I don’t want realism, I want magic

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Despite being a fully grown adult with the extreme good fortune of doing something I love for a living, there are still days when all I really want from life is to go back in time and work on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. As an awkward, bookish teenager, those movies – and slightly later on the books, in the form of a battered but beloved doorstop-sized volume passed down from my dad – meant everything to me. I spent much of the time I should have been revising for my GCSEs compulsively watching the DVD special features; my best friend and I had regular and passionate debates about who was better, Legolas or Aragorn (Team Aragorn all the way); and my bedroom was littered with dozens of carefully drawn, sub-Middle Earth maps of dreamed-up worlds for all the novels I was constantly planning (and failing) to write.

Looking back, I think it was about more than just an escapist love of fantasy and the sight of Viggo Mortensen wielding a sword (not that either of those things should be underestimated). I think it also had something to do with the idea of making something; of dreaming up an entire, meticulously constructed fictional universe (not to mention whole fucking languages), or of assembling a mind-boggling number of people in New Zealand to somehow haphazardly piece together a hugely ambitious bit of cinema. My unthinking, unprocessed reaction as a teenager was simply “I want that”. I wanted to be one of their gang. I wanted to make something.

This weekend, I said goodbye to Secret Theatre. The weekend before, some friends and I spent all of Sunday watching the extended edition Lord of the Rings DVDs back to back (that’s just under twelve quality hours in Middle Earth). And I’ve started to think that perhaps my steadfast, pulse-racing love for the two things isn’t all that different.

I can recognise that not everything about The Lord of the Rings is an unqualified triumph. The books are, if I’m entirely honest, a tad longer than they need to be. As for the films, there are plenty of moments where the pace flags; I never fail to roll my eyes at the is-this-the-end-oh-no-it-isn’t quality of The Return of the King‘s final half hour; and I remain irritated to death by Liv Tyler’s underwritten, maddeningly breathy Arwen. In fact, women in general don’t get much of a look in, an absence that isn’t made up for by Galadriel and Eowyn’s (admittedly cheering) badass moments. Similarly, at times I’ve been critical of numerous elements of the Secret Theatre project, from individual shows to its much-discussed secrecy. That doesn’t mean I’m not still bursting with love for both endeavours.

A lot has been said and written recently about fandom and tribalism. Matt Trueman followed up his column on fan culture last year with a new blog on the subject for WhatsOnStage; Megan Vaughan, whose end-of-the-year fanzine was perhaps my favourite Christmas present (it’s between that and my smoothie maker), penned a kind of parting love letter to Secret Theatre; and Stewart Pringle wrote brilliantly in praise of tribes and head-banging. Tribalism isn’t without its problems, particularly in the small world of theatre. At times it can be blinkered and exclusive, stoking the idea that the art form is the realm of an elite few. But I find myself agreeing with Dan Hutton, in yet another piece on Secret Theatre, that “we need some fucking tribalism now and again”.

Tribalism creates allegiances, it makes you feel part of a community, it means that you have something at stake. When you have something at stake, you can’t just shrug off the disappointment of a Show 6 (I can’t quite pin down why, but it just didn’t work for me) or the anticipatory dread of what look like mediocre, money-spinning prequels (I still can’t quite bring myself to watch the Hobbit films for fear that it’s going to be Star Wars all over again; a girl can’t cope with that kind of heartbreak twice in a lifetime). And as unfashionable as it may be for a critic to be anything approaching a “fan”, if nothing’s at stake then what’s the point?

I’ve just finished reading Hatchet Job, Mark Kermode’s latest book, and while it isn’t about to shatter the foundations of how I think about criticism, it does prompt a refreshing rethink of why on earth any of us bother doing it – not to mention offering a lesson (as most of Kermode’s writing does) on how to be at once entertaining, intelligent and accessible. Though nominally about the cruel pleasure of the scathing critical attack, Kermode’s book is drenched in a sincere and at times unapologetically sentimental love of the art form he writes about. He’s a fan in the true sense of the word, someone who melts at the memory of his favourite films and weeps for days after rediscovering a bit of beloved celluloid that he thought had been lost. At that point I wanted to reach through the pages and hold his hand, or at least say “I know. I know.”

Revisiting my two favourite Secret Theatre shows – A Streetcar Named Desire and A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – yesterday felt a bit like that. I hadn’t seen Streetcar since it was first staged by the company, right at the beginning of their journey together, and coming back to it was like greeting an old friend: discovering that you’ve both changed a bit, but that what you have is even better than you remembered. After all that time on tour refining and inhabiting it, the production just feels that bit more confident and that bit less in the hulking shadow of Three Kingdoms. Things that I liked first time round I loved on a second viewing: the coloured lights, the balloons, the sexy blasts of music. Also, who needs Gillian Anderson when you have Nadia Albina? I seriously doubt I’ll ever see a better or more heartbreaking Blanche.

Then there’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. Deep breath. I’ve adored this show from the start and probably went from critic to ardent fan from the point at which Leo Bill’s name was pulled out of the hat the second time I saw it and I did an involuntary fist-pump, swiftly sacrificing any last shred of professionalism. Yesterday was my fifth time and, rather aptly, Leo was once again the protagonist. So what do I love so much about it? Too many things to list here. But I think the “Proud Mary” moment kind of sums it up. It’s a scene of such bittersweet joy and exhaustion and community and love and sheer, fleeting ecstasy that it manages to capture a whole kaleidoscope of emotion in one brilliantly silly dance. Last night I spent the whole thing with my face stretched in a smile so wide it forbid the tears that sat poised in my eyes, a deluge just waiting to be unleashed.

We try and fail and try and fail and try and fail again. But still we dance. (*wipes tears from eyes*)

If teenage me could have seen Secret Theatre, maybe I would have spent those clumsy, formative years following the company on tour, making bad devised theatre with my mates and agonising over who was my favourite between Leo and Sergo (undoubtedly a much harder choice than that between Aragorn and one-facial-expression Legolas). And I really, really hope that thanks to Secret Theatre’s ballsy, glorious, messy existence there’s at least one teenager out there who’s caught that bug, who wants to be part of that gang, who wants to make something. Even if, as a fully grown adult aching with nostalgia, she only ends up writing about it.

All together now …

Destruction and Renewal


Originally written for Exeunt.

A cacophony of voices drowning each other out. A pulverised culture retelling its stories. An ear-splitting scream of sound. A beautiful howl of despair. A giant subterranean drain. A devastating downpour of blood. Oddly, sounds and images of destruction dominate a year that has been characterised – theatrically if not otherwise – by reinvigoration and renewal. Often the most thrilling theatre I’ve happened to experience has also been the bleakest in its take on where we are right now.

Pomona, with its stark diagnosis that “everything bad is real”, epitomises this strand of shows. Alistair McDowall’s Escher staircase of a play was exhilarating, it was intelligent, and it was pitch black in its outlook on the modern world. Sending a violent jolt through the Orange Tree Theatre, it dazzled with both its ambition and its swirling mind-fuck of a plot, tangling up fiction and reality in a way that was at once disorientating and unsettlingly familiar. Here was a dystopia of a distinctly uncanny flavour.

The dark undertones of Pomona echoed a mood that had already established its hold on the year’s theatre. In The Body of an American – an early highlight of my theatregoing year at the Gate – the devastation was found in faraway warzones and much closer to home. Alice Birch’s blistering Revolt. She said. Revolt again. ripped up both patriarchy and the rulebook, suggesting flawed and angry responses to a broken world. And two parts of the great “Chris Trilogy” (completed by Chris Thorpe’s knotty Confirmation), the beautifully furious Men in the Cities by Chris Goode and Chris Brett Bailey’s mind-blowing, eardrum-destroying This Is How We Die, offered two different but equally excoriating critiques of late capitalism.

Then there’s master of bleakness Beckett, whose swirling, cyclical monologue Not I – most famously performed by the late great Billie Whitelaw – was given a mesmerising (and astonishingly speedy) new rendition by Lisa Dwan at the Royal Court at the beginning of the year.

While much of the new work I saw in the last 12 months was unsurprisingly shadowed by dismal visions of the world, the attitude also stretched into some of the year’s best revivals. Ivo van Hove’s production of A View From The Bridge scratched decades of dust and school assignments off Arthur Miller’s 20th-century classic, transforming it into a muscle-clenchingly tense tragedy, Jan Versweyveld’s black and grey design matching the gloom of its dramatic atmosphere. Katie Mitchell’s version of The Cherry Orchard – paired with a scrape-your-jaw-off-the-floor gorgeous design by Vicki Mortimer – was exquisite in its quickening decay. And two Ibsen productions at the Barbican – Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People and Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck – wrenched the playwright’s work devastatingly into the 21st-century.

Another of 2014′s great revivals was Our Town at the Almeida, in a US-imported production from David Cromer. It arrived billed as a bold reimagining, but much of what made it work was – apart from the stunning final reveal – determinedly ordinary. Thornton Wilder’s characters appeared to us as unremarkable yet remarkably real, making their everyday sufferings all the more heartbreaking. There was a similar sort of quality to Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto, a play that made a quiet art out of conversation. Both productions gently asked us to pay attention.

Other shows demanded the attention of their audiences rather more forcefully. Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No 7, visiting the Barbican as part of this year’s LIFT, had me from the first of its giddying procession of images. The same director’s wonky take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perhaps not as beautiful to look at, but just as enchanting, capturing something of the strange alchemy of theatre. In the National Theatre’s newly reopened Dorfman (i.e. the theatre formerly known as the Cottesloe), meanwhile, glittering new musical Here Lies Love relentlessly swept me along with it even in its naffest moments. Most recently – and in spite of its flaws – the dazzling to look at Golem made me understand all the fuss around 1927′s wittily precise animation.

One of the aesthetic offspring of 1927 is Kill the Beast, a company who marry visual detail with grotesque narrative flair. This year their latest show, He Had Hairy Hands, had me roaring along twice to its tale of werewolves, cops and arse-kicking monster hunters, as well as offering hands down the best gag of the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s also up there grappling for most jofyul theatregoing experience of the year, in a close-fought tussle with Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. The latter just about snags the prize, stealing my heart over and over with its flailing hopefulness – and its joy-drenched rendition of “Proud Mary”.

A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is also, in part, about how we tell stories. There were lots of stories about stories this year. Coincidentally running at the same time, Mr Burns at the Almeida imagined how our culture might be passed on after a future apocalypse, while Ellen McDougall’s production of Idomeneus playfully traced the same process of narration and mutation over previous centuries. The dangers of narrative appropriation were disturbingly outlined in Tim Crouch’s multi-layered, head-scratching Adler & Gibb; in Wot? No Fish!!, storytelling was a simple source of charm and love.

Along with all the theatre that filled me with joy, plenty that I saw this year also left me filled with tears. Spine‘s double-whammy of the personally and politically emotive forced those tears to spill over, as did James “the vacuum cleaner” Leadbitter’s overwhelmingly intimate Mental. After the small but exquisite experience of Greg Wohead’s headphone piece Hurtling, I walked the streets of Edinburgh with heart thumping and eyes stinging; ditto Hug, Verity Standen’s “immersive choral sound bath” (there’s really no better way to describe it than she does). Then there was Kim Noble’s brash but bruised You’re Not Alone, which took a long time to relinquish its haunting hold.

Elsewhere it was the lulz that stayed with me. That giant ballpond and the IRL memes in Teh Internet is Serious Business. The smart silliness of funny women Sh!t Theatre and Figs in Wigs, turning their humour to Big Pharma and online narcissism respectively. The funny-sad sequence of cheesy song lyrics in RashDash’s Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered. The sheer joy of watching Jamie Wood and Tom Lyall clown around with what appeared to be an alien haggis in Chris Goode’s remounted Longwave. Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner being punk rockers in their pants in Am I Dead Yet? (the most funny-yet-thoughtful show you’re likely to see about kicking the bucket).

With the requisite predictability of the end-of-year round-up, no survey of 2014′s theatre can seem to get away without a mention of King Charles III. Mike Bartlett’s concept – a future history play in iambic pentameter – sounded like a potential disaster, but turned out to be a slice of genius. It was thoughtful, it was witty, and it was as much about our theatrical heritage as it was about the traditions of monarchy. And to top it all off, it was designed by the brilliant Tom Scutt, who once again came up with one of the designs of the year with his dizzying visual concept for the Nuffield Theatre’s excellent revival of A Number.

Now from the big to the small. I’m still unapologetically head over heels for one of the most intimate shows I saw this year: Andy Field and Ira Brand’s fragile, heart-fluttering put your sweet hand in mine. Seating its audience in almost uncomfortable proximity to one another and to the two performers, it gently prodded at closeness and distance and love in all its different forms. Just gorgeous.

Also small – in staging if not in ideas – was Barrel Organ’s debut show Nothing. This series of intertwined monologues, performed in a newly improvised order each night with no set or props, was just as bleak in its way as some of the year’s more explicitly dark offerings. For a confused 20-something, it also terrifyingly captured the anger, uncertainty and disconnection of a whole generation. It feels like one of the real discoveries of the year, as does Chewing the Fat, Selina Thompson’s glittery but difficult look at weight and body image.

After opening with destruction, I want to end on a slightly more hopeful note. For all the darkness and devastation, few pieces of theatre have stayed with me quite so insistently as Duncan Macmillan’s not-quite-monologue Every Brilliant Thing, which was indeed brilliant. For once, cliched claims of “it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you laugh” were entirely justified, as I giggled and sobbed – sometimes at the same time – throughout.

Quite how a show about suicidal depression can be so life-affirming I’m still trying to fathom. It probably has a lot to do with the irresistible warmth of performer Jonny Donahoe, without whom I suspect it wouldn’t be half as good. But it also plays, as many of the best shows of the year have done, to theatre’s strengths: the unpredictability of live performance, the thrill of proximity, the possibilities of all being together, now, in the same space. Here’s to more of the same in 2015.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.