Dead on her Feet, Arcola Theatre

There is something grotesquely fascinating about the cultural phenomenon of the American dance marathon. A product of giddy freedom and excess in the 1920s, this bizarre event – a strange marriage of leisure and endurance – soon became something of a symbol for the desperation of the Great Depression, as entrants seduced by the cash on offer for the winners and the promise of minor fame would dance for as long as they could, while paying spectators watched for days on end. Following a grimly Darwinian logic, the winners were simply the last ones standing.

Ron Hutchinson’s adoption of the dance marathon craze as a metaphor for the bitter competition of capitalist structures, then, would seem apt. So apt, in fact, that it risks becoming blindingly obvious. Latching onto one imagined smalltown dance marathon at the height of the States’ financial difficulties in the 30s, this new play has none too subtle resonances with the frenzied waltz of a recession-struck modern world, in which we must all keep spinning until we drop. A perceptive comment on our current predicament, perhaps, but nuanced? Not so much.

The dance marathon in question is engineered by Mel Carney, a manipulative ringmaster of sorts who comes to stand unambiguously, and thus rather problematically, for the evils of capitalism. In the goodies corner are a motley collection of contestants, all with their own sob stories and all equally tinged with desperation. There are grey areas, principally in the form of reluctant event bouncer and would-be good guy McDade, through whose eyes the narrative is refracted, but on the whole the lines are drawn with a heavy hand by Hutchinson and director Barry Kyle.

One of the more interesting devices that the piece deploys is a criticism of those who turn up to be entertained by the plight of others less fortunate, a tradition passed down from freak show to television talent contest. Shifting responsibility for the brutal spectacle he is facilitating, Mel appeals to the vicious voyeurism of the public – “the monkeys in the zoo aren’t half as bad as the monkeys on the other side of the cage”. It’s not hard to think of the modern parallel. With the performance space becoming the ballroom floor in Alex Berry’s design and the rows of seats its amassed spectators, we are involved without a full exploration of our complicit role in this kind of “entertaining” exploitation. The audience are implicated, but we’re never really made to squirm.

In much the same way, Hutchinson’s script seems to fire out potentially inflammatory observations while simultaneously backing away with raised hands. There are some incisive suggestions – that government is really just a matter of marketing, for instance, and that capitalism is not a calculated system of profiteering oppression but merely the inevitable manifestation of human nature – but these are explored in such hackneyed terms that they fail to really slice into the institutions and ideas that they are attacking. While it has some sharp moments, the bite always stops short of the bone.

Kyle’s production attempts to add some interesting dimensions to what threatens to be a flat parable of greed and desperation. What earns the dance marathon its particular position of fascination is the grotesque nature of the proffered entertainment, a sense of the grotesque that begins to infect the aesthetic here but feels only half committed to. While Jos Vantyler’s demonic Mel is all sleaze and sweat, a maniacally grinning caricature of capitalist greed, this almost cartoonish approach does not quite extend to the rest of the cast. In a similar way, there are moments during the nightmarish ordeal of the marathon when the production seems poised to play with the performance conventions of circus, with all its potentially exploitative connotations, but this too is only absently toyed with. Settling for somewhere in between naturalism and stylized satire, it doesn’t quite achieve either.

In the end, what turns out to be the most effective – and affecting – trick of the production is Hutchinson’s characters repetitive ringing out of capitalism’s broken refrain of “I really hope I win”, the bland yet quietly desperate maxim of the talent show contestant and the financially flailing worker. Because we all know that losing is the only option here.

~

As a postscript of sorts, I think it’s worth admitting the above as something of a failure. After rambling on in slightly idealistic terms about what I think the role of the critic should and could be and getting excited about this collection and examination of interesting things, I of course immediately saw two productions which, for various reasons, I didn’t find particularly interesting. This was one; the other was Fireface at the Young Vic, which I have inadequately dissected here.

Explaining why you don’t like something is always one of the challenges of criticism, especially when that not-liking takes the form of an indifferent “meh” rather than a passionate disagreement. Strong reactions, either positive or negative, are much more interesting to wrestle into words. When I leave the theatre feeling simply disappointed, I sometimes think it might be better for everyone involved if I just left it at that.

These are problems that Andrew Haydon has dealt with in more detail in relation to Fireface, partly prompting this admission of failure. I’ve tried, in both the review about and in my review of Fireface, to get at some of the reasons why I was less than thrilled by the respective productions, but I haven’t had the time to interrogate my underwhelmed reactions in the detail they perhaps deserve, at least under my own banner of doing criticism better. All I can do is continue trying.

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