And then Come the Nightjars

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Credit: Jack Sain

Credit: Jack Sain

As revolutions go, greater representation of the British countryside on stage might seem like a modest one. Yet for those familiar with both life outside of urbanity and much of what is on theatre and television, it’s more than a fair point to make. Rural life is itself a phrase given to various pokey museums in Glastonbury and the like, and suggests that ‘rural life’ itself or rather life in rural locations is literally from another era. If you do come across a bit of non-city living serving as a setting, it’s either played for flat-out comedy like Hot Fuzz or twee idiocy like the Archers, complete with the bloody stupid name of Borsetshire. I hate Borsetshire like I hate every tit who ever went ‘Ooh Arrrrh!’ in response to knowing I am from Somerset.

The ‘Ooh Arrrh’ sound effects were normally quickly followed by the comment “But you don’t have a West Country accent,” implying that I was an imposter or ashamed of my heritage and deliberately changing my voice, or both. This is relevant because one of the first (of many) great things about And Then Come the Nightjars, is that only 50% of the (two) characters on stage have identifiably ‘West Country’ accents, and the one who does sounds pleasantly guttural and more like a tractor engine that an agitated donkey (a bizarre twangy addition in many people’s renditions of the accent). The other character, posho vet Jeff sounds like, well, a middle class vet from pretty much anywhere in southern England.

It’s a small point, but one that automatically makes Nightjars far more realistic than around 80% of other renditions of the countryside. Similarly, Michael the farmer who does have a broad accent doesn’t spend the play talking like a poor man in Lorna Doone with a vocabulary full of those adorable dialectal words you got given a NT book full of last Christmas titled, say, ‘The Lost Dialects of England’. When I studied English at university I was told that, “In Somerset they use the word tor for hill.” Which is roughly true in the case of Glastonbury Tor or whatever, but not On A Regular Basis. Like, no one actually says, “I live on the house half way up the tor.” Or at least haven’t for hundreds of years. But we were in London so everyone wrote this in their notebooks anyhow.

Instead, the features of Michael and Jeff’s speech with tie them to the land they live on is instead found in place names and references to all the tacky crap that accompanies life out yonder there such as every celebration being marked by DJ Dave, rocking all the way from Tiverton to Exeter and back again with Agadoo sound tracking the A38. This non-chocolate box version of countryside living is normally ignored by people who would rather believe that all sex in the shires happens in a hay bale and all drinks consumed are cider (with bits in).

In at interview with myself a few weeks ago, playwright Bea Roberts declared, “It drives me nutty that the countryside is so underrepresented on stage and on TV, except for as a butt of people’s jokes or as the home of cosy chocolate boxy drama.” Through seemingly subtle changes – an accent correctly missing, the choice of a bad disco over a luteplayer in a field – Nightjars succeeds in fulfilling the wish to represent something so infrequently seen on stage.

Additionally, it also succeeds in being both heartbreaking – I could have sobbed like a child as the sound of gunshots started just off stage – and very funny, offering more opportunities for tears and cheers in quick succession than even the GBBO final could possibly pack in. Nightjars is an accurate portrayal of countryside existence, but it is also an accurate portrayal of loss and friendship on a much wider level. Above anything, what comes across in the barn as Michael begs – and then threatens – Jeff to intervene in the slaughtering of all his prizewinning cattle, is the sheer unfairness of it all. The sense of hopelessness bought about by orders from above, both those coming from the government and those from some other, celestial force. The terribleness of having every last piece of your life disrupted by things beyond your control and, eventually, the beauty of laughter and a good friend to help bind the smashed pieces.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/and-then-come-the-nightjars-2/

Black Tonic (Exeunt Review)

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They say that a good chunk of the symptoms experienced as part of a hangover are attributable to sleep deprivation and dehydration (the other part is because you were offered something suspicious brewed by monks in Devon). And this is easy to believe if you have ever experienced a prolonged absence of sleep for reasons other than too much wine. The seasick-like nausea, the short-term memory loss, the interference with your balance are all there, but not because you are over the limit, only that you haven’t slept – and as a knock-on effect often haven’t drank enough water over the last 24hours either. You’re jittery, you see things move out the corner of your eye, hear noises and become convinced something bad is just about to happen: there is an intruder poised with a gun just outside the bathroom door and…and…and, oh, it’s actually just the bloody cat wanting dinner.

Black Tonic is a production about the effects of sleep deprivation, as experienced by shift workers, the jetlagged and the totally blind for whom being unable to respond to changing light patterns can cause long-term problems. It is also a play set in a hotel and performed on repeat to audiences of four people at a time who are led around the building and told the story through witnessing events between other ‘guests’, watching CCTV footage and having the chance to ransack a room where, in amongst the bunched tights and sleeping pills, lies the answer to the mystery.

Beyond that description I feel duty bound to write no more about the actual unveiling of events. This is a show where knowing what takes place or the outcome would severely compromise the experience of taking part in it. Additionally, each time it is performed, the exact narrative plays out slightly differently (or so I would assume) based on the answers of the audience members who are talked to throughout the performance, calling on virtuoso improv skills from the cast.

The Bristol leg of the company’s tour is set in the Grand Hotel, sandwiched between the registry office and a multi-storey. As with Jo Bannon’s Mayfest 2015 re-staging of Deadline at the Bristol Marriot, the beauty of this staging is reliant on hotels being the true owners of the phrase ‘the truth is always stranger than fiction’. For in amongst the movements of the cast members, there is the general hubbub of the hotel itself and, at times, it is genuinely impossible to tell what is real and what is not. For instance at one point we all get in a lift with a waiter carrying a 12inch margarita pizza under an ill-fitting and ridiculously grand silver cloche. This seems like such a stupid thing to serve on platter under a ‘dinner is served, m’lord’ dome that I assume it’s part of the play. Only it’s not, that was actually someone’s room service. At another point we head to the basement and out of the lift come crashing a group of sweary guests, completely in line with other events already taken place in the performance. But once again they are real guests, at the hotel, falling out of a lift swearing.

The building itself is a masterpiece of faded glory, an aspic-frozen time capsule of phallic arum lilies in single glasses and bulging leather sofas punctured with round black buttons. It is the kind of hotel that has sisters dotted along the entire south coast, just waiting to welcome party conferences and Sunday lunchers in search of thick gravy and green bullet peas. Reading the travel pages of Vogue I am often hit by what a great job that must be to get to go to the Maldives or Shanghai and stay in the world’s truly best hotels. But there’s a part of me that would like instead to be the official reviewer for hotels with a heyday in the reign of Queen Victoria that still maintain this (slightly tarnished) glamour. Hotels with names like The Britannica or The Royal Albion which will give you marmalade in small packages for breakfast rather than a long glass of chia seed pudding.

In some respects, there is nothing new about the format of the show in that it bares a lot of similarities to the old fashioned Murder Mystery at Doctor Akroyd’s events certain people like to attend. But Black Tonic is more than bank holiday entertainment on the Torbay Express, it is a maverick example of subtly subversive theatre continually unsettling the audience without recourse to hyperbolic shock tactics or patronising political rhetoric. As with one conclusion to the narrative, Black Tonic prove that to affect change you don’t necessarily need to invent something new, you just need to exploit the existing cracks and then sit back to watch events unfold.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/black-tonic/

Raymondo (Exeunt Review)

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Are you familiar with Lemony Snicket? Pen name of Daniel Handler, Lemony Snicket is the fictional author of A Series of Unfortunate Events which I guess are kind of like the books you buy your younger children who like Harry Potter but have read all of Harry Potter and you want to keep that reading bug alive. These books chart the lives of siblings Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire and the, yes, unfortunate things that happen as they make their quest through this cruel world. Raymondo by Annie Siddons is in many ways what would happen if Kate Tempest and Lemony Snicket collided and fused in to one another.

Delivered in the bathetic tones of spoken word poetry by Siddons who is dressed like Amy Winehouse as painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, you expect this to be all achingly cool and grown-up, only it’s not and that’s where most of the enjoyment of this piece lies. There are, of course, the knowing referencing to ‘out kaling kale’, vaginal steaming and other celeb fads, but essentially this is a story of children – all with names that could have been written on a post-it that fell out of J. K. Rowling’s back pocket – and their journey from enslavement to freedom via more enslavement.

It’s impossible not to warm to Siddons, not just because she looks great, but also because she, like the sisterly characters in the story, exudes warmth. As a feat of performance, this is considerable with no pauses or obvious lines fluffed in a 70-minute, pretty much solo show. The ‘pretty much’ element comes from the presence of Tom Adams on stage who accompanies the story with an electric guitar score and the occasional ‘voice of Sparky’ interjection. More could have been made of this element as at times there seem to be too many voices coming out of Siddons alone and they can get jumbled together, the moments of interplay between Siddons and Adams suggest that having the dialogue performed by the both of them might make the performance stronger.

With the aforementioned references to superfoods and the over-riding narrative of child sweatshops and celebrity endorsement, it’s clear this is a story drawing on contemporary life. Yet simultaneously with it’s Dickensian workhouse ethics and Hard Knock Life characters, its also feels antiquated. In his gloomier moments, my step-father often says that to understand modern Britain you have to understand that its exactly like Victorian or Edwardian Britain, with a rich elite standing on the necks of the impoverished masses. Raymondo reminded me of the same idea. This is a story that could have been written as an allegory in the 1890s, but instead it was written in 2015 and that is more than an unfortunate turn of events.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/raymondo/

Living Quarters (Exeunt Review)

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Credit: Camilla-Adams

Credit: Camilla-Adams

The most obvious point to make about being a critic is that you get to see a lot of theatre. Some of this is theatre performed in the most classical guise possible, but a lot of it is theatre deliberately being different, shows with the distinct aim of deconstructing what we think we know about theatre and the experience of watching it. Often it is this latter type of show that really piques the interest. However, every once in a while you see a really down the line, good-old-fashioned PLAY. One without any particular conceits or attempts to break down walls, fourth or otherwise. Just a play with some solid acting on stage, no lines fluffed, a simple but effective set, and an intriguing but ultimately realistic plot. And you think, yes, this is really enjoyable, I wonder why I became so obsessed with things that set out to destroy this type of theatre.

It’s the exact feeling I got from seeing Living Quarters at the Tobacco Factory at the end of last week. This is co-produced with the accomplished Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company who this year made Romeo and Juliet, one of the most famous and over-quoted plays, seem alarmingly fresh and heartbreakingly new all over again. Like with Romeo and Juliet and their other recent production The School for Scandal, Living Quarters is a technically suave and quietly confident performance that succeeds in feeling like the classier older sister of much of what is put on stage. There is a grown-up quality to this company’s shows that ensures the performance always feels deft, a less flamboyant version of polished. It is the same quality that promises that seeing one of their shows, even if the particular text is not to your liking as was the case for me with The School for Scandal, is never truly disappointing, largely because of the quality of the acting and the design of sets and costume.

So this time the action takes place in Ireland rather than Verona, but it’s still all based around family strife and ill-timed love affairs. In common with The School for Scandal there is also an Old Man / Young Wife-who-cheats-on-him dynamic and I feel like if SATTF go for a trilogy with The Merchant’s Tale performed in time for Christmas I might have to assume that someone in the company has a suspicious complex about young brides, but I’ll let them have two in a row and write it off as a coincidence…Anyhow, describing the ins and outs of Living Quarters on paper doesn’t really do it justice as it sounds all a bit Kitchen Sink only with a mildly Six Characters in Search of an Author-style twist to the narration.

Yet Living Quarters transcends being just a play about a family in transition from mother to stepmother, or just a play about damaged masculinities. At its best moments it possesses coldly raw humanity, conjuring forth the ghosts that haunt a visitor back in their childhood town. The continual promise of impending doom flits throughout the acts until, suddenly, the whimper fucks off and everything ends with a bang.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/living-quarters/

Orpheus (Exeunt Review)

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Credit: John Hunter

Credit: John Hunter

Some of the least misspent days of my youth were passed attending various burlesque nights in London. These included Madam JoJo’s in Soho, the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club and events put on by Prohibition, who specialise in renting private spaces and re-creating the 1920s or La Belle Epoch. These were probably some of the best nights out I ever had and I cannot therefore tell you how much it makes my heart sing to see that this brand of highly camp vintage music hall entertainment is not dead in the slightest, all thanks to Little Bulb and their production of Orpheus-as-told-by-Django-Reinhardt.

Aside from a brief period spent in undergrad Classics seminars, the name Orpheus first brings to my mind Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Lyre of Orpheus, an album notable for a fabulous lyric describing the sleeping Eurydice as resembling a “sack of cannon balls”. Little Bulb’s retelling of the myth shares much in common with this album, not least the ironic construction of a merrily-merrily Arcadian paradise of panpipes and forest nymphs set up to then be struck down by melodramatic tragedy.

Eugénie Pastor is our hostess for the evening, doubling as the version of a Greek heroine often found fawning, ringed by ribbons, in portraiture of the late 18th century when looking like Grace no. 2 in a picture of three sisters was all the rage. Her opposite, Dominic Conway playing Django Reinhardt playing Orpheus (it’s all about the double layer of realities here tonight) has a sum total of nil lines, but expresses all he needs to via a series of expertly arched eyebrows and a style best described as ‘lacquered’. However, the show is frequently stolen either by Miriam Gould, Shamira Turner and Clare Beresford as the triplettes de l’antique or by Alexander Scott and Tom Penn as the strong armed stage hands. The former are particularly hilarious in the role of woodland creatures, with Gould maintaining a brilliant performance as a piglet in what has surely been a tough week for our swiney friends and an even tougher one for those going out on stage dressed in pink ears and a curly tail.

Scott and Penn as Apollo and Persephone bring forth audible cheers from the crowd who, buoyed up by Pastor’s patter, could likely be coaxed pretty easily into dancing in the aisles during the second act. It’s surprisingly rare to see a straight up funny play. You know, just a good old fashioned, clapping along, toes tapping, funny play. In fact, funny plays are often so hard to come by ones that do exist are remembered for years afterwards, such as The Victorian in the Wall by Will Adamsdale (makes me giggle just to think of it). At the interval I came out smiling, thinking it was enjoyable but slightly worried as to how they were going to maintain it for the rest of the evening without the joke wearing a bit thin. However, I was proved wrong and a longish musical interlude before returning to the drama proved ideal for stopping the night sailing too close to the Christmas panto wind.

This isn’t high drama. It doesn’t have anything piquant to say about current affairs and it isn’t going to change the world. Or is it? Because for some of us the only thing worth changing is for more laughter.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/orpheus-3/

Bea Roberts: “The country side is so under represented on stage.” (Exeunt Interview)

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Rosemary Waugh talks contemporary rural life, foot and mouth and the joys of Bristol with the author of And Then Come The Nightjars.

“It drives me nutty that the countryside is so underrepresented on stage and on TV, except for as a butt of people’s jokes or as the home of cosy chocolate boxy drama.” Bea Roberts, playwright, hails from Devon – and is proud to do so. Not in a misty-eyed God’s Own Country way or in a ‘and then I escaped to London’ way, but in an understated and quietly confident way. She knows the land and knows what the countryside is really like, particularly how it doesn’t conform to being all about peace and quiet. Her latest work, And Then Come the Nightjars (currently earning both rave reviews and six Offie nominations at Theatre 503 in London, before transferring to the Bristol Old Vic at the start of October) is specifically about a time when life in the rolling hills was not pleasant in the slightest, during the Foot-and-Mouth crisis of 2001.

Like Bea, I also grew up in the West Country, in neighbouring Somerset, and remember the crisis, washing up bowls of disinfectant positioned at gateposts and constant rumours of farmers just out of town burning their cattle. Bea remembers it as “being quite a scary and confusing time.” A thought I can echo, recalling the low-humming fear that the dairy farm of a friend at school might become infected on any given day, that washing wellies might not be enough. In order to research Nightjars, Roberts went back to Devon to talk to farmers affected. “Going back to the subject as an adult I did a lot of research and then the director, Paul Robinson, and the team went to a farm in Okehampton that had been badly affected and spoke to the family there about their experiences. Within a few minutes of speaking about his memories to Paul, the farmer was in tears. It really was a tragedy for many people across the country and I think it’s really good if we can mark it and talk about more.”

Despite the play being about a very melancholy subject, there is also a lighter side to it, contingent with Robert’s website bio stating “I’m interested in writing honest and irreverent drama and comedy that is compassionate and socially aware.” Nightjars hits this combination of unassuming social awareness with empathy well, as alongside the main story of Foot-And-Mouth is a narrative of friendship between two unlikely allies, a vet and a farmer. Roberts explains, “The Foot and Mouth crisis put real strain on people’s relationships with each other, with the government and with the land itself. Jeff and Michael find themselves pitted against one another due to circumstance but I didn’t want to leave the story there. Farming communities had to find a way to pick themselves up and carry on so, for me, that was just as important to the story as the crisis itself, that’s why we follow their friendship for so many years.” Additionally, if that still feels a bit too solemn, she assures us that “it’s a play about friendship and survival so there’s a lot of comedy in it too!”

Comedic or not, the production’s most lingering impression on many critics seems to be of a place and time that no longer exists. Maddy Costa’s beautiful review for Exeunt of the London performance captured this feeling, centering her review around words deleted from the Oxford Junior dictionary: “blackberry, bluebell, bramble, bray; carnation, catkin, chestnut, clover; gorse, hazel, walnut, willow.” Or, as Aleks Sierz reflected, “Between Grand Designs and new branches of Tesco, a little bit of country life has died, and Roberts writes its obituary with striking sincerity, humour and integrity.” Somehow only a playwright properly ensconced in rural life could have produced a play that bookmarked a time past without this becoming an unthinking rose-tinted vision of tweeness. That Roberts is able to and tries “to set all of my work in the West Country – I’m becoming increasingly militant about it!” forges a key place for her future works on stage. Her intent, to depict “contemporary rural life on stage in a way that is thoughtful, intelligent and bears some relation to reality!” seems modest on the surface but is in many ways highly ambitious.

Aside from the influence of the rural West Country life in Roberts’ work and career, the city of Bristol where she studied as an undergraduate has also been important, promising a very welcoming audience when Nightjars comes to the Bristol Old Vic in a few weeks time. It’s almost impossible to pontificate on how things might have been had she chosen to study elsewhere, but Roberts is happy to talk about the Bristol arts scene. “Both when I was a student and now, Bristol is home to a fantastically diverse and fertile performance scene which encompasses theatre, comedy, performance art, dance, circus and music. There’s a wonderful community here and sense of DIY possibility – people just set up their own pop up theatres and put nights on in amazing places all over the city. The student union drama scene was an invaluable grounding in working out how to make stuff and have a go. I still see work from brilliant young theatre makers coming out of that system and from UWE. I think Bristol is small enough to get a sense of community and big enough to house diversity, I love it.”

As a critic, Bristol is one of the best cities outside of London (and Edinburgh in August) to be working in (she said, with blatant bias). Within a short distance of one another we have the Bristol Hippodrome, The Bristol Old Vic and Studio, the Tobacco Factory and Brewery Theatres, and Circomedia (a personal favourite). Not to mention numerous other small venues such as the Alma Tavern, the Wardrobe theatre and university theatres like the Wickham, plus a proclivity for pop-up events like the recent Stick House under Temple Meads and Mayfest’s appropriation of wonderful venues such as Bristol Central Library and Millennium Square. But before I start sounding too much like I’m sponsored by George Ferguson, it’s worth noting that Bristol, in the opinion of Roberts, is as vulnerable as other cities across the UK. “Bristol, like everywhere else in the country, is definitely suffering from the massive governmental cuts to arts funding. I think as an arts community we’re pretty robust and used to working on a shoe string so my main hope is that we can band together, keep producing work, keep outreach work active and keep creating opportunities for young people to get involved.”

Following Nightjars, Roberts’ next work is hopefully a “new comedy about a Bed and Breakfast landlady who gets embroiled in the world of fetish, sort of like a more filthy Keeping Up Appearances.” Far from being the artistic recluse, Roberts loves “hearing from people and talking to audiences after shows so if you ever spot me, please come and say hello!” a good natured attitude which suggests such a comedy would be suitably warm and humourous. It also promised that from now until far into the future, this is a playwright whose works will resonate with audiences whether or not the life they depict is already long gone.

And Then Come The Nightjars is on at Theatre 503 until 26th September (book tickets here) before transferring to the Bristol Old Vic from the 6th-17th October (book tickets here).

http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/bea-roberts-the-countryside-is-so-underrepresented-on-stage/

The Encounter (Exeunt Review)

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simon

‘I was almost asleep for most of that’, does not on the surface seem like a very positive thing to say about a trip to the theatre. But in the case of watching (or listening) to The Encounter by Simon McBurney’s company Complicite, it was actually a good thing.

The Encounter using ‘binaural’ technology to tell the story of a photographer’s travels into the Amazon in search of the Mayoruna people. Which sounds very complex, but in reality involves technology of the kind I imagine exists in the Archer’s radio studio – we don’t get any clipclop horseys courtesy of coconut shells, but we do get a lot of rain and river water from sloshing bottles of Evian about and a fair amount of Amazonian undergrowth represented via stomping about in reams of VHS tape. I actually like the lo-fi aesthetic of this aspect of the storytelling, similar as it is to several shows recently on at the Bristol Festival of Puppetry that employed, for instance, black bin bags to recreate the sea or puppeteers whistling as the wind.

The problem is I’m not sure McBurney intends us to enjoy the ‘lo-fi’ quality of the work; I think he wants us to marvel at the binaural head which looms like the remains of an unlucky robot in France circa 1789 throughout the show. The binaural soundscape transmitted to audience members via headphones is undeniably effective, but I can’t quite appreciate what is so fancy about this as opposed to, say, surround sound, but then I’ve never understood why people want to spend Saturday afternoon going for a demonstration in a Bose showroom, so perhaps I’m the wrong person to comment. In fact, the last time I got excited about surround sound was during the Bristol Proms 2015 when the Erebus Ensemble sang Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium performed in the round in order to recreate how the composer originally intended it to be heard. In the intervening years since 1570, I can’t quite admit to detecting great advances in this way of hearing noise, but equally if it was good enough for Tallis it’s good enough for me (a phrase I am known to frequently utter) and on the whole I really enjoyed my time spent letting the Amazonian rainforest seep into my consciousness.

Which is where the semi-sleeping comes into it, and also another Bristol Proms past event. In 2014 Tom Morris, Artistic Director at the Bristol Old Vic, presented a workshop discussing the preference between listening to live music with your eyes open or closed. From the audience response at the event, we can suggest that people are pretty much split 50-50 on this point, with myself falling very much into the latter category (and therefore always walking a precipitous edge between sleepfulness and wakefulness at classical concerts). The binaural experience created by McBurney works superbly when listened to with the eyes closed, not least because this prevents the listener getting distracted by seeing that the rushing water is but a bottle of water and the circling birds are just McBurney bobbing round the impaled head making squawking noises.

For a show that lasts for 2 hours with no interval, I probably spent about 1hour 45 minutes with eyes closed and eventually achieved some sort of weird meditative state, fully aware of the noises going into my ears but marginally shocked to be periodically back in the Old Vic, kind of like when you nod off on a train and then awaken, worried you might have mumbled something weird inadvertently, like ‘Death to George Osborne’ as the train pulled into Swindon.

There was definitely a less attractive side to this show. An over-earnestness that causes the middle-classes to keep uttering the word ‘profound’ whilst staring at an Aboriginal painting of a lizard or to nod along in deep seriousness to the sound of rain sticks and didgeridoos without really having any idea what’s going on – it could, for instance be a ditty about a drunk kangaroo, but for the English listener it’s the sound of sorrow and profundity. Comments on ‘what is fact / what is fiction’ also strayed perilously close to being all a bit stoner-undergraduate on the first year of a Philosophy degree. But that’s kind of nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking, as the experience overall of being in the audience was highly enjoyable and offered encouragement to drift off, eyes closed, in a theatre more often.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/the-encounter/

The Stick House

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Rarely does a show create such anticipation as Raucous’ The Stick House that opened this week in Bristol. Housed in underground and to date under-used tunnels beneath Brunel’s Bristol Temple Meads train station, the show implicitly promised to be unlike most other theatre-viewing experiences in the city. The subject matter as well – a dark take on an old folk tale with over-tones of feminism by way of Angela Carter’s influence – seemed attractively fail safe, as feminist re-writings of this genre give us the opportunity to indulge in tales and imagery we not-so-secretly love without the accompanying guilt of knowing the message is all wrong.

After over a month of knowing it was going to happen, I arrived with the highly subjective intention of loving it. Indeed I was to some degree already writing the five-star review in my head as I walked down Temple Way. On the surface it seemed so ‘my kind of thing’ – it was in some weird setting, it did away with an audience in chairs facing forward and, oh yes, there was all that Angela Carter shtick too. How could it be anything else but My New Favourite Show? However (and unfortunately) The Stick House was ultimately divergent in its levels of success. On the one hand it was an undeniable masterpiece of theatrical scenery, costume, lighting and the interweaving of projection techniques, but on the other it provided a confused and problematic narrative and assortment of references that at times profoundly jarred with each other.

In the past I have seen shows – most recently Love for Love at the Bristol Old Vic – that don’t offer much in the way of narrative but were so beautifully costumed and designed that ‘storyline’ and ‘dialogue’ seem by-the-by considerations. Had the parts of the narrative in The Stick House not been so openly puzzling that might easily have been the case here. The tunnels, great cryptic vaults under the station, are a distressing and unsettling place to be. Having now gone in them, the thought ‘Oh please let more theatre shows be held down here’ didn’t really arise (save for a great suicide scene in Romeo and Juliet) being as this venue fulfils all the requirements and more of the basic Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter the Victorian Haunted House genre.

From the off projection techniques are at the foreground of the show, with the Young Marietta (Rudy Jewells) running and laughing like a Lula cover girl through the dappled forest light, Alice playing the part of the bad timekeeper bunny. We follow her through to another Lewis Carroll-friendly scene, extra-large chairs and a giant’s table, to witness the pivotal idiot-father-loses-daughter-at-game-of-cards moment, all played out by invisible figures represented only by their hands on the decks. The talent and skill implicit in putting together this performance couldn’t be clearer and remains so throughout. As we process solemnly through, the Stick House itself, a mountainous burrow of firewood constructed from pallets and chairs, and decorated with tally chart notations gouged into the walls, rears up and remains the centre of much of the action. It would be possible to continue describing in detail each piece of scenery – particularly the hillside strewn with real grass and plants – as there was an almost infinite amount of hypnotising aspects to fixate on, but suffice to say that they are there and make the show worth seeing despite what I am about to say next.

The feature of the production that I found, and we’ll employ that over-used word ‘problematic’ to describe it, was the decision to include, seemingly on top of all the modern adaptation of a fairy tale drama, overt references to the Holocaust. This begins with when audience members collect their tickets and are given a little wooden sign to hang round their neck with a name on. Cast your eyes about to the other names and it quickly becomes apparent these are all, most likely, Jewish names of loosely Germanic origin. So now we’re all standing in a group labelled as Jews and about to be escorted into a damp, dark space – anyone feeling uncomfortable? Well if not, or in case you missed the reference, you’re also stamped with a number on your arm. Right. But off we go into the show and kind of forget about the Jewish persecution angle because there’s all this Alice stuff and soft lighting and being careful where you step (in case Brunel’s dog left something behind perhaps). And it remains in the background – or as much as it can do when you have a sign around your neck – until we all get granted temporary custody of a little wicker doll – or straw man, as I guess that’s more the point – with the matching name to your tag. Hence, David Alsberg-as-I continue onwards into the dark together. The conclusion to this part of the production, but not the conclusion of the production, comes when the Hobbledehoy performs a monologue on being a social outcast whom the villages are essentially after with their pitchforks. He has a number, he tells us, and so do we and this means in the morning we will be put on a truck and driven away.

Thus it was that completely inadvertently I spent part of my Friday night pretending to be a Jew about to be shipped off to certain death. I feel about as uncomfortable being a part of a room of – and I make a complete assumption here based on the cultural makeup of Bristol – predominantly non-Jewish people pretending for the sake of an evening’s entertainment to be a Jew in the Holocaust, as I would if someone asked me to impersonate a black African about to be put on a boat in the slave trade in the name of audience participation. As a white British person – the very image of colonialist history – it just seems deeply unsettling and potentially insulting to be appropriating and playing with these issues in an off-hand manner. In the same way that poverty tourism relies on the audience ‘engaging’ with poverty from a position of power and safety, so too does this sort of connecting with historical atrocities with a racial dimension become complicated when done so by people for whom these issues are not a reality in any regard.

And this is also where my essential problem lies, in the ethics of audience participation and education vs. entertainment. If a person goes to the Imperial War Museum or part of the Jewish Museum or even to Auschwitz itself, it is done with firstly their own consent and secondly with the purpose of education (granted this second point can be challenged as perhaps for some people there is a vague element of entertainment or at least offsetting boredom that enters in to their decision to go to a museum). I recently went to see Wattle and Daub’s The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, a show very interesting in its potential to make the audience change places with that of an 18th century freak show viewer. However, with everything there are degrees of acuteness and whilst freak shows are implicitly cruel and harmful, there is still, to my mind, a world of difference between this and the Holocaust. It may very well be that the production team themselves explored these issues fully and sensitively and perhaps even have been personally effected by them and all of what I say will read as insulting and brash, but if these ideas are being explored in a certain way then that needs to be communicated to the audience, because otherwise it can feel like you’re being co-opted into something, at best, downright odd.

Maybe I am ‘being too sensitive’ or not appreciating that ‘nothing is sacred’ and therefore above being appropriated or deconstructed, but it’s two days later and I still can’t remove it from my mind. Similarly to when I saw Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation, I just kept thinking, is it not: Too Soon? By which I mean there are still people of the generation directly effected by these events who are alive. Imagine for a moment what would happen if, say, an old woman with a real number still tattooed into her arm thought she’d go to the theatre one evening in Bristol in 2015 to see a bit of an off-beat gothicky folk tale show in an unusual setting. Nowhere on any of the publicity, unless I am missing a big beat, does it allude to this element of the show, and sorry to be a killjoy, but there needs to be some element of responsibility towards an audience on behalf of a production team when they’re overtly coercing theatre audiences into being a part of their exploration of these types of issues. We can’t just assume that everything is fair game for being used to produce art that ‘shakes things up a bit’ and that any reaction is a good reaction even if – or especially if – that reaction is one of feeling upset or disturbed. The crux being, of course, that there is no link between fairy tales and the Holocaust, as the systematic murder of 6 million people is not a fairy tale, not even a really dark one. It was real.

On a more simple level, the addition of this material added little to a narrative that in itself offered myriad possibilities for further exploring gender, class and poverty. Especially given the Carter-influence on the piece, there was room for a more complex discussion of feminism than a little revenge fantasy of chopping off the hands of the rapist woodcutter (using his own axe, nonetheless because that will really teach him). We didn’t need to have the idea of the village outcast augmented with a parallel to the plight of European Jews because it stood up as part of the plot by itself. In terms of the dialogue too much time was given over to regaling the audience with tales of women being raped left, right and centre and whilst people may like to claim this to simply be accurate in terms of certain historical periods or genres of storytelling (Hello, Game of Thrones fans) it still meant that essentially we were all here in a dark series of alley ways listening to the baker’s daughter being ‘claimed’ (the verb of choice for fairy tale rape). Like when someone ‘ironically’ tells a racist or sexist joke, it was clear that all the stories were being told with a knowing ‘we wouldn’t say that or believe that now’, and yet here we are, essentially saying it when we could be choosing to say something, anything, else.

I wanted to see more done against this constant theme than just a pair of hands being chopped off or even the walls crumbling. Challenging it more would have removed any possibility of a lot of the language coming across as potentially titillating, which I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended to but definitely contained the possibility of being. Too much space is given to saying what we shouldn’t be saying instead of anything that we could be or should be. I wanted Marietta to really be the heroine who tears this shit down, confronts the villagers, confronts the beast, confronts her own bloody father who got her into this mess in the first place and punches her way out of it not just at the final moment but throughout. She dates a creep for most of it and the only other woman, her mother, in the piece is imprisoned in an asylum. Marietta is surrounded by men who literally mess with her head and despite the final twist I still wanted more. More Mrs. Carter in the Yoncé sense than Angela. In the language of academic feminism, her agency was lacking, floating like redhead Ophelia rather than smashing looms like the Lady of Shalott.

Visually and technically this is a stunning production that shows Raucous are a company not content with settling for the usual brand of theatre making. With a few narrative alterations, most notably the omission or significant altering of the Holocaust theme, this could be a fascinating show, greatly entertaining to audiences and a brilliant up-cycling of a disused space.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/the-stick-house/

Life Raft (Exeunt Review)

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Credit: Jack Offord

Credit: Jack Offord

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has become a staple of the GCSE curriculum and unlike with the outcry against American literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, being removed from the syllabus, I am yet to find a person – in particular a young person actually in the throes of studying it – who can testify to enjoying studying it. The problem with Lord of the Flies is not so much with the book itself which certainly could be enjoyed by many a 9 – 12 year old, but the fact that it is given to 15 and 16 year olds in the name of ‘engaging them’. Nine times out of ten it fails to do so because it is far too simplistic in both storyline and as something to analyse for teenagers already drinking, having sex and anticipating driving a car.

On the surface, Life Raft, first written by Georg Kaiser in 1945 under the title The Raft of Medusa and adapted this year by Fin Kennedy for the Bristol Old Vic, shares much in common with Lord of Flies. Only it also doesn’t. For whilst both are about a group of young people stranded on island/boat and conclude with one of the group not making it home (no spoilers in this review!), Life Raft is far more complex, subtle and genuinely unsettling than Golding’s work and, in being so, would be a more interesting and appropriate text to be studied in schools.

As it happens, in this production many of the children on stage are actually several years younger than the GCSE students currently sat forlornly smacking themselves in the head with LOTF, and perform to a spectacularly high standard. It’s hard to review productions with children acting in them without it sounding like you are just being nice because they are children, but I can honestly say that the quality of this production was much higher than many I have seen acted by people of age 30 and above – a feature notable in many other Old Vic Young Company productions such as The Light Burns Blue and Wodwo.

Two aspects of Life Raft really stood out, one was the choice to make each character simultaneously subtly flawed and ultimately redeemable. This is not a script in which we have Goodies and Baddies, the bullies and the bullied. Instead at different points all the characters can be identified with and then, in an instant, distanced from. The constantly shifting sympathies of the audience towards realistically multidimensional characters is what gives Life Raft an edge often missing in allegorical stories involving childhood.

The other aspect was its overall lack of clarity with regards to narrative (bear with me, because in this case it’s a good thing). On hearing it was written in 1945 and seeing a group of children on a journey disrupted by falling bombs, the obvious assumption to make is that we’re witnessing the trip of some WWII evacuees. However, without fanfare, this belief is disrupted about half way through when a few stray facts introduce the idea that this is actually set in an ambiguous dystopian reality. In this regard, Life Raft immediately reminds me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, in which a group of young adults are thrown together through circumstances far more insidious than a war. The image of the black swans rising like angels against the fading sky is hauntingly beautiful and the decision to only allude to the setting of the story is bold and very successful. Indeed, the production felt strongest when at its most abstract, particularly during a techno dance scene that came out of nowhere and had the potential to be a very effective end to the entire play.

Especially at a time when moral decisions regarding people fleeing in boats is potently relevant, there is much to take from Life Raft in terms of allegory, metaphor and message. However, the production itself constantly avoids providing easy answers. The characters, plot and dilemmas all slip and morph like pools of mercury, refusing even to provide an accurate reflection of the faces staring directly into it.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/life-raft/

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak (Exeunt Review)

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tarrare1

Wattle and Daub’s new comic operetta is in its very subject matter a show that deals with the dichotomy between entertainment and serious reflection. The idea of the freak show is, to modern audiences, relatively simple – it’s one of those terrible things we did back in less enlightened times before we realised disabled people or people of other races were not, shock, actually created to be pointed and laughed at on a stage. We might also refer to the concept of the freak show when producing unflattering comments about, for instance, The Jeremy Kyle Show and other versions of entertainment that appear to still follow this old fashioned format. But the basic points of discussion are the same: it’s a choice between entertainment, laughing at others’ misfortune, and being educated into the view that no human should be ridiculed by others for being different. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak adds another dimension to this state of affairs by presenting serious historic facts in what can only be described as a highly entertaining and comical fashion.

Audiences to the show are given a much larger booklet of information than normally provided for a short-ish show at an off-beat puppetry festival. Instead of the usual slip of A4 with a few casting details on, this glossy booklet describes the long creative process leading up to the operetta’s birth, specifically Wattle and Daub’s relationship with the Wellcome Trust, pathologist Dr Alan Bates of Bath Spa University, students and academics from the intercalated BA in Medical Humanities course at the nearby University of Bristol and a selection of other academics at Bristol and Swansea. If that wasn’t enough, the artistic directors also went on a tour of the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London and constructed their puppets to look like pathological specimens preserved in formaldehyde.

Which is all really interesting – particularly from the viewpoint of creating art in close connection with the sciences at a time when this is where all the funding in universities is directed. However, it sets up the show to be really quite serious. It’s about changing perceptions of bodies, the doctor-patient dynamic and the inauguration of the autopsy in medical diagnoses (albeit a diagnosis which invariably comes too late). We, the educated and liberal 21st century Tobacco Factory audience, are not here to find it funny that a man once ate a cat. Only we do. Or rather I do (not wanting to tar my fellow audience members with being as unsophisticated as I am). Because the show is hilarious. It’s full of beautiful puppets – beautiful in their own preserving-jar way – and faintly stupid songs.

It might well be that this is where the genius of the production lies, that the cast and creative team have really cleverly co-opted the audience into being exactly who they said they would never be: the people who enjoy freak shows. But it’s hard to detect exactly what is deliberate and what is not. Is it deliberate, for example, that Tarrare’s voice is sung in falsetto by a male performer who looks perennially on the brink of laughter and who makes it sound just the tiniest bit like Kermit the frog, even during the ‘serious’ scenes? Or that Tarrare’s love is one head of a pair of what used to be called Siamese twins before, as I said, that kind of attitude to conjoined twins fell out of fashion and we decided against putting them in the village freak show?

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is like a jolly leg-kicking trip around the top floor of the Wellcome Collection with Stephen Sondheim singing in your ear. It is clear, not just from the information leaflet, that so much has gone in to the production of this piece and if its intention is to deliberately make the audience change places with that of an 18th century freak show audience and enjoy an evening of pure entertainment then it succeeds. However, particularly if the leaflet had been omitted, it would have been hard to detect that this was the outcome of a considerable amount of collaboration with universities and medical research institutions. In particular, the fact that this marked a turning point in history with the advent of the autopsy was completely lost – and seemed sort of like a side point to the narrative anyway. This is a great show that I thoroughly enjoyed; I just didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not. But then maybe that is the whole idea.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/the-depraved-appetite-of-tarrare-the-freak-2/