The Darkest Corners, Transform 17

Originally written for Exeunt.

I’m walking home. It’s dark. The usual route – the bright, busy, familiar route – is closed off by roadworks. Diversion signs point down a quiet side street, through an almost deserted car park, round a secluded corner. In an alley between two tall, empty buildings, it’s just me and two men sat in a parked van. As I walk past the van, the door closest to me starts to open. I think: is this it?

Such moments of primal yet well-rehearsed fear are the substance of The Darkest Corners. Every woman who walks alone at night will have thought those three words, or a variation on them. Is this it? Is it about to happen to me? The thing that I’ve dreaded and braced myself for – is it actually happening?

RashDash’s latest show is suffused with the violence – real, imagined and feared – that women face all the time on streets all over the world. Its relationship with that violence, though, is complicated. “We don’t want to make you more scared,” Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen tell us at the start. And they don’t want to replicate the abuse and harassment they are confronting, replacing a violence with a violence. But neither do they want to minimise that abuse, letting silence breed silence.

As in Two Man Show and We Want You To Watch, the problem of RashDash’s premise is integral to the dynamic of the show. Abbi and Helen want to scrap it all and start over. They want to tear apart patriarchy and pornography and violence against women. But they can’t escape those structures. And so they wrestle with what can’t be smashed and put their bruised and bloodied failures centre stage.

Here, centre stage is a car park – one of the dark and potentially fearful corners of night-time Leeds. Sat on upturned crates and listening in through headphones, the audience observe the series of after-dark encounters that play out across this wide outdoor arena. It’s an empty, exposing space, one in which Madeline Shann’s lone female walker looks particularly vulnerable.

Immediately, I hate that that’s my first thought. I see a woman and I see a potential victim. She sees a man and she sees a potential attacker.

These are the kinds of thoughts that The Darkest Corners bristles with. It takes us right inside the female protagonist’s head, which is startlingly like the inside of my own. Real, paralysing fear – what if he’s planning to attack me? – tussles with attempts at rationalising – he’s probably just thinking about what he’s going to have for dinner. There’s a complex representation, too, of how violence infects the imagination and how suspicion taints innocent interactions. “That’s a violent thought,” the woman catches herself thinking, as she pictures a brutal fight with the unwitting man approaching her on the road ahead.

The knottiness of the subject matter and RashDash’s approach to it is alternately eased and intensified by the fantastic series of songs they’ve put together with regular collaborator Becky Wilkie. The show’s music covers the whole spectrum from fluttering anxiety to punky defiance to a wistful ode to freedom and exploration. The lyrics, meanwhile, deliver some of the wittiest lines of the night, skewering the contradictory and often victim-blaming advice handed out to women (“skirts are easy access and heels make you slow, a ponytail is an absolute no-no”).

Not everything works quite so well. Jami Quarrell’s character, a sort of MC-cum-salesman who periodically interrupts with unsettling little skits, is one of the weaker links in the piece. Admittedly, his sales pitches for whistles and rape alarms make the important point that fear and violence for some mean profit for others; it’s to the market’s advantage that the burden of preventing sexual assault falls on women rather than men. The more he appears, though, the less the grating repetition written into the role pays off.

There are also moments when RashDash struggle to prevent their usual explosive energy from dissipating slightly across the expanse of space that they’re working with. But mostly it’s thrilling to see the company making theatre on such an ambitious scale, bursting out of the black box studios that have more often contained them in recent years. Here, there’s room for big, gutsy choreography, as well as for a series of vehicles to drive in and out of the action. There’s something oddly magical and exhilarating about a bus suddenly trundling into a piece of theatre, even if it is being staged in a car park.

As in all of their work, RashDash aren’t here to offer answers. For women, the fear, violence and harassment that The Darkest Corners grapples with is likely to be horribly yet wearily familiar. For men (as my partner found), the full extent of the daily threats and misogynistic hassling that possessing a vagina makes you subject to might be surprising and horrifying. RashDash throw these problems out to all of us, with an acknowledgement of the complexity involved – how, for instance, do men make good allies without turning the issue into a demonstration of their own “nice guy” status? – but also with a galvanising call to arms. This, they promise, is just the start of the fightback.

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Offside: the shocking moment female footballers were banned for 50 years

Originally written for the Guardian.

In 1921, the Football Association ruled the sport “quite unsuitable for females and … not to be encouraged”. For the next 50 years, women were banned from playing on FA pitches. A new theatre show, Offside, brings this hidden history to light. “So many people were unaware that there had been a ban,” says the show’s co-writer Sabrina Mahfouz, “even people who are playing football now”.

The play emerged from Caroline Bryant’s passion and frustration. A lifelong football fan, she was never able to play for a team when she was growing up. Decades later, as artistic director of the company Futures Theatre, which is committed to promoting equality for women, it seemed to her an injustice that was ripe for dramatisation. “Football is so much a part of British and world culture,” says Bryant. “Why are women excluded from it?”

Poet Hollie McNish, who wrote the play with Mahfouz, describes the women’s game as an “amazing little microcosm of the history of women’s rights”. Over the years, it’s been caught up with the fight for equality in a variety of areas. The rational dress movement of the late 19th century was partly driven by women fighting to wear clothes that were suitable for playing sport, while women’s football in Scotland was closely linked to the campaign for female suffrage. These were the stories that Mahfouz and McNish sought out.

Based on current and historical research, the show intertwines three narratives: one contemporary, two historical. In the present, fictional characters Mickey and Keeley are pursuing their dream of playing for England. Spurring them on from the history books are Carrie Boustead, a black female footballer who was playing in the 1880s and 90s, and the National Football Museum hall of fame star Lily Parr.

As Mahfouz explains, Boustead and Parr’s stories “act as heroic, retrospective examples that the two contemporary football players use to motivate themselves”. These interwoven stories are performed by a cast of three against the backdrop of a handmade patchwork that includes various nods to the game’s history, from suffragette protest banners to more recent feminist iconography.

The little-known story of Boustead, who played as a goalkeeper, counters what Mahfouz calls the “whitewashing” of British history. Parr, meanwhile, was a winger for Dick, Kerr Ladies, the team that on Boxing Day 1920 drew a crowd of 53,000 to Goodison Park. Dick, Kerr Ladies and other teams of female factory workers had steadily gained popularity during and after the first world war, but in 1921 the FA banned the women’s game from its grounds, citing medical concerns over its effects on women’s health. The ban crippled the burgeoning sport, forcing Parr and her peers to play on village greens.

The ban persisted until 1971, two years after the formation of the Women’s Football Association, when the FA bowed to pressure from Uefa to once again allow women to play on its grounds. Today, 46 years on from the lifting of the ban, the women’s game is stronger than ever, but the gap between women’s and men’s football remains.

“There was just such palpable frustration,” says Mahfouz, reflecting on her conversations with players. Leanne Cowan, Millwall Lionesses defender and one of the women interviewed for Offside, tells me that she works three or four jobs alongside training and matches in order to do what she loves. Such a situation is not uncommon for female footballers, while their male counterparts earn often astronomical sums.

“It was astounding, really, that this love of this game could keep them going,” says Mahfouz. McNish, despite being a football lover, was amazed that female players of the past loved the sport so much that they fought “for the right to kick a ball”.

Bryant believes that “we are at the cusp of changing all this now”. A key turning point was the 2014 match against Germany at Wembley, which attracted 55,000 spectators. Meanwhile, more clubs are paying their female players on a full-time basis and attitudes are beginning to change. As Cowan says: “The game is getting bigger every year.”

“I think it’s important to recognise that things have been created this way and it’s not just how it is,” says Mahfouz. Bryant, too, insists that it’s vital to remind people of the setbacks that female footballers have faced. “When people say the game’s not as fast or as entertaining as the men’s game, I want them to know that for 50 years women weren’t allowed to play.”

The hope is that Offside will shift attitudes. “I want the audience to be a bit pissed off at the way female sportspeople are still portrayed,” says McNish. For Bryant, the ultimate aim is to reach the point where the men’s and women’s games are on a level in people’s minds. “The greatest thing for me will be when they interview a manager at the end of the game, it’s a woman, and no one says anything about it – it’s just normal.”

Photo: Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images.

Lessons of Leaking, Transform 17

Originally written for Exeunt.

Gaming and politics: a combination with tantalising scope. For many of our supposed representatives, politics seems to be little more than a game – one in which the country and its people are gambled for the prize of short-term gains. And then there’s the gaming of politics, the hacking of the system to manipulate results. Elections become just another computer game, but with real winners and losers.

The premise of Lessons of Leaking, then, is intriguing. Part-play, part-game, machina eX’s production promises to insert audiences within a narrative about the electronic manipulation of votes. Not so much actors in the drama as the invisible, controller-clutching forces directing our avatars, the idea is that we, working together as a group, unlock each level in the narrative.

We press start in the living room of Clara and David, a young couple unwittingly caught up in a conspiracy to falsify the results of a referendum on Germany’s membership of the EU. She does PR for the company delivering the electronic voting system; he works for the European Protection Service, a fictional surveillance agency. When Clara finds a mysterious USB stick in her handbag, both of them are dragged into an attempt to uncover a shady deal between the two organisations – a deal with far-reaching consequences for European democracy.

The success of this whistleblowing attempt is up to us. Or so machina eX would like us to think. There’s a clear effort, through intermittent interaction, to make the audience feel implicit in these events and responsible for their outcome. Really, though, our involvement is limited and our engagement – at least in the performance I attended – relatively shallow. Game and politics, rather than being intertwined, feel awkwardly separate.

When the game component of the show works best, we (or at least I) feel like players in a pulse-quickening thriller, racing to discover clues and solve problems. All very well, but fairly detached from the political and ethical issues machina eX are grappling with. And at its worst, the game element is clumsy and laboured (made even more so during this particular performance by some unfortunate technical difficulties). The mechanics of theatre like this need careful working through, and machina eX have some bugs still lurking in the system.

It’s a shame, because the show’s scenario is incredibly topical and the questions it presents – about transparency, privacy, freedom of information, and ends and means – are ones worth thinking through. The problem is, we never have quite enough at stake to fully engage in the debate that machina eX are setting up. Too much of the show is spent establishing or working out the rules of an interaction that offers little to the central narrative other than a superficial sense of involvement.

That’s not to deny the ambition of the piece, which has some impressive technical tricks up its sleeve. There are also some enjoyable nods to gaming conventions: performers periodically glitch, looping dialogue and gestures like videogame avatars awaiting instruction, while multiple options appear on screens. But the audience dynamics could do with the same attention devoted to the tech. Games only work well after testing and testing and testing again. This one is still very much in the beta phase.

Wellness, Transform 17

Originally written for Exeunt.

Choreographer-performers Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek thrive on controversy. Shock is their shtick. At last year’s Transform Festival, there was a fevered buzz of anticipation around their show Schönheitsabend, which traded – economically and artistically – on its promised provocativeness. Here, in the follow-up, Wellness, they have that reputation to live up to and surpass.

As in Schönheitsabend, framing is everything. This time there are fewer overt nods to the outrageousness to follow; we already know what to expect without them telling us. Instead, the lens is adjusted to focus on the (implicitly related) themes of narcissism and artistic ambition. At the show’s opening, Florentina is dismayed by a magazine profile of her that she protests is full of lies. She just wants to express herself. They’ve got her intentions all wrong.

This prologue folds into an extended yoga-class-cum-meditation-session-cum-motivational-speech-cum-orgy (pun intended). From orders to breathe in deeply and relaaax to X Factor-style sing-offs, it’s a hallucinatory catalogue of the contemporary obsession with the individual. That obsession is captured brilliantly in the show’s title, which rolls together physical health, emotional wellbeing and shallow spirituality into a social-media-ready image of perfection. The very word, ‘wellness’, has an over-Instagrammed late-capitalist sheen. It’s at once made-up sounding and ubiquitous, the hashtag of bloggers and vloggers and spa getaways.

The show’s dreamlike journey of discovery is led by leotard-clad Renée Copraij, whose eerie, almost mechanical voice intones instructions through a headset microphone, aerobics teacher style. Holzinger and Riebeek are two of her ardent followers, alongside fellow dancers Antonio Pedro de Almeida Coimbra Maia and Maciej Sado. Through a strange yet compelling blend of yoga-teacher-speak, directorial jargon and exercise class motivation, Copraij guides the performers through an increasingly bizarre training course, as they set out to pursue their best selves.

There is, naturally, the promised sense of shock. One of the earliest surprises is the most gloriously silly, as liquid cascades from the punctured false breasts of a suspended Copraij, christening the performers who frolic below in an image of something like rebirth. Later revelations are more gasp (and potentially disgust) inducing. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say I’ll never look at an egg in quite the same way again.

The really astonishing moments, though, are those of surprising beauty rather than surprising crudeness. Having been thoroughly drenched by the contents of Copraij’s fake boobs, the quartet of now naked performers writhe together under phantasmagoric coloured lights. The effect is less erotic than it is captivatingly alien. The dancers’ slick, shimmering limbs blur together, merging into one twisting, thrashing creature. It’s a startling feat of bodily contortion and theatrical illusion, and unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before. In another dazzling sequence, the show assaults its audience with pounding music and intensely bright flashing lights, leaving us with only the woozy, intermittently visible outlines of the performers’ bodies.

It’s hard to tell with Holzinger and Riebeek what’s satirical and what’s sincere – and they want it that way. At times, the choreographic vocabulary seems to hint at genuine transformation, while at others it rips the individualistic culture of personal wellbeing and self-discovery to shreds. Without being overtly political, the piece suggests the apathy and acceptance that contemporary mindfulness encourages. Wellness as a concept is about the isolated individual and the present moment, rejecting the collective gesture or the work of building a better future. It says ‘just be’, which might as well translate into ‘just accept the status quo’.

Not that Wellness is ever quite as simple as that. At the very start, Copraij insists that dance is about clear communication. Is this just another tongue-in-cheek statement? There’s little that’s clear in Holzinger and Riebeek’s performance, at least by any usual standards of clarity. But then communication is not only about the straightforward transmission of straightforward meanings. Bodies also communicate in ambiguous and fascinating ways, as Wellness makes abundantly apparent.

My concern, though, is that Holzinger and Riebeek are too reliant on the frisson of provocation. Shock has a sell-by date. The duo might still have an impressive grasp on their audience’s expectations, which they tease with a sly, subverted nod to the most outrageous moment in Schönheitsabend, but the tactic of scandalising is one with diminishing returns. Where have they left themselves to go next?

Photo: Phile Deprez.

Daniel, Royal Exchange

Originally written for Exeunt.

Can you ever really know a person? That’s the disturbing question around which Footprint Theatre’s Daniel queasily circles. Are there signs, giveaway hints, that someone is harbouring abusive desires? Or are we all just too skilled at composing the mask we show to the world to ever let the ugliest parts of ourselves become visible?

The show’s name marks the absence at its heart. The eponymous teenager, whose arrest for the possession of child pornography is the dramatic catalyst of the piece, is never seen or heard. Instead, his crime stands in for him as a person, in the same way as it does for those in his community who react with horror, disgust and vitriol to what he has done. The four individual voices that we hear from, though, dig beneath shock and sensation. They ask: is a person really defined by one action, no matter how abhorrent?

Footprint Theatre’s quartet of performers speak to us from within our own space, seated amongst the audience arranged on four sides of the studio. Tim Crouch’s The Author is an obvious influence, both in terms of form and content. Here, as in Crouch’s show, the set-up is designed to make us feel complicit, while Footprint Theatre make similarly powerful use of the imagined but unseen. Four of those who knew Daniel – his cousin, his best friend, two mates from school – talk to us and to one another, interspersed with voicemail messages on Daniel’s phone and detached, third-person narration of his mother’s numb response to his crime.

The treatment of this difficult, troubling material is impressively nuanced and complex. Some of the speakers respond to what Daniel has done with uncompromising anger and condemnation. Others are confused and bewildered. None of them can match up the person they thought they knew with the person who has been revealed.

Most challenging and intelligent are the tentative attempts at compassion and the searching questions about society’s treatment of paedophilia. Daniel’s best friend, desperate to “do right” by the boy he has grown up with, reaches towards possible explanations, imagining the terrible isolation of unacceptable desires. He also hits out at a system that targets symptoms rather than causes, punishing those who watch child pornography in lieu of attacking its far-reaching roots.

Another of the speakers probes what we think of as “acceptable” pornography, filled with young women dressed to look even younger being taken advantage of by older men. As she points out, we live in a world that violently condemns paedophilia but at the same time insistently sexualises teenage girls. “I think maybe we need to talk about this,” she says, looking around at the audience. In these more accusatory moments, as performers get up from their seats and occupy the forum in the centre of the room, the space feels dangerously charged.

At just 45 minutes long, Daniel is a slender piece, ending as abruptly and disturbingly as it began. It bombards its audience with questions and then retreats, leaving us to sift through the debris. As a dramaturgical strategy, it offers an effective provocation, but I was left wondering if there was still more that the company could tease out. The positioning of the audience, meanwhile, could do with just one further step of interrogation. What is our role? At times, we are clearly and uncomfortably involved, but at others it’s uncertain how we sit alongside the tortured discussions of these four friends.

Nonetheless, this is brave and compelling work, especially from such a young company. Footprint Theatre are unafraid to explore the darker recesses and moral ambiguities of a subject that, especially in the wake of successive high-profile revelations of child abuse, remains a seeping public wound. They are also unafraid to betray the selfishness of some of their characters’ responses, acknowledging the aftermath of a crime such as Daniel’s in all its knotty complexity. And they hold their nerve by allowing the unseen protagonist to remain as unknowable to the audience as he was to those closest to him.