Best shows I saw in 2017

Top ten time! Well, eleven, it seems. Again. Oops.

Listed in the order I saw them, and for the most part chosen, I think, more for how they’ve stayed with me over the course of the year than for their initial impact.

LOVE
Alexander Zeldin / Birmingham REP / January

I cry at films all the time, but I very rarely cry at theatre. I did full-on ugly snot-and-gasping crying during LOVE. It was very much like a film in a lot of ways, painstakingly naturalistic. I’d thought I was deeply suspicious of naturalism, that it was antithetical to the fundamental qualities of theatre, but I realised after this show that maybe I’m just suspicious of lazily-thought-through naturalism as a default form. And when naturalism was not quite enough for LOVE, not political enough, the show did what was required of itself and (quite literally) reached a hand out to the audience. Homelessness is a big problem in the town I live in, and I’d been meaning for a while to start volunteering at a night shelter – seeing this show gave me the push to actually start going.

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With Force and Noise
Hannah Sullivan / Wickham Theatre, Bristol as part of In Between Time / February

When I think of ‘perfect’ shows, I think of a kind of conceptual simplicity – one idea that holds a lot of resonance, and which is pursued to its natural conclusion. With Force and Noise was so simple, essentially a song followed by a monologue, spoken so quietly you have to strain to hear it. Hannah Sullivan, with a frame as small and still as her voice, nonetheless gripped you (me) with a quality of attention so forceful that you couldn’t not reciprocate it. It was a monologue about anger and protest, but complicated by an embarrassment at anger, or inability to feel/demonstrate anger (are feeling and demonstrating inseparable?), which is, of course, everything to do with being a woman. The piece ended with her shaking ferociously, activating a chorus of bells attached to her costume (a sort of jumpsuit embroidered with scenes of protest). It was barely 40 minutes long, but so powerful.

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Real Magic
Forced Entertainment / Arnolfini, Bristol as part of In Between Time / February

Forced Entertainment (specifically the 24-hour Quizoola! livestream) were 100% my gateway drug into experimental theatre/live art and I continue to marvel at and fanboy over them. This show really made me appreciate the skilfulness of their dramaturgy – they’re so good at nudging you (again, me) into the shallows of boredom, right to the edge of a deep sea drop into frustration and then grabbing you by the collar and pulling you back. Proper good stuff. And funny too, I forget how funny it was.


Snow in Midsummer
by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, dir. Justine Audibert / RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon / March

To be honest, if I hadn’t been asked to review this I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it. The RSC’s a ballache to get to and, y’know, it’s the *Royal Shakespeare Company*. But god am I glad I did. It was an adaptation of a 13th century Chinese play in which a young saleswoman is framed for murder and wrongfully executed and then her totally kick-ass ghost comes back and conjures a drought and rips her own heart out of the dude who’s been saved by a heart transplant from her corpse and a bunch of other awesome stuff. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig made it into an epic, sweeping play partly about contemporary China, capitalism and climate change, but also a folk tale-cum-thriller about familial ghosts, trauma and memory. Seeing a full ensemble of East Asian actors on a main stage meant a lot to me – it might have been the first time I’d actually felt the visceral thrill of representation and recognition in a theatre. It also had a STUNNING lighting design (Anna Watson *heart-eyes emoji*) and was just really really moving.

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A Portrait of the Universe
Nat Norland / Warwick University / March

Bit of a cheat this one, seeing as I was involved in it, albeit in the loosest of capacities (I came in last minute to point some lights in the right direction). It was a sound performance which consisted of an actor (in gloves and motorcycle helmet, a not-unconscious borrowing from Under the Skin) performing a destructive ritual, smashing hand-made clay figures with various DIY tools into a microphone, with the resultant recordings looped and fed back so as to interact with the resonant frequencies of the room and degrade over time into non-specific-sounding tones (see Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room), all of this over playback of a sine wave gradually morphing into white noise over the course of an hour. It was a meditation on decay and entropy – an attempt to represent the entire history and future of the universe. The actual performance was brilliantly chaotic – about a million things went wrong (knobs turned too high, vigorous smashing nearly pushing the laptop off the edge of the table) which resulted in a few necessary intrusions on Nat’s part into this highly formal, aesthetically rigid ritual. Surprisingly, the show was very hospitable to these moments of indiscrete stage management – it should by all accounts have failed the cat test (or more accurately here, the Nat test) but for some reason passed with distinction.

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A Room for All Our Tomorrows
Igor and Moreno / Dance Xchange, Birmingham / March

This is the second show I’ve seen by these guys and honestly they’re fucking incredible. In Idiot-Syncrasy they spent the whole show jumping, and here for the first half-hour they’re constantly shouting/screaming while they dance, and then they neck like 6 shots of coffee each (they’re still screaming while they try to work the Nespresso machine, like they’re horrified by this obscene contraption – it’s hilarious) and then the table TURNS INTO A PIANO and then they KISS but WHILST SINGING AND PLAYING THE PIANO and their VOICES RESONATE IN EACH OTHER’S VOICE BOXES AND MAKE THIS COOL DRONING SOUND (you too can do this at home with a willing participant – would 10/10 recommend). I have no dance background whatsoever and often find contemporary dance (well, any dance I suppose – I just don’t ever go to ballets) difficult to read – I don’t understand the signs. But with Igor and Moreno, it’s so rooted in their real bodies (trained, but not obscured by virtuosity) undergoing real things, that it gets you on a really basic affective level. At the end me and my friends were clutching each other’s arms, holding our breath.


vs.
Ponyboy Curtis / The Yard, London / June

This is a tricky one. The show was utterly beautiful. The ending where they sprinted towards the audience again and again was heart-in-your-throat exhilarating. By far the best work I’ve seen from Ponyboy Curtis. But my memory of it, and my feelings about the ensemble in general, have necessarily been coloured by Griffyn’s blog post from last month. The Ponyboy project has always been consciously concerned with treading carefully on the boundaries of permissibility, with creating a space where danger can be used productively to enable discoveries. With that, of course, comes risk. Griffyn’s post articulates just how difficult it is to negotiate and talk about harm in a room that actively invites risk, and how difficult abuse can be to detect, prevent and call out, as much in horizontally organised contexts such as Ponyboy as in the hierarchical ones which facilitate patterns of behaviour such as Max Stafford-Clark’s. The question of whether art can be separated from the people and processes involved in its creation has been on my mind a lot recently (this is a quite brilliant article on the subject), and that question is even more complicated here than in situations where abusive artists have more singular authorial control. I think I choose to include the show on this list as a way of being honest with myself that yes, when I think of the show itself I still think of it in terms of my initial affective response, and as a way of thinking through that fact given that abuse is in some way interwoven with the genesis of the show.

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Katie and Pip
Tin Can People / C Venues, Edinburgh / August

Rob, one half of Tin Can People, has a little sister called Katie who has Type 1 diabetes. Pip is a medical alert assistance dog, who wakes Katie at night if her blood sugar levels go too low or too high. The show was made with, and featured, both Katie and Pip. It was one of those shows where form speaks to content in such perfect ways it makes everything feel doubly meaningful. Because the piece was about danger, alertness, and the precariousness of life, the unpredictability that came with having Pip on stage as such an integral actor made perfect sense. And yet the tone of the show was also remarkably relaxed. Everything was done with care and a level-headed lack of urgency. The way that the performance accommodated breaks for Katie to check her blood sugar levels. Charlotte and Rob speaking calmly and unhurriedly, like a friendly doctor might speak to you. The way moments were allowed to hang in the air, to settle. Things always prepared for. And that coda in which dog years stretched and Katie and Pip were allowed to age together in an improbably long imagined future life was just… ineffably gorgeous.

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Everything Fits in the Room
Simone Aughterlony and Jen Rosenblit, with Miguel Gutierrez and Colin Self / Fierce Hub, Birmingham as part of Fierce / October

I have no earthly idea what this show was about, but it was awesome. The space they made was really cool – a big ol’ warehouse with clusters of pink and green striplights installed round the edges, a free standing brick wall in the centre which essentially split the audience in half, and a floating kitchen-island with food and dripping pipes and sound equipment on it (?!). The music (by Miguel Gutierrez and Colin Self, the latter of whom frequently collaborates with Holly Herndon which was quite exciting for this particular fanboy), was very good and played at pleasingly high volumes. It could easily have been an obtuse, inaccessible piece of work, but the roaming, inquisitive and attentive audience was a very nice one to be in, the choreography was compellingly strange and I had a whale of a time.


The Twilight Zone
adapted by Anne Washburn, dir. Richard Jones / Almeida, London / December

All the reviews for this were like ah yes they acknowledge that the TV series viewed today looks camp and kitschy so it can’t begin to be actually frightening and I’m like m8 I was SPOOKED. That alien worm on the diner dude’s head was scary af. More than that though, it was a fiercely clever piece of adaptation, framing the TV show as a sort of thermometer for American Cold War anxiety and making it speak to the contemporary world while barely doing anything to the actual scripts apart from chopping and splicing them. Watching it, I assumed the nuclear bunker bit where they fight over who’s the most American and therefore deserving of access to the bunker was Washburn inserting original text, but no! it’s verbatim an episode of The Twilight Zone. But the way its placement in the show suddenly snapped everything else into focus was no less brilliant for that. See Josh Coates’ blog post for cool thinks.

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MY FRIEND NEARLY DIE
D! 
OVERNIGHT CHALLENGE IN NATIONAL THEATRE
Ally Law, with ‘Harry’ / YouTube / December

No joke. When I watched this I was put in mind of how much Chris Goode likes skaters – there was a post he wrote on Dennis Cooper’s now-defunct blog where he proposed a collection of examples of what he deemed to be exemplary theatre, very few of which were actually pieces that took place in theatre spaces or could be conventionally labelled as such, and one of them was of the Z-Boys or something similar. My memory’s a bit hazy here so soz to him if this is totally wrong, but I think it was something to do with the way skaters effortlessly reconfigure public space and stage acts of ensemble improvisation, with a sort of skilful imagination and liveness of the kind that the most avant-garde of performance makers dream and frequently fall short of. And watching these guys scale the Olivier fly tower, there’s the same kind of energy to it. It’s the most fuckin live thing you’ve ever seen in a theatre. REAL BLOOD, Marina Abramovic style. But also there’s this thing of, these guys clearly don’t have any interest in theatre, they’ve just picked the National cos it’s the only place still open, but they get in the Olivier and it’s… exciting. Cos theatres are kind of cool places, just architecturally. And there they are, doing backflips on the set of Follies, invigorated by the theatre and invigorating the theatre (I’ve not seen Follies, everyone seems to like it and whatever but I doubt it’s as cool as this). That loose bar – I don’t know whether or not it’s meant to be loose like that, but if it’s not then it would seem to stand that no-one’s touched it for a while – these guys test it, and it’s like the theatre is physically testing them in return. It’s this beautiful meeting in the middle, where both parties are blissfully unacquainted with the other, encountering each other with just-born eyes.

The best piece of theatre I’ve seen this year.

 

Special mentions to:

OUT by Rachael Young and Dwayne Anthony
Situation with Outstretched Arm by Oliver Zahn
Nothing is Coming, the Pixels are Huge by Theatre 42
Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist by YESYESNONO
The Shape of the Pain by Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe
Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here by Barrel Organ
The Foley Explosion by Julie Rose Bower
On Ice by Suzanne Grotenhuis
Kingdom Come by Gemma Brockis and Wendy Hubbard
Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, dir. Bijan Sheibani

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Maladies and men

A group of men sat in the back of a pickup truck. Soldiers, with no very serious war to go to. Most of them are young. One looks has his sleeves rolled up higher than the rest. Another has thin cheeks, looks like a kid. One, tubby and moustached, puts his head on another’s arm affectionately. One of them has handsome, movie-star looks. A hard, dark-skinned man with good posture holds his rifle and stares into the camera. Many of them are asleep, hair fluttering in the breeze as the truck takes them wherever they’re going. It’s a hot day but the wind is cool.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul likes his camera on moving vehicles. Moments before, the camera has driven past a group of boys kicking someone on the pavement – one of them breaks off to chase the car down the road, throws a bottle at the camera. Is this staged or just something the camera crew happened to shoot?

The film in question, Tropical Malady, is probably my favourite film of all time. At the very least it’s what I’d say was my favourite film if you asked me. It’s a film about two young men, Tong and Keng, both ex-soldiers, looking for work with nothing much to do, who fall in love. It’s about men, intimacy and the violence that can be contained within the smallest and tenderest of gestures.

I think back to me and my school-friends, in the military cadets (it’s compulsory for teenage boys in Thailand), bored with sitting cross-legged on the hot gravel on Saturday mornings. The men on the truck are men I know from that experience – men who for the most part wanted to be there about as much as we did – and the intimacy and sleepy easiness they have is one I recognise in my friends. During lunch breaks we’d find a shady spot and lie on the ground, heads on each other’s tummies, a tessellated snoozing formation (we were very efficient nappers, but rubbish at the actual combat stuff). There’s little else you want to do in the midday sun.

The military returns again and again in Weerasethakul’s work. In Cemetery of Splendour, all they do is sleep – they’ve been struck by a bout of seemingly incurable group sleeping sickness, confined to hospital beds in a village in Khon Khaen. It’s a political metaphor of sorts, for a country sleepwalking under its (superficially) benign military government, happy to nap through a temporary lull in what has been a long-standing cycle of political upheaval.

I love those shots of the men on the truck. Seeing it again tonight, projected outdoors on 35mm on a cool, breezy evening, I welled up. There’s something so perfect about the contentment of it, these men – these men who are required to be violent – sharing a moment of silent comfort together. It marks the end of the film’s first half, and the second half changes everything.

The central couple’s blossoming romance is cut short by a complete change in form. The second hour of the film is an almost wordless sequence in which we follow a hunter tracking down a tiger spirit in the rainforest. The hunter and the spirit (in human form) are played by the same two actors from the first half. They aren’t Keng and Tong, but they aren’t not them either. Tong is the shyer of the two characters, with a boyish face, crooked teeth, embarrassed at his illiteracy. Keng is confident, assured, with a handsome smile. But it is Tong who is cast as the monstrous spirit in the second half. At the end of the film he is about to consume hunter-Keng, who is left shaking uncontrollably, bright with sweat and paralysed by fear, staring straight into the camera. The tiger spirit stares back. Just try to tame me, it says. I am savagery and violence. We look into each other’s eyes and it is plain to see that I am in you and you are in me. There is no escape.

All the beauty of the first half of the film – that gorgeously observed naturalistic romance – is exploded into a supernatural laying-bare of the cruelty which inheres in the men who fight for their country. The film opens with a group of soldiers who pose for a picture with a dead body they’ve found in a field, all smiles and thumbs-up and squeeze in a little closer. I think about me and my school-friends and I think yeah, there was a lot of cruelty there.

I’m thinking these thoughts on a cool, breezy night in Bangkok. I’ve just got back for the Christmas holidays. Thank god. I don’t deal well with the cold. I’ll take electric fans and iced tea over scarves and central heating any day. And though I love being back and I love the slowness and heat of the place and the food is good and it’s home, when I’m back I’m always struck at how very different my friends at university are from my school friends. That’s true of a lot of people I guess, and I find I don’t slot back into old friendships so easily now. That’s a lot to do with geographical distance – school-friends are scattered all over the world, we’re never all back home at the same time, so the dynamics of a group are never quite balanced right (it’s the one-to-one friendships that are the easiest to keep up). And it’s the boys I find it most difficult to sit with now, and I think I know why that is. Part of me misses being with those guys, lying in the shade at midday. Part of me thinks it’s good that I’ve left – left behind a situation where being in a place I call home, a place that I love dearly, meant also having to be in a male space and a military space, and having to become comfortable there. I’m not sure I want to be comfortable. Certainly not comfortable enough to fall asleep.


Full film available to watch here (the bit I describe is from 00:52:55).

 

walk pause walk

We start the same way we did before. A rectangular border of clothes, shoes, accessories. They crouch in a circle and spin a bottle. They number themselves. They set timers on their phones. They step out of the space – (they call it ‘the field’) – and begin. They enter the field one by one, pausing, then leaving. Walk pause walk. They enter the field two at a time, meet, slide a hand across a chest, squeeze a shoulder, fall into another’s arms. Walk pause touch walk. This is how we begin.

But where in FCKSYSTMS this happened to a loud, pulsing soundtrack, here there is only the crackle of some static – it sounds like a field (eyy) recording of some kind. Unlike the generous performance space of The Yard, CPT is small, hot and cramped, the audience are sat around the field, and when the boys step outside of it they’re right up against your legs. You get the sense that this is going to be a quieter, more intimate gig than the all-out anarcho-bombast of FCKSYSTMS.

And it is. Most of the show is essentially a performed rehearsal, and moves to the leisurely, spacious rhythms of the rehearsal room. One at a time, the boys select clothes to wear and stand in a narrow walkway demarcated with green tape as the others sit around and watch, ask questions about the person’s choice of clothes, what the clothes feel like to wear and what they might mean to a spectator. Chris Goode wanders around outside the field, observing. He chips in with a thought or a provocation every now again. This is perhaps the furthest Ponyboy Curtis has gone in their striving for a practice which focuses on the building and maintenance of an ensemble and deprioritises ‘finished’ performance – here it’s like we’ve all been invited to observe their process. But there’s something weird about that. I guess the question is whether the trust, the intimacy and the simultaneous safety and danger of the rehearsal room (safety in terms of its privacy, danger in terms of the radical possibilities its particular set of working conditions might open up) is able to be transposed accurately in front of an audience.

To that extent, it’s actually quite impressive how natural, unselfconscious and familiar the ensemble is, and while the pace and cadences of rehearsal feel unfamiliar in the context of performance, it’s certainly never boring. But this rehearsalness seems like it can only be achieved by resolutely blocking out the audience. If the ensemble must behave as they would in a private setting, while 50 pairs of eyes watch them, then surely they must simply ignore those eyes. And I guess that’s the point, to make the private public, to reject the very notion of privacy as a capitalist impulse – here there are no walls or fences, just a permeable border, clothes and tape, things which can be worn and discarded and ripped up. But still, I wonder what this does for the audience. If it weren’t at CPT, in this small, hot, cramped room, I can imagine feeling very alienated from all this. And it can all so easily seem navel-gazing; when one of them says of their choice of clothes, ‘yeah, it’s unlocking something… something physical for me’, you sort of cringe a bit. Well, I do. It’s an example of a way of articulating things that might speak clearly in the shared language of a rehearsal room, but in front of an audience is instantly coloured with pretension and posturing. I wonder if the desire to stage rehearsal, or to invite an audience into a rehearsal, as much as it seems appealing, is sort of fundamentally disappointing for both parties. I’m not sure. I think they just about get away with it in walk pause walk.

After this, Chris Goode returns to his desk to the side and reads a long-ish text (I think it’s a piece of his own poetry but I could be wrong). Music builds and the boys begin to make out, touch each other. And over the next 20 minutes or so all the clothes that they have been wearing and analysing are shed; suddenly clothes don’t matter anymore as the Ponyboys kiss and grope and lick and rub and finger, falling about on the CPT floor, sweating under the lights. A fan in the corner turns on, and a desk lamp behind it gently flickers through the rotating blades. It’s here that the show falls into its stride, going much further than the fleeting sexual encounters in FCKSYSTMS. The sex is now up-close, sustained, less theatrical. If the rehearsal feels like a strange thing to be performed in this setting, the sex feels strangely appropriate. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I found the latter half of the show to be very lovely.

_____________

I have my reservations about Ponyboy Curtis. The niggling concerns were there after FCKSYSTMS but I find them more difficult to dampen now after seeing walk pause walk. There’s the issue of the ensemble’s whiteness, and I know this is something they’re fully aware of – their latest call-out for performers encouraged performers of colour to audition, so I’ll be interested in what the line-up for vs. at The Yard in June looks like. More troubling to me though, because it seems less easily remedied, is Goode’s role in the project. It seems right that he’s a much more explicit presence in the performance in walk pause walk than he has been in the past, but it also brings out something indisputably jarring about his observational role, his very conscious decision to facilitate but not to participate. It feels sort of wrong, when the five people on stage are making themselves so vulnerable and attempting a level of public intimacy which does seem genuinely quite radical, that Goode should remain in the shadows at the edges of the stage. Perhaps it feels especially discomforting because Goode’s body is markedly different from the ones which he, from his position of relative authority, decides to put on stage. I want to see what would happen if Goode were to join in with the Ponyboys, how that might change the dynamic of the ensemble and the possible meanings of the performance. It might lead to utterly disastrous results, I don’t know. And I’m sure there’s been a whole lot of thought put into this. I’d really love to know what the conversations around the structural organisation of Ponyboy Curtis, around casting decisions and the types of bodies that the ensemble should or could include, have been (maybe it’s that bit of the rehearsal process I want to be let in on). But from a lay perspective, it’s an irksome and persistent itch as I watch them try to build their romantic, queer utopia. I can’t convince myself this is quite as utopian a model as it wants to be.

My 11 favourite shows of 2016

Phwoar, 2016 eh? etcetera, etcetera.

There’s a reason all the mid-December 2016-blaming has got tiresome real quick. Despair isn’t all that interesting, or useful, I don’t think. A lot of the shows I loved this year felt optimistic, hopeful. Even the depressing ones had hope at their core. Cleansed seemed to say, yes, love can survive. Chekhov’s First Play ended with a ‘hello’ – a man reaching out to the audience, offering an opening, some form of affirmation. My favourites were the ones which seemed to express optimism through form – the joy of dancing, the catharsis of noise. As someone just beginning to make work myself, I feel some responsibility to be hopeful, in the work I make and in myself.

So here are the shows that really made my heart flutter this year. Eleven of them, favourites not ‘best’, and in no particular order (could have put them in chronological order of seeing. Didn’t).

ALL IN
Atresbandes / Summerhall, Edinburgh / August

I’m a big fan of the Spanish company, Atresbandes. I saw Locus Amoenus in an audience of about 10 at Warwick Arts Centre, then ALL IN in an audience of about 15 in Edinburgh, and had the best time at both. I find their work really formally interesting and I felt it a real shame they didn’t get much traction in Edinburgh this year. I gather the style and structure of ALL IN was a bit of a departure from their previous stuff; a kind of collage of apparently unrelated scenes that moved from a stilted, off-kilter conversation about storage rooms between two people in black morph suits to a smoke-and-lightshow fanfare, to a long slapstick comedy centrepiece in which everyone wore funny wigs, to a monologue in Japanese (dude in high heels, red morph suit this time, sans wig). It was one of those shows that seeded its themes and narrative (by which I mean a kind of structural logic of connecting motifs rather than an actual Story) threads so precisely and lightly that you left with a real sense of the show cohering as a whole Thing, and sort of knowing what it was About without actually having any idea what the fuck you just watched. I guess watched it in this weird state of pleasant bafflement, which is probably my favourite way to be in a show.


Cleansed
by Sarah Kane, dir. Katie Mitchell / National Theatre, London / May

I mean fuck. Cleansed was theatre that hit you between the eyes. No, it was that torture contraption from A Clockwork Orange that holds open your eyelids, doesn’t let you look away. But not necessarily cos of the violence: for all the excitement around faintings and walk-outs, I didn’t find it queasy in the slightest – it was too theatrical for that. The point wasn’t to give the audience some kind of experiential understanding of the torture scenes, it was simply to state them with a sort of clinical literalism. It wasn’t showing us what it’s like to have your feet ground up, it was showing us that somebody’s hands had been ground up, that that was something that had happened. So much of the play is about trying and failing to access authentic feeling (‘this is what it’s like’) that it felt right that the violence was weirdly affectless. What really got me was the sheer sadness of this horrible, absurd situation, of this desperate need to love. To realise Kane’s world in such forensic, literal detail as Mitchell did was, somewhat counterintuitively, to create pathos rather than shock. It was literalism as a radical gesture. Torture of the heart, not the skin.


Idiot-Syncrasy
Igor and Moreno / Arnolfini, Bristol as part of Mayfest / May

Two men walked onstage, looked out at the audience for a while, and started to sing Sardinian and Basque folk songs. As they sang, they very gradually began to bounce, lightly at first, increasing in vigour until they were lifting off the floor, jumping up and down. Then they continued to jump for the next FORTY MINUTES. They changed clothes while jumping, did shots while jumping, jumped through the audience, traversed the stage and twirled and glided in converging and diverging symmetrical patterns, all whilst jumping. And they barely broke a sweat! It felt utterly joyful, these two bodies in perfect synchronicity, feeling each other across the room. At points they’d suddenly change direction or incorporate new movements after just jumping on the spot for AGES and I was just like, HOW DID YOU KNOW WHEN TO DO THAT were you COUNTING EACH JUMP? Igor and Moreno say in the copy for the show, ‘we started with wanting to change the world with a performance. We felt like idiots’, and there was something almost utopian about the experience of watching these two men be entirely trusting of and dependent on each other. When they finally stopped jumping they spun around, holding each other in their arms, gradually slowing down and catching their breath. It was beautiful and just made me feel very happy.


Walking:Holding
Rosana Cade / Forest Fringe, Edinburgh / August

I think that one-on-one performance is rather unique in the way it can hold in delicate balance a really special act of care for an audience member with an invitation towards exposure or vulnerability. As a form, it feels particularly radical because of that. Holding hands is reassuring; holding hands with, say, a 7 year old child you’ve never met before while walking in a public place (as a man, old enough to look adult, too young to look her father) is uncomfortable, charged with a palpable sense of danger. The simple task of walking while holding hands for just five minutes at a time with people of different ages, sexualities, genders and races made me more aware of myself as a body in public, and as part of a public body. I didn’t talk all that much with the people I walked with until I was sat on a bench with my last partner and found myself suddenly and surprisingly opening up. That felt like I was being given a gift.


Domestica
Sleepwalk Collective / Birmingham REP / October

I like theatre that feels as if it’s been composed with a sort of musical sensibility. The programme for the Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight included a graph of the show as measured in volume against time, and I liked the way that that really eloquently described the shape of the show. Domestica was a chamber suite, through-composed, rising and falling, sweeping you up in its currents. Sammy Metcalfe’s sound design totally made the piece, adding layers of aural information to a dense text and beautiful images (those headdresses tho :O). It was this woozy, hazy dreamscape of fallen angels and Greek goddesses and reclining nudes, all the baggage of history, all the paralysis of the present, all the dread of the future.


Show Off
and Often Onstage
Figs in Wigs / Birmingham REP and Pleasance, Edinburgh / March and August

I seem to be coming away from a lot of shows thinking about structure and shape. It’s probably because I’m starting to get more serious about making work. Andy Field sums it up when he says that Figs in Wigs’ shows ‘seem to follow a totally unreadable, arhythmical logic entirely of their own devising. The journey through a Figs show is like a story told by a seven-year-old, full of false starts, extended diversions and endless repetitions. Meticulously setting up rules and conceits only to totally abandon them. Scenes of unpredictable length crashing delightedly into one another like the Figs themselves endlessly careering across the stage… and it is joyous’.

He goes on to say that this sense of the show containing its own unique world with its strange and hilarious oddities is kind of utopian in its brazen rejection of reality – it creates its own rules for being and lives by them quite happily for the duration of the show, extending an invitation to the audience to be in that space too. Like Idiot-Syncrasy in many ways. I think I’m really attracted to work that opens up spaces for alternative ways of being, and especially to work which does that whilst cracking puns and just generally making you grin from ear to ear.


Every One
by Jo Clifford, dir. Chris Goode / Battersea Arts Centre, London / March

There’s a (long-overdue) unpublished blog post on this lurking in a folder somewhere on my computer, which I think I’ll take a look at soon. So until I get around to that, suffice to say this made me cry. A lot.


Chekhov’s First Play
Dead Centre / Bristol Old Vic as part of Mayfest / May

The bit with the smoke in the handbag! The bit where she kissed the audience member! The bit with the spooky pizza delivery guy! The bit where I didn’t realise that the music was a really slow cover of Miley Cyrus until a friend pointed it out afterwards! The bit where they mentioned Romeo Castellucci (lol). The bit with the seagull falling out of the sky! The bit where a wrecking ball swung down and smashed the back wall of the set and then they went and lit it ON FUCKING FIRE!

Dead Centre created a towering, monumental work in Chekhov’s First Play, and I could write thousands and thousands of words on it, words academic and analytical, but I don’t really want to because the thing I remember most clearly about watching the show is my jaw hurting afterwards from being on the fucking floor the whole time. It was properly surprising, and daring, and exciting. I wanted all my friends who love theatre and all my friends who would say that theatre’s not for them to see it immediately.


FCKSYSTMS
Ponyboy Curtis / The Yard, London as part of NOW16 / June

I hadn’t seen Ponyboy Curtis’s first show at NOW festival in 2015 but I’d read a lot about them, about how a lot of people had felt uncomfortable – been shocked, even. I figured I knew what I was in for and was totally down for 80 minutes of nicely lit, naked young men touching each other. But BOY was it uncomfortable – not cos of the sexy stuff, but just cos it was so LOUD. Music played pretty much non-stop at high volumes (Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs at a hundred-odd decibels is pretty nerve-janglingly weird), and I was held in this constant state of tension, just willing it to be silent for a moment. It was so aggressive in a way I wasn’t expecting, a kind of assault on the audience which just wasn’t enjoyable in the moment.

But as soon as the show was over, it started growing in my memory – a sort of delayed reaction, a developing negative of a show. Now when I think back to certain moments or images – the flash of a camera as they posed for each other, the very visible tech operator responding to improvised action and live-mixing the lights, a man dangling from the rafters, striplights pulsing through haze, a solo dancer in a high-vis trousers, fleeting moments of unison movement amongst chaos, a new face at just the right moment – I get goosebumps.

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History History History
Deborah Pearson / Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh as part of Forest Fringe / August

The Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh is stunningly beautiful. One of those cavernous, ornate rooms that feel like they hold history in them. I feel that especially strongly in old cinemas, though; film being an archival practice, the very purpose of a cinema is to contain and reflect back history. Each screening is a living out of a history, bringing it into the present. A cinema is in constant dialogue with its past.

Deborah Pearson’s show was a gentle, contemplative reflection of a history through so many layers of distortion, distance and translation. Her tongue-in-cheek meta re-subtitling of the 1956 Hungarian film which played from start to finish over the duration of the performance was hilarious, and the way that parallel historical narratives, one personal and one political, slowly emerged, entangled, out of the film was just beautiful. As the performance went on and information was teased out, the film became more alive, more in the present. The bits about Pearson’s difficulty in accessing a sense of heritage, especially about not having the tool of the Hungarian language with which to understand this important turning point in her family’s history, really hit home for me.


Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight
Christopher Brett Bailey with Alicia Jane Turner and George Percy / Ovalhouse, London / October

BUT WAS IT THEATRE???

Some other things I loved but didn’t put on the list due to a self-imposed and entirely arbitrary cap of eleven shows:

(I Could Go On Singing) Over the Rainbow by FK Alexander

O No! by Jamie Wood

The Beanfield by Breach

Quintetto by TIDA

X by Ali McDowall (dir. Vicky Featherstone)

Triple Threat by Lucy McCormick

Cock and Bull by Nic Green with Laura Bradshaw and Rosana Cade

Two Man Show by RashDash

Everyone knows someone named John

Last week I bought and read Annie Baker’s newest play, John. I really, truly love Baker’s writing (yeah I know – join the club, Ben), and I think this is her best play yet. Where her previous plays are pretty straightforward – if immaculately shaped and observed – in terms of theme and what they’re (for want of a better word) ‘saying’, John is far more elusive and translucent. In the play, a young couple from New York, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a B&B in Pennsylvania in the week after Thanksgiving – it’s all kitsch and grandfather clocks and miniature ceramic sculptures and glass menageries and creepy dolls. The proprietor is a small elderly woman named Mertis – kindly and saccharine, there’s something a little off-kilter about her and her house. She refers to one of the bedrooms as ‘a little temperamental’, adheres to this weirdly intense diet that involves taking ‘special injections’, and writes strange incantations in foreign tongues in her notebook. There are loads of these spooky supernatural touches threaded through the play’s otherwise typically naturalistic texture like a bad seam. It makes sense – her other plays have been grounded in tangible issues and experiences; slacker/stoner culture, precarious labour, drama therapy. This one is really about religious experience, and the confusion, doubt and ambiguity that surrounds that subject works its way into the play’s form, makes the play better, more porous, more resonant.

What’s really interesting though is the way the play blurs questions about the presence of a higher power with that of the power of men. The titular ‘John’ refers to unseen presences in the lives of two characters – a man with whom Jenny has had an affair, and the ex-husband of Genevieve, Mertis’s blind friend. In a monologue more eloquent, lengthy and poetic than anything Baker’s characters have ever said before, Genevieve describes how she went mad after John left her: dreams of scorpions, Benedictine monks taking a tour of her brain, an awareness of the ‘the soul of every person and every object that had ever existed’, and then the realisation that these sensations were the work of John, who had ‘replaced God in the celestial sphere’. The longest scene in the play is an open conversation between three women concerning the sensation of being Watched, and the inner lives of dolls – ‘it’s a terrible fate’ to be a doll, Mertis muses. In the play’s ugly climax, Elias, furious with Jenny, takes a doll which has a particular significance for Jenny and threatens to lick its plastic (lack-of-an-) asshole. He does it, ‘half-heartedly’, and looks stupid doing it, but Jenny is left crippled, crying and hyperventilating. To her it’s tantamount to blasphemy; desecration of the most unspeakable variety. When men exert power, something is broken, and what we are shown here are women caught in the crossfire in the battle between God and Man. It’s important that John is the name of an everyman. ‘Everyone knows someone named John,’ says Genevieve. The controlling influence of both men and the celestial seem inescapable. The stuffy, claustrophobic B&B traps the characters like a haunted house, like the skin of a silent doll, like a baffling universe run by men. John-God follows you around whether you like it or not. John-God is present in everything. John-God seeps into every corner of your life and pulls at the seams in unnoticeably insidious ways.

In the play, men haunt women’s lives. They create damage, then leave or die or fade away, and the damage is their ghost. The notion of a supernatural presence isn’t a wholly comforting or wholly terrifying one (Jenny is scared of the doll but has a strange but fulfilling sexual experience with ‘the universe’, Genevieve is tormented for years but finds life after going blind ‘bordering on pleasant’), but it seems to me that this play is partly about reclaiming religious experience, something which has always been authored and transcribed and made into institutions by men, from a feminist standpoint.

Most importantly, this is the first of Baker’s plays in which female characters, two of them elderly, are brought to the fore, in which they alone occupy the stage for prolonged periods of time, in which they are allowed to speak eloquently and at length. This is perhaps Baker’s first explicitly and proudly feminist play.

__________

The day after I read John I went to the Artangel exhibition in Reading Gaol, which features work responding to Oscar Wilde’s famous incarceration there, and on some days readings of De Profundis, Wilde’s letter to his friend and lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, written during his time at the prison. I didn’t think much of the art was particularly great, but the weight of history gave a lot of it some sort of resonance beyond itself – all of the art was housed in prison cells, and it felt important to the experience to be able to roam the corridors, pop into anonymous cells at your own pleasure, experience the free-ranging liberty of which many have been unjustly deprived, and also not to know which of these identical cells was Wilde’s. In a tribute to De Profundis, some cells contain letters addressed to people (often loved ones) from whom the writers had been separated either by their own imprisonment or the addressee’s. The one that really caught me was by Deborah Levy, addressed to Wilde himself. This paragraph was my favourite:

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It taps into an important aspect of patriarchy, and more specifically here the patriarchal state, that’s not talked about a whole lot – that as well as facilitating the systematic oppression of women, it is also an instrument of unwitting self-harm. It’s a notion that I saw reflected very vividly in RashDash’s Two Man Show the following night. The naturalistic-play bits of that show are about two male characters, Dan and John, experiencing a ‘crisis of masculinity’, and I think that phrase (or maybe more accurately its ubiquity) implies something a bit pathetic, a bit roll-your-eyes, a bit get over yourself, dude. But the crisis that the characters in Two Man Show  experience is not just a tantrum arising from unrecognised privilege (of course, it is that too), it’s structurally inherited self-abuse. It’s a hardening against the harm enacted upon oneself, by oneself. Patriarchy hurts everyone, and it’s a prison cell from which it often seems impossible to escape. It isolates men from one another and teaches them cruelty by being cruel to them. I often recognise myself as part of that system. I catch myself doing and saying inadvertently, undetectably harmful things and I feel terrible. I feel genuinely terrible for being a man.

Near the end of the show, Abbi (who is partly herself, partly her character, John) delivers a long, frantic, raging monologue about being a Man-Woman – a woman who interrupts you to tell you her opinion, who slurps her soup, who claims space – and becomes increasingly distressed and desperate as she does so. Helen tries to wrench the microphone out of her hands. This is followed by a monologue delivered by Helen with uncomfortably perfect measure and poise about being ‘genuinely fine’ with being a Woman, quiet and small, who giggles and does pirouettes, who’s fine with taking the lead but not if anyone else wants to. Sitting in the audience, neither of these versions of womanhood comes across as satisfactory – both are intensely problematic and brilliantly communicate the struggle of finding the right way to be a woman or a man. You don’t want to subscribe to the qualities which have historically defined your gender role, but by rejecting one are you simply capitulating to the other? Is it possible to reclaim your own space and make it good? ‘Just for once,’ says Abbi-John, ‘I want someone to say “be a man” and for that to mean a good thing’*.

There’s another cell in Reading Gaol which is covered in photographs by Nan Goldin of the German actor Clemens Schick, although at the time I don’t know who he is – he’s just a stranger in some photographs. He is always achingly aware of his own beauty, posing and pouting for the camera, but at the same time there’s a strange lack of artifice about the photos. He’s always in his everyday environment; in the doorway to his kitchen, smoking with friends on a patch of grass, naked on his bed, naked in the bathtub, masturbating over the sink. It’s privacy made public. There’s this gorgeously woozy, sensual quality to them, and a sense of real closeness with the body behind the lens. It’s that implied relationship, one half always invisible to the viewer, that echoes inside this cell. Its feels loving, caring, vulnerable, fragile. Like it could break at the slightest touch.

I think about Wilde writing to Bosie, about love and prison walls, about how Catholicism taught Bosie to denounce Wilde and Wilde to treat the injustices done to him as a spiritually redemptive experience. I think about institutions sacred, barbed-wired and invisible. I think about this stranger in the photographs and how free he looks.

Love is a cagefight. Not here, I think, this is different. Can I take my cell, bare and austere as it is, cover it in photos, and make it good?

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* I’m going by memory so that’s inevitably paraphrased

I Could Go On Listening (to Noise Music)

Done my first Edinburgh, guys. 26 days of it. Saw 80 shows (that’s more than I saw the entirety of last year). Writing this, I’m back home. Spent yesterday sleeping in and eating vegetables. Laundry done, clothes no longer smell of damp. Watched the news and remembered that the world’s still fucked. Fully rested and readjusted. Boom.

One of the first things I saw in Edinburgh was FK Alexander’s (I Could Go On Singing) Over the Rainbow. It’s one of those shows that implants itself into you, like physically. That’s how you carry around the memory of it, in your body. My legs remember the trepidation as the doors are opened and screaming noise floods out: ‘come in,’ it says, ‘I dare you’. My eardrums remember the easing, swooning strings emerging from underneath the noise like water seeping up through rock. My heart remembers FK taking a short moment after the fifth or sixth repetition of the song to bend over, stretch her back, taking care of herself as well as her audience. My retinas remember her face, nightmarishly strobing, my face flashing in her eyes, my hand limp in hers.

Other people sang along, others teared up, others were effortfully cool and nonchalant. I tried so hard to be the best audience member I could be, standing straight, keeping myself open, meeting her gaze. I tried to listen and pay attention as closely as I could. The room was heady and intoxicating in its delicate balancing of horror and sentimentality, discomfort and safety. By holding these contradictions in the same space, it seems to me that the performance lives in a constantly energised state, teetering on the edge, inviting us to stare into an abyss but giving us a kiss in return. FK is a shaman, a benign and terrifying high priestess in the Summerhall basement. It’s almost like a womb in there – I wanted to stay for hours and hours, I wanted to live inside the noise. I remember stepping outside into the busy courtyard and feeling like I’d been underwater for an hour, like every muscle in my body was being reoxygenated, my whole self slowly readjusting until only the ghost of red lipstick on my cheek marked me out from the crowd.

I think others found more cynicism in the show – Matt Trueman saw the repetition of Over the Rainbow as hollowing out the performance, revealing a vacuity in the human machine that generates art for consumption. To me, the miraculousness of the show is actually how deep and sustained the level of care is for the audience. The repetition is the labour of reliving and channeling Judy Garland’s last performance, and there’s palpable physical and mental exertion involved, yes, but if anything that makes it grow richer each time; if each repetition is a small emptying of energy, a petite mort, then this makes the gesture kinder and more valuable, not less. I really cherish simple acts of care in live performance. A cup of tea, a little food, a hug, a ‘hello, how are you?’. Here it’s the expenditure of effort, it’s FK working hard for you.

I went again later in the run. It had been raining all day, I’d been flyering for 8 hours and I was soggy and miserable. At that point I was sick of the festival, I didn’t really care about seeing more shows and I just wanted a duvet and some food that wasn’t brown or deep-fried. Once I was in the room I took off my shoes and sodden socks, planted my two feet on the concrete and just felt really happy to be there. The festival really does get infuriating and a bit exhausting, but you find little sanctuaries – I found mine in a second hand bookshop, a Japanese restaurant, the Cameo cinema, the Summerhall basement. One way or another I think that show kind of shaped my Edinburgh. It pummelled and caressed me, held my hand and made me vulnerable and more receptive to other work. I want to be back inside it as soon as possible.

Kim Noble: You’re Not Alone

heyyy kim

I so i’ve

I really liked the bit at the end of ur show when you had a video feed of u and dominic the audience member leaving the soho theatre and riding a horse towards the nearest nandos

after teh show i went in search of the nearest nandos and I found that it was 10 frith st. I was pleased to see that u were inside. i stood outside for a while and watched u and pretended to look at my phone when u periodically looked outside .

i saw that dominic was with u still and u 2 were talkingm having a chat having a beer etc… saw you order some chicken. i assume it was chicken. u seem to have a thing for chicken. but I dont know u might be a vegetarian irl

after a bit dominic came outside and i pretended to look at my phone. a woman came up and dominic and the woman kissed and they both went back into the nandos

so I all this is

I really so all this is a roundabout way of asking if you’d

so yeah the question I wanna ask you kim is is dominic a plant kim/? Be honest with me 4 once cos u two seemed pretty chummy afterwards. like having a nandos together and all that. and he danced with u while wearing a rubber mask of ur dying father’s face. that was in the show, obvs.

darling youve got to be honest with

earlier in the day i watched this old guy get dressed and undressed for like twenty minutes in this other theatre show and i thoguht that was really real becos he was old and when he coughed it was him really coughing becos he was old and the time wasm’t like theatre time it was lyk real time and I was thinkign how droopy his scrotum must be and how sad dying is like death is fine but dying must be fucking horrible. but then you showed me sum footage of ur dad talking about not being able to find his mind and him being bathed and that made the first fucking tehatre show look like fucking bullshit and fucking fake and then i thought if dying is horrible then so is living cos living is really just dying very very slowly isnt it ???

and the thing is is I feel so a

but then i was like fuck off kim if ur gonna make me watch ur actual dying dad who is actually dying inside and ur gonna make a point of it and how real all the shit you do is and how fucking weird and fucked up real lyf is and then put ur dad’s rubber fucking face on some actor ur gonna try to make me believe is an audience member when rly he’s gonna go get paid some money and kiss his fucking girlfriend outside nandos and go home and come back tomorrow nad do the same thing again i mean that’s just rly rly fucked up to me and in this moment outside nandos, THAT – you LYING TO ME – LYING TO ME IN A THEATRE WHERE YOUR SUPPOSED TO TAKE CARE OF ME – THAT seems just as fucked up as you stealing ur neighbour’s bank details or recording ur neighbour’s having anal or shitting in a church

but if dominic was actually an audience member like actually real person then thats okay

i think.

except if he was a real person a real audience memeber then u didn’t look after him very well. taking off his shirt like that was not okay. but i dunno maybe you made him less lonely. u made that cunt jon from manchester less lonely. jon from manchester didnt seem lyk a real person

and that other woman who might have been a plant. she had instructions coming in through the headphones u gave her, but she seemed s o natural and really really in the zone – when she was dancing at the end, nad just carried on and didn’t look up when the others stopped. she seemd like the least lonely person in the theatre. i didnt leave until she stopped dancing

ur show is fucked up and your a cunt and i love u for that becos i went to ur show alone and it made me even more alone.

not any more or less lonely. just alone.

and you said yourself the show goes beyond the hour in the theatre. like it happens irl. before and after.

and what’s that saying as part of the show then, u and dominic in nandos, and me outside watching u?

i just thought i should to send u this email becos

if i send this i might be i might be part of ur show in some way. i might be less

you’d know I exist

that i’m a real

like i know jon the cunt from manchester is a real

or maybe that doesn’t matter

doesnt matter if this email is real
doesnt matter if this is really my voice

doesnt matter if im a real

and i know this questions are

but i don’t feel like u

and i rly rly miss u

I miss you.

pls say something. pls text me. let me know your there for me. care for me. talk to me through ur voice modifier. make a video for me and post it to me my postcode is CV4 7ES. bug my house go through my rubbish shit on me give me an award give me a hole to fuck give me a leaving party bath me dress me undress me invade me tell me u love me tell me your there for tell me it’s going to get tell me i’m not

.

yea that’s all i wanted to say. I’m dying very fucking slowly without u. I miss u, my love, and I think about u every single day.

ben xxx