Wunderkammer (Exeunt Review)


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Do you have a wunderkammer? Or a kunstkammer, for that matter? Had you lived in the 16th century and had a buck or two to your name you might well have had one. The wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, was where you kept all of your assembled treasures symbolic of wealth and education. This could mean pretty much anything, although many of the famous collectors appear to have had quite a predilection for wildlife and other artefacts that we would now classify as ‘natural history’. So along with your miniature portraits and filigree eggs, you might also keep a few choice pieces of taxidermy and some coral recently offloaded from boats returning from exotic new lands. The world of curiosities was, fittingly for this performance, a mixture of fact and fiction itself. A particularly prized possession of such a wunderkammer might have included, for instance, a narwhal’s tusk sneakily classified under ‘unicorn horn’ (well, if none of your guests are any the wiser…).

The ‘cabinet’ itself was actually much more often a room and in this performance Figuren Theater Tübingen have bought to life Night-In-The-Museum-style one such wunderkammer. There are no unicorn/nahwals, but there are disembodied hands providing hair dressing services, teeny-weenie golden birds and some abstract artworks brought to life in the form of Mr. Very Happy and Mr. Feeling Blue, who eventually swap places to live in each others’ colourscape.

The three puppeteers, Alice Therese Gottschalk, Raphael Mürle and Frank Soehnle, are kitted out in the kind of outfits non-Germans imagine our Northern European friends wear when feeling misty-eyed after a few too many glasses of Glühwein. Throughout the performance I kept drifting in to my own version of Homer Simpson’s The Land of Chocolate fantasy, only mine was blended with something more sinister, like Alma’s visit to the toyshop.

The beasts of the wunderkammer all seems fairly benevolent, to the extent that when a mischievous puppeteer snips the string of one’s beloved kite it feels like he just snipped its heartstring instead. On which note, is there anything more disturbing than the presence of scissors – great gleaming silver dressmakers scissors – in the middle of a puppet show? Just seeing them glint in the lights feels like witnessing the breaking of an evil taboo, the anticipation of potential massacre filling the theatre.

Once you understand the concept of the wunderkammer, this is a charming and brilliantly executed show that takes an age-old idea – toys coming alive after you leave the room – and makes it feel fresh and exciting all over again, very much like revisiting a favourite childhood memory. Without this knowledge the production can feel a little narrative-less, more a series of skits than a complete show. However, once one knows what one’s dealing with then the only step forward is to step back to 1577 and build one. If I could just find me a unicorn horn to go next to the stuffed beaver…



Drifters (Exeunt Review)


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Summer is often the time of travel and, nowadays, getting to even the far ends of the globe is relatively easy. The worst we face are the trials of Easy Jet or the discomfort of a Megabus. The most disastrous voyage I have personally experienced was the 11-hour ferry from Aberdeen to Orkney, but even that (vomiting aside) was far less arduous than what travellers and explorers used to have to bear in order to see the seas of distant lands.

Drifters by Strange Arrangements Theatre Company take as their starting point the troubles of travellers long ago. The piece is inspired by The Travels by John Mandeville and Percy Fawcett’s journey through the Amazon in search of the city of Z, but focuses on just three characters thrown together by circumstance and rough waves. Joey (Ivan Hall), Hans (Nigel Luck) and William (Alex Mangan) do not even speak the same language as each other but they manage well enough to communicate their shared wish to be rescued by a passing ship and to keep each other alive.

Most of all though they communicate through the stories they enact using puppets made from various creepy objects dotted around their shipwrecked home – brown paper sails and fleshless bones. At the heart of this piece is an attempt to show the importance of story telling for those in adverse scenarios. On the aforementioned trip to Orkney I tried distracting myself with Proust. Mainly because I figured if there was ever a time in my life when I would actually have time to read Proust, it would be on an 11-hour ferry across the North Sea. I was wrong, the prose was dizzy-inducing enough as it was and I would have swiftly puked back up any proffered madeleines had I had the chance.

The stories our three heroes tonight tell are far better. The very scenery morphs into big emu-like birds scratching at their feathers and pecking at the ground. Telephone calls echo out of boxes and a sorrowful Easter Island face floats down from the rigging. The world of these three characters is not one of those visiting the awe-inspiring tropics and enjoying the view from a beach-side cocktail bar; their trips to far away lands have not lead them to paradise. But the stories they tell let them travel yet further from even these places. Storytelling keeps them sane, it allows them to say things their language barriers prevent them from saying.

There is a pleasing child-like quality to this show in its use of simple dialogue and household materials (yards of parcel wrapping and black bin bags blown up with a fan), yet the emotions evoked by the stories told suggest a much more sophisticated relationship with the world. It’s convincing as a means of removing yourself from reality and reminds me that if I ever get on that foul ferry again I’ll take a puppet or two along with me for distraction purposes.


King Pest/The Night Flyer/Rock Charmer (Exeunt Review)


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Paper Cinema kicked of this year’s Bristol Festival of Puppetry with a nostalgic glimpse backward to both their own back catalogue and the festival’s inaugural performances in 2009. Back then, Paper Cinema performed this collection of three shorts King Peck, The Night Flyer and Rock Charmer at the Hen and Chicken in North Street, not far from the festival’s home ground of the Tobacco Factory Theatre. Fast forward to 2015 and the festival has grown to include both adult and children events, a full on procession through the streets and the employment of multiple venues across Bristol.

Tonight we are at the Watershed cinema, the usual home of Studio Ghibli, deconstructed French Indie flicks and a pretty nice bar. Aside from the overt link to the group’s name, hosting the show here, in the land of actual cinema, really emphasises the tactical skill of involved in creating these stories. The expressiveness of the hand-drawn characters, along with the genuine emotion stirred up from their ethereal live music, is enough to make many a Manic Pixie Dream Girl retreat shamefully into her hoodie.

One of the pleasures of watching Paper Cinema is that you essentially get to watch the show twice, both in the images that appear on the screen and by watching them come to life at the hands of those controlling the paper pictures in the area below the screen. In 2013, they performed their beautiful and very funny account of Homer’s The Odyssey in the tiny Brewery Theatre, also at the Festival of Puppetry. Then, as now, one is always caught halfway between the story being told and simply being mesmerised by watching the group magic it into creation.

For fans of the group, this was an unmissable chance to re-visit some of their earlier works – ones, it was hinted, that may be unlikely to be performed again. And whilst all were beautifully executed and sweetly haunting, a marginal lack of finish was detectable. The Odyssey, in comparison, is crisper and, despite it being adapted from the very story that gave its name to long-winded journeys, narratively slicker.

Journeys – along with the sea – seem to be a theme in the group’s work, as demonstrated by the pieces performed tonight. Of the three works, by far the strongest and most effecting is The Night Flyer. In a world of evil Isambard Kingdom Brunel industrialists, the Night Flyer is spirited away from her love by a top-hatted villain. Taken on a journey on the symbol of industrialisation, the steam train, the kidnapped sweetheart is pursued by her brave Breton-striped boy on his bike. His headlong journey after her is conducted with all the passionate heartbreak of little Gerda looking for her friend Kay in the Ice Queen’s palace. And when he finds her, locked in a cage like the saddest little Night Flyer in the world, it is a songbird the colour of Karen’s shoes who leads him to the key.

The simplicity of the narrative of The Night Flyer is effective not only in generating a deliciously perfect fairy tale, but in also setting free the audience to marvel at the orchestration of the show without fear of missing the vital twist and getting lost in the plot. This was a gorgeous start to what looks to be a vintage year of the festival, and a subtle reminder of how far both Paper Cinema and the festival of puppetry have come.


The Stick House: Subterranean Fairy Tales (Exeunt Interview)


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Rosemary Waugh talks to Sharon Clark, the creative director of Raucous, about their new promenade piece, The Stick House, and building worlds beneath the streets of Bristol.

Rosemary Waugh: Firstly, I wondered if you could just give an overall description of The Stick House – what is it about?

Sharon Clark: The Stick House is the first production by the new Bristol theatre company, Raucous, which was formed to explore work that melds live performance, music, projection and creative digital to make a story more immediate, immersive and heightened for an audience. The Stick House is a gothic fairy tale for adults of how Marietta was lost to the Beast by her father at the gaming table. We hit the story when the Beast needs to claim her but she has fallen in love elsewhere…and time is running out. It is funny in places, poignant in others with a slight chill running through it at certain times. Our aim was that the story reveals as many surprises as the technology.

RW: The Stick House is going to be staged in tunnels underneath Temple Meads station – how did you manage to, firstly, find this venue and then get permission to use it?

SC: This was such a long haul and, as always with a project like this, not one we foresaw. It took us almost a year to find a space – we wanted to make this in a non-traditional theatre space, a found space, an old warehouse, a disused office block, we were open to any call but there was nothing. And then finally, when we had nearly lost all hope, we heard that Doug Francisco of The Invisible Circus with Artspace Lifespace had taken over the old ash pits under Bristol Temple Meads. We contacted him and saw the space, which is truly astonishing – definitely worth the wait and stress of trying to find a space. Doug then asked us if we wanted to be first in the space and we jumped at it. It has also been an opportunity to work with the Invisibles on getting the space ready and that was a collaboration we really valued.

RW: Also – is it going to be used for anything else after this production?

SC: Doug I know has plans for the space for music, cabaret, film, theatre and circus. If anyone can, Doug can. This city needs more imaginative spaces to make creative work in, performance venues are very scarce. Especially when this city is bursting at the seams with incredibly talented creative people making work that needs a home. I have no doubt the space will have an incredible vibrant and eclectic programme.

RW: In 2011, Pervasive Media began work on a project called The Stick House. How has this original work evolved into the work about to be staged in September 2015?

SC: It has taken four years – the process is a long one because of how many collaborators there are and how long it takes to raise the funding for a project like this that can be viewed as not mainstream. We also didn’t want to rush the process as we wanted to explore all the avenues, have all the conversations and make sure we were making some creative decisions. This is a big production with many different creative inputs that we have to listen to, consider and implement. But now is the right time to go to production, we think we have the story and the telling of it right.

RW: The Stick House is a collaboration with a really exciting group of different people. Can you run us through who they all are and what they are bringing to the production?

SC: Yes we have some really stellar talents on this such as Limbic Cinema who have produced the most extraordinary and beautiful projection mapping, Timothy X Atack has composed the haunting original music and sound, Ben Pacey with ingenious lighting, the genius that is Kyle Hirani on some key creative technology, Jack Offord with his compelling filmmaking, Conor Murphy’s elegant design and Anna Ledwich in the room with a superb cast, working on the text. We are truly blessed.

Building a house of sticks.Building a house of sticks.
RW: The show is a promenade piece, which the audience walk through instead of being seated. Without giving too much away, how does this work narratively? Are the audience directed through or left to wander where they like?

SC: The technology has been key in helping us guide the audience through the space, but we don’t rely solely on that. The audience is directed through but we hope very much in keeping with the world we have built and with the story we are weaving. I was less interested in ‘gaming’ elements of a show and more intrigued by what technology can do in revealing a story to an audience who feel part of it but don’t necessarily feel obliged to influence it. We try to make the audience journey as creative and compelling as possible so that they don’t realise they are being led through a space.

RW: Aside from Angela Carter, the aesthetic of The Stick House reminded me of several different things, most notably on stage the works of Kneehigh Theatre and No Fit State circus. Where did you draw inspiration from and whose works do you admire, both on stage and in other art forms (I also noted that Otto Dix was mentioned)?

SC: I am a big fan of both companies and so am sure that I have dipped into their creative pot just a bit – hard not to when they have such an influence creatively. I am a playwright ostensibly so a lot of my influences are other playwrights such as Martin Donagh and Lucy Kirkwood alongside performer/writers such as Daniel Kitson and Tim Crouch. However, saying that, The Stick House is a big departure from my usual stomping ground of writing contemporary plays. Punchdrunk is constantly referenced, though our narrative is less fragmented than theirs as we tell the narrative lineally.

RW: After this run in Bristol, what are your plans for the show – is it going to be taken anywhere else? Equally, what are your plans as a company – do you have any ideas regarding life after The Stick House?

SC: Yes we have an eye on the future – I know that touring is something we do have in mind and a few people are coming to see it who might be interested in helping us make that happen. But we need to see how The Stick House is received, what lessons we can learn from this particular run and how we can take that learning forward. I think we have found the process stimulating, exasperating, inspiring and bewildering but there is little doubt that we want to make work this way – a giant web of collaboration that crosses artistic form. But yes I do have an idea for the next production…

The Stick House runs from 7th September -17th October 2015.


Ramkoers at Arnolfini (Exeunt Review August 2015)


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Credit: Ilton K. Do Rosario

Credit: Ilton K. Do Rosario

We tend to remember Lee Alexander McQueen for the clothes he designed for other people rather than the ones he wore himself, but this lets us forget one important fact: he looked really good in a kilt. Most men don’t. In fact, when the requisite man-in-a-kilt turns up at the British wedding (almost as much a mainstay as the ring itself), he invariably looks deeply uncomfortable, the stiff, gaudy fabric somehow refusing to fall in anything approaching a natural way. McQueen, however, made it look like an uncontrived and stylish choice. We could claim that’s for reasons of ancestry, but the American Marc Jacobs also wears the man skirt with style, so perhaps it is more to do with being an award winning fashion designer than having family from Skye. Either way, I’d like to see more men in kilts. It’s a depressing failure of feminism to always be so pro-trousers, insisting that liberation comes from binding each leg individually in cloth rather than allowing for men to be initiated into the sheer joy of the skirt.

Bot, Bristol Festival of Puppetry’s bank holiday weekend guests at the Arnolfini, are all in kilts and it’s a good look. There’s not a scrap of tartan in sight, no semi-ironic sporrans and no (thank fuck) bagpipes. Which actually comes as a surprise given that what they do have is just about every instrument known to mankind possible to make out of a junkyard. This ranges from classical musical instruments hybridised into the sort of thing Dr Seuss would probably name a ‘Foogle Horn’ and get Thing One to go a-tooting down the road with, to things made with a more generalised selection of the crap commonly collected by students, namely traffic cones and fake dollar bills.

Some of this works and some of it doesn’t – mainly because in the end you have to listen to the music and some of these Willy-Wonker-turns-Gramophone-critic inventions make pretty awful noises. I’m sure this is deliberate, but the woman in front of me looks like she’s having to use her hands to keep her own face from falling off her skull and I agree with her that there’s only so long you can listen to plates being smashed in to a cement mixer (or at least I think that’s what she’s trying to convey). The best invention by far is the piano being played inside a giant spinning wheel, proving it’s sometimes the timeless skill of being able to avoid vomiting when tinkling the ivories upside down that really impresses.

In terms of puppetry – that is the point of the festival after all – there are small amounts of automated instrument playing, notably a cameo by the Adam’s Family’s Thing playing a kid’s toy keyboard and an anthropomorphised accordion a-creeping round the stage. Perhaps just because of it being programmed as a part of a puppetry festival, it would have been nice to see more of this element. In reality the whole show is more about four men creating rock music on jingle jangle junkyard instruments, which is laudable from a sustainability point of view (you too could create an orchestra from the local tip) but doesn’t have a lot to do with puppetry in any respect.

The performance ultimately reminds me of what would happen if the Box Trolls appeared at Exit festival. The best parts of the set are definitely the clomping upbeat numbers, rather than the solemn dirges (which don’t quite work because it’s hard to look serious when you’ve just been playing an instrument that involves you sitting in a tin bath tub and whizzing up and down a see saw) and Bot cannot be accused of not trying – far from it. The stage is covered in so many instruments now that there’s barely room for the performers and there’s smoke and lights and millions of bits of paper flying through the air and and and…and that’s kind of the problem. They get a standing ovation, most of the crowd seem to love them and when they speak at the end they come across as a sincerely nice group of guys, but for me it never quite gelled. There was almost too much and for all of the ginormousness of the contorted Frankensteinian creations, most seemed barely used and many, when they were, didn’t actually sound that great.

This is a really energetic group who obviously entertained the crown thoroughly, but they could have done twice as much with half as much. It’s an attractive aesthetic, but instead of selecting bits of value from a skip, it’s like they’ve taken the whole bloody lot, glued it together and spewed it back out on stage. Stripped back and with more focus on one or two glorious machines that actually produce interesting sounds this show could be a goer but right now the scene looks too much like Wreck-It Ralph’s sleeping quarters after an impromptu rendition of Stomp at the Christmas party. Time to call in Felix.


Bristol Proms 2015 (Exeunt August 2015)


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Credit: Jon Rowley

Credit: Jon Rowley

Do you remember the Blue Peter theme tune? No, neither did I particularly until recently forced to watch Youtube footage of the Last Night at the Proms in order to illustrate my husband’s impassioned talk on why he loathes said Last Night. Raised in a household of Union Jack haters, I had managed to remain relatively shielded from this annual outrage until, thanks to Youtube, I learnt why it is that The Last Night of the Proms causes some UK citizens to literally bounce up and down and others to turn purple as their air passages constrict in horror.

Despite the actual line up of the [London] Proms including some wonderful performances of beautiful pieces from the orchestral repertoire, it is not Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra or Bruckner’s Mass in F minor that most think of when recalling The Proms but the jingoistic feast of bizarreness that marks its finale.

For those who, like myself until recently, remain innocent of this event – which plays out as being weirder than when Hunter S. Thompson drops into the third National D.A.’s Convention on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – I suggest they quickly Google it, if only so as to be able to fully appreciate the marked difference between strange men in sailor outfits honking clown horns whilst bobbing around Wack-a-Mole style, with the closing night of the Bristol Proms, as heralded this year by the Erebus Ensemble performing Tallis’ Spem in Allium.

Forty unaccompanied choral singers dressed in black, illuminated at times only by the lights on their song books and strategically placed in the round so as to re-create the original ‘surround sound’ quality intended by the composer. That, God bless Tom Morris and the Erebus’ conductor Tom Williams, is how to go out in style. More effortlessly classy than the decision to grow only white flowers, or to wear only hand-made Italian leather shoes. It was also an ending to this yearly event – now on year number 3 – that paradoxically sent the message that the Bristol Proms take their music seriously. ‘Paradoxically’ because the whole shtick of the South West version is to not take things seriously – to allow people to relax in the auditorium, clap when they like, have a pint with their Mozart and laugh at funny impressions of Tchaikovsky getting bitchy at Brahms (more of that later). The Bristol Proms cares about classical music in the same way that theatre-makers truly care about theatre when they start talking about ripping all of theatre apart and putting it back together again in a different order. The decision to close with – as Tom Williams phrased it – ‘everyone’s favourite choral piece’, was the kind of quietly confident decision only those who really appreciate great music (and expect their audience to also do so) could make. It was a bold choice of scheduling, a bold choice that ultimately said ‘we don’t need to put on a nationalistic panto to sell tickets, we know people will turn up simply for the quality of the music’.

And turn up they did – often in such numbers as to make the standing tickets area into the closest thing Classic FM ever got to witnessing a mosh pit. This wasn’t just the case for the closing night, but also throughout the week. The usual format of the weekdays was a schedule of multiple shows, starting with one of the ‘Six with Jonathan James’ discussions and/or a show in the studio, followed by the ‘main event’ in the theatre at 7:30 and, often, concluding with a Late Night show in the Paintshop – an area behind the main stage which had been loosely decorated with long strips of ribbons and turned into an impromptu bar. The scheduling made it such that audience members could attend all shows if they wished and often held back on the starting of one if another had been delayed by encores. However, given the divergent shows scheduled for the same night and the 7:30 theatre show always having the feel of completeness at its conclusion, the trick is probably to book shows on consecutive nights rather than try to pack lots in to one evening.

This opinion is formed from my experience of seeing the entire line up on Monday night, starting with a Jonathan James talk on Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, followed by a performance of the same piece by the Sacconi quartet in the studio. After this was Daniel Hope and friends performing and re-imagining the famous tiff between Brahms and Tchaikovsky – a sincerely stellar show with rapturous encore performance and standing ovation. It was solely down to the fact that Hope and the other performers were so brilliant that the next part of the evening, a solo fiddle show of English folk songs by Jon Boden seemed incongruous. This was through no fault of Boden’s, who not only played splendidly but also had some interesting things to say about the English folk tradition in opposition to the Irish or Scandinavian. He even bought a real life Morris dancer with him from Oxfordshire who duly danced and pranced with handkerchiefs aplenty. Which should have been enough to please many a young lady, only my (one-track) brain somehow couldn’t make the leap from dreaming of licking gelato by a Renaissance fountain courtesy of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence to men and Maypoles. The Boden performance would have really suited being scheduled for a Friday night, when the audience could have all got drunk and joined in the leaping and fiddling, maybe sparking the initiative to make next year’s May Day in Bristol as good as the one in Oxford sounds. Or at least put some hankies to good use.

Daniel Hope, as with several other performers including Pumeza Matshikiza and the Erebus Ensemble, was returning to the Bristol Proms having already wooed the audience in previous years. He is, according to Tom Morris, the ‘Patron Saint’ of the Bristol Proms and, as with Morris himself, is a most charming and affable character. The conceit of the evening’s performance was to re-enact, with the help of actor Jonathan McGuinness, the spat between the German Johannes Brahms and the Russian Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Rather like with Wimbledon 2Day, the BBC’s recent attempt at revamping Today at Wimbledon, the trajectory of this show went from favouring commentary over performance to triumphantly ending the second half with almost all performance and no talking. Within the script (written by Jonathan James, Tom Morris and Daniel Hope) the two composers were fairly equally represented, indeed if anyone seemed the more derogatory it was perhaps the Russian.

However, try as they might to hide it, within the music the emergent winner was clear from an early stage. Hearing these two composers put head-to-head in this setting confirmed what I personally already felt towards them. Brahms, whenever I hear it, is always perfectly nice. Or ‘fine’. Or even ‘calming’. Whatever word one wants to use to suggest that something is genuinely inoffensive and even, at times, very pleasant to hear. But Tchaikovsky makes the world stop. I actually started my foray into classical music solely because I was in love, and still am, with the music of Swan Lake. If people have enough time to stick around, I’d like it played in its entirety at my funeral. Only I wouldn’t, because then I wouldn’t actually get the joy of hearing it. Maybe instead I would like Heaven to be sitting on a cloud listening to the suites over and over.

For the sake of Monday night’s performance, Hope had selected several of his favourite performers from the world’s best orchestras to play Souvenir de Florence and Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Opus 111. Everyone was someone Hope had previously played with and patently had a strong connection with, yet during the Brahms everything ran smoothly, serenely and with perfect good grace (fine) whereas in the Tchaikovsky suddenly the lights went on. Hope himself was basically bounding out of his own seat, beads of sweat forming excitedly on his brow, and between the musicians there were smiles, half-winks and such unremitting joy emanating from them that was impossible to miss. The schedule of the evening, which had the two pieces being performed in alternating movements, rather than in their entirety back-to-back, was also naturally biased towards Souvenir de Florence, being as the finale of the evening was the finale of this rather than Brahms.

Perhaps the choice of repertoire was also always going to favour Tchaikovsky, because Souvenir de Florence has at its heart an easy, languorous-but-ecstatic happiness. It is a piece about being on holiday, after all. And in the wonderful surrounds of a beautiful Italian city, under sun-kissed architecture with ebullient fountains dappling down on stone. Listen to Souvenir de Florence and think of Lucy Honeychurch illuminated in a Florentine window, finally with George and clothed in a rather transparent Edwardian blouse thanks to James Ivory’s costumer. It’s hard to go from that to an English fiddle without the brain exploding.

It is always wonderful to witness a performer – be it performing music, sports or art – take such obvious joy in what they are doing. Aside from his amiable banter and foppish ability to wear a suit with élan, what actually makes Daniel Hope the Patron Saint of Bristol Proms is his infectious delight, his childish inability not to stop himself from dancing along and the way you can almost see the endorphins whooshing through his body as the music rushes, twirls, jumps.

The other performer, appearing on Tuesday night, who is a similar joy to watch – albeit for different reasons – was Pumeza Matshikiza. The South African soprano closed Bristol Proms last year with a majestic performance as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a candle-lit show that, nice as Tallis was, remains the season finale to beat. This year Pumeza’s show went down a similar formatting road to many of the others programmed in that is was a mixture of music and mini-lecture. On this occasion, Matshikiza was ‘in conversation’ with conductor and composer Charles Hazelwood, who she had worked with at an early stage in her career.

Hazelwood proves to be a suitably slick and entertaining host, but it is the contained beauty of Matshikiza, both when she sings and reads poetry, that consistently steals the show. Dressed as though to demonstrate exactly why Coco Chanel made monochrome so famous and accented with shimmer in a fashion reserved solely for those on stage, Matshikiza belies her feminine appearance by providing subtly disruptive answers to Hazelwood’s questions. In the best tradition of feminists (and I can say that as, stood here reading Maya Angelou poetry to the crowd, it is pretty clear where Matshikiza stands on these issues), she refuses to provide the easy answers, and not just on the subjects of genders and race, but in a wider sense too.

When Hazelwood asks her about religion she tells the story of how her faith in organized religion was lost after her father became suddenly ill in church. Instead of taking him to the hospital immediately, the congregation was instructed to give him holy water to drink. By the time he was taken to hospital hours later, it was too late to do anything and he died, the doctors stating that they could have done something if only he had arrived earlier. This is the sort of refreshingly anti-talk show answer people should be less afraid of employing in all situations. Particularly where women are concerned, there is a premium placed on not saying things that will make the listener uncomfortable. It’s a blessing to see someone take a different approach.

But we are, of course, ultimately here for the music and, like with so much of the Bristol Proms, the evening does not remotely fail on delivering. Although considered a soprano, Matshikiza’s voice has a resonance and depth to it more commonly found – if anywhere – in mezzo-sopranos. Essentially she has what Jonathan James accurately described as an “African warmth” to her singing which prevents her from straying anywhere close to the shriek-y end of the soprano repertoire and has the added benefit of making the lyrics she is singing much clearer. Her rendition of Puccini’s Un bel dí Vedremo from Madame Butterfly makes what has become almost the cliché of opera uniquely heartbreaking once again.

The Bristol Proms is establishing a pattern of re-inviting its favourite stars each year and I sincerely hope Tom Morris is already drafting his invite to Pumeza Matshikiza for 2016 and beyond.


Spill: A Verbatim Show About Sex (Exeunt June 2015)


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Rosemary Waugh: Ok, so to start can you give us a general over-view of Spill and what it is about?

Propolis Theatre: Spill explores the sex lives of a group of young people, all in different transitional stages. We asked 32 people a pretty extensive list of questions, tracking their sex lives and sexual identities from their early perceptions of sex to their aspirations for the future. Spill is a celebration of sex and the people having it, or not having it.

We chose to work in verbatim – we have had to learn the inflections, every stutter and nuances of our interviewee’s speech patterns to make our telling as truthful as possible. We chose to work in this way because we wanted to hear the stories of real people, not just what the media tends to force down our throats. We felt there were so many great stories out there, why would we make them up? Verbatim allows us to explore real experiences from real people.

On the whole, our company is all of a similar age, which obviously offers in itself a number of viewpoints – but we wanted to open this up to include points of view from a wider range of people. We felt that, as we’d like real people to watch the show, we wanted to find real people whose experiences might be reflected on stage.

We decided to take artistic license with some of the interviews, using people’s natural speech pattern to create music and rhythm – using electronic beats and acoustic guitars alongside their words, we were able to create soundscapes and songs from the material we had collected.

RW: Why did you feel this was an important show to make?

PT: We as a company (and group of young people) felt uncomfortable with the way sex is portrayed in the mainstream media, as well as porn and the education system. The sex we are shown, and taught about is only a fraction of what sex really is- and we wanted to show that. It doesn’t have to be straight, skinny and hairless. There may not be mood lighting and simultaneous orgasms are not guaranteed. You might not have a rampant sex drive, or any sex drive at all. And actually, that’s okay. Also, everybody wants the chance to talk about it. And hear other people talk honestly and openly about it. What’s the point of being so secretive about something that affects everybody, whether they’re having sex or not?

RW: You’re a young company making a show about sex. Do you think that young people’s experiences and attitudes towards sex are particularly unique to this time period? In particular, how do you feel about the prevalence of internet porn and the ideas this creates about sex?

PT: We don’t necessarily feel that attitudes today are unique to this time. Everyone has always experienced the same things – their first kiss, their first time, their first love (these things not always at the same time). We definitely feel like there is more pressure these days, because in a day when we tend to share everything about ourselves online, it seems like everyone is talking about (and having) sex all the time – this might make young people feel differently about sex, feel like they more urgently need to get started, but fundamentally sex has remained the same for thousands of years.

RW: Were the responses to your questions as you expected or did they raise unexpected issues? If so, what?

PT: Often, the interviewees seemed to think their answers were pretty unusual, but mirrored a lot of other things we heard! The main thing we found was that everything is normal, and that’s what we’re trying to show with the piece. We interviewed a few people who were in quite specific transitional states. These interviews were probably the most enlightening in terms of looking at gender and sexuality in ways we hadn’t personally experienced.

RW: Did you feel that the people you talked to had basically ‘healthy’ relationships with sex or not?

PT: It really depended on the characters we spoke to. We did definitely feel that most the characters in their 20s felt that they had a healthy relationship with sex, that it was appropriate for their age group, but a couple of the older characters felt that though they had a healthy frame of mind, the reality of their sex life wasn’t living up to that.

Lots of people we have focused on don’t fit into “the norm”. The idea of a “healthy relationship” is hard to find for those people who don’t have a norm to conform to. How can we compare what is perceived as healthy to what they experience, if they’re constantly told (by the media, by sex ed, by their parents) that what they fancy is not OK?

I think it’d be true to say some of the characters play up to the expectations placed upon them by how they identify their sexuality and their gender – it’s not until you get deeper into the interview that you find the truth, the inner person. It’s sometimes easier to put up a front, to show bravado when discussing something so intimate.

RW: How do you think people’s attitudes towards sex and talking about it should change?

PT: One of the most important things for us is that we wanted to make a show about something that wasn’t usually discussed. We felt “the norm” that is drilled into us is not the general consensus anymore – what you are taught at school and by our parents doesn’t and shouldn’t necessarily apply. We wanted to talk about it openly, to start that discussion so things will change. I think there’s a fear of not speaking about it – but if we don’t start speaking, it can throw up all manner of problems. If you feel like you can’t communicate problems or desires with your partner, how can we expect to start discussing sex with strangers?

RW: What would you like audiences to take from this show?

PT: Two things: we want them to be able to walk out thinking “it’s not just me who thinks that” – that everyone can be more comfortable in the knowledge that others share feelings they had previously never spoken aloud. Another thing we’d like them to think about are the things they maybe previously didn’t know about – things like pansexuality, asexuality, identifying as transgender – to not just think about sex from your point of view. We of course also want them to have fun – sex should be fun! It shouldn’t be closed off and boring. It shouldn’t be taboo. We don’t think it should be in the dark, with the lights off, quiet….

RW: What are your plans for the future, both as a company and as individual actors?

PT: The plan for Spill – we’re headed to the Inspiring Curiousity Festival at the Belgrade Theatre in July, then we’d like to take it on tour.

As a company, we’d like to stick together and start to create work on a regular basis. A few of us are going to drama school in September, so it’ll be a case that people come in and out but at its core Propolis Theatre will remain the same.

We’ve all got projects we’d love to work on and we work well as a team. We’ve been put together to work in such an intense environment, it feels like there’s nothing we can’t do.

RW: To finish, tell me the most interesting fact about sex you now know!

PT: Did you know that one in ten European babies is conceived in an IKEA bed? That’s a nice nod to our set design!


Spill (Exeunt July 2015)


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Credit: Paul Blakemore

Credit: Paul Blakemore

At Blah’s Big Weekend back at the end of April, spoken word poet Anna Freeman told the story of how her free-thinking (but hideously embarrassing) mother had once asked if she wanted to have a party to celebrate her first period. Horrified, the teenage Anna declined her mother’s invitation to social death, as most of us surely would have done. But if there is a group of people who might be up for that sort of moon cup celebration, then it is perhaps Propolis Theatre who are, in their new show Spill, throwing a sex party.

Not, we should say right now, the kind of sex party that Silvio Berlusconi used to throw back when times were good for him, but the kind of sex party where we get together and – in a format I feel Anna’s mother would approve of – talk frankly and openly about sex. Spill is in fact the result of 20 interviews with 32 people asking them questions about their sexual pasts, presents and futures. The huge amount of information they gathered was then whittled down into this production in which all the lines are delivered verbatim, including every mumble, err and repetition.

Were it not for the knowledge that this is verbatim and not created, some of the voices represented could verge on being irritating, but then fact is always weirder than fiction and the truth represented here is that people are often pretty irritating when they talk about sex. Or rather the very type of person who likes to be outright in their discussion of their own sex life – indeed often prides themselves on being that Samantha-from-Sex-in-the-City-type – is often grating.

The more confident voice does seem to be mildly over-represented here and I wonder to what extent the interviews were themselves forgivably biased towards being conducted with people inherently confident about addressing this subject matter. However, what this production does well is in blending these more overt voices with those from people whose stories are not those screamed across a table on a Girls’ Night Out. One of the most interesting of these is from a French woman who tells of how her relationship with literally opening her legs – for sex or any other reason – was shaped by her experience of having an autoimmune disease as a teenager which resulted in painful ulcers forming in her vagina. Many hours spent with doctors being viewed as a specimen on a table left her associating being touched in the area with pain. The story of how she moved through this and on to having sex as a healthy adult in many ways overshadowed any of the others. Her story alone could have sustained a 70-minute production and was beautifully and engagingly performed by Jessica Clough-MacRae.

Similarly, Jenny Davies (in a complete transformation from her last role as a rather dowdy and aggressive journalist in The Light Burns Blue) bought to her outspoken character the exact vulnerability so often found lurking just below the surface in people who are “TOTALLY OK WITH TALKING ABOUT SEX!” The character’s childhood tales of catcalls when walking along the rural road to the garage are delivered both with bravado and a palpable confusion. The attempt to understand and be OK with something she is ultimately unable to make peace with seeps through despite her efforts to hide it.

This is an interesting and bold show to stage which suggests Propolis Theatre are not your average group of either young people or actors. Ultimately, the show could have been fleshed out with a more diverse selection of voices – particularly those of older people. This is very much a show about young people and sex, rather than people and sex per se. Indeed it could be easily adapted into different versions with different voices in the same format at a later date. However, the technical precision, sensitive delivery and forthright determination not to make the same old stuff everyone has done before, makes both this show and the actors in it well worth seeing.


Pink Mist (Exeunt July 2015)


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Pink Mist, a verse-drama by Owen Sheers, tells the story of three young men who join the army in 2008 and are quickly sent to fight in Afghanistan.

As a piece of writing it is beautiful, doing that hardest of tasks of getting dramatic verse to seem entirely natural. All six characters – the three men, two of their partners and one of their mothers – are on stage at all times and the technical accomplishment of the piece is considerable in this regard. As the ex-servicemen, Phil Dunster, Peter Edwards and Alex Steadman are convincingly masculine with the top-heavy bodies and gaits of military machines. Yet in between scenes, they evaporate back into the liquid dance performances of the cast moving as one, the fluidity of their movements echoing the title of the production. The projections of skylines, whether at sunrise, nightfall or illuminated in the piercing hell of fire, continue further this feeling that ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future’.

Unlike in the film industry that seems to require many of its male stars to take on the chiselled bodies of marines and superheroes, it is unusual to see this pumped up version of masculinity on stage. The straight spines, wide foreheads and army regulation haircuts tells us what we think we know about military men – they look indestructible – yet all of these men, both physically and mentally to different degrees, end up destroyed by their experiences, muscle and strength only encasing their fractured insides.

It is also a version of masculinity we do not see often on the stage because it is to a large degree a working class masculinity – interestingly the last play about war staged in Bristol, Birdsong, focuses on a hero of the Officer classes. The reason given for all three men deciding to sign up is a vague ennui, a sense of a lack of prospects and a yearning to escape the confines of where they grew up. As someone who can genuinely claim to come from a ‘small town’ I found the idea of Bristol as representing this trope slightly jarring, but in retrospect anywhere – be it part of London or deepest Devon – can have this effect on its sons and daughters if the future (jobs, prospects) on offer there is non-existent.

The other perspective given which is usually under-represented is that of women isolated and dislocated by their partners’ or son’s choice in joining the army. The voice of army wives and families we most frequently see is that of the Military Wives singing the national anthem at Aintree or raising money for Help For Heroes. It is assumed that these women are unerringly supportive of their men’s choices, many of them living and raising children on military bases. The idea of partners having a much more complicated relationship with the choice to go to war – especially if the decision to sign up occurred after the relationship started – is a more problematic, and perhaps more realistic, portrayal of what those left at home feel towards those in combat uniforms.

The stories of the female characters could have easily been attended too in more detail. The character of Hads’ mother, played by Zara Ramm was acted excellently, but unfortunately not given anywhere near enough time to tell her story. Equally, the idea that a man, Hads, said to be half-Somali (a strongly Muslim community in Bristol) would sign up as easily as the other two white Englishmen to join the British army at a time when they were already engaged in a war slaughtering Muslims in the middle east, was not explained or even addressed in the text.

The narrative is proudly set in Bristol, peppered with references to Banksy, Massive Attack, Portishead and the Clifton suspension bridge. For those familiar with the city, the references make the fictional stories sound like news reports, but it would be interesting to see how this was received by an audience for whom the words Dundry Hill meant nothing. “This is a West Country play!” the production seems to be shouting, and it tries as hard as Laurie Lee to evoke the feeling of a place. In most ways it succeeds but the West Country accents of the cast at times feel a little too stressed, as though already anticipating its reception outside of the South West. Of all the people you meet in Bristol and the wider South West, rarely do you actually hear such broad vowels as these.

The emotiveness of the subject matter and the skill of the cast gives the piece a power, but having reflected on it, the final twist – for me – relies too strongly on a belief in the afterlife, in consciousness after death and a surrender to the understandable but futile desire of the living to play god and put words into the mouths of the dead.


The Ted Bundy Project (Exeunt June 2015)


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Credit: Alex Brenner

Credit: Alex Brenner

I had my first manicure recently. It was gel polish and the lady, after ascertaining that I was breaking my mani-virginity, stressed that ‘the most important thing is that you MUST NOT PICK IT OFF.’ Instead it was recommended that I book another appointment to come and have it removed at the salon in a few weeks’ time. But life got in the way, I couldn’t be bothered to book an appointment and something about the stress with which she insisted I mustn’t pick it off ‘even if a little bit flicks up’ meant that, well, I had to pick it off. Just to see what happened. (Disclaimer: nothing much happened except that it kind of took part of each of my nails with it but, hey ho).

When I told my sister-in-law about this desire to pick it off pretty much because I had been told not to, she nodded emphatically and said “Yeah like when you’re told ‘Whatever you do, don’t hit the red button!’…so obviously you have to.”

The Ted Bundy Project by Greg Wohead is in many ways a show about red button moments. It is about the desire to look, listen and read the very things we know we should most avoid. For whilst Wohead starts with his own repeated listening to serial killer Ted Bundy’s confession tapes, this show is also relevant to conversations about why we look at photos leaked from celebrities’ iCloud accounts, obsess over the details of high-profile murders recounted in newsprint or watch disgustingly violent horror films. In turn it is therefore also a show about our mixed relationship with the desire to look where we shouldn’t. Specifically, about how we moralise towards others who are seemingly breaking taboo and accessing information we feel they shouldn’t be. Part of the fundamental attraction of this show is the opportunity it offers to hear from someone who did this ‘weird’ thing and listened to Ted Bundy’s confession tapes. We go to be voyeuristic towards a voyeur. Similarly a lot of time is spent by a lot of people thinking about those other terrible people (who are apparently in their millions, despite no one ever really admitting to be one of them) who access hardcore pornography or wondering ‘who actually buys The Sun?’

The sad truth of course being that those freaks don’t just walk amongst us, they are us. Even if you’re not getting your red button kicks visiting gore websites online you are likely feeding the same impulse by feigning sympathy for ‘troubled’ musicians like Amy Winehouse whilst gorging on images of her emaciated body or simply pulling and pulling on that enticing bit of skin right by you thumb nail.

The idea behind the Ted Bundy Project could be highly problematic – potentially a gross exploitation of a real-life situation that left a large number of young women raped and murdered. Yet this show is anything but a thoughtless employment of ‘sensational’ material to get a cheap reaction. Instead Wohead forces the audience to the very brink of deep uncomfortableness. The irony being that he does this not through talking about explicitly violent acts – the inclusion of which are responsibly advertised in advance – but by making us question this basic desire we have to be bloody Orpheus and have just a little peek back…