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).

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.

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.

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


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:


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?


* 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

Some People Talk About Violence

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry – 05/11/15

I need to talk about Barrel Organ.

*deep breath*

Lots of comparisons have been made between Some People Talk About Violence and Secret Theatre’s Show 5, and yeah, SPTAV has games and tasks in it and the parts are assigned randomly and there’s dancing and shit, but those are just superficial similarities – what connects the two shows is how deeply rooted into their both of their sets of DNA ‘the ensemble’ is. That indescribable thing that binds a group of individuals together, which absolutely preserves and celebrates their individuality while filling in the gaps between those bodies with fizzing electrical MAGIC. A group of people who have rehearsed for hour on hour and who have pissed about with each other and probably fallen out and fallen back in, who know exactly how each other works, who know what makes each other good.

To share that with an audience feels like such a generous act, and that’s what balances out the darkness and stomach-crumpling desolation of SPTAV and makes it both a very serious examination of unrecognised, unnamed everyday violence and an absolute bloody joy to watch. It’s obvious as soon as the cast leap out of their seats in sudden perfect synchronisation and deliver the prologue in an improvised cut (like a faster, more fragmented version of Nothing). Supporting each other, sometimes passing lines between themselves, sometimes speaking them in chorus (with one person affirming someone else, or being overpowered in a competition for the line, dropping out halfway through or persisting to the end in an attempt to prove a point), they weave through the words in gentle tides of push and pull, bouncing off or feeding on each other’s energy. Later, as Bryony rages through a monologue of such pain and frustration that I can feel my body humming, Joe repeats corporate yes-man phrases of encouragement, always there in the background when she takes a breath, that malicious undermining whisper stoking her fury and launching her into the next wave of inarticulable agony. It’s absolutely violent, but in such a way that you feel the performers are creating that violence from of a foundation of trust and togetherness, and an instinct for the way that the rhythms of the room, and of the people sharing the stage, work.

As well as Bryony and Joe, the performance I saw featured guest performers Ellice from BREACH and Craig from Ponyboy Curtis. Between the four of them, they did pretty much THE BEST ACTING I’ve ever seen on stage. I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but really. I’ve never seen acting that’s as present, as living, as vulnerable and as fucking furious as this before. Without ever ‘playing’ their characters, they embody their roles (the distinction between those two words seems very important here. They make it very clear that they are assuming… what? – avatars, I suppose – The Girl, The Mother, The Narrator, The Brother – and yes, we are invited to read a certain level of violence into those labels), and then we create a sense of character around their bodies – we fill in the gaps. The way they speak the text has little to do with psychological realism and more to do with physically inhabiting a stream of words and giving them meaning musically, by which I mean following them through by instinct, interrupting yourself or changing track mid-sentence not because the ‘character’ means to say something else but because that’s what the rhythm is asking for.

What’s electrifying is not only how they perform, but what they’re saying. I know that Lulu, who writes text for the company, hates being compared to Sarah Kane, but I think their intentions in approaching the concept of violence are very similar – to explode the notion of what violence is in a capitalist society, especially during peacetime. While in Blasted, for example, Kane does this by setting the play in a time of imagined war and creating gross fantasias of physical violence, making material what is already present and unacknowledged in everyday life, Barrel Organ deliberately avoids performing what might normally be considered acts of violence, asking us to read the content of the show through the lens of the title and interrogate what it is to be violent, and how the social and political structures in which the characters (roles, avatars, whatever) operate are violent, or enable and encourage violence as a means of reproducing those very structures. What exactly is it that drives The Girl to break into someone’s flat? How might it be seen as a symptom of a larger, more widespread malaise? These are questions which are especially relevant in an world saturated by images of physical violence, both simulated and real. We are desensitised to the forms of violence which are most visible, and ignorant of those which aren’t. Maybe we can only begin to comprehend and empathise with the extreme suffering of those in what often seem impossibly far-away areas of conflict when we recognise the violence which worms its way into our own privileged, peaceful, quietly cancerous lives.

The genius of the show is that this broad definition of violence is communicated not only through the content of the monologues which form the bulk of the evening, but also translated into theatrical games, bringing actual violence (though still the concealed kind) into the real space of the theatre. At one point, the actors make up a story to explain the sound of a creaking bed – it’s the bed of the couple whose flat The Girl invades, they decide – and use two audience members as physical templates for the couple, describing their clothes and recording their voices to play back later. This feels like one of the most aggressive acts in the show; a reappropriation of two people’s lives, or an invasion of privacy.

So yes. Some People Talk About Violence is one of the most thrilling shows I’ve ever seen. It’s a shot of adrenalin straight into the pumping purple muscle of your heart. It leaves you breathless and shaking, gleeful and broken. It’s at CPT from 1st-12th December. Go.


A couple of days after seeing the show I read Edward Bond’s essay, On Violence. This is what he says:

‘…it is a mark of [capitalism’s] decadence that it no longer has the moral right, and probably not even the political authority, to deal with violence – with hooliganism, vandalism and crime – any more than it has the intellectual vitality to understand it. It’s easy to see that capitalism has made its ethos of violence very readily available on TV, but sometimes it’s not noticed that it sells it at very reduced prices in its courts. Capitalism has made violence a cheap consumer commodity.’

And this:

‘At school [victims of social injustice] learn the mythology of their own natural nihilism, the absurdity of life and the futility of altruism, glossed over with a few Bible stories. Working and living in a very complex, capitalist technocracy forces them to behave in ways from which it is easy for them to draw the same conclusion, so that the mythology seems to be constantly affirmed by experience.’

And finally this:

‘We have to understand that not only is capitalism destructive in war and peace, but that it is as destructive in peace as in war… whenever you walk quietly down the orderly street of a capitalist society you are surrounded by the hidden debris of waste and destruction and are already involved in a prolonged act of communal violence.’

Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me

Soho Theatre, London – 11/09/15

Referring to Tim Cowbury and Jess Latowicki, the two core members of Made in China who are both performing in their new show, Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me, my fabulous friend (adjective inserted at her request) said after the show, ‘I didn’t know they were together. They make such a great couple!’ Which struck me as quite telling of the way I think we both watched the show, and which made me a little suspicious of the way it functions (I’ll elaborate in a bit).

Tonight… takes the form of a monologue delivered by Jess, about her relationship with Tim who is also the author of the monologue, and who sits in view in the lighting desk, taking notes and following the script, occasionally piping up to tell her she’s dropped a line on page 4. Because of this, layers of ambiguity are created as to the truth of what Jess is saying, and the extent of her agency in her performance (spoilers ahead, guys) – Tim writes his own heroic death into the story, but when Jess spoils the surprise after Tim leaves the room, is this her taking ownership of the performance, or is this itself written in by Tim? When she goes on a tangent and describes the dress she wears to his funeral in obsessive, narcissistic detail, is this her way of spiting Tim? The show is a struggle for power and agency in a relationship, played out in theatrical form. The audience is meant to feel uncomfortable, caught in the crossfire – Jess talks to us, tells us how to reply. Tim puts words in her mouth, and she puts them in ours.

Now here’s where it gets a little more complicated. Because I knew who Tim and Jess were and knew that they’d actually authored/created the show collaboratively (well, I can’t say for sure of course, but it’s highly unlikely that the show has been created in the way that the show itself suggests, isn’t it?), there remained a sense of pretence about it. The uncomfortable tension that should come from the disrupting of our assumptions about theatrical process and reality was diffused slightly for me. Though the script paints a rather ugly picture of a modern relationship (fictional, real or otherwise), neither my friend nor I registered the obvious irony in thinking, ‘wow. [In real life], they make such a great couple!’, because the show and their actual-actual relationship still feel like two distinct things. Because of this, I left with a feeling that the show was, not lying to me exactly, but certainly presenting a construction without explicitly acknowledging the full extent of that construction. If that makes sense. But then maybe that’s kind of the whole point anyway?

Having said this, even if the show’s intention might be for the audience to question the propositions made within the structure of the show (how much agency Jess has, whether Tim is the author, how much of the stuff she says is true), knowing that it’s not so much these that are artificial* as the show itself doesn’t make it any less complex and layered; if anything, it only makes it more difficult to read…

‘Jess’ (as I will now refer to the Jess of the show) feels very much like a performed character, whether that be a construction created by Made in China or by ‘Tim’ the ‘author’, with her performed personality and performed costume and performed dance moves. More interestingly, ‘Tim’ is an incredibly neutral presence. Real-Tim is not a performer, and ‘Tim’ in this show simply sits poker-faced at his lighting desk, without so much as a twitch of a muscle or the slightest suggestion of emotion when ‘Jess’ makes direct reference to him, or prods him, or insults him (he knows what she’s going to say after all), reading the occasional line into his post-dramatic microphone in a way that makes it very clear that this is just Tim reading from a script. On the other hand, the very fact that he has a script and a post-dramatic microphone makes it very clear that he is performing, but in a different way to Jess/’Jess’. In the bit where they alternately vent their grievances about each other (‘why do you hide the bits of dead skin you pick off your feet down the side of the sofa?’; ‘why don’t you hold me in your arms when we wake up anymore? – I paraphrase), ‘Jess’/Jess performs her lines with emotion as an straight actor would, giving the semblance of an actual conversation (I mean, we’re used to suspending our disbelief, right?), while ‘Tim’/Tim counteracts this by reading plainly from his script, following her lines as well. It’s a great metaphor for performance and performativity in relationships, and it’s unsettling in its refusal to tune itself to a single theatrical, or metatheatrical, wavelength. Instead, we get crossed signals.

A word about the dancing. There are three dances, one at the beginning, one in the middle, one at the end. They’re each very different but share a mood of anxiety and strained sexuality, and it’s at these moments that the piece’s intellectual layers of irony and artifice start to peel away, leaving us with a distilled feeling of something very uncomfortable indeed. In the first, Jess gyrates and convulses, twerks and twitches, as the pleasure and pain of every relationship ever merge together. Near the end of the second dance Tim enters the room with a beer for Jess and stands over her as she does ‘The Gynaecologist’, and it’s clear at that moment just how honest they’re being (real-them, that is) by acknowledging the ingrained sexism in all of our relationships. There’s also a great moment when a confetti cannon spits out a pathetic amount of shredded paper – I’ve never thought of confetti cannons as having an attitude before, but this is the most sarcastic, ironic confetti cannon you’ll ever see in action. In the final dance, Jess spins round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round as the fan that spins behind her – acting almost as a motor, propelling her to keep performing – filters hot pink light (Alex Fernandes’ lighting is subtle and extremely effective) into a strobe and Jess just carries on flickering and spinning and flickering and spinning. And Tim’s face is still unreadable. It’s hypnotic and weird and seriously, seriously dark.


*Though of course the very definition of artifice and reality in theatre is a hugely knotty issue and one which the show purposefully blurs anyway, making it very hard to interpret anything with much certainty or conviction – this ‘review’ is more of an attempt to make sense of a big jumble of incoherent thoughts.