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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MY FRIEND NEARLY DIED! 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