Cor! monkeys…

reviews by stewart pringle, some of them anyway

Lela & Co. review

Lela & Co.

Lela & Co.

‘Westron Wynde’, the song which builds and echoes through Cordelia Lynn’s fine and dangerous play, is something of an orphan itself. First appearing in a 16th century part-book passed between musicians in the court of Henry VIII, it had fallen through time from a century or two earlier, a strangely secular lyric uncoupled from its original context and repurposed. It’s a mournful expression of loss and homecoming in four short lines, that could themselves have been blown across seas or over mountains, like a prayer on a breeze.

Westron wynde when wyll thow blowe
the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayne.

It’s well chosen, then, as a refrain for the eponymous Lela, dislocated from her family, and eventually from all possible comforts by the brutality of men, and of their wars and the commerce between them. Lynn’s play is a lament for the female body under a capitalism backed into a corner by conflict, where it reveals itself in its most direct and vicious form – where it really bares its teeth.

Lela tells us her life’s story with a girlish enthusiasm, keen to point out the petty injustices of her childhood, tone-deaf to the details which suggest grimmer possibilities and foreshadowings in tales of her father’s brutality, or the unequal treatment she received. But Lela can never get very far with her monologue without the intruding voice of a man, perhaps her father, then her brother-in-law, then a husband, who corrects details in her memories and over-writes her anecdotes. Gradually this control over Lela’s story shifts from the textual to the actual, as she is married off, and finds herself at the mercy of a vicious husband who imprisons her in a shabby back-room of his house, and rents her body out to his friends, then his acquaintances, and then random hordes of parched soldiers.

The dark is central to Lela’s experience of the world. She’s kept in it, figuratively at first, and then literally, and we follow her into it. We see the control of information as the vital advance-guard in the control of choice, and then autonomy. The candy-floss and lollipop world that Lela greets us in is an extension of that, run through the symbolism of Lolita-culture and the global industries which make hay from the joint infantalisation and sexualisation of women. We’re offered candy floss at the end, but by then nobody really has the stomach for it.

War is the backdrop, but it’s not a specific war, gaining strength, like the setting, from its anonymity. Talk of mountains and lakes offer tantalising suggestions, but even the story’s placement in time seems to swim and blur. The message is one of a dreadful universality of experience. The story’s roots in the real world are disguised, almost irrelevant. There’s lots that’s unseen and unknown here, but none of the occlusions detract from what takes place, and its weight. Jude Christian’s production is packed with stark decisions, but her decision to play the most brutal scenes of sexual violence in near-blackout, with just a single bubble of glass picked out in the gloom, is her boldest and most powerful.

Designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita works in a complex interplay of symbols and shorthand. Lela might have created the space herself, its red-curtains suggest a womb-like safety, the neon lights that pick out her name and the striped cabaret-style flooring feel appropriate for a woman acutely aware, if practically isolated from, the fine distinctions of class and glamour, whose aesthetic vocabulary takes in Marilyn Monroe and expensive French patisserie. But it’s also a stage for display, for the displaying of a product. It’s a sort of show-room, as Jabares-Pita and Christian make clear in an ad-channel style cut-away promoting the ideal husband and wife. The auditorium’s seats are preloaded with business cards for Lela & Co. the corporation – the business selling sex, selling Lela. The bunches of candy-floss handed out to the audience make for an obvious counterpoint to the narrative, but they’re still horribly effective. The rattle of gunfire accompanied by a strobing of the four neon letters, L-E-L-A, punches through with unflinching force.

Christian’s production is accomplished in its manipulation of discomfort. The ever-present male, played with a disturbing blankness by David Mumeni, is often an irritant, shouting too loud or faffing with props at the corner of the stage – spinning sugar into floss. But it’s all intentional, it’s all part of his dominance, in his various forms, over her world, and eventually his failure to save her from it.

Katie West’s performance is horribly evasive, never allowing the full weight of her misery to fall onto the text (where it would squash it, utterly) but instead bobbing along as if it’s all so everyday, so expected, such a minor unfairness in a life that’s never been even slightly fair.

And that’s Lela & Co.‘s trump card. Because the most awful thing of all is that about half-way through it all begins to sound so familiar. Oh yeah, woman trapped by marriage into prostitution, subjected to profit-motivated gang-rape, child-birth in a dank and locked room, child-death in the wilderness, reborn into a shame she can’t shrug-off. Heard it, mate. Heard it before. Change the tune. Change the record. And that’s not an attack on the play, which Lynn has crafted in blunt and beautiful language, and Christian has realised with gruesome originality, but on this fucking, fucking world. With all these fucking men drawing lines and boundaries and hunting women, who flee like refugees from exclusion zones of violence and exploitation.

Well done us. We’ve made excruciating sexual torture and human deletion into the wallpaper of our culture. Into the background hum of constant unfolding atrocity. We’ve made Lela’s story, her true story mind you, into a cultural commonplace. The slowest of slow claps. Try not to catch anyone’s eye when you walk out. And don’t take the candy floss. Don’t ever take the candy floss ever again.

An Oak Tree

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On the inside cover of pale green folded free-sheet handed out by the Box Office outside the Temporary Theatre there is a list of ‘SECOND ACTORS WHO HAVE PERFORMED IN THIS PRODUCTION OF AN OAK TREE‘. There are plenty of names to conjure with – it’s been a very successful play, it’s a bit of an honour – from stalwarts of the British stage like Eve Best and Paul Hunter, to figureheads of the international avant-garde like Laurie Anderson.

One name that jumps out, for me at least, is Roger Lloyd Pack – not mainly out of respect and affection for him as an actor, but because he’s dead. He died in the intervening period between An Oak Tree‘s 2006 UK Tour and its ten year anniversary run here at the National Theatre. There are probably several other dead names on the list that others have picked up on. And if Tim Crouch can be tempted to bring the play back in another ten years, chances are there will be several more. It’s a little sad. This list of collaborators is slowly becoming a monument, one Obituary at a time.

There is nothing unusual about this. It happens with every Original Cast page of every script that has ever been printed, but here, for some very good reasons in this very, very good piece of theatre, it stands out. It matters.

Dan Rebellato has already nailed the essence of this in his introduction to the new edition:

‘[An Oak Tree] does sort of spoil some other theatre for a while, because it acknowledges what other theatre often seeks to ignore. The joy of An Oak Tree is that it explains away how all theatre works, but then does it anyway.’

Crouch’s play undresses and annotates the commonplaces of theatre, commonplaces so common that they have become almost invisible, such that the act of revealing them is almost disorientating.

But the technology of this, the structural techniques which facilitate these realisations, have been well trod. There have been quite a few oak trees worth of paper expended over the use of an unknowing actor as the Father, and as Crouch himself as the hypnotist, but there are other, quieter unveilings too. Our presence as an audience is only a stand-in for another audience which will exist twelve months from now watching the Hypnotist’s act in the upstairs room of a pub. Our involvement isn’t required, because we don’t really exist yet. Later, when faced with the cognitive and temporal disjunct created by the joint occupation of the here and now and the there and then, the Father inquires if something can be done to prevent the tragic death of his daughter from ever occurring, Crouch punches a cackling hole in the fabric of fiction and drives across it with such wild panache that our suspension of disbelief is jiggered, utterly.

It’s clever, of course, but it’s also tapping directly into the universally human experience of grief and the grieving process, of a cross-cultural obsession with the nature of time and the impossibility of taking back even the briefest, stupidest and cruellest mistakes that occur in our lives.

Because, above all, An Oak Tree is a play about control over our lives, our environment, our perception and our destiny.

This sorta feels like Crouch’s grand theme.

In An Oak Tree it seems to work like this:

When a car spins off the road (spins out of control) and crushes a tiny person on the way to her piano lesson, a gap opens up in the world which can seemingly and ostensibly never be filled. Dawn, dead Claire’s mother, is (in the Father’s words) ‘diminished’, because she seeks her daughter in the detritus she has left behind. She seeks her in a finite number of objects and mementos which have accumulated in her house. Threads of hair and photographs. Items which can only reduce in number as they are lost, as Claire was lost. The Father instead finds her ‘multiplied’, he sees her in the spaces between things, in ‘indentations in time, physical depressions, imperfections on surfaces, the spaces beneath chairs’. Her presence is returned to his control and his definition. He is free to pour her into an oak tree by the side of the road, to collapse those possible presences into an object of formidable solidity. Michael Craig-Martin’s own Oak Tree was an oak tree in every respect apart from ‘the accidents of the glass of water’, and this choice of wording is highly significant. By re-affirming the authority of the artist, the viewer, or the sufferer, Crouch’s Father character places his daughter outside of the realm of accidents and occurrences, out of the fascism of phenomenological consensus.

But that’s bullshit.

Because, ultimately, An Oak Tree moves to re-affirm fundamental existential truths which have been the meat of theatre, and of tragedy in particular, since the Greeks. The Hypnotist’s use of Carl Orff’s bombastic ‘O Fortuna’ as his play-in music is no coincidence – the relentless wheel of fortune, of life turning to death in the cycle of human lives is ever-present. Our sympathy may be with the Father and his mania, but the movement of Crouch’s play makes its futility and danger absolutely clear, with the presence of Dawn and her ‘underwritten’ surviving daughter Marcia stood by the side of the road, begging him to surrender his delusion. The play is framed by the Father’s visit to the Hypnotist to seek some form of closure. Like Craig-Martin, Crouch slyly acknowledges the play’s spiritual undertones and hints of transubstantiation, here by the ironic deflation of the priest role to that of the tatty and down at heel peddler of glitzy bullshit. Magic, you ain’t gonna get. Your Lazarus pash, that’s going nowhere.

Transformation, control and the links between them occur again and again in Crouch’s work. My Arm saw one boy’s application of pure will and wilfulness transform him first into a celebrity, then a living commodity, and soon after the play concludes it will make him a dead one. ENGLAND traces the changing value and significance of an organ, which becomes the locus for an exploration of the shifting value of life. The Author sees a group of smugly comfortable intelligentsia shaken and splintered by their exposure to aspects of reality they believe their intelligence and artistry should immunise them against. Adler & Gibb gave us a whole funhouse of plastic authenticity and endlessly reflected deserts of the real, but at its heart was a plea for basic humanity, basic love, as something to hold against the yard sale of our ruin. Because everything is vulnerable. Because everything is for sale. Because that’s the problem.

ADLER and GIBB by Crouch,           , Director and Writer – Tim Crouch, Co directors – Karl James and Andy Smith, Assistant Director – Caroline Byrne, Lighting – Natasha Chivers, Set Design – Lizzie Clachan, The Royal Court Theatre, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson/

The Father of An Oak Tree will always have our sympathy, poor fucker. He’s only just been given his script for a start, and as he’s manipulated into the living victim of an event he could have done nothing to prevent, our sympathy stays with him. In the performance on June 24th 2015 the part was taken by Maggie Service, and though you felt there was a certain ‘performed-ness’ to her reading and recitation of the role, she remained an individual caught up by circumstance, locked in an act that she couldn’t escape from.

Because our illusion of absolute control is as phoney as the Hypnotist’s – it’s only an act. And the transmutation of a tree into a dead girl won’t bring her back. There are always forces beyond our control, there are always strings that we don’t see – both within and without our minds and our bodies – and art isn’t coming to save us. All it can do is remind us of what is dangerous and what is important. Remind us to be vigilant, to be strong and to be kind.

Stewart Pringle

Radiant Vermin review

Darkly funny … Gemma Whelan (Jill), Amanda Daniels (Mrs Dee) and Sean Michael Verey (Ollie) in Radia

Radiant Vermin has been billed as Philip Ridley’s first comedy, but of course there’s always been a vein of fierce humour running through his work. The balancing of light and dark, of the everyday and the obscene, which makes him one of our most brilliant and enduring playwrights, relies on those nervous titters or sudden belly laughs. The idea of Ridley as a writer of bleak horrors is a false one – he’s not Edgar Allen Poe or H P Lovecraft, and he’s not Sarah Kane either. If you were to compare him to anyone, it would have to be William Burroughs or Jonathan Swift. He’s a satirist who dissects real-life cruelties through monstrous fantasies and merciless humour. He understands the fleshy horror of living, he knows where your soft bits are, and he’s perfectly prepared to give them a kicking.

This time he’s putting his boot into gentrification, commodification, and the housing crisis. But though there are superficial (and coincidental) similarities to Mike Bartlett’s GAME, particularly in the initial setup of a couple miraculously provided with a free home – but at a cost to their humanity, Ridley’s play is both broader and more accurate. It takes aim not only at the careless cruelties practised by the middle classes, but also at something rotten in the heart of family itself. It’s a reminder that heteronormative couples are sleeper-cells of selfishness in the heart of society, that our first allegiance is always to ourselves, and while that’s a harsh truth to face, it’s one that Ridley articulates with wicked chutzpah.

Ollie and Jill are expecting their first child, and they don’t want it to grow up in a run-down flat. That’s when a real-life Mary Poppins in the form of the magical Miss Dee. She offers them a beautiful new home, totally rent-free. Sure, it’s in a bit of a rough area – an estate that’s gone to seed, where homeless men and women crouch around campfires and the respectable community have long-since fled. Sure, the house needs a bit of fixing up, a few ‘renovations’, a word which takes on an increasingly sinister meaning, but nobody said owning a dream home would be easy.

After the unfortunate death of a house-breaking vagrant miraculously results in a brand new fitted kitchen, our smiling hosts begin a descent into increasingly mechanised mass murder to keep up with the Joneses, who arrive in ever increasing numbers to this emerging property hot-spot. Soon Ollie is cruising the dark roads at night, looking for likely victims whose disappearance won’t be noticed. Soon this sugar sweet couple have transformed into Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, into Fred and Rose West.

It’s an ingenious conceit, utterly barmy but surprisingly elastic and nuanced. There’s ghoulish glee to be had in Ollie’s first hamfisted murders, and in Jill’s increasing hunger for the luxurious and lust for blood. But there’s also real heart and real horror. When one of Ollie’s hunting trips goes awry and Jill comes face to face with a potential victim, it’s genuinely bruising. The suggestion that the government are in on it all, that they may even be orchestrating it all in order to improve dilapidated areas through jealousy and competition is harrowing. It all builds to a masterpiece of writing, performance and direction where Ollie and Jill’s guilty consciences finally catch up with them in an orgy of screeching neighbours and hot-breathed panic.

Where Ridley’s previous work frequently invokes claustrophobia, here we have air and light. Where the movement in Mercury Fur, Piranha Heights or Leaves of Glass is characterised by shards of absurd violence bursting out of the everyday, here it flows and dances. Ridley builds on the confessional frame of Dark Vanilla Jungle by explicitly locating the audience as confidents of this bubbly couple. It allows the narrative to skip frothily forwards, but it also makes a broad but crucial point about the audience’s own culpability. The issue of urban gentrification and the damage it can do extends far beyond ambitions for a dream home or a stable environment for children, and into smaller decisions and transactions which make up the pattern of all our daily lives.

David Mercatali’s precise but fluid direction contributes greatly to this loosening and playfulness – Jill and Ollie move and speak with the energetic rhythms of a 90’s sit-com, a peculiarly British form of farce which also played heavily on the conspicuous consumptions and material vanity of the working and lower-middle classes. Sean Michael Verey’s performance as Ollie has a twang of Rodney Trotter about it, and as Gemma Whelan’s Jill character gradually loses her authenticity and innocence, she shuffles towards a long line of self-deluding materialsts.

With a stripped bare white cube of a set by Will Reynolds, Radiant Vermin requires fearsome talent, energy and flexibility from its performers, and Verey and Whelan deliver in spades. They ricochet across the stage, smiles plastered on as their lives become increasingly detached from reality. The party scene asks for a tour de force, and it gets it, as characters fly past in a constant and escalating blur. Whelan has delivered this kind of intensity as recently as her last Ridley/Mercatali collaboration Dark Vanilla Jungle, but Verey matches her step for step. There’s brilliant support from Amanda Daniels too, as both the fairy godmother Miss Dee and particularly the tragic victim Kay.

Radiant Vermin may see Ridley at his loosest and most playful, but as in his work for young adults, his astute political mind shines through. The teeth are filed as sharp and the jaw is as strong. It might be painted in brighter colours and with more fantastic strokes, but it’s still a vicious fucking crocodile of a play.

Islands review

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Islands – Photo credit Helen Murray

Yesterday I finished reading a book by journalist Dan Davies titled In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile. As well as being a boldly researched, meticulous and readable account of the good deeds and horrendous crimes of the erstwhile national treasure, it is also the very best non-fiction book I have ever read about power. It tells us more about power in the modern world, its tributaries, currents and undercurrents, than anything written by Niall Ferguson, or by Owen Jones. The power it describes is drawn from the most significant figures and nodes in 20th century Britain – from the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, the tabloids, the BBC – and is then directed towards one primary goal: freedom. Ultimate freedom from the laws, social responsibilities, standards, morals, areas of movement lateral and vertical that affect the vast, vast majority of humans. It is not expressed primarily in golden Rolls Royce’s, jewellery and Pharaohic burials, though these are all outward features, its real location is in the semen encrusted jogging bottoms loping through the corridors of 10 Downing Street. The self-confession of sexual abuse to an audience of millions, the cackling at consequences. The aging DJ’s penis shoved wherever it damn well pleases.

And it stinks.

Islands has been widely panned by critics from across the political spectrum, but the loudest and most eloquent voices have come from what you’d broadly think of as the left or left-leaning. There are wide-ranging criticisms, many of which are valid (it’s baggy), many of which are just a matter of personal taste (it’s boring), but some of which I feel are unfair. Broadly speaking, this last category contains the sense that Islands fails because it lacks specificities, that it fails to illuminate its ostensive subject of tax havens, that it fails on the level of argument and that somehow this allows the villains of the piece off the hook. That it fails to nail them up for all to see.

Caroline Horton has probably brought some of this on herself. The show has been devised in collaboration with John Christensen and the Tax Justice Network, a fact broadly advertised, which builds an expectation of facts, figures, examples or explications. There’s none of that here. But then they have books on sale in the foyer, so you can always read up on the specifics in your own time. There’s also Horton’s impressive track-record, and the nature of that track record – You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy was an utterly charming jewel of a love-letter to her grandmother, while Mess took the unquestionably messy subject of anorexia and made it feel extraordinarily, painfully clear and vivid. Islands on the other hand, takes something extremely messy and makes it far, far messier. It drenches it in grotesque poses and excess, in shit and garbage and nonsense until anything as prissy as a pie-chart or a real human being would look like a chip in the sugar.

But it’s not a show about a person, or a pie-chart, or about abstruse accountancy practises. It’s a show about power, and the islands power creates that float like adamantine Laputa above the rest of the shit. It’s too angry for reasoned argument or ‘drama’, what it’s discussing requires a different sort of language and an image-set, and belongs to a different tradition. From the moment filthy, fabulous Mary (Horton, on mesmerising form) lumbers onto the stage, Islands is about immersing its audience in the filthy end-times of ultimate freedom – offering an e-scatology of power which is relentlessly discomforting and irreducible, unfriendly, flip, and nasty.

Its filthy gods, performed in something like the familiar bouffon style, with plenty of the shit and obscenity that the style drew to itself through the early 20th century, have been seen in this form as recently as Shunt’s similarly brilliant and obtuse The Architects. Here their lineage is even clearer, all tawdry excess and sexual exhaustion, they are like the libertines of Pier Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Their wealth is unimaginable, their dwelling high and remote, their medium shit and blood. And like Pasolini (and to a lesser extent his inspiration De Sade, for whom power and the erotic were connected in endless paraphilias but little effective satire), Horton selects the imagery of bodily degradation – violence, corophilia, sexual cruelty – as a stand in for their true crimes, because it is the most genuinely honest manner of representation.

In Pasolini the poor and the vulnerable are reduced to vessels of defecation or sexual objects while the rich eat their shit as a delicacy – in Horton they dwell, disregarded down the drain in Shitworld. They are shat on and in, raped at the convenience of the powerful. They are also clothed like, and described as, a gang, and a gang they are – droog-like and saturated in invented language and codes.

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Photo credit Francis Loney

Mary’s invocation of the bullfight also draws in Bataille, and his Story of the Eye in particular. Mary herself could even be seen as an anologue of Blue of Noon’s own sovereign of filth, ‘Dirty’. These comparisons are far from coincidental, as both texts were concerned with another form of destructive power, namely facism, and both chose to express its dynamics not through the explanations of politicians or economists, or through the lives of the poor expressed naturalistically, but through a visceral, faecal, fetishism of the acts and sacraments of mad, dumb, vicious power. Horton states that she was inspires to write Islands when she looked deeper into tax havens and discovered the real human cost that they wreck. The lives that are prematurely ended or turned to misery because of them. It’s unsurprising then that her response flows out like a furious stream of invective, that it has those same qualities of rage and the same end-point of sensible language and imagery that we find in Pasolini and Bataille. Meeting obscenity, Horton matches it with the obscene.

The gang, wild Mary, feeble Agent (John Biddle) and fun-loving Swill (Seiriol Davies), communicate in snatches of corrupted song and nursery rhyme – they are vulgar, and they speak in ugly, obvious phrases. There is no poetry or intelligence to their speech, and as they dominate the stage almost throughout the play, there is consequently little in the surface text of Islands. Their grasp on the lives of those in Shitworld is tenuous, they fear them only in so far as they have the ability to curtail their freedoms. You don’t have to stare as deep into the toilet bowl as Jimmy Savile to recognise those tendencies in those invested with the freedom power and money bring and who are determined to keep it.

The narrative, such as it is, sees the gradual corruption of a new Adam (Simon Startin) and Eve (Hannah Ringham) by the forces of these wealthy gods, a plot which naturally suggests its own origin story. Eve transgresses and is cast out, Adam begins to ascend the ranks towards the freedom of floating Haven, where you can eat all the cherries you could wish for. The story is simple, stuffed lightly with images of the breakdown of the last vestiges of religion, but its final moments are nonetheless quite devastating. The breaking of Adam by the gang’s described rape of Eve, and Eve’s final confrontation with Mary is as terrible as Horton’s suggestion that it’s ultimately futile – that remorse for any transgression will be dissolved in greater excess and the guilty will never be punished.

The form is loose and the pace gradual, and it’s almost certainly this, rather than the specific content, which is causing walk-outs in such numbers (36 on the night I saw it). Content for a while to be confused, they left when they felt they were being abused – that is, that their time was being wasted, that they were being bored for no purpose by a company or work without substance. The thirty second wet farting noise was just a last straw that had been in the mail for some time. It’s unfortunate, but the piece demands it. Thrills are not really on the menu – shit is, and if you’re bored of shit then that probably means it’s working. The process of creating Islands seems to have rendered Horton and her company incapable of compromise, the anger baked into a singularity of purpose. Why in hell should this be educational? Why in hell should this be entertaining? Those shivers up the spine that good theatre gives you? Luxury. This is art suspicious of itself, and with good reason.

Phil Ormrod took to Facebook last night to compare Islands to those beautiful, furious final moments of Men in the Cities and it’s absolutely the right comparison. Chris Goode fired that ‘Fuck ‘em’ off like a challenge (and yes, spine-tingly it was), somewhere between a confession of frailty and a cry of defiance that some things just don’t deserve logic and reason. Islands is the latest contribution to a rich tradition of blunt and messy howls aimed upwards from Shitworld to the islands of the absolutely free and absolutely fucking evil.

Paging Haven, eat shit and die.

Salò

Bon Appetit!

– Stewart Pringle

 

Thoughts on Daniel Kitson’s ‘Analog.Ue’

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Analog.Ue

[Warning – contains mild spoilers]

It’s not enough for Daniel Kitson any more, that much is clear.

The last time he was onstage at the Lyttleton is was with It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later, a story show in which two lives passed brushed briefly past one another at a bus-stop as they murmured in opposite directions from cradle to grave. Kitson brought his talent to illuminating twinkling moments of quiet significance in their lives against a low-hanging forest of light bulbs. It was a Kitson show par excellence, definitively Kitson, the smell of… Daniel Kitson. But that’s clearly not enough for him any more.

Analog.Ue tells a very similar story to It’s Always Right Now…, once again we have two characters, a man and a woman, once again we have a kind of thwarted meeting that brings the temporal scale of lives lived into focus. Once again ‘This is not a love story’, but now as then the themes are love, tenderness and a feeling of reaching outwards over the unconquerable distances which are the subtle and unspoken background to our lives.

This time it’s the story of Thomas Tappler, an 80 year-old man committing his failing memories to a bank of reel-to-reel players in a garage in 1977, and Trudy Livingstone, who’s spent her life working in a call centre for reasons that will make your heart sigh a little bit. As it’s supposed to.

The story is as replete with carefully polished detail as ever. The wonderful banalities and personal sanctities of everyday life are laid out with wit and warmth, with enough spiky bits and swears to keep the syrupy tide of sentimentality well leveed. Thomas’s foul-mouthed wife Gertie, a constant presence at the story’s periphery, is a particularly beautiful creation. It’s as funny, as intelligent and as humane as you’ve doubtless come to expect. And that, Kitson has been practically screaming for almost two years now, is the fucking problem.

This phase in Kitson’s work began with the nameless show named As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title, which he premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in (surprisingly enough) 2012. It was a show which railed against the expectations placed on its author by his cultish fanbase and the artistic establishment randy for more of ‘the fucking dignity of unwitnessed lives’ which Kitson had long excelled in, while simultaneously containing at least one story of exactly that sort. It was criticised as self-indulgent, and it was, but it was also the beginning of a serious period of internal questioning and reflexivity in Kitson’s art, which the (facetiously labelled) ‘recluse’ is living out in public in a series of deeply considered formal experiments. Kitson knows that he can do what he does better than pretty much anyone living – he doesn’t need another special prize for Best Storyteller – he needs to work out what the hell he’s going to do next. And the way he’s chosen to do that is to interrogate the functional mechanisms and emotional motivations behind a ‘Kitson show’, behind the idea of ‘Kitson-esque’, by the hipster art-crowd brand that is ‘Kitson’.

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As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title

Last year’s After the Beginning . Before the End felt in some ways like a companion piece to As of 1.52pm. It seemed to explore the personal dimensions of this personal and artistic crisis with a particular focus on the peculiar affluent solitude Kitson has fashioned for himself in his mid-30’s. Thematically it explored the unreliability of memory and the problematic credibility of story-telling. Formally it toyed in the most tentative fashion with live music, with Kitson controlling a series of electronic loops to underscore one of the more stately and cooler of his narratives. Though aesthetic clues were few and far between, there was a detectable gulf between the hairy, slightly hulking Ben Folds fan that brought his first theatre shows into the world in the mid-2000’s, and this shorn 30-something with his bleepy synth and ATP-chic. Later in the year Tree saw him bringing in a second performer (!!), and if the story could have just as easily been told by Kitson alone, it demonstrated a continued commitment to shaking things up a little.

Analog.Ue goes one further than this by removing Kitson’s live vocal presence from the equation altogether, with the story told instead by a recording split across 46 separate recording devices. Kitson’s voice has been captured on the magnetic tape of vintage reel-to-reel machines and aging Dictaphones, and he moves in resolute silence across the stage as he arranges, powers up, inspects and repairs the whirring decks that are his avatar. ‘A brave move’, seemed to be the press consensus from the first run in St. Anne’s Warehouse, New York, with many critics disappointed that England’s greatest professional talker wouldn’t be talking to them at all, that they were instead to enjoy a sort of elaborate audio-book massaged into life by a self-trained amateur technician.

Kitson is playing a sort of game, of course. The mouldered tape machines perfectly compliment the love of old and damaged things that permeates this narrative and many of his others, as well as the DIY, Disintegration Loop-y, hauntological aesthetic that is a regular visual reference point. The clicking, glowing and whirring of the salvaged machines is as warm, weighty and satisfying as a slab of vintage vinyl. Far from pouring himself out of the show, he has instead created dozens of physical symbols for his work and wound his voice around their spools.

Changes have apparently been made to the script since the first performances in New York, and my best guess would be that they involve the addition of a framing narrative which places the work in the context of Kitson’s current artistic and personal situation. Whenever they were added, they provide an access route into the narrative that feels at once welcoming and welcome and a bit of a cop-out. There’s a sense that the story, as good as it is, isn’t quite good enough to stand on its own; that like the kernel at the centre of As of 1.52pm, it is too paradigmatically ‘Kitson’ to pass without comment. That, however cleverly it has been presented, it’s just a bit ‘done’.

That’s the theme which runs through Kitson’s freshly recorded interludes – that somewhere, sometime, his artistic processes began to turn in on themselves and generate a minor crisis. That too many of the small and treasured memories which Kitson stitches together into shows have now been paraded before an audience and that the artist fears he is becoming something of a recording machine himself – a device for observing, noting down and spooling back. This is his most personal show since 66a Church Road, filled with slides of Kitson’s home and his childhood and his friends, his own life constantly getting in the way of the story he is apparently trying to unwind.

One of the best and most poignant moments in As of 1.52pm involved Kitson’s description of his fear of failure, of not producing the expected hit. He spoke of sitting in the middle of the night in his underpants staring at a blank screen and trying to force genius onto it. There’s something of that message here too, refined into a visual language of labour. Kitson relates how he’d envisaged this show to be a great physical effort, hoping to expunge his doubts concerning his role in life with the sweat from his brow. But it’s essentially the same message. This isn’t easy. This is extremely hard. I know I make this look easy, but it’s not. It’s hard, and it’s getting harder.

If it sounds solipsistic (it is solipsistic) then it’s an extremely moving and considered piece of self-indulgence that never forgets to entertain and uplift even as it deconstructs. Kitson has paused the tape on his career and he’s running back through it. The process of disassembling and formally interrogating the paradox of the publicity shy man on the giant fuck-off stage and of the secret special moments made tawdry with repetition continues and perhaps concludes with Analog.Ue.

Perhaps.

It feels like we’re approaching a watershed moment in Kitson’s career – and can only hope that wherever he goes next is as remarkable as where he’s been.

 

The Mistress Contract review

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©Alastair Muir

‘The Mistress Contract’, an alleged transcription of decades of intercourse (the chatty kind) between a couple who forged and maintained an unusual sexual arrangement over more than thirty years, landed in October of 2011, just before Fifty Shades of Grey transformed every airport WH Smith into a gallery of queasily kinky erotica. It’s been brought to the stage by Abi Morgan, whose recent screen success with Shame and The Iron Lady should make her peculiarly suited to an exploration of sex and viciously dehumanizing capitalism. As a transcription, pulled from conversations taped by ‘She’ over the course of their relationship, the book is ostensibly ‘play-like’ in form anyway, and Morgan’s role here is as much textual dramaturg as author. Morgan has re-transcribed and annotated this relationship, already so peculiarly over-watched, formalized and constructed.

The contract in question provides ‘He’ with total sexual ownership and access to ‘She’, in return for which he provides her with an income and a flashy house in the desert. They’re not strangers, this is no Indecent Proposal, but friends from graduate school who have become lovers when re-united in middle-age. She loves him (or He) in a way, she desires his company for walks (apparently) and his conversation (bafflingly), though it’s unclear how much she desires his body. She certainly resents his constant requests for a blow-job on the drive home from the airport. He offers her something different from the two marriages that lie behind her. He desires her, particularly for the blow-jobs, and is willing to part with a chunk of his income to keep her and them on tap.

At one point She declares that ‘Prostitution is degrading for everyone.’, but barring this there is little interrogation of the explicit power dynamic of their relationship. Instead, their conversations frequently glide around the question of She’s feminism, where it can exist within their relationship, or any relationship. She attends a group, who He mockingly refers to as her ‘sisters’, and though she keeps the nature of their relationship on the down-low at first, it is clearly figured in her mind as a component for keeping herself honest to her values. The tape recordings fulfil a related purpose, they configure the arrangement as an experiment, a contribution to gender relations and perhaps to feminism, someday perhaps they’ll be another book to file alongside her Dworkin. 

Critics frequently talk about some play or other ‘skewering’ or ‘nailing’ a concept (I’ve certainly used both terms in the past) and the great strength of The Mistress Contract, much to Morgan and director Vicky Featherstone’s credit, is that it ‘pins down’ sweet F A. ‘She’ may be self-deluding, ‘He’ may be a horny buffoon, they are both audibly total bloody pseuds, but nobody is let off that lightly. The validity of She’s experiment, the implications of their arrangement for feminism or economics or shopping or fucking are never resolved, there is no point being made here. Instead the questions are woven through the morass of tedious philosophising that both characters spout until the weft of banalities are pulled taut.

There’s not much talk of sex here, or of money either. Instead there is introspection and mutual analysis. The contract, tape recorder or editors pen return again and again to questions of positioning: what do we value in one another? What do we expect of one another? What do we expect to give in return? Some of the gender stereotypes here are pretty hideous (men want oral sex, women want snuggles and country walks) and She’s feminism often amounts to little other than objections to He’s constant mansplaining, but the play constantly forefronts the significance of exchange in sexual relations, it almost totally refutes mutuality, so if its answers are slim, its questions are at least ringing and highly complex in their implications.

Merle Hensel’s strange and troubling set makes a major contribution to this. The house where these conversations take place is like an observation chamber or a vivarium, a box made of pure money in the heart of an arid desert. In a text crawling with gender-studies pontification it’s difficult not to see the colossal cactus that erupts into the ceiling in sexual terms. She declares that the land around her house is ‘a desert masquerading as a garden’, but it’s not that either, apart from the turgid mega-cactus it’s film-set fake, its cut-out backdrop a further reminder of the artificiality that exists at every level of these encounters.

Featherstone directs with a similarly removed eye. Neither character seems at home in their surroundings, they sign their contracts with the papers held awkwardly against their legs, they curl up post- coitally on a bed-roll in their fish-tank boudoir. Apart from a brief moment of fire surrounding She’s mastectomy, relations are cool and true to the forced, empty and showy prose of the source text. Featherstone refuses to flatten ambiguities or force moral conclusions, leaving the play muted but far more intriguing. It may be the most elusive and difficult play the Royal Court has staged in some time.

That’s not to say that it’s a particularly enjoyable watch. Even as the green shoots of a less austere relationship begin to show through, the characters are rather repellent people. The dialogue is as clunky as you’d expect of something so intentionally mediated, and if it succeeds in creating thinking space it leaves the play emotionally uninvolving. The first fifteen minutes in particular are a thankless slog, there are sections that drag and others that feel underdeveloped, but it makes for a fascinating whole.

The pill is sweetened considerably by the presence of Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb. Webb is as brilliant as ever, his macho puffery softening across the years, while Reeves becomes gradually dislocated from the human elements in her life.

The Mistress Contract is a play with serious questions to ask about the commodification of sexuality and the female body under capitalism. The record of this peculiar experiment may be coolly framed and dusted with the sociological rhetoric of the 1980’s, but this production makes a strong case for its pertinence.

Dark Woods, Deep Snow review

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It’s been another great year for Chris Thorpe. The smart, dense but slightly austere brilliance of There Has Possibly Been an Incident was balanced by the warm paean to human communication of I Wish I Was Lonely. It’s topped off by a weird and wild Christmas show that scrambles the wobbly high-concept charm of a Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who episode with a big sloppy smooch for the power of story-telling.

Luka (Assad Zaman) was the little boy lost in a deep, dark wood until he was found and adopted by the story-catchers, an oddball gang of interdimensional yarn-stitchers who protect the earth from destruction with a kind of ozone layer of imagination. That makes the heart of winter a busy time for them, as people gather in the dark and the cold to tell stories. There’s been an accident with the boisterous Johann’s (Gary Kitching) new invention, the Fabricator, and it’s threatening to let evil forces from another dimension rush into our world where they’ll presumably do something very, very bad.

It’s a bit confusing, if you hadn’t spotted that, and Thorpe seems to have a little trouble keeping the story together in the first act. It’s never entirely clear how the story-catchers work, where they’ve come from, or who the reverberant hell-dimension voices really are, let alone where Luka fits into all of this, but it’s loaded with charm and a genuine freshness that feels neither saccharine nor loaded with irony. The Doctor Who comparison isn’t an idle one; from the TARDIS-a-like Fabricator through the glowing crack that appears in the universe to Garance Marneur’s Maplins-punk costume design, that spirit of uncompromising, unpatronising space fantasy is everywhere.

Thorpe has developed the story-catchers among admirably original lines, avoiding clichés and creating a gang who share a warm and unconventional friendship. The female characters, Lily and Mila, are particularly impressive and offer punchy, exciting role models that are a world away from the pantomime princess. It helps that both Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are such strong and likeable performers, proving excellent matches for Kitching’s kilt-wearing scientist and Paul Charlton’s pen-pushing Wil. Zaman makes an excellent lead, dislocated both from his world and the cheerful story-catching group.

This is director Lorne Campbell’s first Christmas show at Northern Stage, following his assumption of the artistic director role earlier in the year, and though the story slips away from him a little in the first hour, by the climax he’s ensured Dark Woods, Deep Snow doesn’t forget to warm your heart while it’s romping about through space and time.

Despite the spectacle of Marneur’s sylvan set-design and Joanna Holden’s crowd-pleasing turn as a cackling witch who forgets which story she’s in, this is probably a Christmas show for slightly older children. The cross-dimensional terrors are a booming tax on the sound system, and it’s not the easiest of plots to follow. There’s also disappointingly little to show for the brill RashDash’s involvement, with only a few short movement scenes that, truthfully, could have been added by just about anyone.

So there are disappointments in the woods, but there’s also genuine magic, and it’s a thrill to close the year in the company of one of Britain’s most exciting, formally inventive writing talents.

Written for Exeunt

Aladdin review

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© Craig Sugden

★★★★

Where other venues are content to merely stage their pantomimes, the New Wimbledon fires it at you from a massive, glittering panto-cannon. ‘Aladdin’ is the epitome of the commercial, celeb-ridden Christmas show, and it’s totally irresistible.

It’s largely down to the sheer density of talent on stage. Alright, so Jo Brand looks like she’s on community service and the Genie of the Lamp’s some bloke off ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ that had the magic carpet pulled out from under his career when Michael Jackson died, but everyone else is golden. The brilliant Matthew Kelly must be dame of the season and Oliver Thornton, who started the year as Frank ‘N Furter in ‘Rocky Horror’, is perfectly, wonderfully gruesome in the toothy title role. Street dance troupe Flawless turn up inexplicably as the Peking Police Force and are so good they almost outshine Matthew Rixon’s hilarious Major Pong. It’s all very loud, pretty rude, not even slightly politically correct and extremely funny.

It’s hard to be critical when you’re having a billion megawatts of Christmas cheer burned into your corneas. The Lyric Hammersmith may be quirkier, Hackney panto’s got the charm, but with enough pizzazz and pyrotechnics to take your face off, Wimbledon wins the arms race.

Written for Time Out

Well review

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It’s not quite Big Top meets Big Issues, but Metta Theatre continue their integration of circus skills into narrative theatre in an exploration of the Bangladeshi well poisoning crisis. A sharp and quietly harrowing blend of documentary and aerial dance, Well is a successful piece of awareness raising that draws attention to a neglected issue with sensitivity and striking visuals.

The well-intentioned drilling of tube wells in the poorest regions of Bangladesh in the 1970’s had the tragic consequence of exposing communities to toxic levels of naturally occurring arsenic, which polluted the apparently ‘clean’ water that had promised (and in many cases delivered) such an improvement to their lives. The consequences were appalling, and a combination of insufficient education and funding to rectify the error means that it’s a disaster that’s still unfolding.

Director and dramaturg (the writing process apparently collaboratively mediated by various scientific advisors) Poppy Burton-Morgan has approached the story on two levels. The international scientific and medical community are represented by fragments of recorded speech from Professors Stuart Reynolds and Andrew Mehrag, describing the background to the incident and the effects of arsenic poisoning; while the human tragedy unfolds on the stage and in the air above it.

Performers Leyla Rees, Lindsey Butcher and Shreya Kumar move between silk, hoop and rope to tell the story of young Asha, who finds that the impact of her own arsenic poisoning runs deeper than the damage it deals to her body. In four movements we see Asha’s wedding day, where her sister notices red rashes that she can’t explain, through her eventual banishment from her adopted family and eventual tragic death. Between this we flash back to the 1970’s, where Asha’s mother comes close to death from constant bouts of dysentery – a major killer which the drilling of the tube wells helped to combat.

Well’s greatest strength is in the depth of its engagement with the hidden consequences of arsenic poisoning. The damage it deals to a woman’s marriage prospects, the subsequent destruction of a family’s economic instability, the difficulty of convincingly educating communities about the poison’s slow-burning danger.

There are moments in which the beauty of the aerial work tends to pull against the weight of the subject matter, and where it feels a strange partner for the traditional Indian dance, but others in which the work of choreographer Shreya Kumar harmonises perfectly. Butcher’s clotted, spasmodic dance of dysentery down a long intestinal rope is genuinely difficult to watch, and the language of pouring silks draws important links between water and the specific spheres and working lives of women in these communities.

The sound design fails to fully integrate, with Filipe Gomes’ backdrop of drips and splashings standing at a distance from the movement, and the voice-over work often too muted to fully impact. This may be a conscious decision to retain an intellectual distance from the subject matter, to avoid over-awing and therefore restricting or guiding an audience’s emotional response (this is ‘meta-theatre’ after all) but the lack of punch is tangible.

There may be room for further development, but Well is already another impressive work from Metta. There’s no doubt that the message is heavily filtered by the medium, but the horror of the situation and the human story Burton-Morgan illuminates still seeps acridly through.

Written for Exeunt

Let the Right One In review

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© Manuel Harlan

★★★★★

There must be some strange alchemy to John Ajvide Lindqvist’s cold-skinned, warm-blooded vampire novel. Transformed into a truly masterful Swedish film in 2008, that even when remade by Hammer Studios two years later still retained so much of its queasy, mesmeric power. And this stage version, adapted by Jack Thorne for the National Theatre of Scotland, may be its most impressive resurrection yet. It hangs in the Jerwood Downstairs like a winter fog, broken here and there by terrible, beautiful things.

Thorne is a canny choice for retelling what is at base a coming of age story, albeit one swerved by supernatural intervention and corrupted by far more worldly horrors. Resetting the Swedish tale in some remote Scottish community is a brilliant move from Thorne, retaining the isolated otherworldliness that director Tomas Alfredson captured so perfectly in the first film version.

 

Thorne shifts the balance of the story slightly, favouring scenes of systemic bullying and cruelty that place 12-year old Oskar at the bottom of an unscalable social tree, as well as the family pressures which leave him almost dangerously volatile and vulnerable. Oskar’s aggressors are seen within the context of cycles of abuse, the bullied side-kick of the bully, himself bullied by an older brother. Oskar is a link in a chain that’s being stretched to breaking point when young vampires Eli walks into his life, made clear by her entrance as Oskar and a silent chorus of other schoolboys practise desperate self-defence with bread knives pilfered from family kitchens. Eli is a symbol of rebellion and escape, teaching Oskar how to taunt a local sweetshop owner and urging him to fight back, but the consequences of drifting into her feral world become increasingly clear. It could be argued that Thorne pulls away from some of the more explicit psychosexual content of Lindqvist’s novel, but by relying on suggestion to a greater extent than either film version, questions are left to hang threateningly in the wintry air.

Martin Quinn proves himself an incredible find in his stage debut as Oskar, immediately likeable but frighteningly weak, his timing and physicality just couldn’t be better. He’s matched by a thoroughly disturbing performance by Rebecca Benson as Eli, who perfects the balance between agelessness and adolescence, shifting from pre-teen casualness to animalistic ferocity. Most chilling of all is Ewan Stewart’s turn as Eli’s protector Hakan, haunting the woods with his gas cylinder and tarpaulin, foreshadowing a more terrible chain of violence that Oskar is sliding unknowingly towards.

Thorne and director John Tiffany understand that Lindqvist’s story must function as a gothic horror as well as teenage tragedy, and spare no opportunity to spill blood or invoke real fear. The gorgeous woodland set by Christine Jones is constantly played against sudden, graphic bloodshed, and Jeremy Chernick gets a special nod for his convincing and ambitious special effects. Music by Icelandic artist Ólafur Arnalds is similarly indispensible: an electronic score of frozen beats and loops that moves at a post-rock pace, building synergistically with Tiffany’s careful direction.

The stage-craft is immaculate and filled with surprises, while the script’s occasional missteps into banality are quickly forgotten, and Thorne more often finds the perfect handful of words to dress the situations which are told so eloquently by Tiffany’s stage pictures and Quinn and Benson’s superb performances. It’s told in bloodier terms and painted in bolder colours than most plays that find their way to the Royal Court, but it’s one of the best things that’s been there all year. Lindqvist’s masterpiece of modern horror has never looked better.

Written for Exeunt

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