Saturday, 21 February 2009

Action Hero: Watch Me Fall

Arnolfini, Friday 20 February 2009

"I guess I thought I was Elvis Presley but I'll tell ya something. All Elvis did was stand on a stage and play a guitar. He never fell off on that pavement at no 80mph." [Evel Knievel]

"I just wanna live for another 20-25 years. A couple things I always wanted to do; one was to drive at Indianapolis... The other thing I wanted to do was jump out of an airplane at 30,000 ft. without a parachute and land in a haystack in the Hilton hotel parking lot... The other thing I wanted but never got to do had something to do with Liz Taylor but she's getting a little old and a little fat." [Evel Knievel]

Evel Knievel was a daredevil. He'd pretty much stopped active daredevilry before I was born, but he was still a very present icon whilst I was growing up. Which, looking back from 2009, seems odd; I mean, the Evel Knievel movie was made all the way back in 1971. Perhaps there was something in the uber-macho 1980s that gave his image currency. Perhaps, like geeknewscentral, we should say:

"Long live the memory of a true badass that broke more bones in his body then just about anyone alive, and for having the courage and talent to do what he did."

Higher. Faster. Further. Seeing how far you really have to fall before gravity kills you. Should we be celebrating that? According to the internet, before he began his career as a motorcycle daredevil, Robert 'Evel' Knievel was fired from a drilling job for doing a wheelie on his earth-mover and driving it into a power line which left an entire town without electricity for several hours.

Now I'm not saying that isn't quite funny, but seriously...

But seriously, something in me loves the fact that this dude got his promotion, then got into his massive engineering vehicle, and thought 'hey, look what I can do!' before even thinking about the consequences.

And I love the fact that in 2001, at the age of 63, this dude still regretted that he'd never jumped 30,000 feet without a parachute and landed in a haystack.

Before we get too excited, let's not forget that one of the other things that Evel Kneivel wanted but never got to do "had something to do with Liz Taylor but she's getting a little old and a little fat." Maybe if your balls are big enough to want to jump the Grand Canyon, you're likely to suffer from a side-effect of excess chauvinism.

It was this acknowledgement of the dark edges around the ultra-alpha-masculinity embodied by daredevils like Evel Knievel, which made Action Hero's show extraordinary for me.

You enter, and the atmosphere is not the quiet reverence that you're often encouraged into at the theatre. Already there's whooping. Cameras flashing. Pre-show STUFF coming through the PA. Crowds gathering. Babbling. Atmosphere building. Warming up.

We're not here for the theatre; we're here for the show.

And the show is a recreation of Evel Kneivel's 1967 Caesar's Palace motorcycle jump - with an 18-inch ramp, a pedal-bike, and a Coca-Cola fountain.

But that recreation isn't just about making the jump. It's the daredevil that makes the jump, so Watch Me Fall makes a daredevil out of Action Hero. Through a series of absurd heroics, outrageous claims and brash acts of almost-violence, Watch Me Fall sucks us into its own hype. Now we are here to believe.

Watch Me Fall recognises the binary urges of that kind of macho culture and it recognises its ugliness. You want the daredevil? You got the daredevil. So when James Stenhouse stands above Gemma Paintin, who sits at his feet, head thrown back, legs apart (you get the picture) and pours a 3litre bottle of Coke into her open mouth - producing an image that is visceral, and shocking... somewhere between softcore porn and waterboarding - this is the daredevil we've been waiting for.

So often, I find that contemporary performance tends to bottle out of showing it like it is. Rather than getting nasty, it's easier be euphemistic, or qualify things with irony - as if to say to the audience, "well, you know what I mean". But in Watch Me Fall, you feel things actually transforming in front of you and around you. This isn't a place I know any longer, and when the jump comes - in all its brief, small, rubbishiness - we holler like it is Las Vegas.

It would have been easy for Action Hero to make a cute little show, which relied on nostalgia and let them play at being the hero without the vulgarity and misogyny. But this is something different. The show is beautifully constructed. It understands that it is about the event. The spectacle is not in the trickery, but rather in the audience being convinced that this time, they might just make it. It's an accumulation - from the red, white and blue that is all over the design, to the sheer amount of Coke (busting to get out of its plastic bottles and spill all over the stage) to the seething violence, playing chicken with pain. You can't take your eyes off it - even the pauses are like acts of endurance. It's a punk collaboration with an audience.

I come out of the theatre wide-eyed and dazed. It's a thrill. It's a shock. It's a thrill.