical slavery, to a woman’s right to birth control. There is so much that can be explored through a naked human and a stage, and silence too, none of which was done in Liberation.
In the one scene the characters do talk, it is in a gobbledygook Sims-speak. When Charlie Chaplin aped Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator, his made-up German satirised the hollow politicking of a fascist. In Liberation, it is all cheap effect, detached from the idea of how language can be politicised, and become a weapon to oppress.
One saving grace of the show was that I was not bored, per se, for which they have the fantastic live music-makers to thank; the guitar loops, keyboards and drums adding much-needed emotional layers to an otherwise vacant piece of posturing.
In Liberation, there is no sense of guilt from the performers in consuming (and indeed feeding) the culture they oppose, no hint at addressing the real complexity of living ones ideals. They implicated the audience in their anti-establishment message without any sense of irony in being white dancers on a stage at the world’s biggest arts festival. The effect of powdered paint thrown across the performers’ bodies was visually beautiful, but ultimately not enough to elevate Liberation beyond A-Level conspiracy poetry.
Ross and Rachel by James Fritz
A young woman with curly brown hair stands in a dressing gown, mug in hand. She crouches before a shallow pool of water, around which sits half a dozen tea lights, flickering with the collective breath of an expectant audience, the orange shimmering on the water’s surface. A moment of calm, then she begins.
‘Sometimes, I just get really fucking sick of it. Don’t you?’
‘No.’ ‘Never?’ ‘No.’
It is an amicable argument. No tea is spilt, no fingers pointed. It is a tired difference of opinion, badly explained.
‘I just don’t like people thinking we come as a package.’
This is Rachel. And Ross. The woman we see before us, no more than thirty with a delicate Scottish accent, is the voice of The Couple®©™ of the late nineties, the “will they, won’t they?” romantic saga of TV’s Friends. Just as one can’t be named without mention of the other, here too, the couple are singular. This inseparability is, indeed, at the heart of Rachel’s chagrin.
‘I don’t know when people started saying our names together. You know? I don’t know when that happened.’
Rachel is an independent, successful woman, and it grates that she should only ever be referred to as second to her husband. Is it a coincidence, or a label of inferiority?
They pass through middle age, and whilst Ross feels proud to have bagged such an ageless beauty, Rachel’s doubts grow. Do they really have anything in common? Who is this annoying man, so prone to jealousy, laying next to her at night? Could she do better?
Then tragedy strikes. Ross has an aneurism, and is given a year to live.
No one told us life was going to be this way.
In Ross & Rachel, playwright James Fritz has taken a world which has, in many ways, coloured the romantic expectations of a TV-watching generation (now themselves considering marriage and children), and twisted expectations; bringing to the over-familiar story the raw doubts, macabre fantasies and unavoidable mess of true love (warts and all).
As the tumour progresses, we see the couples’ relationship deteriorate from both points-of-view: through Rachel, as she deals with the tides of guilt and helplessness in being a carer to her bed-bound husband, and through Ross, as he does and doesn’t come to terms with the inevitability of impending, untimely death.
As the play progresses towards its heartbreaking climax, the once spa-like shallow pool of water has become a surrogate womb. Molly Vevers –exceptional in her dual role– lies on her side, curled in a ball, in denial of what is happening, and incapable of changing the course set. As Ross, all adult pretences are slowly being stripped back, reducing the man into a fragile and disorientated voice. As Rachel, relief, guilt, sympathy and affection vie for her attention.
Ultimately, this play is about romance: one imagined, the other lived. The optimism of a feel-good TV sitcom teaches us that good things come to those who persist. Ross & Rachel, on the other hand, says life is what happens when you make other plans. Whilst playing off references to scenes from Friends episodes (sometimes eliciting knowing nods and chuckles from the 30-something couples littered throughout the audience), this exceptional piece of new writing is greater than the sum of its parts.
Whilst resonating with lived experience, it also leaves you with a haunting feeling that will be difficult to shake.
I’m Not Here Right Now by Thomas Eccleshare
A narrator reads a script, whilst the protagonist completes mundane tasks such as unpacking her bag. He recounts memories that lead up to her big choice: whether or not to seek out the abominable snowman that she swears she saw on a scientific expedition. The narration is exceptionally precise, and able to weave in expositional detail alongside some beautiful descriptions of characters and landscapes, up until the confusing and flat finale, when the protagonist runs around in circles through smoke machine fog amidst flashy lights. Overall, it felt one draft short of being great.
Police Cops by This Theatre
Playing off cop show clichés left right and centre, this spoof follows the journey of a rookie seeking vengeance for the death of his brother. With its fast pace, it manages not to ever feel self-indulgent despite rarely going beyond the obvious. For me there was more bite to be found in satirising American culture: the only real bum note of the night coming from a strained reference to institutional racism. But despite the show not being 100% polished, and the blocking sometimes problematic in an intimate thrust presentation, Police Cops is unashamed fun. A company with great potential.
An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch
Tim Crouch’s groundbreaking piece of experimental theatre sees the playwright play a second-rate pub hypnotist, staging his interaction with a father whose daughter he has accidentally killed in a car accident, played every night by a different performer who has never seen the script before. Seemingly more concerned more with form than emotion, I felt manipulated by the show. Yes, drama always does this, usually through an artifice that Crouch has here exposed. But by laying this architecture bare without replacing the artifice with anything but ideas, I couldn’t help but feel cold by the experience.
Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan
Another show with a big reputation, in which a man recounts his making of a list of brilliant things that make life worth living, to forestall his mother’s wish to end her own life. There were moments of real emotion, but overall the show was pedestrian, whilst the interactivity established with the audience felt staged and superficial. I longed for the performer to invite us to offer our own reasons for keeping going, as additions to the list: a finale affirming optimism. But despite advertising suggesting this was something radical, it really is quite a conventional play, wrapped up in the dressing of something more unique.
Country Files, written and performed by Sophie Pelham
Playing with stereotypes of the countryside, this one-woman sketch show was too badly characterised to be theatre, and too unfunny to be comedy. Relying on easy clichés –a misogynistic UKIP supporting landowner– offset with uninspired surrealism –a rapping badger– this was on the wrong side of awkward. Relying 100% on the kindness of the audience, (who all would have left if they hadn’t spent £9 and hoped to see a return of sorts) this show was made all the worse by the strained attempts at audience interaction, and the interminable offstage costume changes. A complete car crash, and a waste of money, time and effort.
Hitch! by Mary Bijou Circus Theatre Company
I’m no circus aficionado, but I do have some understanding of acrobatics, and a strong interest in physical comedy. The first of two circus shows I saw that night was undoubtedly good in its technicality. The performers climbed, balanced and swang with aplomb, but the connection to the films of Alfred Hitchcock at times felt non-existent: an excuse to do what they were going to do anyway. When the thematic link did work, it was sublime, but they seemed more comfortable lampooning Hitchcock than committing whole-heartedly to homage. A good show in need of polishing.
Swing Circus by Swing Circus
Although less charismatic than the team that performed Hitch, this show had a more natural thematic pairing, circus and swing music: the concept imposing fewer pressures on the performers. They clearly loved the dances and fashions of the era, but the music was all recorded, which detracted a little from the liveness of the spectacle. But despite this, Swing was full of nice set pieces, and overall had a good flow, despite a bit of unnecessary repetition in some dance sequences, which felt like they were padding out the show.
Volume 2 by Gein’s Family Gift Shop
This show won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but in my opinion should be. They are a charismatic trio, and there was rarely a wasted moment in the whole night. Motifs such as blood, buggery and pooing yourself were threaded throughout the 60 minutes with effortless charm. In the night’s best sketch, one of the troupe’s performers mimes his descent into hell when trying to silently offer his friend a pint of beer. Only a couple of jokes fell flat, and other than small blips, it was a hilarious night. They deserve to sell out whenever they perform.
Blind Man’s Song by Theatre Re
An old blind man doesn’t want to remember the past, but can’t forget his lost love, these memories embodied through the young bodies of a male and female dancer, whose faces have been masked with plain, anonymising cloth. Two years ago I saw Translunar Paradise, a show that not only covered the same thematic territory, but like this piece, utilised live music, prop and physical theatre. Blind Man’s Song felt like a cheap bootleg, with the music loops but superficial affectation, the mime far too loose and ambiguous. It suffered from over-ambition: whilst trying to be everything at once, it did nothing adequately. A dull and pretentious show.
Tonight with Donny Stixx by Philip Ridley
A boy paces around the stage with a bounce in his step. He is buzzing on the good will of the audience: their questions are reverent, polite, loving. Then someone brings up the shooting, and he snaps. A masterclass in monologue, Donny Stixx sees our titular hero travel from teenage magician to mass murderer, via the suicide of his depressive mother and the hospitalisation of his father. Melodramatic it does sound, but the narrative never veers in that direction; grounded as it is in earthy language, dark humour and a real sense of empathy from the playwright for misunderstood outsiders.
September 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
The other week I went to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a play based on Mark Hoddon’s best-selling novel, which was performed at the National Theatre, and streamed to cinemas around the UK, where I saw it.
Seeing the performance reminded me what I liked of the book, and brought to light why I didn’t like Jonathan Safron Foer’s Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close. Both stories have a child as the central narrator, and spin a narrative in which the child goes on a self-initiated quest to unravel a mystery at the centre of his life.
Because Mark Haddon’s protagonist (Christopher) is autistic, the vision we get from our narrator is unique, allowing for that balance of maturity and naivety needed from a child-protagonist. His logical and mathematical precociousness also allows for a more creative journey than simply a child getting lost. In reading the book we live his fears with him, and that is partly down to the inventive ways Haddon constructs his writing in the novel.
In Safron Foer’s book, the protagonist (Oskar) also displays some signs of autism, but in this story it is a kind of Hollywood-style unspecified precociousness. In many ways I felt this book was exploitative of a cliched, idealised image of how children think and act. The story was by no means trying to be naturalistic, but I found its depiction of Oskar patronising to the reader. In fact, the whole story was a fairy tale, but without the brevity of a good olde yarn.
It was whilst watching the play of Haddon’s book at the cinema (*phew*), that I suddenly realised why specifically I didn’t like Safron Foer’s vision as much as Haddon’s. And it was that Christopher’s autism gives Haddon a kind of freedom to be imaginative is his speculation about how Christopher would think and act in different situations. Christopher is still very much a child, heightened even, with his autism mystifying elements of every day life. But he is also an adult, also heightened, in that his logic and brainpower is superior to most adults. In Safron Foer’s, Oskar’s odd and precocious traits seemed cherry-picked from unmentioned conditions, all to bring a kind of fantastic magic to the story. It’s glory-seeking writing, falling into that common trap of infantilising adults or putting adult-traits on children. Patronising and sloppy.
One thing that did distract me in the play was a scene in which Christopher took his shirt off. The actor turned out to be pretty muscly for an autistic 15-year-old. These kind of small details don’t exactly detract from a performance, but they make me laugh a little. That line between performer and creation is always quite fine. For the length of a film, we can kind of accept that George Clooney, or whoever, is a spy now, and not the other person he was the last time we saw him in a film. This always happens more with film stars, as they usually have some kind of recognisable grooming pattern from film to film, maintaining their beauty from one role to the next. Even when they “transform” themselves into their characters, there is a bit of leftover. Russell Crowe’s arms were far too muscular for his role as a recluse mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. As a gladiator, fairly believable. But as a man who has only lifted chalk in his life, Crowe’s guns are perhaps a little out of place. Even with his glasses on, a maths genius he aint.
Another funny one is at the end of the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men, when a teenage boy takes his shirt off to bandage the bloodied arm of the killer. The boy, who is otherwise absent in the film, clearly saw this five minutes as his moment to launch his career. He had obviously prepared for his role by learning his lines, then doing as many bench-presses as he could the night before. For an average fifteen year old boy, as I suppose he was meant to be, he had ridiculously developed pecs. (And very big nipples as well)
When a character pops up like that in a story, I would say that they are meant to kind of drift in and out of the narrative without much impression; the kind of character who doesn’t have a name in the credits, but is something like “Boy 2”. But for this young actor, his cameo was a moment for that career-changing performance.
It is funny but also annoying how film posters can have their actors lined-up in one order, and their names above in a different order. I remember this was particularly ridiculous on a poster for one of the crap Charlie’s Angels films that came out a few years ago. There were three actresses on the poster, all stood in funky, sassy-but-strong Hollywood spy poses, but each with the wrong name above them.
Another film poster that made me laugh (in a small, quiet way, of course- I’m not crazy), was the poster for the 2008 movie Righteous Kill. It was only the second time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro had been in the same film together, the first having been only a momentary on-screen crossover in the 1995 Heat. On the poster De Niro was on the left, Pacino on the right, with their names above the correct actor. Now, at this point in their careers, it could be argued that neither actor was at their prime. But clearly it would not be possible to place precedence on one actor over the other (they probably both have it written into every contract that their name must be the first on any poster). So what the clever marketers have done is, though De Niro’s name is the first one read, being on the left, Pacino’s is placed a little higher, almost imperceptibly, as if to compensate. Oh the politics of a film poster.
Comedian Mark Watson once has a funny line about an advert for a horror film he saw. The film promised that “You would never feel safe in your home again”. Watson then decided he’d therefore not watch that film, because who wants to feel unsafe all the time? I like it when taglines can almost be read as instructional. The trailer for Final Destination 3D claimed that the film’s special effects would make death feel even closer. Technically it is, if I have sat through your shit film for 2 hours.
When you got to the dentist, they always speak in some kind of code to their assistant about your teeth. But unless you have a major problem, these notes are never shared; the different names they give my teeth. The notes get added to the secret portfolio they have on your mouth. When are they going to disclose their findings?
I often think back to a quote I heard once about the difference between drugs and alcohol. It states that it is through the abuse of drugs that you develop a substance problem, where as it is in using alcohol properly (as it is intended) that you develop a problem. This made me think about cotton buds (also known as q-tips). They say on the pack that they are for “for external use only: for removing make-up from around the eyes, or cleaning the outer-ear”. I don’t know of anyone who buys them for this. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that everyone who manufactures cotton buds uses them for the same thing that I use them for, and that is tickling my brain until I cough. I guess it’s just a legal position they have to take on their product, but really, they know exactly what people are doing with them, and that’s why they sell so many: in fact I would say that it is their actual purpose. In this way, it is hard to confidently classify cotton buds with either drugs or alcohol. Am I using or misusing them?
August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment
There is something I have experienced which I am here going to call “Reverse Perversion”. It is a state of mind that is mostly self-induced, but also, kind of, initiated by others. To explain it, I will use a recent example.
I was walking into town from home the other week, when I came to a shortcut alley which would shave 1 minute off my walk. It is a bit of a dodgy-looking alley, often with torn bags of festering trash, discarded broken toys, broken glass and the like. At night I avoid it, but in the day it is fine (it was day at the time of my walk). As I approached the alley, I saw two young kids were slowly making their way up said passage. The kids were probably nine and seven years old, a boy and a girl, slowly meandering to the other end, chatting. Then suddenly they stopped dead in their tracks and conversation, and turned towards me. Our eyes met, and they scanned my intentions. Their little faces were genuinely worried.
I turned from the alley, and took the longer route into town.
Perhaps my anxiety was unfounded. If I had continued up the alley, I doubt they would have ran screaming. The ill feeling would have gone no further than that initial awkwardness. But it was something about their looks of fear that stopped me, and forced another minute on my walk.
The state of “Reverse Perversion” is perhaps a mostly male burden. We men are after all, ladies, life’s Intimidators, Muggers, Rapers. It is also almost certainly for men who engage in a lot of self-analysis. Too much, perhaps. Also, I think it’s because I have a beard: pretty much uniform for behind-the-bush perverts.
This kind of thing makes the possible victim (the children in this story) into the aggressor, but through displaying weakness. It is oddly empowering to at-risk groups, but perhaps not a good policy to adopt if you’re being mugged, or attacked by a pack of racoons. It is pre-emptive defence, against people who aren’t going to attack you. It is a stating of moral positions.
This social phenomenon is of course, one of the many complex negotiations we undertake in our modern lives, where awareness of danger is heightened, sensationalised, and with it, the potential risks of every situation. This anxiety can make you into a passive-aggressor (as was the case in the kids’ eyes), or a victim (poor me).
Reverse Perversion (I’ve dropped the inverted commas: it’s now official) is also behind the logic, I guess, of pensioners who aggressively exert their oldness as a get-out-of-jail-free card. When old ladies and gents force their way past you on the bus, or don’t thank you when you open doors for them: as if it is your obligation to be polite, just because their faces (and hidden flesh- gross) is a bit creasy. So what is actually a choice on a young person’s part, becomes a kind of enforced rule, which is not to be discussed.
I will keep opening doors and offering bus seats to the elderly, but if they don’t acknowledge it with a thank you, or even a cheeky nod-and-wink combo, then I will almost certainly quietly drop the C-word under my breath, for my own satisfaction.
But maybe, old people who act like this are just taking what’s owed to them. They themselves went through my position many years before, so perhaps this is recompense. Maybe I will do the same by the time I’m in my seventies. Act out on all my repressed anger against society by subtly undermining other people’s kindness. But who’s to say there will be buses and doors by the time I reach my golden years? If that’s the case, I will develop my own personal methods to be a nob.
I enjoyed watching the Olympics. The sport I liked the most was Rhythmic Gymnastics. It is such an elegant and skilful artform. I hate standard gymnastics, especially men’s. The routines are all about becoming like a machine: scoring the most difficult combinations as possible. There is no room for interpretation, artistry, humour. For me, the best sports are those that can combine skill with artistry and humour. That’s why I love and practice Capoeira. And that’s why I think Rhythmic Gymnastics is the most enjoyable Olympic sport to spectate.
The way they use their prop (a ball, hoop or ribbon) is quite mesmerising. The level of practice required to master their routines must be immense. The best performers always are able to balance technical difficulty with an artistic sensibility. And, well, dancing in a leotard whilst throwing a toy around can never be completely po-faced. Humour finds its place, whether intentionally or otherwise.
Team routines have the added campness of the synchronised smiling. When a team enters the performance floor, they all crack their most inane grins possible, at exactly the same time. It is quite terrifying. If MI6 are looking to hire some sexy assassins, like those seen in any number of Hollywood movies, I’d say these girls are well qualified.
Not long after the Olympics finished I read two articles in different newspapers which both asked whether Premiership football pick up the mantle of The Games, and live up to the good feeling, sportsmanship and positive energy the Olympics generated. Of course it bloody won’t. The journalists equated the surge in interest in sports such as swimming and cycling (as a spectator activity) as a sign that the British public had a hunger for different sports too, and that the good feeling around the stadiums amongst fans towards sports people of all nationalities (as opposed to the football fan’s approach of roundly booing the opposition) was something that could transfer to football’s terraces. No way, no how.
Firstly, going to the Olympics was a one-off event. A party. A day out. So spectators, having paid so much, travelled from all over, sometimes for only one event. Of course they’re going to act nicely; take it all in. Their emotions aren’t invested in the event because it is so remote to them. It’s like going to a movie. Also, there was probably a larger number of people coming from middle-class backgrounds making up the crowd, than at football. Now of course, that’s not to say football doesn’t have its fans from various walks of life, but the majority of fans who go to see their team play every week are still largely from working-class families. The history of football in this country is entwined with working-class culture, and a community’s football team would traditionally be made up of local guys, with their families and mates cheering them on. Football is professional now, but the tribalism of “protecting one’s family”, or “defending one’s area”, still exists in football, and always will. It is their local team still, even if most of their team are multi-millionaires bought from overseas. Most Olympic sports have only associations to private school education, because it is those schools that have the best facilities.
Anyone can enjoy any sport, but you’re never going to see widespread hooliganism in Equestrian crowds, realistically speaking. Are you? It’s not a matter of “class”, exactly, but more of the spectator’s connection to the sport. I don’t think it helps much that football is so sensationalised in the UK. That feeds the hysteria. I genuinely hope that football can recede a little from public interest, and that the limelight can be shared with other sports, which sometimes are genuinely more fun to watch. I’d gladly watch rhythmic gymnastics every week, if it was on TV. But even if there was diving every week on TV, I doubt we’d ever hear this: “Eh, Bob, do you want come and watch the diving with me at the pub?”
Recently I saw a review of a film that said the movie was “so aware of its own stupidity that it is virtually beyond criticism”. What an amazing description. I’d like to have that said about me one day. In fact, it is top of the list for things to be carved into my gravestone.
Yesterday I saw a baby with drawn-on eyebrows. It made the baby look oddly grown up. But the mum missed a trick, I think.
Two eyebrows raised: permanently surprised baby
One eyebrow raised: coy baby
Two eyebrows down: evil baby
Some food for thought.
August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
So it’s been a few weeks since my last post. I have been in the hills in Tuscany, and then to the Edinburgh Fringe. Both great trips, which I will touch upon in this long delayed post.
Italy was amazing, as it always is, with great weather and great food. But this trip was the first time that I have been deep into Italy’s countryside- surrounded by forests and mountains. I won’t dwell too much on the natural beauty of the place, one because I didn’t take photos, and two, because I find blogs that describe holidays in minute detail extremely annoying. (If it can be considered a waste of paper, then don’t even write it on the internet- that’s my rule)
But two things that I really took away from the experience, that might not be totally banal for you to read, was how alien nature is. Of course, in these kind of rural environments, man really is the the alien being, as an invading force, in a space dominated by seen and unseen nature.
I found a scorpion in my wash bag. In the panic of disposing of it I violently disregarded its right not to be flung into the distance. I was just defending my expensive soaps: a very human reaction.
All nature in these kind of environments seem to have extra confidence. The flies were massive, and seemingly drunk in the heat- swinging through the air with a low hum, before landing the corner of your mouth. Then there are the spiders. A friend, the keeper of the house we stayed in, pulled on a jacket he hadn’t worn for a couple of weeks, only to find a Sci-Fi horror scene attached to his back: around ten grey, powdery spider pods, shaped like miniature urns of dirt, full of semi-formed baby spiders (as we found out after poking one open) squirming with despair, brought into the light before their time. Needless to say, those wonders of nature were smashed remorselessly into the ground and stomped into non-existence. We were just doing our bit to prevent a full-scale invasion and resulting enslavement from a breed of miniature extra-terrestrial face-huggers.
Since coming home I couldn’t help but abandon my usual spider policy of live-and-let-live. Every arachnid I came across took on a new, sinister light. “Does that spider look foreign to you?”, I would ask my wife. Driven by my horror stories, she would engage her God-palm and dispatch its (potentially fatal) being. Better safe than dead by insect bite.
The second, slightly mundane observation I bring to you from Italy, is that their fruit is so big on the market stalls, that I momentarily felt like I had lost my sense of depth perception. Never before has the sight of a bunch of white grapes made me weak at the knees. Oh. And the figs. The figs.
Edinburgh was a fantastic experience. Better than Italy, I would like to say, or rather, more up my street.
It is a fantastic city in its on right, but with the Fringe Festival on, it is like a waking dream for me, at every moment of the day. I will give here a short run down of the shows we saw, and give brief reviews, for what its worth. If you’re going to Edinburgh in the next couple of weeks maybe it can inform your choices. If you’re not going then please humour me with your eyes.
Detention, by Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio (Hong Kong). Described in the brochure as “a non-verbal comedy combined with powered acrobatics, off-the-wall clowning and throbbing percussion”. It was truly terrible. For anyone who has seen or done any percussion before, the drummed element was embarrassingly bad. The acrobatics seemed pasted in to kill time, and were never truly integrated into the story, which itself was incoherent and dull. Badly directed, poor performances, and a crap story. */*****
After the Rainfall, by curious directive/Watford Palace Theatre/Escalator East to Edinburgh. A devised multi-media theatre piece, combining projection, physical theatre and an ambitious non-linear narrative. It kept me interested, but the story lacked true drama. It had quite a stale tone, with no real reveals or frictions to set the heart racing. If anything, it suffered a little from its own ambition -interweaving three stories from three different eras- and consequently no single strand of the narrative felt fully realised. An interesting idea at the heart of it (exploring the aftermath of Empire, through “Britain’s relationship to artefacts, mining and the secret life of ants”), but never better than just good. ***/*****
Translunar Paradise, by Theatre Ad Infinitum. A superb piece of devised physical theatre, combining live accordion playing, masks and mime. The story explored the memories of an old man who loses his wife to cancer. Through a series of highly stylised flashbacks, key moments from their life together -memories good and bad- flood back, as he struggles to let go of the love of his life. It is a remarkably moving piece, with fantastic performances. It is so original and inventive, with amazing interplay between the music and silent action. It has to be seen to be believed. Everyone should see this. Check their website and see if they are touring. You won’t be disappointed. *****/*****
Late N Live. A late-night stand-up show, starting at midnight, and running until 4am. There were some average performers, a couple of poor ones, a couple of stars, and a lot of drunken audience heckling (and later a full-on fist fight). It was a good experience, but it is certainly not the best environment to see comedy in. The star performers? Host Jarred Christmas, a New Zealand comic who is becoming increasingly well-known, and deservedly so. He held things together brilliantly when the audience threatened to destroy and pillage. Also, Swedish comedian Carl-Einar Häckner, whose low-fi attempts at prop comedy and magic were a joy, only to be topped by the truly grotesque ending to his spot, whereby he “accidentally” headbutted a harmonica into his mouth, which he then got an audience member to extract with a pair of over-sized tongs. A very endearing and energising performer, and probably about to get very famous in the UK. ***/*****
The Price of Everything, by Daniel Bye. Described in the brochure as “Part performance lecture, part stand-up storytelling, Daniel Bye’s smart whistle-stop tour of bizarre facts and impassioned arguments about value”, the show sought to explore “the difference between the price of an object and its value”. This all sounds incredibly interesting (which is why I went to see the show), but despite the deep philosophical, political and comic potential in this aim, this performance was disappointingly bereft of any real ideas, or indeed, interest. He gave us all a free glass of milk, whilst explaining how he would use milk as a reoccuring symbol for a unit of value throughout the show- breaking down the value of a pint of cow-juice, and championing it as an object which “is good value for money”. But I don’t drink milk. In fact, a large number of the audience refused his offer. This then brought up the question- is it possible to create an objective idea of value? He did not explore this idea. Indeed, many ideas seemed to sneak up on his presentation, but he failed to address any of them. He seemed more interested in dwelling on revelling in post-theatrical irony, deconstructing his own performance, and telling long, dull, made-up anecdotes. It was a show that never really seemed to start. */*****
Jason Byrne- People’s Puppeteer. On Saturday night, me and my wife went to see Jason Byrne live, in his new touring show. I love Jason Byrne. He is lively and upbeat, and full of energy. I have always seen him deliver 10 minute routines on TV stand up shows, so was really looking forward to him having a whole hour to run on his thoughts. In the end, I found the show good, but not superb. He has some great lines, but I somehow think he works better in smaller chunks, surrounded by comics of contrasting styles. ***/*****
4.48 Psychosis, by Fourth Monkey. This play was written by Sarah Kane, an English playwright, in the late nineties, shortly before she killed herself. The play explores the psychotic mind, through a narrative in which the central protagonist, a young woman under going psychological treatment for depression, is bombarded with voices from her own mind, and that of the doctors around her. The play was performed on a stage of light up squares (a bit like Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video), which would illuminate in different combinations when the various actors took to the stage, in highly stylised action. Needless to say, the play was incredibly dark and serious. Expressionistic, pared down theatre usually isn’t my cup of tea. Often it seems the default setting for drama students who are a bit “dancey” to devise a work with lots of rolling around and broken, poetic dialogue exploring the subconscious. But with this play coming from a playwright herself in the depths of depression, it was impossible to doubt the authenticity of the writing, and indeed, despite the seriousness of it all, I found it quite an enjoyable experience, albeit one I wouldn’t wish to repeat often. The young performers did a good job of visualising Kane’s ideas with their physicality, and kept me interested throughout the shows bleak 1 hour and 5 minutes. ****/*****
Also on Sunday, we went to The Jazz Bar on Chambers Street, which is playing host to a number of music events throughout the Fringe. First, in the afternoon, we saw a Bossa Nova two-piece, and late in the evening a funk/soul band. Both were good, but it was the space itself which I wanted to champion here. If you like seeing live jazz, soul or otherwise, and are going to Edinburgh this or another year, then pay a visit to The Jazz Bar. It is a great little place, with a nice layout and atmosphere.
Slapdash Galaxy, by Bunk Puppets. A very lo-fi one-man shadow puppet show. Bunk Puppet’s Jeff Achtem screws up bits of paper, modifies remote control cars and attaches puppets to his toes, in a highly ambitious and playful piece of theatre. Though billed as a show for all ages, I thought the story was a little bleak for young kids, and it definitely sagged in places, when props broke or failed to work as wanted. But when it worked, it was highly enjoyable, and undoubtedly an original vision. This is a new work from Bunk Puppets, and it didn’t yet feel complete. Though the quirky slapdash nature of proceedings was undoubtedly the intended character of the piece, I would like to have seen the roughness reigned in a little at times, and a little more coherence. ***/*****
The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, by Gilded Balloon. This play has caused quite a storm since its premiere back in 2010, and his subsequently been performed two hundred times in eighteen cities worldwide. A monologue exploring exploitation in Apple’s main production factory in Chengdu, China, the work has caused controversy, partly due to the fact that many of its details have been proven to be fictitious. This is, of course, a work of theatre and not journalistic reportage. But it is theatre that wishes to change societal perception about something quite integral to contemporary life, with the overall dream of widespread political and industrial change. The piece certainly is brilliantly written. Performed well (as it was here), and it is a magnetic piece of theatre, combining humour with serious politics through a parallel telling of an imagined journey to Chengdu, and the story of the birth of Apple itself. But this is the problem of theatre that wishes to affect political change. It needs to entertain, but hold to its principles. Life doesn’t always fall into a neat dramatic format, and so to make a real story work as a piece of drama, small changes need to be made. But of course this will give your political opponents (which you will undoubtedly have if you establish yourself as being against something so important to a lot of people) lots of ammunition to paint your ideology as fantasy. In the play, playwright Mike Daisey keeps telling us “You see what you choose to see”. It is a provocation to the audience to take more responsibility in its daily life choices, but this phrase, in many ways, also encapsulates Daisey’s own approach to the truth. When your aims are commendable, is a little bit of lying excusable? This, ultimately, is the message of the play; a piece of work that everyone should see. *****/*****
July 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
Art is selfish. *Wipes his brow of sweat having changed society’s perception of culture in one sentence*
I am of course not talking about good art. I am writing about the exception to the exception. That is, not the exception. The norm.
Ever since I was a small child, I either wanted to be an artist or Chinese. I was lucky enough to go to university, and with the freedom of my parents’ support, pursue one of these dreams. Five birthdays on from graduation, I look at everything that has happened with a strong feeling of pride. Sometimes by myself, sometimes with friends, things have happened. I have been busy, and tried my hands at everything from making work, to curation, journalism, and everything in between. I have skimmed the surface of art like a stone thrown from the beach, breaking the surface at choice moments before looping on to the next experiment.
It is with these experiences, as a young and tired artist that I can finally admit to myself that contemporary art, largely, has no purpose.
No matter how it is framed, largely, the same agendas remain behind cultural products as any business; almost certainly the needs of one (almost certainly white, middle-class) man. Though I am white and middle-class, and I studied art, please stick with me.
Often the most anti-social art is the art that claims to be outward facing. Artists today operate in a world where cultural boundaries are said to have dissolved. There is a trend currently of making artwork that is so unlike art, that you’d be excused for thinking it wasn’t art at all. People get together and have a drink, and it’s art. Someone else makes up a game, and it’s art. There’s a barbeque, and it’s art.
Artists aren’t good socialisers. That is often what makes kids artistic in the first place: a large amount of free time, away from other people. So in some ways you can excuse artists for dressing Fun up in a conceptual wig, and calling it Culture. It’s almost sweet. But it is exactly that kind of art that average people detest. Are we making art for everyone? Not necessarily, but surely if your audience is made up 100% of fellow artists, you have to ask what it’s for.
Perhaps this rant is actually a guilty admission, that MY art is selfish. I have wondered this before, but seeing what other people are capable of, how cold, and obtuse and prosaic contemporary art often is, you can almost excuse those artists who would call a meal Art, because at least there will be food there.
What constitutes an art “education” is a debate as old and long as a queue to a Cliff Richard concert. At university we were taught that an artist, above all else, must be bloody-minded, that is to say, a little selfish when required. You cannot fault lecturers for that- they have been through the grinder themselves, and seen the norm.
June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
On Friday, an event called Night of Festivals took place in Nottingham, bringing carnival-style performances from around the globe to the Old Market Square, with music ranging from salsa, merengue, bachata, to samba percussion, and Haitian horn blowers. It was nice to have another occasion in which to see Nottingham’s lunatics and eccentrics take to the streets and dance like only they know how. These kind of free, open-air events strike me as a brilliant holiday for homeless people. For once, they get to join in with the festivities. At one point on Friday night, a drunk, toothless, homeless lady was dancing with a Storm Trooper. If that’s not a holiday from yourself, I don’t know what is.
I noticed the other day that the kazoo I keep in the bathroom -which is not there for any practical purpose; humming whilst on the loo or otherwise- has been cobwebbed on the inside. You’ve got to lower your opinion of spiders after seeing such a thing. I mean, really, come on. That must be the spider equivalent of doing all your food shopping at the £1 shop. I love the thought of a fly flying through a kazoo, though. I wonder if their already drone-like hum would take on a new level of intensity at the core of the instrument?
I don’t understand the appeal of the Playboy logo as a kind of brand. Like the Nike tick, the bunny has now hopped out of its original context, and you see it on posters, trousers, t-shirts, as vinyl stickers on cars. Girls choose to wear jackets baring a symbol which stands for the objectification of women. I guess this says a lot about the nature of porn. Where there are men willing to objectify, there are women willing to be objectified; willing themselves a target. Some will say it’s ironic, or outside of its original context, or even perhaps that Playboy aren’t really the worst pornographers around, that they represent a kind of retro time-gone-by. Many men don’t need much encouragement to treat women badly, and if anything, this bunny is less a brand and more a branding: marking livestock for ownership.
In teaching teenagers it is easy to lose your own identity. In situations in which you are the responsible adult in a mire of screeching, spotty, hormonal try-hards, it is hard not to become the teacher you hated, or devolve to your own teenage form. Teenagers are terrible things. I have the utmost respect for Secondary School teachers who deal with them every day- especially those teachers of “less cool” subjects.
When you deal with kids infrequently, as I do, it is hard not to be a figure of fun, in the sense that if you’re not prepared, the kids will see you as prey for the taking. I have found that to be funny is the most important skill. Teenage boys in particular like to chat back, and I always enjoy belittling the “smart arse” of the class, responding to one of their attempts at humour by announcing in front of the whole class that I have taught hundreds of kids throughout my life, and in every class there is always one kid who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. But unfortunately for them, they are not special or unique like they think. They tell the same jokes as all the other kids I have ever taught.
It takes them down a notch, and whilst it shows the whole class that I’m not there to be mocked, it also shows them that they can enjoy themselves in my class, but not at expense of some kind of order. It usually has a good effect on them from that point onwards. My ability to be cheeky to teenagers comes from the fact that as a teenager at my school, if you weren’t good at football or fighting, then you had to be funny.
The worse thing a teacher can do, I think, is try too hard to be “on a level” with the teenager. I remember numerous times as a kid when teachers would try this, and though it may work for a moment, soon enough the kids see through it, and will run merry rule over the lesson. I think teachers who do this are the ones who were uncool in their own school days. They see their intervening years as having endowed them with some kind of adult wisdom to be the child’s spiritual guru. I think trying to “talk on the level” of teenagers is more condescending than establishing a line of fair authority. They see through the facade.
I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as an expert in education, but my experiences as a child and teacher have taught me that drawing a consistent line is the key to working with kids. You set the boundaries, lead by example, and be good at what you do. If you are pretending, they will rip you to shreds.
Thinking back to the Night of Festivals, there really is a fine line between mime and dance. Especially for boys, who tend to act stupid to their mates in a dance situation, to thin the embarrassment of “expressing themselves”. Watching the efforts of the various assembled, I couldn’t help but think of holiday camps, and popular dance routines. Even though the music was inflected with a relaxed latino character, the British, bless them, were running around like bulls (sometimes literally, in a semi-racist fashion), and when dancing in pairs would throw their partners around like rag dolls, with little care if their lady of choice hit a hard surface, or another lady of another’s choosing.
I think, as a race, the British are more comfortable with pre-determined group dances. One I remember from one of those nostalgia tv shows had people sit in a line with their legs open, bum to groin with the person behind you and groin to bum with the one in front, from where you would then mime rowing, everyone’s arms moving in time, but bums firmly static on the ground. Really in no form does it resemble dancing. Maybe it was the possibility of a dry hump which made this manoeuvre so popular for a period in the seventies.