Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, Theatre in the Mill

 

Lots of people talk about community in the theatre. I’m one of them. For the hopeless optimists among us, the communal space of the theatre holds a certain political potential, a certain utopian allure. Here we are, together.

But actually, in a lot of ways, the gig is more communal than the theatre show. In a theatre auditorium you’re (generally) separated from your neighbour by a few inches, a veil of politeness and maybe an armrest. Gigs, on the other hand, are all proximity and excitement and sweat. People moving as one, singing as one. Bodies connected by the vibration of basslines. Here we are, together.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is caught somewhere between the two. We sit in raked seating, keeping polite distances. We are, I think more than once, remarkably still. Yet this is, as Chris Brett Bailey’s scribbled-over marketing copy tells us, “a concert sprinkled with words”. Formally, it’s more gig than theatre show. Bailey and fellow band members Alicia Jane Turner and George Percy play us a haunting, disturbing and eventually ear-splitting post-rock symphony, building up to the volume of a small plane taking off.

Caught in the midst of all this incredible noise, though, we in the audience don’t sway or stamp or mosh. Instead we sit stiffly, disconnected, together but not together. That’s the problem with a lot of recent so-called gig theatre (a label that Bailey and co have – deliberately, I’d guess – avoided): it jettisons too much of the experience of gigs, creating events that feel diluted and frankly just a bit awkward. It tries to bring something of the gig into the space of the theatre without thinking about what the space of the theatre actually does to those inside it.

Perhaps, though, the theatre is the right place for Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, for all the reasons it seems like the wrong place. Because Bailey’s show doesn’t feel communal. It feels, if anything, sort of atomising. Perhaps that’s because I’m a wimp with bad ears who promptly shoved in my earplugs for all the really loud bits and so felt wrapped in slightly muffled (but still fucking loud) sound for half the show. But it also feels in keeping with the whole gesture of the show that we’re each sucked into an individual vortex of sound, dragged down into our own personal abyss. Even the speech, with its fragmented swirl of death and horror and chaos, is disconnected, spoken not by Bailey in front of us but by his disembodied voice through the speakers.

For Bailey, as he explains in the programme, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is the product of a death heavy year. For me – and for many others watching, I suspect – it’s been a heavy year in countless ways. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight speaks to this year, or at least so it seems to me. I can’t quite shake the urge to compare it to This Is How We Die (because, as much as this is clearly trying to do something different, that previous show was so heart-thumpingly thrilling that it can’t help sticking around in the memory), but actually what feels at first like it’s missing from Bailey’s follow-up is perhaps aptly, intentionally absent. There’s none of the comfort of humour or narrative here, and relatively little language to hold on to. Instead it feels bleaker, more violent.

The words we do get – detached from Bailey, as if directly speaking them to us would be too hard – speak of suicide and catastrophe and the underworld. “This is a hell dream. This is a hell dream. This is a hell dream.” As the audience settle in their seats, the words repeat like a refrain that hangs over everything that follows: the piercing strings, the growl of electric guitar, the subterranean green glow of Lee Curran’s lights (later a hellish red), the tune hammered out on what the programme calls “piano corpses”. Even the instruments are perishing, their screams and howls a protracted, deafening death rattle.

At first, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight seems to play up to the expectations of This Is How We Die fans, its initial voiceover almost a parody of that earlier show and its Beat-poetry rhythms. From there, though, it moves into much darker and potentially alienating territory, continuing a journey into oblivion that began with that astonishing blast of sound at the end of This Is How We Die. It might not be a show to intensely love, but it’s uncompromising in its own intensity.

And it leaves me feeling oddly isolated from the people around me, even as the same vibrations rattle through our bodies. It suggests the distance of understanding that Bailey alludes to when considering why someone might be drawn towards suicide: “You’ve got no idea what it was like to walk to the fridge in their shoes, let alone a mile.” Sometimes, in spite of all theatre’s capacity for generating empathy, we just can’t understand.

Here we are, together yet alone.

Photo: The Other Richard.

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YOUARENOWHERE, Shoreditch Town Hall

YOUARENOWHERE, all one word, can be read two ways. It can be a statement of certainty, of being decisively placed in the world: you are now here. Or it can be a revelation of nothingness, of uncertainty: you are nowhere.

Andrew Schneider’s glitching mindfuck of a show is sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both. It is, in every sense of the word, disorientating. It jolts its audience out of time and space – or maybe it just makes us realise that time and space are one and the same, and that everything is happening all at once.

From the moment we first see Schneider before us, the rules by which we usually order world and stage are violently disrupted. Schneider doesn’t enter; he suddenly materialises. The lights snap on and there he is, shirtless and panting, as if vomited up out of nowhere into this bare white space. In appealing disarray, he begins to talk to us, but the mechanics of the show around him keep interrupting. Coloured lights flash on and off. Huge swells of sound swallow his words. Technology glitches.

You think of time like a line, right? Or like a road, stretching out behind and ahead, you gliding along in the driver’s seat. Wrong. In his quick-fire, cut-up lecture – stories are abruptly truncated, ideas diced up and thrown back together – Schneider rapidly unsettles popular, shared notions of time. The references whizz by so fast it’s almost impossible to grasp them – Einstein’s theory of relativity gets a nod, I’m pretty sure – but the overall sense is of a sudden unmooring from the certainties of seconds, minutes and hours.

It’s about form as much as, if not more than, content. There are moments in the show when we feel time, we note its passage (even if “passage” is just another flawed metaphor for a false, man-made construction). At other points, we can see its signifiers – the clock rapidly counting down, the lights flickering on and off – but feel somehow wrenched out of it. Or at least I do. As Schneider makes clear, different perspectives create different realities.

Death, as well as time, is a constant preoccupation. If there’s any way in which we can individually grasp time, after all, it’s as an inexorable movement towards our eventual demise. What if, Schneider poses, every time you thought about death there was another you, in a parallel reality, who had actually died in that moment? Like a morbid take on Sliding Doors, or a version of Constellations with a rapidly mounting body count.

And there’s more. There’s all this stuff about missed connections, fate, love. The loneliness of being trapped inside your own head, your own existence, trapped outside the perceptions of others. Forever separate. “We exist in each other’s realities,” says Schneider. “But not in the way that we think we do.”

Those words might read as a thesis of sorts, if it were possible to boil YOUARENOWHERE down to anything as simple or straightforward as a thesis. As a demonstration of its own ideas, Schneider’s show refuses to slot into any kind of linear logic, impressing itself on the consciousness as a disconnected series of images and sounds and thoughts. But, whatever physics might say, we humans are meaning-making creatures, and so meaning emerges nonetheless.

Schneider, though, has a few tricks to unsettle that instinctive dot-joining. The second half of the show is a series of dazzling, gasp-out-loud rug pulls, each more audacious than the last. Just as we think we’ve found our footing, Schneider sends us stumbling once again. The last reveal in particular robs me of my breath and makes my stomach fall entirely away. I feel dizzy, discombobulated, as lost as the man on stage.

But what’s really there beyond the trickery? Is it, I ask myself, just a load of superficially clever posturing dressed up in the kind of pulse-raising stagecraft that makes me go giddy? There are definitely bits of YOUARENOWHERE that feel like the “gobbets” Irwin encourages the Oxbridge hopefuls to use in The History Boys: chunks of borrowed cleverness, plundered with little care for their origins. And yet. Whether it’s the startling precision of Schneider’s staging or the cumulative effect of the show’s snippets of physics and philosophy (most likely both), something about YOUARENOWHERE lingers. Days later, its echoes still intermittently rupture the rhythms of the day like a shiver down the spine – or, perhaps, like the unnerving feeling that I’ve been here before.

Presented by Shoreditch Town Hall, Gate Theatre, Notting Hill and LIFT. Part of LIFT 2016.

 

 

Can I Start Again Please, Battersea Arts Centre

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This is a translation. An approximation of one language in another. A transformation from idiom to idiom. It’s important that you know that.

Translation is at the heart of Can I Start Again Please. Sue MacLaine’s show unfolds in two languages simultaneously: English and British Sign Language. MacLaine speaks aloud and her fellow performer Nadia Nadarajah translates, or vice versa. But meaning and language are slippery things. At times, the two different versions seem to slide away from one another. Ideas are lost in translation. Things are left unsaid.

This is no abstract meditation on the fallibility of language(s), though. This translation and mistranslation is a metaphor – a flawed one, because all metaphors (like all words) are imprecise – for an experience that tests the limits of the speakable. Subtly and painfully woven through the piece, in phrases with ugly submerged meanings, is MacLaine’s childhood experience of sexual abuse. Questioning what language can and can’t communicate, along with the consequences and costs of silence, abuse is a constant but rarely explicit presence, haunting the piece with quiet horror.

Throughout, both the limits and the power of language are made apparent. Certain phrases imply its legal force and manipulative violence, while others reveal it as insubstantial and insufficient. Echoes of trauma and interrogation resonate in seemingly innocuous sentences; the slipperiness of memory is reflected in the slipperiness of the words we use to retrieve it. MacLaine also reinforces the importance of context and patterns, reminding us that humans are ultimately meaning makers. How, though, to ensure that the meaning intended is the meaning received?

These are questions that also speak powerfully to theatre, and Can I Start Again Please is always aware of and sensitive to its medium. The two performers play with our quiet and sometimes complicit co-presence, asking the audience questions that we are not sure whether we should attempt to answer. And while it is largely a still, fairly static piece, there is nonetheless a certain theatricality to its staging. Both MacLaine and Nadarajah wear long, flowing dresses, suggestive of the epic or mythic, and repeat a series of ritualistic actions: the ringing of bells, the holding up of signs, the unfurling of paper. Gesture, meanwhile, becomes a doubled language: both the BSL translation and a form of wordless choreography.

The other thing that leaps out from the staging is the script or score that MacLaine and Nadarajah move smoothly across their laps as they perform. We can’t see its contents, but it acts as a further referent – suggestive perhaps of a legal transcript, as well as of a text for performance. It raises further questions of “truth” and “fidelity” (cautiously enclosed within quotation marks), as pages are seemingly skipped past or tossed aside. Which script is being followed (or not followed)?

Tim Crouch (with whom MacLaine has worked in the past) describes words as “the ultimate conceptual art form”. They are both labels pointing to different concepts and concepts in themselves. But words can be detached from the concepts and things they signify. As MacLaine discovers, lamps can be un-lamped, words unmoored from their meanings. Say any word enough times and it echoes with its own emptiness.

Threaded through it all is philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in particular his famous phrase “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. This idea, like everything else, is prodded and pummelled over the course of the show. In many circumstances, there is only silence, but silence – and this point is powerfully made – is not the same as consent. And words may fail, but still they remain the imperfect tools with which we attempt to make ourselves heard. Can I Start Again Please asks us, more than anything, to listen.

Photo: Matthew Andrews.

Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court

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In Katie Mitchell’s bleak re-centring of Hamlet, Ophelia is sinking from the start. Before we even see her, projected text and a voiceover tell us about the first of five stages of drowning. And when we do see her, she’s dragged under the waters of misogyny, submerged beneath layer upon layer of clothing. Thrash as she might, there’s no way back to the surface.

There’s a brutal inexorability to Ophelias Zimmer. For a start, we know where this is heading. Mitchell’s piece, created in close collaboration with writer Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford, trades heavily on its audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s play. From the moment the house lights go down, we’re anticipating Ophelia’s madness and watery death. More than that, though, inexorability is built into the very structure of Ophelias Zimmer. It plods, slowly, deliberately and relentlessly, towards its inevitable conclusion.

As the title suggests, the entire action (or inaction) of the piece is confined to Ophelia’s bedroom. The events of Hamlet, plotted out meticulously according to the play, all occur around this peripheral point. Most of the time, though, we watch the deadening routine of Ophelia’s life. She gets up, goes for a walk, reads and sews. Flowers arrive every day, every day tossed straight into the bin. Letters – or, as they are reimagined here, cassette tapes – arrive from Hamlet and are listened to, fast-forwarded and rewinded. An occasional cry of “Ophelia” summons her out of the room.

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This is choreographed boredom. Tedium distilled. Each scene change, each jump forwards in time, is signalled with a ping as horrible and relentless as the bells that heralded torture in Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. Through it all, Jenny Konig’s Ophelia stares out with a chilling blankness, movements as controlled as the routine that dictates her quiet, contained life. She seems to be obeying the instructions of the intermittent voiceover we assume to be her dead mother, making herself as invisible and inaudible as possible in this rigidly patriarchal world.

Ophelia might be moved to the centre of the narrative, then, but Mitchell pointedly does not offer her a voice within it. As in Hamlet itself, she barely utters a sound. And when she does speak, her words are more habit than expression. “The flowers again,” she dully intones each morning as the maid brings in a new vase. While Hamlet might be robbed of his soliloquies (in a rare touch of humour, Ophelia cuts off his “to be or not to be” by promptly pressing the fast-forward button on her cassette player), Ophelia gets none of her own. Instead, she is confined to a disturbing silence that speaks deafeningly of the misogynistic world of Shakespeare’s play.

But can Ophelias Zimmer really be thought of as a feminist re-framing of Hamlet? It certainly reveals what Mitchell sees as the horrific treatment of Ophelia, including by Hamlet, exposing the careless misogyny of a character who is enshrined at the heart of the dramatic canon and with whom we are so often asked to sympathise. Yet still it restricts Ophelia to quiet, helpless misery, giving her no more agency than she has in Shakespeare’s telling. The whole narrative of the show, meanwhile, is structured around Hamlet and its controlling cast of men. Shakespeare’s play is the scaffolding holding up this piece, its male characters dominating from offstage with their comings and goings and shouted demands.

Hamlet himself is imagined by Mitchell and co as a brooding, moody narcissist, clad in black and wrapped up in his own worries. His messages to Ophelia, progressing from romantic cliché to sexually explicit plea to expletive-filled abuse, are all ultimately about him – his desire, his pain. On one of the few occasions when we actually see him, he bursts into Ophelia’s room brandishing a Joy Division record. He then goes on to play and dance to the soundtrack of his own suffering, wilfully ignorant of Ophelia’s.

Wildly thrashing his limbs to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Renato Schuch’s Hamlet invites an immediate comparison with Ian Curtis, a man tragically obsessed with death and determined to inhabit his own myth, even to the extent of his own destruction. But every act of destruction has its accidental victims, its civilian casualties, of which Ophelia is one. This is Hamlet as careless egotist, focused on his own meandering path to revenge at the expense of all others around him. While he dances, lost in indulging his own emotions, Ophelia sits in a chair and sobs.

This is one of a series of characteristically stunning theatrical moments that break up the monotony of Ophelia’s daily existence. Just as my attention threatens to drift away entirely, I find myself dragged back by a brilliant sound effect or by the slow, terrible seeping of water into the space. As ever with Mitchell’s work, there is an austere precision that can be disengaging, but as soon as one of those moments interjects I’m brought back on board, that knot in my stomach tightening again.

Immediately after the show, Tom Cornford tweeted that Ophelias Zimmer is “about the katiemitchellest thing you can imagine”. I know what he means: the horrible beauty, the compelling boredom, the pin-point precision, the intellectual rigour, the underlying queasiness, even the foley booth at one side of the stage producing the sounds that underscore Ophelia’s existence. While watching, I was reminded in particular of two other Mitchell pieces: her Schaubühne production of The Yellow Wallpaper – the claustrophobia, the mounting unease, the strange combination of boredom and nauseous tension – and the haunting video installation Five Truths.

The latter was Mitchell’s first take on Ophelia, whose madness was seen through the lenses of five twentieth century theatre practitioners: Constantin Stanislavski, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. Here, Mitchell adds her own interpretation, and it is utterly uncompromising in its starkness and tedium. I struggle with it in the moment of watching, but I am also completely convinced that this oscillation between detachment and uneasiness is exactly what I’m supposed to be feeling. This is a life and death that Mitchell is determined not to prettify or over-dramatise.

As in Five Truths, the climax of Ophelias Zimmer offers an echo of John Everett Millais’s famous painting, but with a bloody twist. In Mitchell’s version, death is not beautiful or romantic or even straightforwardly tragic; it is brutal and ugly, a violent and sudden last resort. No wonder it’s usually kept offstage.

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Wanted, West Yorkshire Playhouse

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What do you want to see on stage?

That’s the question that Chris Goode and Company asked the people of Leeds. And it seems like an apt question to kick off a weekend of looking ahead to the new, expanded incarnation of Transform, a reimagined theatre festival for the city. Transform will take its official first steps as an independent, international festival next year; over two days on 22nd-23rd April, it offered a taster of what’s to come. What better way to anticipate and develop a city-wide festival than to ask the people of that city what they actually want to see?

I was, then, immediately on board with the premise and intentions of Wanted. As invitations go, it’s full of possibility. Scrap that: it’s defined by possibility. The only limits, in theory, are the imaginations of participants and the resources of the festival. So I stepped into West Yorkshire Playhouse on the Friday night of Transform expecting to see gloriously wonky, DIY attempts to make people’s wildest dreams come true on stage. I had images in my head of papier-mâché dragons and confetti cannons and a riot of movement and colour. I was expecting, above all, something theatrical.

But what Wanted really seemed to ask (or what its participants seemed to answer) was a different question: what do you want to do/say on stage?

Though the individual three-minute segments were hugely varied, a pattern of statements emerged. Intriguingly – and somewhat surprisingly in the moment, if not so much on reflection – most of the people and organisations with whom Chris Goode and Company made the show treated this opportunity as a platform. The stage became a vehicle for causes, passions and beliefs, from world peace to the Yorkshire dialect. Wanted thus felt, in many ways, like a not-so-distant cousin of Stand, another Chris Goode and Company show about the idea of standing up for what you believe in.

So we in the audience are asked to check our privilege. We are told about the plight of Kurds in the Middle East. We learn about the work of local charities and community groups. We are urged to respect difference. Voices are given to young people with learning disabilities, to the LGBTQ community, to survivors of abuse and oppression. The theatre feels like a political chamber and the stage finally seems to boast that democracy that it so often aspires to.

Except, of course, it’s not entirely democratic. What we see in front of us has still been chosen, curated, squeezed into snug three-minute slots. It makes me want to know more about the process. How did Chris Goode and Company go about extending this invitation? Who else did they speak to? How did they decide who to include and exclude?

Then there’s the limit of those three minutes, another element (if an understandable one) of control on the part of the “professional” theatre-makers. How much can you really say or do or show in three minutes? How do you choose to use that time? And to what extent does that restriction impel or restrain the voices and creativity of those involved?

Before I misrepresent the experience, it’s not all preaching and protesting. There’s also a toddler being swung round in the air (and my God does it look fun) and a rabbit (with a case of stage fright on the night I attend) hopping around to the strains of “Bright Eyes”. There’s a woman gently, humorously remembering her trips with her late mother to the very theatre we’re sat in. There’s a David Bowie impersonator singing “Heroes”. There are kids dancing in superhero costumes. And it’s all as heart-melting and grin-making as it sounds.

But the most interesting thing about Wanted is, ultimately, the invitation issued to its participants and how they have chosen to interpret it. Does that make it any better or worse as theatre than the loveably over-ambitious, confetti-strewn extravaganza I’d constructed in my imagination? I still can’t decide.

I’ll close, instead, with some words from Chris Goode’s new book The Forest and the Field that feel particularly apt when thinking about Wanted. This passage seems, to me, to convey some of the thinking and feeling that feeds into Wanted, if not necessarily (again, for me) reflecting the reality of it as an experience. Maybe Wanted is best thought of as one inevitably flawed articulation of this understanding of theatre – one of the “pieces”, to borrow Goode’s words from elsewhere, that nod towards a whole.

“[…] at its best, you can live inside theatre, in the way that you might feel that you live inside a set of political or religious commitments: the feeling that you don’t contain such commitments – they contain you. Thus theatre becomes a way of looking at the world, a way of forming and deepening relationships, a way of connecting the intellectual and the romantic, the political and the sexual, the individual and the collective, the civic and the visionary, the present and the future. To borrow what the poet Roy Fisher said (of Birmingham): theatre’s what I think with. Seen always as a hybrid art and a social practice, theatre will expand to accommodate whatever you bring to it; everything can be taken to the work, nothing is necessarily excluded.”