I’m sitting in an orange camper van – the sort of camper van where chintz comes to die and in which families spend weeks of cramped, forced jollity in the British countryside. Perched on a small bench, a performer kneels almost uncomfortably close, her eyes fixed steadily on mine. In a swift one-on-one performance that brings a whole new meaning to theatrical intimacy, I am told a secret.
This is the Campsite, a venue “dedicated to supporting unfeasible ideas and impractical performance work” at the PULSE Fringe Festival in Ipswich. That might also work as a strapline for the festival as a whole, or at least for the little I saw of it over the weekend (2nd-3rd June). While some of the work is being presented in a finished state (though it must be said that much of this finished work is cordoned off from reviews because of Edinburgh Fringe First eligibility guidelines), this is chiefly a space for experimentation and scratch performances, an opportunity for artists to trial their work outside London. As such, there is a messy feel to proceedings – not necessarily a bad thing, but a fact that can make the festival tricky to write about.
Let’s start, then, with the camper vans. There are five in total, each with its own name, as well as a couple of tents pitched up in the small space behind the New Wolsey Studio. It’s impossible to see everything on the Campsite, but I spend most of my time there in the chintz-decked Joni. The brief secret relayed to me in these surroundings is part of Everything You Ever Wanted to Say But Didn’t, a project curated and performed by Rhiannon Armstrong. The title says it all: Armstrong is collecting admissions from strangers, building an anonymous bank of things left unsaid and performing these in intimate settings. In this sense, the camper van works perfectly for her, enhancing the slightly uncomfortable sense that something private is being shared and compressing the usual distance between performer and audience – in this case an audience of one. It is a nice idea, but an inevitably slight one, particularly as the arbitrarily chosen secret I am told is very short. It is difficult to convey much in a couple of minutes.
The cosy intimacy of Joni works even more effectively for Fergus Evans’ gentle piece about the notion of home. For this, four of us pile into the camper van with Evans, where we write our names and the places we call home on stickers. In this home of kinds, Evans speaks surprisingly movingly about his hometown far away in Atlanta, transporting us from drab drizzle to stifling heat with his unshowy yet poetic words. He also implicitly questions our memories of home and how we describe it to others, delicately exposing the lies he tells and by extension the lies that we all tell when wearing the rose-tinted glasses that seem to inescapably accompany thoughts of the place we call home.
In contrast to the intimacy of these pieces, Daniel Bye’s performance lecture The Price of Everything is an exercise in miniaturising something that is usually performed to a crowd of significantly more than the three of us squeezed onto the camper van bench. I can in some ways see how it might work better in a bigger setting, particularly the powerpoint presentation elements, but there is also something powerful about the ugliness of capitalism being brutally satirised mere inches from you. There is certainly no room to escape or ignore Bye’s thought-provoking investigation into the worth of things versus their monetary value.
This, of course, is just scratching the surface of the diverse array of work on offer in the collection of caravans and tents dotted around the site. I was particularly curious about an interactive performance inspired by Where the Wild Things Are, which based on an outside view seemed to mainly involve noisily testing the caravan’s suspension to breaking point, while I was disappointed to miss a hilarious sounding site-wide musical version of Ghostbusters. The variety, while doubtless hit and miss, is all part of the beauty.
Away from the Campsite, which is pretty much a case of rock up and see what’s going on, the shows elsewhere follow a slightly more structured pattern. However, this doesn’t necessarily make them easier to write about. The performances at PULSE often resist being weighed up and judged within any formal structure, not least because many of them are still works in progress (more on that later), but in a slight nod to the traditional review format I’ve collected together some thoughts on each of the individual shows below:
[Where the piece is a work in progress, I've indicated this with an asterisk. I also saw Thin Ice and My Robot Heart, but both have review embargoes ahead of Edinburgh.]
Joseph Mercier’s short work in progress advertises itself as a dance solo, but contains strikingly little movement. For the majority of the twenty five minute piece, Mercier speaks Felix Lane’s text (inspired by Jean Genet) in a strangely haunting monotone from behind a microphone, intermittently lit by mesmerising, pulsing spotlights. The sexually explicit yet poetic language draws primarily on Genet’s portrayals of homosexuality and the idea of being an outcast, confronting uncomfortable taboos with softly spoken words.
The gestures may be minimal, but even the simple clenching and opening of a fist speaks of the guarded harshness and open vulnerability that mingle within the piece. The tenderest moment arrives when a member of the audience dances slowly with Mercier on the stage, suggestive of the delicate connections that can be forged between strangers. The show lacks coherence and unity, but this may be a symptom of its currently unfinished state. Even with its flaws, however, I found myself oddly absorbed without being able to quite pin down why.
Emily’s Very Sad Play*
Despite being one of the roughest, sketchiest performances of the weekend, this was also one of the most fascinating. I’ve already laid out a few initial thoughts on the show, which I’ll attempt to extend a little further here. Starting with the basics, Sara Pascoe’s solo performance is about Emily, a character of questionable sanity who is struggling to separate her own story from all those she has read in books. She lies, plagiarises, continually spouts literature and searches for the truth. It is, as I have already written about, an intriguing and intelligent investigation of the intertextuality of our lives, playing with the literary fabric of the knowledge we gain almost by osmosis, questioning how much of our identity we borrow from books. Emily is an extreme, but none of us are entirely free from the influences that threaten to swallow her whole.
The piece is performed in a stream of consciousness style by Pascoe, an appealingly oddball and often very funny performer. Our ideas of madness are challenged, as Emily tells us that “it’s easy to prove you’re crazy – just say everything you’re thinking”. After all, how sane are any of us really? Another interesting element that I only lightly touched upon previously is the implicit examination of women and madness. Emily’s literary references, from Medea to Ophelia, plug into a recurring literary trope of female madness and hysteria, and it seems significant to this character’s relationship with literature that she is a woman (here my mind immediately leapt to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic). Emily’s obsession with pregnancy is linked to a conception of the female sex as defined by motherhood, while her humorous description of the unrealistic romantic expectations engendered by the likes of Jane Austen hits on an uncomfortable truth. These ideas are not fully fleshed out in this early version of the show, but they open up discussions that I’m keen to see continued.
Tatty-Del Are Making It Work*
… or “can friends make art together?” tatty-del, a collaboration between friends and theatremakers Natalie and Hanna, were in trouble. Last year, Natalie attempted to “break up” with Hanna following multiple artistic disappointments, prompting the pair to go to couples’ therapy and delve into past friendships to try and (you guessed it) make it work. This work in progress is the result of that process, a messy patchwork of memories and conversations that address the nature of friendship and collaboration. These ideas are approached with humour, as the pair take us back through adolescent relationships that prove cringingly recognisable and establish the extent to which our friendships influence who we become.
While the compatibility of art and friendship is a big idea to tackle and one in which few conclusions are reached, almost more interesting is the way in which tatty-del figure our memories of friendship. Once important relationships become amusing anecdotes, told over and over again until they are little more than stories (something that is underlined by the inherent artificiality of repeated performance). It is fascinating to see acted out before us the way in which our past friendships become markers in the story of our lives, exposing the half-fictions we all build around our own identity. In the show’s current bitty and confused incarnation, I’m not quite sure that Natalie and Hanna are making it work, but this certainly feels like the start of something rather than the ending that the duo came so close to.
Tom Marshman, a performer with long, shapely legs and a history of varicose veins, ended up being an unlikely finalist in Pretty Polly’s search for the best legs in the country. This appealingly quirky true story forms the basis for Marshman’s solo show, an odd cabaret-style performance that takes us on a journey through Marshman’s turbulent relationship with his legs and brings in elements of gender identity. There are some striking images that emerge: the piece opens with Marshman in relative darkness, speaking breathily into his microphone, as an almost hypnotising display of synchronised leg movements is projected onto a screen; during the operation to remove his varicose veins, Marshman holds out a blue, plastic surgical gown as a screen behind which his legs are hauntingly silhouetted, all to a soundtrack of waves lapping the shore. There is also some particularly inventive audience participation involving punch, tights and a pair of very long straws (I’ll cryptically leave it at that for you to conjure your own image).
Somewhere during the hour-long performance, however, Marshman lost me. In his opening address to the audience, he suggests that his experiences will have something to say about the wider issue of body confidence, but the only body under the microscope here is Marshman’s. Perhaps my disappointment with the show is partly to do with it not delivering what I was hoping for, in which case its perceived shortcomings are a result of my own subconscious prejudices, but this ultimately seems like little more than a mildly entertaining ego-trip. Marshman may well have overcome his body issues, and should be congratulated for that. The self-congratulation he thrusts upon his audience, however, eventually becomes just plain boring.
Tom Wainwright’s odd little creation was one of the surprise joys of the weekend for me. The eponymous Buttercup is a “fat cow” from Lancashire, an unloved character who finds herself thrust into the limelight when she is selected to take part in a Jamie Oliver show, a brush with fame that leads to a stint on Masterchef and her very own reality show, The Only Way is Lancashire. As might be expected from this description, Wainwright’s is a show that skewers our obsession with reality television and our fetishisation of fame, albeit very amusingly. He also has a good prod at lazy middle-class perceptions of characters such as Buttercup and at a London-centric view of the country.
This sixty-minute show is for the most part riotously funny. Alongside his characterisation of Buttercup, accompanied with spirited stamps and tail swishes, Wainwright proves to be a mean impressionist, switching between uncanny imitations of TV chefs and the “stars” (inverted commas firmly in place) of The Only Way is Essex. The laughs have a harsh edge, however, that elevates this into something far more interesting than an exercise in imitation, while startling moments of emotional truth break through the comedy. Making your audience laugh at themselves and following that with a bitter pill of realisation is quite a skill, and one that Wainwright pulls off effortlessly. Hilarious it may be, but this is comedy with bite.
The weekend concludes, appropriately, with a party. Little Bulb, probably best known for fringe hit Operation Greenfield, present a performance that is more of a gig than anything else. The infectiously energetic group veer from folk to blues to rock, all with equal flair, concluding their schizophrenic musical stylings with the observation that each of us is “a hundred different people”. There is a loose message about identity in there, but this is really about having a good time, which Little Bulb are extraordinarily good at. As the performances ratchet up their energy, we are assaulted with bubbles, glitter, feathers, costume changes galore. There soon remains little option but to grin stupidly and be taken along by it all. To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure how else to write about Goose Party; it’s tough to distil pure joy.
Alongside assessing the work on an individual, specific basis, I have a few wider questions born out of the weekend that I’d also like to address – or, in some cases, to simply ask. Firstly, this issue of how to write about work in progress. It’s something that Lyn Gardner recently wrote about for the Guardian, in a piece in which she expressed concerns that reviewing work in the early stages of its development might be damaging rather than constructive. That might well be the case within the mainstream media review format, limited to a few hundred words and forced to stamp the piece with a star rating, but is it any different in the online space?
I must admit, I’m not sure. I think that constructive dialogue is an important stage in developing a piece of work, but whether a review is the best way in which to conduct such dialogue is questionable. This possibility of conversation between theatremakers and (for want of a better word) critics is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and something that has been influenced by my own recent experience of being invited into a rehearsal room. I don’t have huge confidence in my own ability to help shape a piece of work with my input, but I’m ready to try, whether that be airing my thoughts in a rehearsal room or scribbling them down. While I’m not restricted by word limits in this space, the sheer volume of work at PULSE has caused me to rein in my responses slightly, but if any of the theatremakers involved in the shows I’ve written about above happen to be reading this and want to talk further, then please feel free to get in touch.
Secondly, an intriguing thought occurred to me while watching tatty-del’s show about truth and artificiality in performance. I’m probably not saying anything new here, but I had a slight light bulb moment in connection with the tension in theatre between repetition and liveness. What do I mean? Well, theatre (or at least most theatre) is essentially the same thing night after night; the same lines, the same movements, the same scenes being played out. Yet simultaneously it is a live art form and therefore necessarily shifting and ephemeral. The former brings with it artificiality, because everything is carefully planned and repeated, but the latter implies a sort of truth that is inherent in the liveness and unique to that moment.
These thoughts were prompted by tatty-del because their piece was about emotional truth within their relationship and at the same time about how fake some elements of friendship can be, both of which seemed wrapped up in their style of performing. Which made me think that perhaps in scratch performances, this paradox sits closer to the surface than in most theatre, lending such performances an element of excitement and discovery that has sometimes been ironed out of slick, finished work. Of course, whether a piece of theatre is ever really finished is another question entirely and one that also came up when I recently sat in on rehearsals, but I’ll leave that particular door closed for now.
Even after writing at such length, there’s still lots more to digest and think over. What sort of implications do the experiments taking place at festivals such as PULSE have for the wider dynamic between performer and audience? How do these festivals contribute to the theatre ecosystem as a whole, and where do they sit within that? Is the availability of this work outside London actually having any impact on regional theatre? I had one conversation with a fellow writer and festival-goer about the concern that we are just talking to ourselves; he was worried that the same people attend the same sort of events and that there is no new audience for this work. Looking around at the sparse audiences for some of the shows and recognising the same faces certainly reinforces that concern. Does it matter that this is the case if such festivals continue to support the process of making work? And how do these events engage new audiences? I’m not going to attempt to answer such questions here, but they deserve to be asked.
Finally, in the spirit of honesty, I have to confess that I found the weekend a bit of a struggle. An enjoyable struggle, certainly, but a struggle nonetheless. There is something about work in progress that proves more demanding of an audience than finished work, but beyond the work itself it was also difficult to document it. I had hoped that the festival would be an opportunity to explore new and different modes of theatre criticism, including a range of mediums and immediate responses, but I underestimated the hectic festival atmosphere and my own need to mull things over. While I made some attempts at live-blogging, I discovered that it was tougher than it appears and that perhaps I just wasn’t very good at it.
Before this gets too downbeat, I’m still enthusiastic about the possibilities of digital criticism, I just have to concede that my own brand of digital criticism, like much of the work at PULSE, is still at an embryonic stage. But both are a start.
For my aforementioned fragmented attempts at documenting my festival experience, take a look at my Tumblr blog, my collected tweets from the weekend and my Pinterest festival pin board. I will also be writing a more concise round-up for Fourthwall.