Saturday, 10 November 2007

Nights at the Tobacco Factory

Time to question some prejudices, I thought. Time to go see some [shudder]PHYSICAL THEATRE[/shudder].

There, I said it. Now, I know these sort of artform subdivisions are always clumsy and mean different things to different people, but for this purpose it's a useful shortcut. Maybe I'll write about where I draw the lines another time. Draw a map or something.


But not right now. It would be way too boring. So I hope you can deal with the generalisation for a teensy bit longer. Just in case you can't though, here's an alternative, but related venn diagram I found on the internet:

Generally speaking, I DO NOT like what is commonly known as PHYSICAL THEATRE. But not having seen any professional PHYSICAL THEATRE for a while, I thought I'd better make the effort and check I wasn't missing out on lots of spectacular stuff by making such broad sweeping judgments. So I asked a friend who's more tuned in to this kind of work, to recommend me a few things from the Tobacco Factory programme. Then I made the decision and bought the tickets, so I couldn't wuss out at the last minute.

People Show 118: The Birthday Tour
Wednesday, 31 October 07
Created to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the People Show, this felt like a good opportunity to at last see a show by the grandaddies of British experimental theatre. I know I said I wasn't going to go into artform distinctions, but seeing this show, I was struck by how far British experimental theatre has shifted in shape - with People Show now sitting more clearly in the "physical/visual theatre" bracket than the "experimental theatre" one.

It's always good to see really well-honed performance skills on stage and there were some lovely, clever touches in the writing and the staging; but overall, I was never drawn into it. There was a lot of clumsy, unnecessary moving around of the audience. I think you have to be so careful when you start giving audiences instructions - it's immediately distracting as a tactic. I think it works much better if you can make the audience feel like they are choosing to move with you, rather than being herded around (which is kind of how this felt). From what I could gather, some of the audience enjoyed the novelty of moving through different spaces... which reminds me how lucky I am to see the range of performance I do. It would be fair to say that at least half of the performance work I see doesn't involve me sitting in a seating rake, in the dark or even in a theatre. Whether that's a good or bad thing, it certainly means that the gimmick of simply displacing from the 'stage' is just not enough for me anymore.

There were some beautiful, lush staging and set design at the end of the show, but the pillars in the Tobacco Factory prevented me from seeing the whole picture at any one time. But for me,
the real problem was the constant "Did you get what I just did then? >>wink-wink<<" at the audience. I'm really not a fan of the kind of extended gestures that seem to characterise physical theatre (yeah, thanks Lecoq, thanks a bundle...), and to my mind, this is made about a MILLION times worse when the actors give you that little look, or that little pause as if to say, "Did you see what I did just then?>>wink-wink<<" AAAAARRRGH. It really frustrates me that some areas of theatre still thinks it's ok to do stuff that's 'on the nose', in a way that you'd never get away with in film or TV. Although, if you're into that kind of thing, it still seems to be running rife through radio comedy drama. The People Show are nowhere near as unsubtle with it as a company like Told By An Idiot (I'm sorry, I hate them. I know they're good at what they do, but I hate what they do). It just frustrates me that the clever, subtle elements - of the writing in particular - were overshadowed by the performance style and clumsiness of the structure.

Jo Stromgren Kompani: The Convent

Thursday, 1 November 07
4 mad Norwegian women with crazy faces doing great slapstick dressed as nuns.

I really enjoyed this show. It was exquisitely put together. The vocal work was fantastic, ranging from weird gibberish conversations to a capella choral harmonies, all mic-ed up to resonate thickly in the space. It was like watching a good old-school cartoon. It was all in its own world, and all played with complete conviction - despite its absurdity. I know it doesn't work for everyone, but I'm a sucker for good slapstick and this made me laugh a lot.

It was useful to see it right on the heels of the People Show and it really helped me clarify why I didn't engage with the show the night before. Sure, The Convent was light and inconsequential, but it was also a world richly realised and clear with its own rules. It was a great ride. The People Show piece seemed all about undermining its own conventions as the main point of the show (using the company's experiences/history as a loose backbone), which I think is a pretty dated concept now, and not very interesting in itself.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Kettle of Fish: Tequila Mockingbird

Wednesday, 24 October 2007. Wickham Theatre, Bristol

Firstly - thank you to the company for inviting me and for sticking a comp aside for me. It's always much appreciated and I don't take it for granted.

This is the first show by 'Kettle of Fish' , a company of recent (2007) Bristol drama dept graduates. It was up at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and is showing to the home crowd at the Wickham. It was an all-female company, which still seems to be a rare thing to see.

The show was loosely set up as a kind of game-show or 'reality' experiment show, with two 'presenters', five 'competitors/experimentees' and the odd 'expert'. As the audience enter the space, we're asked whether we consider ourselves a "success" or a "failure". The show starts with the two presenters introducing themselves as failures (aspiring to success) before listing the top five characteristics of successful people. Apparently, "successful people" are: Confident, Funny, Loving, Well-Connected and Ruthless. These characteristics are represented(?)/ embodied(?) by five performers who play out how inadequately they fulfill their label. Sometimes an "expert" is brought on to advise, sometimes not. Some of the 'competitors' get better at their characteristic, some don't.

In my experience, there are a number of traps that graduate shows tend to fall into, and this one fell into the "light comedy for Edinburgh" one. As you can probably tell, I'm far too jaded to expect anything at all from a graduate show, but I find this works as a good strategy for keeping me in check, so that I a)spit only the appropriate level of vitriol at the rubbish bits, and b)get pleasantly surprised at anything that shows a glimmer of potential quality.

Well this had a couple of glimmers going for it - there weren't any outstandingly bad performers (the material was so patchy though, that it was difficult to tell how good any of them actually were); and they were clearly unafraid of using humour in a 'ballsy woman' kind of way. I think it's the impact of Smack the Pony and Spaced.

My main criticism is about the lack of rigour in its writing and structure. It called itself an experiment, but then played fast and loose with that frame (findings presented before the experiment took place, complete lack of clarity as to what the objective of the experiment was). I know it's NOT A REAL EXPERIMENT, but if you want me in the audience to pretend that it could be, I need you on stage to act convincingly like it could be. But there was barely any reference to any of the conventions of an experiment, so the whole framework became a distraction and a bit irrelevant. It's possibly the secret science geek in me, but I hate it when artists do that. I feel like I'm being cheated by someone who doesn't think they have to try very hard to cheat me. Make more of an effort to cheat me, you artists!

I also found the writing quite lazy. Its points of reference seemed to be comedy sketches rather than anything with a more sustained dynamic. Everyone on stage was a cipher. Everything pointed to the gag.

Towards the end, they introduced the experiment... Eh? What? Didn't you introduce the experiment already? Isn't that what we've been watching for the last hour?... which involved blindfolding the experimentees/competitors and challenging them to find and eat 5 doughnuts hung loosely in front of them. What worked here was that the performers were going at the task with real conviction - it was simply more convincing than anything else that happened in the entire show. The 'presenters' were genuinely watching out for the blindfolded competitors, genuinely making sure that they didn't fall off the edge of the stage. It was a bit of genuine excitement in a show that was otherwise very very fake. Unfortunately the section ended with a musical routine (I think it was that song from A Chorus Line that you'll recognise even if you don't know the musical), which basically acted as the punch-line to the section and, to my mind, undermined it.

Most of the audience enjoyed it, and for a graduate piece, I don't think they did too badly at all for themselves. It was a show made for a cabaret space in Edinburgh, and some of the decisions which would have worked for that context, were a little out of place in a black box, proscenium arch studio theatre. I hope the next piece thinks a little harder and runs a little further with an idea.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

iceandfire/actors for refugees: Asylum Monologues

Wednesday 24 October, Barton Hill Settlement, Bristol

I got into work this morning and one of my colleagues had just heard that this was on at midday, so we decided to spur-of-the-moment it across there.

Briefly, this is how Asylum Monologues works: the script is constructed from first-hand testimonies of asylum seekers and contextual information about the process of seeking asylum in the UK. This script is then read from the page by actors, accompanied by a live score. It's not a fixed work. The script is regularly reworked with different stories and updated information about the UK asylum system. The performers are found through Actors for Refugees, a UK-wide network of professional actors.

The stories are truly horrific. Everyone should hear them, because there is no way you could imagine the extremes of trauma or terror that has driven these people to leave their homes and seek asylum in another country. And when we're so regularly asked to have an opinion about "asylum and immigration" (as if they're the same thing... they're not), it's important not become complacent.

What's perhaps more shocking is the intractability and brutality of the UK asylum system. The case made here is that it is designed to be practically unusable by the asylum seeker. The script also suggests that the wording of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, designed post-WW2, does not anticipate state crimes against the individual which are often cited today; and that the UK government regularly exploits these dated parameters of how to determine the threat posed to the individual in their home country, in order to find against the asylum claim.

As you can probably tell from what I've just written, my main problem with the script was with these statements about the asylum system. Don't get me wrong, I find the information presented here much more convincing than the mixed up bag of stats that tends to get wheeled out in the media. But by relying so heavily on one source for its facts (Amnesty International), it gave me an uneasy air of oversimplifying the issue, and sounding just as reactionary as the 'opposing' arguments. Personally, I think Amnesty International is an amazing organisation, and I was a fully paid up campaigning member when I was younger, but I know good people, in my family, who perceive Amnesty to be biased against any government in power - supporting terrorists if they have to. It has become a complicated subject - full of confusion and misunderstanding. By falling into "them and us" territory with "the system", I think the project undermines its very real potential to change people's minds.

As "theatre", Asylum Monologues is all about getting its point across. At first, I felt really uneasy about the fact that the stories of three African asylum seekers were being told by three very well spoken and probably very middle class, white actors. But it didn't take long for that unease to drop away. In fact, the notion that these could be anybody's stories probably came across more strongly as a result of the obvious displacement. And even though the stories were told in first-person, it never felt like they were being appropriated by these actors or by the production as a whole. Other than their being introduced as such, the main way you could tell they were proper actors was that they constantly spoke with that actors' cadence (I don't know how else to describe it, but you'll know it when you hear it - emphasis on the end of sentence...)

I can't say much about the music, I'm afraid. Multi-skilled musician, but it was mainly just filler when a pause in the narrative was needed.

It was good to see this in a community hall, attended by a lot of local residents. I was surprised by how attentive the audience was, considering how many distractions there were around the space and how un-showy the piece was.

I'll say it again, these are powerful stories and everyone should hear them. I think the impact will stay with me for some time. They are such important words.