Morale is High (Since We Gave Up Hope)

This latest innovation from Powder Keg is a fuck off, head banging, dark, celebratory gig/show/fortune telling/revolution. That’s a lot of words. You need them to try and encapsulate the joy and anger everyone in that room (I think) felt. We’re going to be okay. We aren’t okay yet, but we will be.

Ross has woken up in the future and he’s here to tell Jake, and us, everything. He’s got a futuristic silver sparkly jacket from Primark and he looks super cool. He tells us tomorrow’s headline (and he’s right about it – go on, look it up). He tells us about his local pub, about coming back home.

Ross and Jake are our guides for the evening, leading us through Manchester from today, to tomorrow, to 2020 where none of the things we want to have happened have actually happened but there’s a sense that’s they could, and maybe we’re alright. The frustration that comes with not being listened to, being interrupted, being given £50 for the train fare by Michael Gove after you wake up in his house when it’s actually £75, is articulated pretty well in PK’s show. There’s a tug between collective resistance and hopelessness (despite what the title might suggest). The protest in 2020 is going really well (says Jake), except it’s not (says Ross).

It’s really really hard to make a coherent, well formed, funny, sincere show about politics without making people shy away. Powder Keg manage to help us escape and bring us to action. They join us together in jeers and laughter, help us share in our anger at jobs disappearing, at benefit cuts, at gentrification.

See this show for many reasons, but also see it for the music: the super catchy, spangled banner, rock heavy anthems that you want to scream along to. On the last night I want to have a dance party on the stage, holding our middle fingers and placards to the elite, and hugging tightly as we scream and laugh our way into the apocalypse, or maybe just into a pub in the year 2020.

The Edited Lowlights of My Country

My Country: a work in progress

For Clara Potter Sweet and Rufus Norris

 

I went into My Country: a work in progress with two assumptions. Number one, that I would either love it or hate it. Number two, that it was the play itself which was the work in progress, not out country.

Both were wrong.

The opening is kind of trite, a little gimmicky (I want to give it the benefit of the doubt but this doesn’t bode well) – “Britannia” or “Britney” as she is (mis)named, comes on stage with the house lights still on from a door in the back of the theatre. A woman behind me says to her husband “Oh shush, it’s started already, pay attention”. The audience are lulled into silence and Carol Ann Duffy’s words begin to be spoken. And they are unmistakeably Carol Ann Duffy – I’m thrown back to my GCSE English class where we told that she is the Poet Laurette and so she is the Best Poet.

With the lights up on the audience it’s clear that this audience is very specific – the average is probably sixty and a large majority are white. Maybe this is Warwick, maybe it’s the show. (I think it’s probably the show)

The rest of the ensemble begin to enter with their various ‘theme tunes’ changed with a remote pointed at the lighting box. As they enter I notice that they are mostly all white, except for one Asian woman. I did already know this would be the case as I read Charlotte Maxwell’s fantastic review. She addresses this issue far better than I ever will.

The lights finally go down and the audience get a real idea of the set which was very basic. School desks which remind of History Boys and Matilda are pushed into the centre. The pushing of the desks is also basic, and looks unrehearsed. There was very little done with the set (at the end the upstage screen lights up orange and the actors wander about behind it), so the words and performances should have been able to carry it. It might have been better to see it in a small black box studio, where the half empty theatre I was sat in would have felt cramped, in a good way. The moving of the desks prefaced the rest of the movement, which lagged behind the fast moving verbatim script. Polly Bennet (People, Places & Things, Pomona, nut) is cited as the movement director and yet I saw none of her undeniable talent translated on stage.

The verbatim script was good and did what it said on the tin, but it didn’t make me feel much. I was kind of just told what I already knew. That this country is a weird mishmash of racist assholes and conservatism and tradition. The comment that was made on the verbatim, whatever it was, came across as clunky and overworked. It was trying to be objective and yet I don’t think a leave voter would have felt it was a show made for them. (Should we be making shows for them? Would they even come and see them?)

The atmosphere was strange. One audience member loudly says “Boris” when Penny Layden did her (arguably wonderful, arguably overdone) impression of Johnson. An audience member also laughed loudly at a white man speaking as a Saudi Arabian. Three people gave a standing ovation, and some jeered (cheered? not sure)

It wasn’t all bad, okay, I liked the singing. I liked the songs. Not the recordings – the live singing of the songs. The rousing chorus made me feel more than the poetry did. The Irish dancing was also good, although I could sense not particularly skilled.

Ultimately, it was meh. Kind of considered not posting this review, but I think I need to stop writing reviews and then never posting them. (Maybe?) I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. It was just a bit boring. And it could DEFINITELY have been a work in progress show (I would have given some good and worthy feedback). Standing outside the theatre, the two (probably) oldest members of the audience walked out, saying “Well that was disappointing” and I really couldn’t have agreed more which seems ironic in the context of Brexit. The show was just an edited collection of lowlights (and occasional highlights) of the British public.

FOOTNOTE: They talked about Donald Trump in a Brexit play. I mean. Really.

Scotland, doing a bad Trump impression: “Fake News”

Britannia: “I love [Scotland’s] independence” 

(And because it was the NATIONAL Theatre they had to talk about the state of the NATION and talk about everyone on a NATIONAL scale about a NATIONAL issue of the NATION – this diss is stolen from Clara PS…sorry)

 

strangeness and love

nuclear war

When I walk in I decide to watch the show in the chair that looks like the one in my grandmother’s first house, in the corner of the dining room. I think the show will be dystopian, political, divisive. I cross my legs. I uncross my legs. People are watching me as they walk in, I’m watching them. We watch each other in the performance, too. The show wasn’t what I thought, in fact was an acute examination of grief and loneliness in a world of isolation and love.

burn a coffee on a stranger. have sex. speak to someone on the tube, don’t speak to someone on the tube, have sex. orgasm, don’t orgasm. switch on the light. drink milk. hide. grieve. miss. fold the duvet cover. don’t speak to someone on the tube. leave the underground. sun. sun. bright. tangerine. tangerine tights. mess. bricks. teacup, teacup, break.

The world of the play is big. By this I think I mean the physical space in which we all sit feels wide, high, bloated. There are huge gaping pieces of empty floor and wall. Only two rows of chairs line the very edges of the space. Mismatched and in keeping with the lamp and dressing table, the chairs are bolted to the floor. The performers watch us. We can’t really see them but we can see enough of them to know that they are watching us.

At the start of the show Maureen Beattie downs milk in a glass. She downs a further glass of water. Simon Stephens watches on. I can’t tell what he’s thinking and later we learn he hated it until today. I loved it, the downing of the water, it was the first moment I realised I loved the show.

The world is dance the world is noise is the size of the room is the colour of the lights.

Colour. I remember colour. The stage is red and everything is red. Beattie points out the yellow. Suddenly I see everything on the stage that’s yellow. Back of headphones and cigarette butt and lamp.

We follow a woman on a day. It’s a day any day, it’s seven years after a death. I want this to have happened over 45 minutes. Maybe she hasn’t even left her house and when she comes home at the end she’s really just leaving her room and we’re on a loop.

Maybe not.

There’s a lamp light in the middle of the room. It’s a carpeted room. I love the huge fuck off speakers dragged along the cream carpet. A long wire connecting to the lamp reaches from the middle of the space into a far corner. I’m scared the dancers will trip but they definitely don’t trip because Imogen is good she’s really fucking good. The movement contained, formed, outlined the words. (Radical for the Court? Maybe. Maybe a new iteration of exacting psychological human thought). Black coats, no shoes. Body morphs, writhes, eats. We’re confronted with destruction, orgasm, chaos.

Another thing I loved was the tights over the heads. You don’t see it at first. That’s the best kind of visual image because it makes you work for it. The performers stuff an orange in their mouths (is there a mouth hole in the tights??). They gorge on orange zest citrus. Correction, tangerine in mouth. That’s important.

Later there are ripped up pieces of orange on the floor. Mess and crumble and peel. What is left after grief? Perhaps it is the cathartic exhaustion after crying in public. Heaving cries, not just little tears. The mess, and the orange tangerine peel.

It’s near the end and now the world is a heptagon of bricks. A plant thrown down in the centre of the small smaller tiny world. The world is her arms the world is dark.

What nuclear war was, or what it seemed to me to be, was a cacophony of visceral feeling and experience. Sounds pretentious, probably is. Every part of the movement and words deeply cuts us, forcing its way into our peripheries and stretching our necks to far corners of the space. The four dancers cover their face with tights and we also feel the suffocation. Physically and emotionally. Suppressed by a grief that is at once all-encompassing and elusive.

I have mixed feelings which I don’t think comes across here. Maybe I’ll write another review in a month, or a year.

Also as I publish this Simon Stephens sits 10 meters away in the Royal Court bar.

Later, I speak to him and I’m so nervous I snap my metal ring in half. He tells me to keep writing and I get very emotional and it’s one of those things I know I’ll remember.

One Person Talks About Violence

Big Guns. Posh. Grounded. 

Three shows in two weeks. All of them about violence.

It’s somewhere around 1594 and a groundling at the Globe has just been sick over their only good pair of clothes. They are watching Titus and Andronicus and a guy dressed as a girl has just walked in with their hands cut off and tongue pulled out. It’s 2015 and an elderly lady has just fainted in the third row back at the National Theatre watching Cleansed. Theatre really shocks people. And that’s just the graphic stuff. Stage violence has had a long-standing history and it doesn’t move in a straight line. You can read about it on Wikipedia. The point is, violence and particularly violence on stage gets to us, to audiences, in a way that films, books, the news, doesn’t. In the three productions I saw, none of them actually showed any violence, or at least the one stage fight I did see I am preferring to block from my memory for now (we’ll come to that later).

Big Guns at the Yard Theatre, directed by Dan Hutton and written by Nina Segal, has an awesome, rock and roll, in-yer-face, super aesthetic opening image. Two girls sit in a carved out ledge on a stage slanted upwards. They’re wearing 3D glasses. It’s red, everything is red. There’s popcorn, there’s a hot dog, they sip pepsi. The play begins and we are taken on a path through some jaunty but slightly repetitive dialogue. It’s kind of Crimp, it’s kind of Churchill but it’s not really either. The actors act it which is perhaps not the intention here. Of the director or the writer, in my opinion. There’s a lot of blackouts. Like, a lot. And torches which is clever and there’s a chilling moment where the lights are off and an actor is speaking in the blackout, but then a torch shines on her and we see she’s not speaking at all. It’s a little unsettling. More than anything this play talks about violence. It talks about guns, pornography, technology, blogs, and well, I’m not really sure what else. There is a man in the room and he’s got a gun. We know that, we are told that, but isn’t that kind of…obvious? As a metaphor, as a threat, as a central image? Suddenly the actors are crying (fake crying) and standing right in front of us and the lights are on us and I feel overwhelming not shocked. Not thrilled. Not excited. I don’t think I really feel challenged either. I feel quite negative, about the world, about my generation (something I don’t enjoy feeling), about men with guns. But I’m not fired up. The bullets aren’t loaded yet and the trigger isn’t even close to being pulled. I really wanted to love this show and I did like it, I just don’t think it worked for me. I didn’t feel violated. That’s how violence should make you feel. Like your skin shouldn’t be attached to your body. Like you can’t remember when your heart wasn’t beating faster than it normally does. I was waiting for something that didn’t happen, and not really in a good way.

Saying that, I do have to credit Big Guns for being better than the show I saw most recently. Laura Wade’s Posh at Pleasence Theatre in Islington (it’s more like Holloway). It’s marketed as an all-female cast, that’s the selling point, that’s why I booked a ticket because I thought it might do something new. Although this was my first time seeing Posh performed, I do know the play a little and I was interested to see how the show held up with women in the central roles. Not well, apparently. As discussed on my twitter with Nastazja (@NastazjaSomers) the acting was good (particularly impressed with Gabby Wong, thought she carried the whole show) but the direction was confused and basic, there was no real vision for the all-female cast, it just felt like a half-hearted publicity stunt.  The gender bend was also a bit half hearted – were they women playing men or women (and if so why weren’t any pronouns changed). I saw why the two originally female roles weren’t changed, because seeing women berating and harassing other women is ‘creepy’ as my mother put it. After the first act I decided that it would be unbearable to watch a male cast perform this play. The leering, the constant bigotry, the disgusting sexual degradation of the female characters. But actually, I think it would also have been incredibly difficult to watch this play performed by white men because then the words become violent in a very different way. The most powerful men in the country are reflected here. What does that say about us? But then you put women in their roles and it has the potential to be expertly subversive. Sadly, it was not, and didn’t seem to want to advance women at all, really. The direction itself was lazy and I’ve seen it a thousand times. Strobe and slow motion choreography, didactic recordings of the play’s message, a very badly directed fight scene, all made for a show where the words were violent, no doubt, but the show? Not at all. I was in no way affected by this piece of theatre. And I really should have been. Edward Bond didn’t tackle censorship laws for this – he expects better, we all expect better.

Then there comes a type of violent theatre that shakes you. Like really fucking shakes you. And you are left with an empty stomach and no fucking words except, well, except nothing actually. I was left without language really. It’s taken me this long (two weeks) to come to terms with it. To feel like I could write a small bit about it. Grounded at the Gate was performed by the inimitable Lucy Ellinson and directed by Chris Haydon. Lucy is a fighter pilot. She stands in a pixelated, four-walled box. We can see her but she’s blurred. The lines are blurred around her. It’s loud, like really loud, and the disco lights in the floor bounce around. Lucy takes a sip of pepsi. Wipes her mouth. We’re back in Las Vegas, in America, in an army base. She’s controlling a drone. She wipes someone out. She wipes a lot of people out. We don’t see it, but we feel it. We feel it so hard it takes everything I have not to run out. Not to scream to her that it’s wrong. But then, it’s also real. Fear, carnage, and ponies racked the seams of the grey tone reality the fighter pilot stood in. I was sweating. The violence in Grounded comes not only in the bombs, the planes, the wars; it comes in her emotional trauma, her life force being sucked out, in the solid grey walls that box her in at the final moment. We are told of the violence that she creates, we never see it. We imagine it and it’s worse. We feel the violence she feels, we experience it with her, but she’s behind a screen, so the empathy is always artificial.

So, three shows that explore the violence of language, of modern day Britain, of the elite, of weaponry, of theatre. Perhaps it is unfair to compare them and actually it probably is so I’m not comparing them. Please don’t see this as a comparison. It’s an observation of how we talk about violence, and whether certain types of violence affect us more, and why that is. So, my friend Clara loves to tell me about her essays and I love when she tells me about her essays and in one she researched how slow violence really doesn’t affect us like immediate violence. So, climate change is a slow violence, that we can ignore, so we do – we go unaffected. Bombs being dropped in a film is immediate violence, we feel something, even if it’s not much, we feel something at least. I think what theatre must do is take the slow violence, the brooding unnoticed violence and make it immediate. Ask, why can’t you see this as a threat? Why can’t you see me as a threat? Theatrical violence is at its best when it threatens you, when it threatens your apathy. When you leave the theatre guilty. Or afraid. Or responsible. Or, hopefully, fired up.

 

a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun)

debbie tucker green’s decentralisation of power begins in her title. in her very authorship.

what must be grasped is that her writing is specific for black bodies in theatre. she writes that world because it is what she knows but also because it is a powerful political rebellion. yes this show could be performed by a white cast but really it shouldn’t be because that isn’t who it is written about or for.

tucker green remains an elusive figure in british theatre. her lack of interviews, scholarly investigation and profile often make her work seem impenetrable. in fact, it is much the opposite. the language is rhythmic and cuts off, perhaps not what we are used to in an age of television scripts and lingering shakespearian soliloquising, but it is more real than any drawn out monologue. this is how we speak. this is how she gives voice.

notably, there are written silences.

the silences are poetic just as the language is.

sometimes the silences say more. maybe they always say more.

tucker green’s work is so visceral, live, electric. it sparks and flicks. it bites. it bounces off the page into the mouths of the actors and out into the world. it is fire, it is passion, it is delicate. a profoundly follows three couples. inevitably intertwined, the structure of the stories is reminiscent of the three stoning mary narratives that neatly intersect at the final moment.

we sit on swivel chairs, separated into two sections and surrounded on three sides by a raised platform. the floor, walls, and seats, jutting out at perpendicular angles, are all the same blue-green tone. the whole set is a blank canvas, waiting to be patterned with the circles and runes drawn on throughout the evening by the six actors. i was entranced by merie hensel’s design. not only was the jerwood upstairs unrecognisable, the colour schemes worked beautifully. it was a live art installation cleverly masked as a theatre set. the chalk dust caked the actors’ hands, reminding us of the shadows that have followed them from previous scenes and from their lives before the scenes and the after, even if we don’t think about the after.

the acting is sharply placed. the ages of all the characters shift dramatically and some transform in front of us. we are confronted with a linear narrative that is presented through a structure that disrupts. the actors manage and control this eloquently, with grace and force. they are all standout performances. i am whisked away and yet we (the audience) are really all too present.

debbie is political without being overt. she changes the game while refusing to participate in it. she manages to be poetic without ever being wanky, something i am clearly yet to achieve.

 

[picture credit Stephen Cummiskey]

Learning to Die Better

Thoughts on The Children, Escaped Alone and Ecological Disaster

If you’re not going to grow, don’t live.

That’s what Hazel says and that’s what she believes. We believe her.

So I want to chat about James Macdonald for just a second. His two shows at the Royal Court in the past year, Escaped Alone and The Children, asked how we might best learn to cope and die in our old age in the apocalyptic imminence of our world. When Escaped Alone entered theatres in February of this year, it was highly praised for the age of the women on stage. We never see older women as the front runners of plays that are new, explosive, and unsettling. Linda Basset’s periodical and unfiltered documentations created a disquieting show. Churchill’s display of a dying world seen through surreal bifocal lenses asked us what we were willing to accept. Can we accept our mortality? The mortality of our planet? Are we prepared to take responsibility for the consequences, in our back gardens no less? Perhaps we find the answers in The Children.

Lucy Kirkwood presents her aging characters with a moral choice – choose to die for the ‘greater good’ or wait to die for the children, because they need you. Again, we are put in a domestic setting much like our own, except it’s a bit crooked (literally the set was titled). The cows are dead, Ken is dead, the wave came, the ground cracked; things are not as they were. And yet there is denial and a refusal to accept that what has happened, and what is happening, is going to affect how we live and die. We still do yoga, we still drink tea, we still bicker – because what else can we do? And then Rose, an outsider, an intruder, a different kind of person all together, disrupts us. When she presents Hazel and Robin, and us, with her proposal we are caught off guard. Is it our responsibility? Must we rectify what we have destroyed? Because, like Hazel said, they’re the kind of people that cleaned up other people rubbish on picnic sites and now they’ve earned it. They’ve earned the right to leave the mess and they’re tired of this shit. Kirkwood asks us then, essentially, are you prepared to pick up your rubbish and die for it? Because you were the ones that dropped it in the first place, right? I saw glimpses of Churchill in Kirkwood’s writing – the jumps between talk of tea and talk of catastrophe was seamless but there was a shift. What Churchill elongated and examined in Escaped Alone, Kirkwood condensed and put in a ticking clock world. So, what are we going to do?

But actually the question becomes not what are we going to do, but what are you going to do. You, the elusive, conservative older generation that voted for Brexit, that uses nuclear power, that created a system that fucks us – how are you going to fix it? When the shows are watched with these questions floating in the back of your brain, The Children becomes an angry piece of political theatre – pointing fingers and asking who’s going to clean this up? But maybe they’ve done enough and they shouldn’t have to sacrifice themselves? It’s so hard to answer this question, all these questions, because it is happening to us right now. There have been waves and leaks – it just hasn’t happened here yet so for us, for the ones watching the show, it’s not real. Not yet. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately about the Anthropocene and ecocritical thinking and the question that I keep coming back to is, what can we actually do? I think writing literature and plays and making art about the declining state of our planet and our species is important and it’s also futile.

I kind of like that though – it’s futile and if we draw attention to that and ask what is really going to be done, then maybe we can make change? But would we or anyone we know sacrifice themselves to try and salvage our planet? I’m not sure they would, or even if I would. And that is so scary. So we need to learn to die better. We need to learn to accept our own mortality and the impending mortality of this earth if we are complacent. It’s too overwhelming to think about the destruction of our entire species but we need to, and we need, like Macdonald, Churchill, and Kirkwood, to think of death as not something to resist, but simply an inconvenience.

Six Perpetual Ladies and a Two Man Show

This week contained two shows in three days: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour and RashDash: Two Man Show. Both challenged their audiences, examining the female experience through music, dance, and passion. Our Ladies was a fiercely poignant show about choir girls celebrating sexuality; a long frowned upon taboo. Dealing with fragility, love, sex, heartbreak, and dodgy pick-up lines Featherstone Wright created characters who were unapologetically real. Each girl is a package of flaws, humour, and one hell of a voice.

Two Man Show wasn’t as ‘real’, mostly because it was so surreal and detached from any kind of traditional structure of a play or story. The two leading ladies transformed seamlessly from feminist lecturers to nude dancers to closed-off men. The whole show seemed to be pointing out the façade of gender, using extravagant costumes contrasted with bare nudity and pitting the two actresses against their characters in the latter half of the show.

Two Man Show highlighted the inadequacies of words as a way to express identity. Our Ladies certainly was not so overt in their message but it seemed to be similar – these young women expressed themselves through music, dance, and their friendship with each other. The dialogue was powerful and witty but it formed no more than half of who the characters were. In both shows, there was a sense of reclamation, exemplified in the word ‘cunt’ as the ladies of both productions took it back from all the men who so freely and maliciously tossed it around before them.

Featherstone-Wright presents us with badass choir girls who want to have sex with boys. And girls. The actresses had a wonderful ability to pitch it at exactly the right tone. These female characters are, finally, multifaceted and highly flawed. Both overtly sexually confident, falling over each other to prove their worth, and brutally fractured. They are all suffering, or have suffered, but are darkly witty; harmonising and jumping on each other’s lines.

RashDash put on an extremely powerful show. The two incredibly dressed women at the beginning who seemed to be able to spout endless facts about women, patriarchy, and motherhood at the end became two fragile human beings, naked and honestly monologuing about who they are and what a woman should be. In between that, they transform into men losing their father and their way. Fragile masculinity is contrasted with a rampant and radical expression of female sexuality in a cabaret-style powerhouse of a show.

The finale of Our Ladies, preceded by a Forced Entertainment style intro, allows the audience a cathartic rest. ‘No Woman, No Cry’ chimes in perfect pitch and we reflect on the reality of it all the messy pain of radiotherapy, the anti-climax of the popped cherry, and the overriding strength of female friendship. Just as in Two Man Show, we are sent off with the resounding notes of a final song, highlighting the struggle to articulate the intricacies of gender.