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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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