Traditionally, flâneurs were shabby chic men who rambled down the city streets, watching the scenes play out before them. Crucially, this character both formed a part of the cityscape and claimed to be its greatest observer. Despite making a brief reference to her own preference for urban strolling, Jenna Watt’s performance piece Flâneurs ultimately deviated from the conventional flâneur character as it focused more on group behavior than individual observers. Mayfest 2013, however, stayed true to the original and forged an integral part of its identity out of roaming from social observation to social observation – some beautiful and others more mundane.
If there was to be a common theme running through many of the performances then it was something akin to The State We’re In or, rather, Sociology for theatregoers. Arguably, all art created by people is, also, about people – albeit often more about specific individuals rather than society as a whole. However, if we look at five specific shows on at Mayfest – Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients at Bristol Old Vic; Jenna Watt’s Flâneurs at the Brewery Theatre; Ridiculusmus’ Total Football at Bristol Old Vic Studio; Beady Eye’s Cooking Ghosts at The Tobacco Factory and Chris Goode and Company’s The Forest and the Field at the Arnolfini – then it appears that this theme was pretty overt.
Of the five mentioned two shows, Cooking Ghosts and Flâneurs, took as a starting point a very personal event, the suicide of a mother and an attack on a friend, respectively. This personal event then became the basis of much wider ruminations on The Mother as a being and the bystander effect. For those of us who took Psychology at A Level, neither of these concepts will be unfamiliar. Freud has complicated everyone’s maternal relationship and their reading of the Classics, whilst the name Kitty Genovese – the lady whose murder sparked an interest in, and the naming of, the bystander effect – is often read with an uncomfortable shudder. It is easy to dismiss ideas you encounter when younger as though the ideas themselves are inherently immature too. Therefore, The Mother and the bystander effect are not undeveloped or particularly teenage constructions. They are indeed well worth, at the very least, an evening’s consideration.
But do we go to the theatre to just spend an evening considering things?
Particularly in the case of Flâneurs, the aim to make the audience think was almost too overt. I come home from seeing performances and I consider many things and yet I felt quite irritated by being quite clunkily coerced into doing so. When someone sets out such a direct agenda to make people think, there is an assumed accompanying insinuation that the people being talked to would otherwise not think. This can be insulting to those being talked to who, quite likely, do think and also might not have needed the message delivered so directly. You don’t need a degree in semiotics to be able to receive a more nuanced message or indeed, one that is delivered using media other than denotive words. Music, colour, dance, song, metaphor all form part of communication both inside and outside of the theatre. Often they form a bigger part of life inside the theatre and that is why we attend performances – to make sense of our world in the ways most closely linked to creativity. Textbooks are regularly shut when the reader finds them a futile source of understanding the world. Literature, music and visual art are rarely totally abandoned, but rather returned to when words delivered in a very literal way fail to convey our grief, our love and our aching.
As an aside, the irritation felt towards being made to think was perhaps magnified by the fact that the subjects selected to be thought about were of such a serious nature that one would be a prick not to think about them – or to be willing to think about them. By which I mean, if I say I proclaim to have been irritated to be made to think about the bystander effect, I sound like an inherently selfish person. Likewise if I, as a critic, claim to find a performance about the suicide of the performer’s mother aesthetically uninspiring and narratively heavy-handed, then I again sound like a horrible person, the worst of nasty critics.
Neither of these things is necessarily true. I am, as it happens, perfectly open to musing on unhappy social phenomena, suicide and motherhood. However, that willingness would have been called more easily into being had I felt a degree of warmness towards Kristin Fredricksson or Jenna Watts. This warmth would probably have come from feeling they had shared with me something that transcended intellectual thought on a traumatic experience. For example, if the connection between the pregnant Fredricksson, her own dead mother and the role of the archetypal Mother had not been explicitly stressed but instead explored in a non-literal way, empathy between myself, Fredricksson and all our fellow women could perhaps have emerged. Likewise, if I had not continually thought ‘this is just like AS Psychology!’ when listening to Watt, my subsequent musings on the bystander effect might have been more profound or conclusive, rather than being tied to the validity of laboratory conditions.
Of course, this is not to suggest that the secret to creating empathy with the viewer is to set about trying to create High Art. Indeed, Ridiculusmus proved very nicely that humour, as we all know, is often best for discussing the trickier sides of human nature. Out of the five shows,Total Football was the only one which decided to talk about talking about society. The 2012 Olympics and accompanying marketing attempts to sell the idea of TEAM GB to the nation were mocked into submission. Englishness, the class system and office politics were also deprived of their own self-importance by being shown to be, well, ridiculous. The show itself felt much closer to the brand of sketch-show humour usually reserved for TV rather than stage. The lucky inclusion of it in the middle of Mayfest provided the festival with the welcome splodge of irreverent laughter crucial to keeping audiences from descending into too much inconclusive heavy thought before bed time.
Sometimes it is hard to really transmit what you did not like about a show without just saying what it was not or what it was that worked in another one but didn’t in that one. On the opening night of Mayfest, Kate Tempest appeared at the Old Vic. From the auditorium pit, I was finally able to appreciate all the hype about The Great Refurbishment. Unlike from the upper levels, buried down in the pit the antiquated ornateness suddenly appears truly beautiful. The pastel colour between the gold is revealed to be a muted olive green – the last time I was so excited by the colour of paint on a theatre’s walls was at the Troxy in East London, which has walls like Neopolitan icecream. Ok, it looks stunning and I will now stop proclaiming to ‘not really get’ the excitement around the Tom Morris era.
The physical beauty of the building was not lost on Tempest who then – seemingly without knowing it – filled up the great space with far more beauty and good taste than that building’s architects could ever have hoped for. Why is it that Tempest reduces people to tears when she tells her stories? Perhaps it is because her words claw out your heart whilst her eyes wrap blankets round your shoulders. She emits honesty, talent, love and good humour. Her words say what I always tried to say, only I said them badly and she sings them out like the sentences were simply meant to be. There could be no other word there, only that one and that one is perfect. She is also, of course, funny. Quite hysterically so, like all of your best friends. Funny and tender and supported by musicians whose sounds wrench at my own guilt and leave me feeling uncomfortably purged. That evening I was reminded of the first time I heard Patti Smith sing Gloria and I felt I knew what monks in chapels felt, despite not being religious myself. Afterwards, our friends’ hands are shaking and I listen to them try to convey how dazed they are, whilst standing in shell-shocked half sorrow myself.
Tempest’s words, her message, are more beautiful and more conclusive than all of the single shows put together. If you listen to Brand New Ancients you would know how horrible the bystander effect is and how confused the role of the mother is without having to be told. It is not just in her words, but in the sounds of the cello licking at the cornices and the surge of the standing ovation. When I stand with that crowd I feel far closer to people, both ancient and modern, than when I used to read Jung.
Chris Goode, like me, writes essays. He doesn’t turn the lines in poetry or put them to music but just writes and then reads out what he has written. The Forest and the Field is explicitly a performance about thinking or rather, re-thinking the concept of theatre. With words adapted from an essay and with, in essence, a manifesto to deliver this is surely the performance most likely to leave the viewer feeling like they have been lectured too. Yet, once again, Chris Goode and Company create a show that does the very opposite of that. Goode’s words combine with the intermittent performances from ‘my friend Tom’ who acts out passages from, amongst others, Shakespeare and the OJ Simpson trial. At one point, Goode reads out a quote on the nude from art historian Kenneth Clark. I know this quote because it is close in the text to another that appeared in my PhD proposal. I know, or think I know, what this stuff all means from having read it and read it. But then when Goode reads it, the naked body of Tom comes dancing across the floor, sculptural and delicate in the yellow light. The softness of the human form and the, damn it, realness of actually seeing a body – not the immobile recreation of an ancient artwork – whilst hearing these words makes me realise how incomplete my understanding was. These pompous academic words are silenced far better with this soft, physical demonstration than with any part of a thesis I ever wrote.
So Goode softly and sweetly coerces the audience into thinking by inviting them to think with him, not just to think about what he is saying. The beauty of the performances by Tom and the cleverness of the collage of extracts that compose the text and argue his point, further encourage the audience to want to think with him. But is that enough? Is it enough to say ‘Kate Tempest and Chris Goode are able to effectively transmit their thoughts down to the audience, in part because their performances contain moments of artistic beauty’? Arguably no. Especially as they actually do more than that. When the audience senses honesty from the person on stage and feels like the performer is in someway wanting to share a great idea they had with the audience, instead of telling the audience about it from a distance, the cushion between the audience and the performer deflates. Goode’s idea of the theatre space as one resembling a field rather than a forest or an isolated island – an ‘O’ as it were – seems far more reasonable and reachable when one is in a performance by someone who genuinely seems to want to share with, and not talk to, the audience.
Now that the little bubble that is Mayfest has popped for this year – a bubble in the sense that all festivals are in many ways little ‘O’s – meanderings between social observations has moved back out of the theatres and into the streets. Of the five performances, only two really encouraged the dismantling of old forms of behavior in favour of greater interaction.
Say bye-bye to the bystander in the theatre.