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.

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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.

Gaudete, Lowry

Originally written for Exeunt.

Adaptation can be a counterintuitive thing: often, what’s vivid on the page falls flat on the stage. Ted Hughes’ strange prose poem Gaudete was originally conceived as an idea for a film, and its cinematic scope and punctuating moments of high drama make it an intriguing candidate for theatrical reimagining. Theatre company OBRA, though, struggle to animate it in its new setting. Linguistic flourishes fail to transform into dramatic ones.

Like the changeling who replaces the vicar of a seemingly ordinary Yorkshire village in Hughes’ narrative, OBRA’s adaptation is not quite what it strives to be. It wears the clothes of theatre, but it belongs to another place, its limbs composed of poetry just as the changeling’s are made of wood. Neither entirely fits in the world in which it finds itself.

At the centre of Gaudete is Nicholas Lumb, an Anglican clergyman who finds himself abducted by capricious spirits. In his place, the spirits dump a duplicate fashioned from wood, whom we are told interprets the word of the Bible in his own, “log-like” way. This changeling understands Christian compassion as carnal love, swiftly going about impregnating the women of the village and leaving chaos in his wake.

OBRA tell this bizarre story through a combination of Hughes’ text and their own physicality. Against a bare backdrop, the ensemble of eight use their bodies as vehicles for the narrative, conveying everything from raging bulls to grasping corpses. In the absence of set, meanwhile, Yves Marie Corfa’s lighting dissects the stage with surgeon-like precision. Often, pools of light isolate figures in darkness, showing them alone and lost in the huge, bewildering cosmos.

There’s no doubting the commitment and athleticism of the ensemble, but the movement itself is often repetitive, relying on familiar reaching and falling actions during sequences of dramatic action. The choreography oscillates between two modes: small, quiet, contained movements and crescendos of hellish activity. Each of these can be effective in isolation, but the lack of variety makes for a slightly laborious experience.

Laboured, too, is the pace of the show. OBRA take a risk by mirroring the structure of Hughes’ work in their dramaturgy: the first half, at a relatively swift 45 minutes, offers us the ‘Prologue’, while the meat of the narrative is saved for the further two hours that follow the interval. It’s a daring choice, but it doesn’t quite pay off. While the initial post-interval switch from dynamic group narration to small vignettes of village life is striking, the subsequent shifts in tone are handled clumsily, failing to sustain a sense of driving momentum towards the final, grisly events.

OBRA’s approach is most evocative when conjuring the small oddities of the everyday. The company offer exquisitely detailed little portraits of Hughes’ ruffled villagers: the doctor’s wife sucking nervously on her cigarette, or the row of drinkers gossiping at the local pub. I find myself more interested in these ordinary patterns of the worldly, beneath which lurks something indefinably unsettling, than in the jolting lurches into the other-worldly.

Other flaws also niggle. There’s something uncomfortable about the pliancy of the female villagers, all of whom surrender, trembling, to Lumb’s new version of the word of God. Far from problematising this aspect of Hughes’ story, OBRA’s physical interpretation renders the female characters visibly malleable. Their bodies bend and sway under Lumb’s influence, while one troubling sequence shows us an unnecessarily extended scene of domestic abuse.

The main problem with the piece as a whole, though, is its awkward marriage of text and physicality. Much of Hughes’ language is simply preserved, rather than adapted, while its presence on stage is sharply separated from the show’s physical vocabulary. In the second half in particular, most of the words reach us via voiceover, playing over the onstage actions of the ensemble. These disembodied voices can enhance the sometimes hypnotic mood of the performance, but more often they’re simply distancing. At its best, the experience of reading poetry is an enveloping one. But watching OBRA’s adaptation, I never feel truly immersed.

Cock and Bull, Royal Exchange

Originally written for Exeunt.

Some pieces of art get overtaken by events. Some events get overtaken by pieces of art. Cock and Bull is that odd, rare thing: a show that feels at once current and prescient. It’s a thing of then and now and whatever the hell might be next.

Cock and Bull was made almost two years ago, on the eve of the General Election. It’s been performed in anticipation of that vote, in its aftermath, and in the wake of a series of subsequent political shocks. As Rosana Cade notes at the opening of the show, tones already as politician-slick as her suit, this is a piece of performance that seems to resonate beyond its immediate context.

That’s an understatement.

Cade is soon joined on stage by fellow performers and co-creators Nic Green and Laura Bradshaw. All three are in identical suits with identical gold hands and identical gold mouths. And when I say gold, I mean gold. Think woman-on-the-bed-in-Goldfinger gold. Shimmering, uncanny, this golder-than-gold paint makes strange the organs of communication. Later, it rubs off on clothes and skin, leaving grubby, oily marks.

The action of the whole performance is one of making strange. Political discourse and its accompanying gestural language are distorted, viewed as if through one of those fun house mirrors. The three performers slow it down, set it to new rhythms, repeat it to the point of exhaustion. The words of men (because politics is still depressingly male-dominated) and the markers of masculinity are appropriated by three women, whose female bodies are both controlled and freed.

The repetition of key political phrases (“hard working people”, “people who work hard”) can be deadening, but that’s the point. The words are wrung of meaning, scrubbed free of sense or significance. It’s like that trick where you say a word aloud so many times that it sounds strange on your own lips, no longer a word but a mere noise. These soundbites, wheeled out by one political leader after another, are meaningless, empty, hollow.

From within these repeated rhythms, the odd word or phrase burps out: “families”; “calm down, dear”; “pistons firing in all parts of our economy”. And there are some blurted additions, sparing but powerful: David Cameron’s little “dum-de-dum” after stepping down as prime minister; Donald Trump’s infamous “grab ’em by the pussy”.

Meanwhile the sharp, precisely choreographed movement slowly morphs from the punctuating gestures of political speechifying – an emphatic fist here, an awkward thumbs-up there – to something more abstract. Elbows shove outwards on the beats of “hard working”, a visual representation of individualistic competition. Bodies roll and loll, buffeted by the fickle storms of political rhetoric.

“Hard”, goes the main refrain. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard. Hard as in “hard working people”, but also hard as in difficult, hard as in effort. The three women run on the spot, fling their limbs through space, fall to the floor. It looks fucking exhausting. It can be exhausting to watch at times, too, as the same movements and words are replayed over and over and over, changing infinitesimally.

The energy required of spectators is more than worth it, though. Dramaturgically, Cock and Bull is a rigorously honed machine. It begins small and quiet and dangerously close to dull, unafraid to take its time and place its beats precisely. But then it builds and builds, finally spilling out into a sequence of grotesque yet glorious excess. And after the blow-out, the mess and exhaustion. After the self-obsessed outrageousness of machismo extremes, an affecting assertion of womanhood and community.

Cock and Bull feels, in the end, like a ritual of collective catharsis, or a painful exorcism as a prelude to resistance. And as the threats of Cameron and Osborne have been surpassed by those of Trump and Bannon, it strikes me as more necessary than ever.

Funny Girl, Palace Theatre Manchester

Originally written for the Guardian.

That’s where I live, on stage,” says Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice. In this knowingly theatrical revival of Funny Girl, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, it’s easy to believe her. Michael Pavelka’s set frames the Broadway star inside an ever-present, tilted proscenium arch – the wonky mirror image of the one at the Palace theatre. The suggestion is that she’s surrounded by audiences on both sides, forever the performer.

Back in the role of Fanny for the first leg of a UK tour, after a celebrated West End run interrupted by absences due to stress and exhaustion, Smith is showbusiness incarnate. In her hands, the lively Brooklyn joker is an intricate tangle of competing emotions, all covered up with a big, bright, Broadway smile. One moment, she’s pulling an impressively elastic series of funny faces. The next, she’s singing a feeling-drenched rendition of People, tears cascading down her cheeks.

For rising vaudeville star Fanny, comedy is a mask and entertaining the audience is a way to deny personal pain. Even with tears in her eyes, Smith is ready with a grin and a wink for the stalls, pointedly making a performance out of Fanny’s real life. Whether stinging from rejection or overwhelmed by lust, this leading lady always has an aside for the punters.

Overcoming the towering memory of Barbra Streisand in the central role is no mean feat. Smith, though, proves herself more than capable of matching Streisand’s physical comedy and belting vocals, without it ever feeling as though she’s attempting to replicate her famous predecessor. The songs, in particular, Smith makes entirely her own, rippling Styne’s well-known melodies with raw emotion. Don’t Rain on My Parade is more grit than brass; People aches with quiet longing; Who Are You Now? is peppered with painful sighs. In spite of all her passionate feeling, though, this ambitious star-in-waiting has a spine of pure steel. No one would dare to rain on her parade.

Chris Peluso is less convincing as Nick Arnstein, the object of Fanny’s endearingly dorky, weak-at-the-knees adoration. The fact that her star eclipses his is central to the story of their rocky relationship, but Peluso lacks the necessary charisma to persuade us that Fanny would ever swoon quite so helplessly in his arms. It doesn’t help that his pathetic wail that Fanny is “choking” him with her talent and wealth has aged badly. As a result, his side of the story feels lacklustre in comparison with Fanny’s determined rise to fame. But then again, this musical was always about its heroine.

The staging has the same delicious silliness as Fanny’s Ziegfeld Follies acts, with members of the ensemble regularly pirouetting in from the wings carrying bits of scenery. Director Michael Mayer’s production, like its heroine, never takes itself too seriously. Likewise, Lynne Page’s choreography tickles more than it dazzles, the exaggerated leaps and twirls gleefully embracing the humour of the show.

Ultimately, though, this is all just dressing for the title role in a bio-musical that puts Brice’s talents centre stage. Taking on this part, Smith convincingly stakes her own claim to Fanny’s driving desire: to be, as her first big number declares, “the greatest star”. The action and peripheral characters might sometimes fail to compel, but Smith is never less than astonishing.

Photo: Johan Persson.