Cor! monkeys…

reviews by stewart pringle, some of them anyway

Month: February, 2014

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.

 

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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.