Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The Special Guests: Nightfall

Saturday 26 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol

Nightfall has been a long time in the making and, after seeing a couple of quite different work-in-progress versions, I was looking forward to seeing the finished work. Unfortunately I found it to be a pretty flawed show. A shame, as I do think there's a good idea buried in there... but it needs digging out. The good thing is that I think the company recognise this - I know they made some key changes to the following day's show - and they've got a few weeks to work on it before the main body of the tour.

So what went wrong? Well, let's not start there; let's start with where it worked. That title for starters. "Nightfall" is a gloriously evocative starting point for the audience, as well as the theatre-makers. The fact that the show is scheduled to coincide with nightfall (4.40pm in January in Bristol) makes it all the more exciting... I love it when you can clash the heightened focus of a theatre show with the 'real' world... It becomes totally about the then and there. And this was drawn on in the work, with the performers gatecrashing the outside world at regular intervals and measuring the light levels as the night came down. This worked particularly well at Arnolfini, because the theatre loading doors opened directly onto the busy quayside. Revolutionary, it might not be, but to my mind, there's not much better value for money than watching the unsuspecting public being ambushed by a nice bit of performance (and when I say 'a nice bit of performance', I'm not talking no crusty jugglers).

This action of regularly leaving the space, measuring the falling light levels and announcing (through a megaphone) how the activity outside was changing (or not), was crucial in enriching the work inside the space. Effectively, it gave the work a context. The little things, the pretend things, the text-book fact things that formed the main content of the show, were placed in the same frame as that bigger, inexorable falling into darkness, which enveloped us all as we watched. Dynamically, it was important too, as it cut through the fairly boisterous rhythm of the piece with a slower tempo, a stillness and a greater tension.

Unfortunately they stopped repeating this action halfway through the show - ironically, before night had completely fallen. At this point, he work also shifts to a darker, quieter tone, getting gradually smaller and quieter until it ends.

Hmmm... so going back to what went wrong...

Well, pulling no punches, I'd say it lacked rigour and conviction. The piece started in one place and definitely ended in another, but as an audience member, I didn't feel part of that journey. Of course, this was the premiere performance and I can imagine the company being a bit jittery, but the work is more than just the quality of the performances; and in this case, neither the content nor the structure pulled me in either. For a company that prides itself on being unafraid of the audience, the performances were insular to the point where I struggled even to navigate the relationships between the performers on stage. It was as if the show was broken and then patched together awkwardly; with everyone not just nervous that it might fall apart again, but unsure if it was even back together in the right shape.

But then, that sort of patchwork process is how a lot of devised theatre gets put together - built from fragments of experimentation. The mash-up of presentation styles - radio DJ to kids TV science show to game show to post-party conversation and so on - can work well in terms of reframing ideas and pulling audience focus to different perspectives. But in this case, for me, all it did was reveal a lack of anything behind the surface. They told us things, but seemingly for no reason - or certainly for no dynamic or compelling reason. These facts did not accumulate into a greater understanding of a greater whole. They revealed nothing.

And unfortunately, that was the problem. They seemed to have nothing to say. Even with an hour and a half of our attention and a starting point that could have taken us on any number of journeys, we didn't go anywhere. Not even into darkness.

A radical rework is called for.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Good Shit From Bristol: Live Art Weekender (Part 2)

Saturday 12 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol

Blimey, there's nothing like this blogging lark to encourage a bit of verbal spew forth (see Part 1). Here's some thoughts on the studio programme:

Peoples In Pieces: 15 Storms in a Teacup
A nascent version of this piece was made for the I Am Your Worst Nightmare Platform in March 07. For GSFB, they've extended the show (it's about twice as long) and changed the positioning of the audience (effectively performing in the round).

The early version was a real gem. Literally conjuring miniature weather zones with the likes of a whisk and a microwave, it was performed with zippy pace and a wonderful air of hushed magic. Unfortunately, the developed piece failed to retain the taut focus of the original. Its wit disappeared and its magic was lost. I don't think the company had fully grasped the rhythm of the piece this time round. It had no momentum, and its lack of energy undermined even sections that had worked well in its previous incarnation.

For me, the root of the problem lay in changing the physical relationship with the audience. Previously, we were seated slightly back from the action, with the company working like a chain of stage illusionists, keeping the tricks of the trade just far away enough, just dark enough, not to undermine the magic. This time round, the theatrics had gone. We saw the tricks from behind, from the side, from below and above, and sometimes right up close. Effectively, this meant they lost their charm.

I think it also suffered from being extended for the sake of lengthening it. Originally, being limited to 15 minutes forced a precision with the performance which was lacking in the longer version. The whimsy in the text, which was delivered with punch and rhythmic wit in the original version, sounded esoteric and indulgent this time round. Performing in Arnolfini's theatre rather than the Dark Studio also means more stringent H&S regs and they couldn't use the gas camping stove they wanted to. They reference this in the show, but rather than coming across as playfully self-effacing, it sounds a bit sad and apologetic.

From the couple of shows I've seen, I recognise the potential for Peoples In Pieces to develop an unusual and striking visual style. But they need to keep working on where those images sit in the context of a journey for the audience.

Tim Atack: Astronaut
Tim Atack is mainly a musician and mainly a writer, and anyone who's been to any of his gigs will know he's also got a good line in the "yes, I'm looking at you, boy," slightly scary stage stare. You can see his interdisciplinary roots in Astronaut. Deceptively simple, the piece uses recorded sound from different sources (a piano coming through the PA; mocked up transmissions from space hissing out of a tinny dictaphone), coupled with the slow, barely perceptible fade of a spotlight to shift and warp the space around the audience. At the centre, the performer tells a story, which leads to a question for the audience.

A piece which is much more than the sum of its parts, Astronaut unashamedly plays on the sentimental, without being mawkish. There's something very cinematic about it - something in the way it uses light and sound so subtly perhaps? or perhaps in the way it shifts from a group experience to a more individual one, as the light fades to black, the soundtrack increases in volume and the question lingers for us all to answer privately, in the dark... What would you sing?

I'm slightly biased because I did a lot of outside eye work on this show, but (or perhaps for that very reason) I can really appreciate how precisely the piece was constructed in terms of the writing, the timing of the fades, the mix of the sound for the space and particularly (given how prone I know Tim can be to melodramatic hand prancing when he's on stage), the controlled, focussed movements of the performer. If I had one criticism, it would be that the level of the sound from the dictaphone was too low at the end, and we lost the full impact of that eerie, dislocated singing.

There is definitely something akin to a song in the structure of Astronaut, and perhaps it's Tim's skill as a songwriter that has given him the confidence to strip the piece down to its bare essentials and let that central idea resonate so fully. To my mind, one of the most common flaws in live art is that artists are all too ready to explore around the subject, rather than find the heart of it and expose that. As if alluding to the heart of the matter is enough. One of Astronaut's great strengths is that it is so unequivocal about the journey it asks the audience to take, but then lets us run with our imagination as the music soars and the lights fade out.

These Horses: A Piece for Voice and Light Switch
Again I first saw a version of this at I Am Your Worst Nightmare when Emma Bennett performed it as a solo piece. I think it was a little longer this time round and was performed as a duet.

OK, this is one of those pieces that sounds like it's going to be very dry and overly cerebral when you describe it, but its effect is actually more like an absurdist comedy sketch. Basically, it involves Emma and Lucy reading a list of things ("My house", "A hand") whilst either lit or not lit by a desk lamp. See what I mean, it sounds like it might be dangerously dull. But it isn't. It's very funny. It soon becomes obvious that what seems like a list of arbitrary non sequiturs is a very carefully constructed script, with the same phrase taking on all sorts of shifting sense or portent depending on where it's repeated, whether it's said in light or darkness, its pacing or who says it. What emerges is the weird feeling that some sort of broken narrative is hiding deep in there... something involving A Dog, The Dark, and Big Jim On Holiday...

It was performed very well, though I think it would benefit from a little bit more precision. And perhaps matching desk lamps. Sounds very petty, but the piece is all about detail and details out of place, so I do think it's important. I also think I preferred it as a solo piece - but this may be because it seemed more precise as a solo work (no need for matching desk lamps or coordinated switching off of lamps...). Also, I was a big fan of the ecstatic exhalations of "My friend... Jennifer," which were lost from the second version. I can't explain it, but my brain must find something inherently funny about the name Jennifer. Either way, I think it's a strong piece. It needs a little more tightening up, but is close to being a really sharp, funny piece of comedy theatre.

The Licencees: 10 Ways to Die on Stage
First things first, Ed Rapley is an extremely charismatic performer - which is good, because in the hands someone less charismatic, this could be awkward material. There's a lot of stuff which refers to him. I don't know (or care, frankly) if it's all true or not, but in my book, personal anecdote should be used with EXTREME CAUTION in front of an audience. Some people use it well (Kazuko Hohki), but sometimes it comes across as indulgent and alienating (Guy Dartnell's Unsung springs to mind - god, I HATED that show... I don't want to know about when you lost your virginity, you haven't made me even slightly want to get to know you yet... I don't care which songs you used to get dressed up to... are you interested in which songs I used to sing in my bedroom?... do you even care that I'm sat here watching you?... Oh, of course you do, given that you had such a go at the first person who walked out...) Anyway, that's by the by - even if I am still scarred by the experience. Besides, lots of people liked that piece, which just goes to show that there's nowt so queer as folk.

So back to The Licencees... 10 Ways to Die on Stage is a loose collection of what I can best describe as 'challenging moments', which are told, retold, reframed through the piece. These episodes wander unnervingly between slapstick and real physical tension, stitched together by Ed's open, smiling performance. What really drives the piece is the fact that Ed pushes those moments of tension, until they are properly uncomfortable - rubbing a balloon, making it squeak for AGES before it bursts; drinking a glass of saltwater without taking his lips from the glass; climbing a ladder rung by rung, refusing to steady himself with his hands no matter how much he wobbles; standing precariously on top of that ladder till he's practically fallen off, before jumping... He's charming and he makes you root for him, but it's still like watching a magic trick that could go dangerously wrong at any moment.

In terms of content it refuses to move coherently from episode to episode, but rather jumps from one section to the next or back again like a skipping record. Even so, it makes for a satisfying and thrilling experience, because it all lies in the relationship between the performer on stage and the audience. The ratcheting up of tension and release is consistent and effective. It's weird, considering it's such a low key show in so many ways, but it really does feel a bit like a rollercoaster ride.