I’ve been to more dance! TWO more whole dance things! Well, one of them I didn’t realise was going to be dance until about 15 minutes in, but still, DANCE! Look at me, going to see all this dancing. I feel like Coco Chanel at Nijinsky. (Stop laughing.)
This week was Fatherland by Nic Green, and Sun by Hofesh Shechter. They were VERY different, and prove that I still have a long way to go before I’m a proficient member of the global dance audience. I dunno any of the fancy words for the steps they do, and kind of have to watch through this ridiculous pop culture filter to make any sense of it. The Hofesh Shechter piece, for example, is basically a stage version of Lost. They’ve been on the island for 6 months already, so clothes are getting a bit sun-bleached and the Others are mid-infiltration. They’re hunting semi-successfully and there’s a guy dressed as a doctor overseeing a rudimentary justice system. A few of them have started shagging. There are flashbacks to happier times spent moving in slow-motion at warehouse parties. And every so often a massive pulsating boom is heard and some unspecified TERRIFYING SHIT goes down. A few minor characters get supernaturally murdered, and some poor fucker suffers a violent loss of reason roughly every fifteen mins.
The lighting design was fucking unbelievable (some of the best I’ve ever seen), but neither the music nor the dancing was interesting enough for me to stop pretending I was watching Lost. By the end of it I’d ascribed most of the Shechter Company to their island counterpart. There’s really no unseeing it, when you’re twiddling your hair and wondering what they’re, y’know, actually doing up there.
Nic Green’s Fatherland was a very different show, and it’s actually a bit unfair to compare the two. Sun was MASSIVE. Big ensemble, big stage, big audience, big tech. Nic Green was in BAC’s council chamber with a couple of drummers and a piper in full traditional dress, but we were an audience of about 60, and we were right there with her. In almost the exact opposite of Sun, I didn’t have a clue that it was going to be dance, but I did at least know what it was trying to say. It was about making connections with the roots and traditions of your ancestors, by a woman who had met her Scottish father only once. I know this because it said so on the flyer. No need to transpose low-quality American fantasy drama here, no siree. For one thing, Nic Green and I have a bit of Venn diagram overlap. I was born in Scotland to English parents and lived there for a relatively short time. I have felt my Scottish identity seep away over the years. I went to country dancing lessons at school when I was wee, then lost my accent a matter of weeks after moving away. The piper had made my heart flinch even before I sat down.
I won’t mince my words though: Fatherland took a fucking age to get going. I’d definitely started to look skyward and curse myself for taking such a stupid risk with £12. Then, about 20 minutes in, the dancing started. It was a bit like my country dancing lessons all those years ago, except a bit better, and was remarkably in time with a drummer who had started to keep the beat quietly. She was stepping round in circles (loads and loads of circles - poor love must’ve got well dizzy) and doing a few fancy pointed-toe twiddly bits (technical term) when the other two drums kicked in. Like, literally kicked in. So there are these three bass drums being hammered in time to her foot-stomping and suddenly she wriggles out of her clothes too, until she’s jiggling and jumping around in these custom-made clan pants, absolutely fucking BEAMING. The following night I would spend an hour trying to work out the point of Sun, but just this short section of Fatherland gave it to me right between the eyes. The point is to be unapologetic. To stamp and leap and twirl to your own personal drummers, tartan knickers and tits oot and fuck the lot of them. Proper JOYFUL. Proper FREEDOM.
I guess Sun was just too… choreographed.
I’ve had this stuff buzzing round my head for a week or two now. Turning it into a proper argument (with paragraphs and structure and stuff) would be disingenuous, so here’s a bit of a list.
1) Partly in response to the Independent on Sunday laying off all its critics, Andrew Haydon wrote a piece for Nachtkritik that listed some of the best theatre criticism blogs in the UK today. Every one of his choices is fantastic. One, however, hasn’t been updated since 2011 and all follow the standard form of some-words-with-some-pictures-provided-by-the-theatre’s-PR-team.
2) Long-form blog thinkpieces are not new or groundbreaking. They are simply preserving a culture of theatre criticism that the printed press can no longer sustain.
3) Last Friday I listened to a recently-laid off arts critic, recipient of thousands of pounds worth of free tickets and wine, accuse embedded criticism of being a worrying development because theatremaker becomes paymaster.
4) At the same event, I heard current theatre critics say of embedded criticism “you mean a feature?”
5) I look forward to the first public casualty of marketers confusing embedded criticism with easy publicity. I look forward to it EAGERLY.
6) One of my favourite ever pieces of arts criticism is Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.
7) The absolute best and most forward-thinking critic working today is Eve Nicol. She has critiqued work via Snapchat, and her Edinburgh Furinge blog is the only one I’ve ever seen that can truly and universally communicate the delight that the theatre can inspire. She is a genius.
8) Eve’s blogging has never turned me from a reader into an audience member. It is not ‘consumer guide’ criticism. Andrew Haydon, on the other hand, a man who recently described a book published in June this year as “seminal” with a straight face, has moved me to part with hundreds of pounds. My annual holiday next year has come about as a result of his writing.
9) Matt Trueman said that criticism is “a team game”. It takes all sorts. Something something landscape.
10) Now that it has no in-house critics, The Independent on Sunday is printing an aggregate. What the weekday Indy said, what the other papers say, what NORMAL PEOPLE think. Is this the same as a “team game”? Who picks the team? If the reader picks the team, isn’t that what’s always happened?
11) 2 weeks ago I went to a blogger event at the National Theatre. I’d been invited by someone in the show. I ended up falling out with her over my use of the word ‘posh’ and felt so dirty for taking the ticket that I deleted my review in less than 48 hours.
12) That same week, I went to another show, didn’t write anything about it, but then was asked to send a private comment for the artists’ ACE evaluation. More than happy to my friend. With pleasure. And no, it wasn’t 100% positive.
13) The West End Whingers’ schtick got boring.
"I want to see more dance," I said.
“You should go and see O,” they said.
I don’t really have a dance vocabulary. I am generally better at making a call about the quality of the lighting design than I am about the dancing. Do they look fit? Can they do things with their bodies that I can’t do with mine? Then it’s obviously a good bit of dancing innit. I’ve seen Carlos Acosta onstage and just spent the whole time wondering if those were regular or support tights. I’m gonna change that though. I’m gonna go and see dance without worrying about underwear. One day.
Not today though. O, by A Contemporary Struggle, is no time to put underwear out of your mind. Mainly because the two performers, Alexandrina Hemsley & Jamila Johnson-Small, change theirs about 4 times over the course of the show. Black, leopardprint, sequins, sometimes none at all. It kinda feels like it’s okay to mention it because O isn’t titillation. It’s like an experiment in calling an audience’s bluff, making them face up to their all-pervading preoccupation with bums, Clockwork Orange-style.
It’s funny too, when you’re not wordlessly gawping at a woman reading a book with her vagina. Lots of bedroom shape-throwing to club-ready RnB. Tits jiggling about. TWERKING. I’ve not seen Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, but there are plenty of uncomfortable moments where moves go from funny ha-ha to OHMYGOD by the simple removal of clothing.
One of the reasons I want to see more dance is because narrative can be a bit too demanding sometimes. (I know, I know.) Sometimes after a hard day I just want to see some nice shapes and hear some nice sounds and maybe enjoy some nice shapes and sounds together. O wasn’t like that. It wasn’t relaxing. It was angry, and aggressive, but in this really kinda calm way that made you think they might just snap any minute and smash the place up. Powerful, fit, gorgeous, strong, angry naked women. Fucking badass. The treatment of the female body, the treatment of the black female body, the sexual objectification of women. O pulls at those threads until we feel, collectively, a bit dirty.
Or maybe it meant nothing. Maybe it was a couple of women dancing to RnB in wigs and knickers and having a laugh winding their guests up. I dunno.
It was good though. It was daft and it was deadpan. I want to join their sorority and drive around with the windows open, shouting at people. It looked cool. I liked it.
Throughout the nineties I took an annual holiday to Glastonbury with my Dad. In the early years we spent most of our time bumming around the green fields and watching students on mushrooms freak out in gyroscopes. (You don’t see gyroscopes anymore, do you? The risk assessment probably isn’t work it.) Every year this environmental stall would inflate a massive Pink Floyd-scale rhino and the rhino soundsystem would start up for a full 96 hours of brilliantly dirty techno. Being all of 9 years old at the time, my fun came from sitting on the grass with Dad and taking the piss out of the 20+ pillheads dancing outside at 10am.
When I was at (I think) my second Glastonbury, in 1993, the main thoroughfare through the festival site was briefly closed down while a protest marched through. (Anyone who’s been to Glastonbury will know the road I’m talking about. Back then, before even the Channel 4 coverage, nevermind a million different red button options, that farm track was lined with dealers. Now that the festival capacity has ballooned, even without the greater police presence, it is too fucking crowded for loitering.) In a truly unparalleled example of preaching to the choir, a load of ravers were walking the length of Worthy Farm to protest against The Criminal Justice Bill. Dad made a joke about it being a good time to rob the rhino stall, then explained that the government wanted to stop people from gathering together in groups and dancing outdoors. “What? Like at Glasonbury?” I probably said. “Yeah, maybe. Michael Eavis has asked for permission for us to be here, so Glastonbury will probably be alright, but there’s always a chance that one day they’ll say no, and anyone who comes here will be breaking the law,” he might’ve said back.
"Breaking the law?! At Glastonbury?!! Never."
Those weekends went a long way to making me the person I grew into, but, even in a household where soft drug use was no crime, I was in my twenties before I took ecstasy. And even then, even as a young person who went out five nights a week, it was in my friends’ living rooms that I had my drug phase, parting a sweaty fringe with a Wii controller, cooling hot faces down on cold kitchen windows, talking at 45rpm, holding hands, singing. It lasted less than two years (with the odd spasm of remembrance every so often since). We hugged under duvets instead of on dancefloors.
(me, my back garden, 2007)
So why am I telling you all this? Well. It’s been a 5-show week for me this week. I’ve seen a couple of brilliant things*, a pretty rubbish thing, and something that was so fucking half-arsed that, frankly, I want my twelve quid back, but then this afternoon I saw something that was bigger and greater and louder and brighter than all the other shows. It’s not so much five-stars as a massive elliptical galaxy. It was Beats by Kieran Hurley, a tiny little story told while he sat at a tiny little desk, and yet a good fifteen minutes of it was a huge fucking belting recreation of one Scottish boy’s first ever pill, with swirling lights and smoke and those incredible headachey graphics that were all over happy hardcore tapes when I was at primary school. And as he explained what he was feeling, that full-body rush that buzzed outwards from a mate’s hand on his neck, the DJ played Josh Wink and I had to bite back tears at the breakdown.
It was fucking brilliant. The boy in the story was having the kind of experience I watched people having as a kid, on holiday with my Dad, so I was thinking about that, but then I was reliving those 2007 headrushes too, when I was falling in love with new friends and a new city.
The night I took my first pill, I slept in my clothes in my friend’s bed for a couple of hours, and then walked the few streets home to sleep in my own bed for the rest of the day. I remember walking past the City youth team training at Platt Lane and feeling like a new woman. Like, ‘this is a normal training day for them but I feel like I’ve just been born’. In Beats, the boy had that moment in the back of a car, and the visuals were a little bit of council-estate-Scotland through the window.
It was so so so so good. It was more than a good show though. It was like someone sharing a bit of myself with me.
“Here you go Meg, here’s a bit of you from 6 years ago.”
What a brilliant fucking storyteller we have in Kieran Hurley.
*The Events by David Greig at The Young Vic, and A Conversation by Nigel Barratt and Louise Mari at The Yard.
Sarah Lucas reminds me so much of my boss when I was at Manchester Opera House. They even have the same first name. The Lucas retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery is mainly LOL TITS escapism (including a nice collage of what I thought were olives but were in fact end-on photos of variously foreskinned knobs) and it was kinda weird seeing my old boss crouching on the toilet, but I am HEAD OVER HEELS with her collection of ‘nuds’.
They’re made out of stuffed tights, and they look like potatoes and muscles and boobs and fucking and dying and old grizzly over-60s open-sea swimmers and abortions and tumours and FLESH. They make me hold my belly and think about shit and bowels and wind. They make me want to squeeze them.
Some have been cast in bronze and you can see yourself in them over and over again. I’ve never wanted to touch something so badly. I bet if you pressed a big greasy thumbprint into one it would be SO (omigod) SATISFYING to rub off again with a sleeve and some hot breath. Would come up again proper shiny too.
Imagine if she made a hot water bottle version. All soft and warm and ever so slightly sweaty to the touch. I can’t decide it would be the most comforting thing ever or a fucking horrific reminder of inevitable decay.
Now that, folks, is great art.
Talk to people about turning thirty and four out of five will say that they KNOW THEMSELVES BETTER. Like all that “I really want this, I’m so ready for this” crap on the X Factor, it’s a cliché that comes from a truthful place. I’ve still got 4 months to go, but I already feel like I know myself so much better than when I was younger, better even than on my 29th birthday. Being a mature student had become a significant part of my identity. Shaking that off and returning to being a full, card-carrying grown-up again has led to all sorts of unexpected re-evaluations. My 29th year might just be the one that’s seen the most change.
My most recent realisation has been about the kind of work I want to spend my time watching. Matt Smith’s casting in Rupert Goold’s American Psycho musical was announced this morning and I couldn’t really give a fuck. I can see he’s a great choice, a good marriage of stage talent and star power with which to launch a sold out show and carry it into its West End run. A year or two ago I’d already have bought my ticket for American Psycho. I doubt I’ll bother with it now. I’ve enjoyed every show of Goold’s that I’ve seen, but none have been astonishing, and I’m beginning to consider the addition of ‘the musical’ to a well-known title to be a bit of a lazy creative move. Some online idiot suggested there might be a Harry Potter: the Musical the other day. The terrifying thing is that there just might.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s all the gloriously fragmented and beautiful gubbins in the live art world. I went to the last day of Fierce Festival yesterday and was largely disappointed by what I saw, but I know I absolutely wanted to see every single moment of it. The Franko B piece ended with a gentle twirling dance between Franko and a giant polar bear (I pray for the animatronics industry, I really do). Lundahl & Seitl involved us in a hypnosis experiment. Slap Talk by Action Hero, the thing I was least fussed about in the programme, turned out to be hilarious. A series of insults, some barbed, others under-handed, filled serveral hours of durational performance; to each other, to us as their audience, to two cameras with impressive autofocus capabilities. I watched for about 90 mins but could have stayed a lot longer. The guy in Action Hero has one of those faces. Like, village idiot resting face. Brilliant.
It’s hard to prioritise seeking out these unusual things, happening in only a handful of venues and festivals throughout the year. It’s hard to resist autopilot big-name bookings when you want to keep up with what’s going on. Of course I’m interested in what the ADs are doing and what’s working and what’s not and who the exciting new playwrights are and which season has scored the most famous international director. That’s the gossipy side of loving theatre. But, since thinking more about exactly what type of art fan I am, I’ve resisted my curiosity about The Light Princess and The Scottsboro Boys and Hysteria at the Hampstead. I’m sure I’d have a great time at them all. I’m sure Goold’s American Psycho musical will be ten times the Sweeney Todd-lite that my gut says it will be. But time and money are precious and I want to see the kind of work that interests me. More Hurtlings and Slap Talks and Bigmouths and Not Is and Secret Theatres. No more the autopilot bookings.
I’ve just done Walking:Holding by Rosana Cade and it’s dawned on me that I may have also done some accidental politics.
It’s the simplest piece of art, possibly ever, because it just involves setting off on a wee stroll, holding hands with some artists in a little relay around Stratford. I was expecting to have to face up to social awkwardness a bit, but hoped that there would be a refreshing sense of stranger-intimacy at the end. A type of feeling like the one you get at a gig or in a library study room or something. That thing where you start to nod-and-smile at the people you pass on the way to the tube every morning. And it was a bit like that. I was made to feel totally okay with being quiet but ended up chattering away for a full hour about personal safety and sexuality and physical dominance and how we perform ourselves and stuff, which was what ultimately made me realise that I’d been covertly tricked into politics!
Hackney Wick isn’t deserted after dark, but it isn’t heaving either. I started walking with a woman around some quiet streets, and then a man who I talked to about San Fransisco, and then a girl who I talked to about the economics of the World Cup. And then all of a sudden we were in the middle of Westfield where there was an event taking place in a bridal shop and people going for a Wagamamas and buying trainers and all that normal-person stuff. And I was still chattering away, this time about how there should be more fierce-as-hell dancers tearing up catwalks at Fashion Week, when I was suddenly walking with this fucking GORGEOUS transvestite in a platinum wig and grey suede shoes and carrying a proper grown-up umbrella like it ain’t no thing.
(It’s hard to pull off a grown-up umbrella I think. You have to OWN IT.)
I never felt unsafe. We were in the middle of a floodlit Westfield for fuck’s sake. But I’d gone from invisibility to total visibility in a second. I felt like I was parading for the first time. Like that awful thing that tabloids do by describing a woman wearing a dress as having “poured her curves” into it. They make her present in a different way. I was doing exactly the same thing as I had been with the previous people, jabbering away about stuff while we wander around East London, but I had made myself a focus. And it was making myself into that focus I think. Certainly no-one around us was being threatening. My own expectations of the people around me had shifted, and I felt different.
If anything, when the next guy played a bit of a nasty trick by approaching with his MENACING FACE on, it took away from that sense of focus. It wasn’t necessary to play up to that asbo stereotype, because my sense of my surroundings had been shifted anyway.
On the train home I started to think about what Walking:Holding must be like for a man.
See? POLITICS. It sneaks up on you.
(There are no pictures on this post because every photo of hand-holding in the entire internet makes me want to vomit.)
There are spoilers in this blog post. Hurtling finished at The Yard today but maybe it’ll return and I also think it’s the kind of work that could easily be remade for different locations. You know the drill. Read on at your own risk.
Hurtling by Greg Wohead is exactly the kind of work I love. I feel buzzed from it tonight, like I’ve been woken up from some kind of coma. I see a lot of straight plays in regular auditoria because there are a lot of straight plays in regular auditoria, but these off-site wanderings are the real deal. They’re the things that make the real connections.
In Hurtling, you follow a series of directions to a door nearby, go up to the top floor of this artsy officey building, and are made to climb a ladder out of the roof hatch. The views are panoramic. London tonight is gorgeous. At 7pm half the sky was dark and half the sky was glowing. I could look across to see Kapoor’s Orbit and beyond that Canary Wharf was blinking. At one point a bunch of birds did a bit of a loop around, and there was a woman in a window doing some kind of preparatory dressmaking task, with pins and shit. Hackney Wick has personality and it was so great to see it from above.
On the roof there was a desk with a newspaper and a walkman with headphones. On the tape, Greg Wohead talked about his day and made reference to the paper so it was clear that he’d made the recording today. He talked about the past, and how everything that we’re aware of is the past because in the moment it takes to make us aware of something, time has moved on. You have to close your eyes and when you open them again the sky has got darker.
The tape asks you to stand up and look towards Hackney Wick station, which is lit relatively brightly. Straight away I was like “what’s that guy doing on the footbridge, standing there like a fucking weirdo?” Turns out it was Greg, and he was waiting there to share a moment with me. I nearly wept.
Work like this - live art is the term I suppose, although that’s never quite felt representative - is the stuff that makes my breathing change and my mouth make strange, unexpected noises. When I climbed down the ladder it was hard not to hug the steward. I got to the station in about 5 minutes and tried to find Greg so I could purge everything I was feeling in a breathless gush of compliments, but I couldn’t find him.
I’m writing this on my phone on the tube and I think I can actually feel the blood in my veins.
Subject to proof-reading, I finished my dissertation on Sunday. (In a fitting metaphor for my academic career, as soon as I put all my books back on the shelf, the shelf fell right out of the wall.) I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do next. The PhD is years away yet, but it’s nice to have a project innit. There’s a silversmithing course at my local college that I might start in the new year. I have this idea for a pair of earrings based on a Glasgow tenement building. I want to make a new zine. I should probably fix that shelf. But there’s also the thought of potentially writing something. Like, WRITING-writing. This thing doesn’t really count. I mean something with a beginning and an end that are more that a few inches apart.
I feel a lot more like writing that something piece of WRITING-writing after tonight. I saw Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been An Incident at the Soho Theatre (it was a success in Edinburgh last month) and JESUS he is a very very very good writer. There were recognisable stories in tonight’s show, but it was the chain-of-thoughts (the ‘chains-of-thought’? I clearly have a LOT of work to do…) that made it all real. There were these really strong, really recognisable stories, which could each be shrunk to a sentence or two of exposition, but were instead like real-time meanderings through the minds of the individual players.
When I was at sixth form doing English A-level, whenever we were given a writing task my friend Leonie and I would ignore the instructions and, instead, write what we called “decoy pages”: nonsense stream-of-consciousness stuff about how large our teacher’s head was (physically, tangibly, fucking HUGE) and why Person A said they weren’t going to Person B’s party and who was already pulling out of the car park even though it was definitely only 2.50pm and what the last lesson must’ve been about because the words ANALLY RETENTIVE and PHALLUS were still written on the whiteboard.
There Has Possibly Been An Incident is like Chris Thorpe has written the best ever decoy page but rather than meaningless teenage bollocks, it’s about heroes and terrorists, and just how similar those two things can be.
It’s not dramatic. The performers basically just speak the words. But it’s so real because of the little things they zone in on, the things that you notice that suddenly make you stop and think “Oh look. Look at that thing I’m noticing. How weird to be noticing that right now.”
What with all the shelf-fixing, I doubt I’ll have the time to write anything PROPER for ages, but when I do I hope I write it like Chris Thorpe.
A little while ago I wrote about how much I hate the Hahn/Cock chicken that’s currently on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. I’ve chilled out a bit now, but still try to consciously look somewhere else every time I pass by. It’s just so awful.
Today though, they’ve announced a new shortlist of works for the fourth plinth after the chicken’s finally decommissioned (torn limb from limb hopefully), and they’re mostly quite good! There’s a David Shrigley thumb, and these two cones that move and dance by Liliane Lijn, but I’m already completely in love with Marcus Coates’ thing.
It’s a replica of a real rock formation at Brimham Rocks, and I can think of THESE FIVE REASONS why it should be chosen.
1) I like that the rocky outcrop it’s based on is in Yorkshire, which is pretty much the home of outdoor sculpture in the UK, and it’s shaped a wee bit like a Henry Moore too.
2) It has that wonderful Duchampy thing of being replicated rather than created, meaning that the context of Trafalgar Square and London and tourists and traffic and the city and all that stuff starts to play a bigger part.
3) It kind of looks like a man taking a shit. As an IBS sufferer, I feel represented.
4) Further to point number 3, the hunchiness of the posture is also a reflection of the nearby Landseer Lions. It’s like one of them is actually a Transformers lion in the middle of turning into a robot or something. Via a man taking a shit. It looks like so much stuff at once! (One of the other shortlisted designs, my least favourite, is an amalgamation of the rest of the sculptures in the square by Mark Leckey, but that looks like a fucking tumour.)
5) It’s the natural world innit! I’m not much of an outdoorsy type, but seeing glimpses of big sublime overpowering vastness in the middle of the city is one of my favourite things. When I was really really tiny (and I mean tiny, like, first memories stuff), we lived in the Scottish Highlands. At the end of the little road we lived on, there was a T-junction right where the main road had been cut into the hillside. Every time we’d go anywhere, into Fort William or wherever, the first part of the journey would involve waiting at this T-junction and staring at this fucking ENORMOUS BLACK ROCKFACE on the other side of the road, with stripy excavation marks in it like it’d been fucking clawed. I’d be in my little booster seat thingy and it would literally fill the whole windscreen and all of my peripheral vision and everything. A proper badass piece of rock, right at the end of the road. Minding its own business like “What, me? Oh I’m just a fucking badass piece of rock that’s bigger than anything you’ve ever seen in your three long years of being alive. Don’t mind me. Off you go to the shops now. I’ll still be here, being badass, when you get back.” That kind of stuff is so brilliant. It’s why seeing the Thames Barrier from the DLR is so cool. Just this huge reminder of your insignificance in amongst some regular everyday pootling-about stuff.
Dear Boris, please consider this my vote for Yorkshire Lion-Man On Toilet.
This is Superposition by Lyndall Phelps. To see it, you have to climb down a couple of ladders into an old ice well at the London Canal Museum near Kings Cross. The installation is about physics. Something about energy and particles and the old computer technology that was used to document IMPORTANT SCIENCE STUFF. While you’re there, you can see an image of a huge underground room filled with lights with two men on a boat in the middle of it. It’s like a CERN for the 1950s.
Personally, I mainly liked it because it’s just so pretty. The photos don’t do it justice. It’s like those Cornelia Parker things with steamrollered silver.
I went to Secret Theatre twice this week. Both times I was lucky enough to go in blind. No-one had got to me with the spoilers yet, and I had no idea what I was sitting down to see.
Show 2 is a classic text about two sisters who find themselves in circumstances different to those in which they were raised. It’s a show about family relationships. It asks whether blood is thicker than water. It draws a big red circle around gender and power.
Show 1 is another classic text, but I’m not convinced I really know what it’s about based on the treatment it got. I think it’s about a man who questions the hoops that we jump through, but gets so frustrated by the answers he receives that he does something awful. He talks a bit like Frank Spencer, which is funny. It made me think of feeling versus numbness, and the possibility that any kind of feeling is better than none.
I’ve spent a lot of this week so wound up with anger and nervous energy re Secret Theatre that I’ve already expelled a lot of my thoughts onto twitter and facebook, into tube carriages and friends’ living rooms. Some girl told me to “step back” because my caps lock rant was upsetting her. My friend Jake looked at me like I was a madwoman at least twice in one 30 minute period. I’ve offended people who I respect and admire. So I’ll try to make this a calm and considered blog post without any unnecessary punctuation.
So, I’m pretty appalled that certain people have such distain for the preferred viewing conditions of others that they’ll wilfully reveal something that is clearly meant to remain unsaid. I’m disappointed that some critics seem to think a show’s title is somehow necessary to a review of it, that it is vital whereas discussion of story and themes is only window-dressing. I’m surprised by how many people seem to pass off the secrecy as some kind of contrived marketing gimmick.
Perhaps the marketing team have just seized on one early conversation and run with it. Perhaps the original idea was more about the auditorium being hidden in a building site than any embargo on the creative elements. Perhaps it’s just a theme to hang a season around when before there was none. But think it’s a separate issue to the work on the stage? Nope nope nope.
Sean Holmes has spoken eloquently about how this season of work has been inspired by Three Kingdoms. That show was one long surprise. It was a collection of surprises. It was, even if you were prepared for a show that existed outside of normal British theatrical conventions, a surprise a fucking minute. Simon Stephens had written a text as he normally would, and then that text was re-shaped and re-imagined by a creative team that wanted to create an event, rather than a play. I think they succeeded. I loved it. There was not one second in the auditorium that night that I knew what the fuck was going to happen next. Shows 1 and 2 from Secret Theatre might be ‘well-known’ texts (whatever that means), but I think it’s fair to say that the Secret Theatre Company intend to surprise us with their treatment of them.
I left Show 2 (which I saw first), a little concerned that some of its imagery had been too derivative of Three Kingdoms: the water, the suitcases, the fruit, the tiny little picture taped to the wall. I left Show 1 feeling like the inclusion of those elements had started to tell a story. A story that began with Three Kingdoms. That show had ended with its protagonists soaked in water. Show 2 ended with its protagonists soaked in water. Show 1 spent an awful lot of time soaking its protagonists in water and then, at its most climactic moment, as I was readying myself to see another character pissed off and glistening, something very different and very powerful happened. I may have even gasped.
Both shows are hit-and-miss, but it feels like we need to see this season of work as a whole, and as part of its own story. In my recent(ish) review of Chimerica, I wrote that I had never before seen a play that kept me gripped in the way Season 3 of The Wire did. A lot has been written in the last 10 years (arguably since The Sopranos first aired), about the way television provides a platform to explore a story and its players fully, creating rich material that grows, season-on-season. Breaking Bad finishes very soon, and has offered us a Jekyll & Hyde character potentially more complex and conflicted than ever before. We’ve adjusted our expectations of telly, and we now demand growth and development and social comment. But, more importantly, we live for the cliffhanger. We want to sit with our mouths open as credits roll, suddenly realising that our hearts are racing and we haven’t taken a proper breath for twenty minutes. No-one who has been into TV for the past decade would dream of spoiling that experience for others. I’ve walked out of family meals because my Mum starting talking about Mad Men and I didn’t trust my own face to keep a secret.
I’ve spent 4.5 hours watching Secret Theatre so far. That’s, like, 5, maybe 6 episodes into a new telly show. It’s funny and exciting and dramatic and we’re not really sure where it’s going, but we like it. It’s still got the potential, like Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, or like Deadwood, to turn to shit before it resolves anything. But I swear to fucking god I will murder your children if you tell me what’s going to fucking happen.
Women are funny. It’s been decreed by the media after a woman won a comedy award in Edinburgh. I know, I saw it on The Guardian. But Bridget Christie’s show was about feminism, so at least she was only stealing the limelight with some lady jokes. Is there a women’s section of the Fringe programme?
I don’t consider myself to be a fan of comedy. I laugh too much in my own kitchen to warrant the expense. And I think my ego-radar is too sensitive for it. But fuck me, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is funny. Olivia Colman, nation’s sweetheart, recently said she was the funniest person in the world, and I’m about ready to sign her up to play me in my biopic. Tonight I saw her perform for the third time, and for the first time on her own. The show was called Fleabag, and was about a really shit feminist. She had anal sex because she felt she owed a guy a favour, then worried about whether her arsehole was too big. Her comic timing is unbelievable, AND she does the voices.
Fleabag’s not just stand-up though, it is theatre. It’s a story about a fucked-up girl who’s a couple of days away from bankruptcy, who spends those couple of days wondering where her next shag’s going to come from. She’s been through a lot, but if she’s learnt one thing, it’s that there’s always time to make eyes at a man who looks like a rodent. For many women (even - shock! - REAL feminists, whatever they are), parts of Fleabag will strike quite close to home. I’d say the commodification of our bodies has groupthinked us into submission pretty successfully, all in all. Like Big Hits by Getinthebackofthevan, which I saw last year, the whole thing leaves a bit of a nasty taste in your mouth. If anything, it doesn’t need the ultra-tragic metaphorical climax that yells HEY SYMBOLISM to those hard-of-thinking at the back. I’d already laughed myself into my own private slut-shaming.
Fleabag is very intelligently delivered. And fucking hilarious.
Autumn is so close now that I can hear Mama Cass’s voice on the wind. The sunshine will spaff its last this week and I’ll have to buy some new tights. The Edinburgh casualties are back on solid food and only need 13 hours of kip a night now. Some of you will soon learn that your thermostat has been knackered since June. There are three more pay days before Christmas.
Tonight I’m going to my first show of the new theatre season: Fleabag at the Soho. I will spend a lot of September watching work that I missed because I am neither physically, psychologically, nor financially robust enough for Edinburgh, and there’s unbelievably exciting work being programmed in London (and beyond) this autumn too. Having spent a month recommending Chimerica over and over again simply because there’s been fuck all else to see, I cannot WAIT to get out there. Here’s what I’m looking forward to the most.
The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas (Royal Court)
I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am that Vicky Featherstone exists. The Royal Court has always made fantastic work but the bar and foyer was always populated with such cloying arseholes that you had to really want to see the show. There are promising signs that Featherstone’s beginning a proper cunt-purge. I dunno much about this new play by Dennis Kelly, and I’m going to the first preview so will likely spend the whole time clenching my arse at the thought of something going wrong, but if it’s half as good as some of the stuff that featured at her Open Court earlier this summer, it’s going to be fucking brilliant.
Secret Theatre (Lyric Hammersmith)
I have a few ideological problems with a theatre that works so hard on its community outreach asking for people to spend £15 on an unknown show, but Sean Holmes announced this whole season of clandestine plays by hinting that they might be a bit like Three Kingdoms, so fuck inclusivity, I’m SOLD. There is, of course, massive potential for disappointment, so I’ve been trying so hard to stay cool about the whole thing, but I suspect the pre-show auditorium buzz alone will be amazing. I’m going twice next week.
A Conversation (Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari, at The Yard)
Shunt are fringe royalty in London, although their large-scale work has never really sparked for me. This, however, looks fantastic. A show about how to hold a conversation. Is there a simpler, more universal concept around? You can’t look at a Sunday paper without hearing about how communication is changing (frankly, you won’t be able to look at a Sunday paper at all after very much longer), but this show should be an opportunity for us to get our shit together in a world of conflicting messages. I think, anyway. With Shunt artists involved it might be a blindfolded traverse amongst dancers on bungees.
Hurtling (Greg Wohead, also at The Yard)
A few years ago you couldn’t move for one-on-one things and headphone shows. They seem to be thinning out a bit. I fucking love ‘em though, and this looks particularly interesting, for simple location reasons if nothing else. I really like the whole Hackney Wick area. It’s like an artist-run shantytown, and the train goes RIGHT THROUGH the Olympic Park in order to get there. If you time it right, you can pretend to be a BBC4 presenter filming a link about cultural regeneration as you pass by. The website also says that Hurtling isn’t suitable for people who are scared of heights, which is a bit like sending a press release that just says THIS IS GOING TO BE FUCKING WELL COOL over and over again.
There Has Possibly Been An Incident (Chris Thorpe, at the Soho and touring)
When Chimerica blew up a few months ago, I thought about heroism - properly - for maybe the first time ever. What qualifies, and what must be risked. I’ve heard that there’s a moment in this show that considers ‘Tank Man’ too, but Chris Thorpe’s words are unlikely to be delivered with all the bells and whistles of a Rupert Goold production. It probably won’t have such a spectacular denouement, but it will be intense, funny, and gloriously ambiguous about our decision-making and our priorities.
Fierce Sunday (various, at Warwick Arts Centre)
Not London, but not far. (My train cost about a fiver from Euston. I won’t accept your excuses.) Fierce is pretty dear to me because I fell in love with Lundahl & Seitl at the 2011 festival, and then did my final undergrad uni placement with them last year. This time they’ve moved the festival to autumn instead of spring, and condensed it to a long weekend: Friday and Saturday in Birmingham, Sunday in Coventry. I’m going for the Sunday and, as well as a new piece by my sweethearts Lundahl & Seitl, I’m going to see Action Hero throw insults for hours, electro-jazz with trippy 60s visuals from Nicolas Jaar and the Joshua Light Show, and Franko B (he of the blood-letting) perform WITH A HUGE ANIMATRONIC POLAR BEAR.
I’ll also spend an increasing amount of time over the coming months checking to see if Third Angel have been booked anywhere sensible with their new Cape Wrath minibus show after documentation of Alex Kelly’s research trip made me want to weep with joy a couple of years ago.
And I dunno if this is strictly a recommendation but I’ll probably go to see Bryony Kimming’s show about pop star role models too. Even if her previous work has brought me out in hives, it’s hard to be a woman today and not have strong feelings about the shit that is fed to young girls. I mean, when I was 9 I was learning to stiltwalk and wanted to grow up to be Wednesday Addams. Clearly, MUCH healthier than all this Miley Cyrus business.
I’ve written before about how much I love that particular type of British coastline that’s cold and empty and industrial and a bit end-of-the-world. Watching On Landguard Point, the film Robert Pacitti has made featuring a series of performative responses to his little bit of Suffolk, was like seeing work in the Tate’s Turbine Hall. The space is 70% of what you experience.
Which is good because oh my GOD the narration on this film made me want to go deaf forever. It was like your first boyfriend’s love poems, except without the filthy bits. This weird recurring thing about finding bits of old tooth in the mud and pointing it eastwards. DEEP AND MEANINGFUL klaxons going off everywhere. And the dude pronouned algae like “al-GAY”. So irritating.
So I was sitting there on an itchy chair in an airless sweatbox at the ICA thinking “well this is SHIT” but then the teenage poet shut up for a bit and a container ship drfited across the horizon, then a naked woman walked out of the sea and played a trombone like it was a foghorn, and then a local brass band played for two clowns and man in an Elvis suit, and a topless woman in a leather mask appeared with a bird of prey and set fire to some pyro. And then there were the choreographed carthorses, and the flour fight, and the scouts having a putting-up-a-tent race. And there were these LED screens erected in the middle of these vast mudflats and their reflections on the watery bits made it like this desolate squidgy Times Square. And then I was like THIS IS SO FUCKING WONDERFUL.
And I don’t even care about the al-gay guy anymore.