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.

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Give Me Your Love, Battersea Arts Centre

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There’s a fantastic image at the centre of Ridiculusmus’s new show. The sort of image that epitomises the entire piece. The sort of image that says more than any volume of words. The sort of image that sticks firmly to the retina, refusing to be shaken off.

A man is inside a cardboard box. To begin with, the box engulfs him whole. Later, more of his body appears: a pair of legs, a finger, the glow of his smartphone beginning to suggest an outline. But he’s never more than a limb here or there, a voice disconnected from its source. He remains hidden – or perhaps hiding.

The man inside the box is Zach, a Welsh war veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The box – huge and battered – is both a coping mechanism and a visual manifestation of the mental state he carries around with him. He seeks shelter from the outside world, retreating until he’s trapped within the four stifling walls of his own mind.

Trouble is, that simple image is so powerful that the show itself struggles to move beyond it. Visually, the dismal landscape of PTSD is established within moments of the show starting. As Zach, David Woods sits curled up in his box, the room around him grubby, colourless and bare. There’s a gloomy austerity – both material and emotional – to the set design that Jacob Williams has created. The resonances with Zach’s state of mind don’t need pointing out.

Everything that takes place around and within that image, though, runs the risk of obfuscating its potent clarity. What plot there is centres around MDMA-assisted therapy – a genuine treatment under trial for patients with PTSD, and one that Ridiculusmus seeks to dispel the stigma around. Zach hears about the trials via his mate Ieuan, who later comes by with some MDMA that he’s managed to get hold of and attempts to clumsily replicate the therapy process. Let’s say it doesn’t entirely go to plan.

Give Me Your Love is the second in a trilogy of Ridiculusmus shows exploring innovative approaches to mental health, following 2014’s striking The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. Both shows are theatre of images and impressions. The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland used its form to suggest the experience of psychosis, layering two halves on top of one another and exposing each section of the separated audience to echoes from the other side of the performance. Give Me Your Love is similarly fragmented and similarly baffling – as fragmented and baffling, presumably, as the mental states it is attempting to evoke.

Here, though, that deliberate confusion is less productive. Give Me Your Love does not feel as fully formed or conceptually satisfying as its predecessor. Instead, it is often strangely disengaging. In a way, this is apt. Zach is a man cut off from the world; disconnection is a running thread through the piece. With the exception of one wordless, physical sequence, we never see anyone’s face. Zach is just a pair of legs in green trainers. Playing both Ieuan and Zach’s wife Carol, Jon Haynes is either an arm reaching through a door or a disembodied voice from offstage.

Laughter, meanwhile, is an intermittent and uncertain presence in the show. In keeping with Ridiculusmus’s brand of “seriously funny” theatre, comedy is frequently used in service of the company’s difficult themes, but the hints of farce throughout Zach and Ieuan’s meandering, drawn-out exchange undercut the stark visuals in a way that is as often clunky as it is poignant. And the loose connections suggested between the noise and confusion of ecstasy-fuelled club culture and the noise and confusion of war, forcefully introduced in an early interlude of thumping music and throbbing lights, are never really developed.

In the latter stages of Give Me Your Love, challenged to get out of his box, Zach retorts: “get out of whatever you’re in”. Ridiculusmus want us to get out of our own boxes and open our minds – both in our approaches to mental health and in our approaches to treatment. Whether their approach really opens up this issue or simply clouds it, though, is a question mark that troublingly lingers.

Deborah Pearson

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Deborah Pearson and I are out of time with one another. As our emails ping back and forth, Pearson is in Toronto, Canada, four hours behind me in London. Our attempted interviews are a series of near misses. Eventually, Pearson responds to my questions by email, composing answers in the present for me to read in the future. Time, aptly enough, keeps (or, rather, kept) getting in the way.

Time is a recurring interest in Pearson’s work. Like You Were Before, made in 2010, was built around a video taken on Pearson’s last day in her native Canada five years previously, exploring the gap between her past and present selves. She’s returning to it at Battersea Arts Centre another five years on, with a further gulf of time between all these different versions of herself: the person in the video, the person who made the show, and the person performing it now. After looking backwards in that earlier piece, The Future Show (also returning to BAC this week) directed its attention in the opposite direction. Each fresh incarnation of the performance – rewritten every time – made predictions about the coming minutes, hours and years, looking ahead to the rest of Pearson’s life. And this summer at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh I saw a work-in-progress of Pearson’s latest show, History History History, again concerned with time but this time on a larger – if still personal – scale, exploring all the past events that led to Pearson being here (or rather there, in Toronto, when we speak; or perhaps London or somewhere else entirely by the time you read this) today.

“It’s the thing you can always come back to with an audience,” suggests Pearson, pinning down theatre’s particular affinity with this subject matter. “You are here, and I am here, and we will soon not be here. ‘Here’ being in the theatre together, but of course that also leads on to that eventuality of the bigger ‘here’ – meaning that a lot of work about time ends up becoming about mortality. That should be depressing but it’s actually what makes theatre thrilling I think. The defiance of that eventuality – the decision to sit in a room together while we’re alive and sit, or be bored, or be entertained, but just to share the fact that we are all here together now. It’s such a beautiful defiance and acknowledgement of the passing of time that it always seems a shame to me not to take a moment, while performing, to point it out or remind ourselves of it.”

Over email (speaking to me from a different time zone in the recent past), Pearson wonders whether her fascination with time is born out of her current doctoral research, which is investigating narrative in contemporary performance. “One definition of narrative that I came across somewhere was that narrative is the way that we make sense of our experiences over time,” she tells me. But the interest also goes back much further. “One of my mom’s favourite memories of me as a child is of me telling her, when I was about five years old, that I wished we could all stay the same age forever,” says Pearson. “That nobody in our lives or family would ever get any older or would ever die.”

“There’s a quote by a poet that I really like,” she continues, “which is something about how ‘I keep writing the same poem over and over, just trying to get it right.’ It’s funny – a lot of my work was about memory and nostalgia when I first started out, and then after making Like You Were Before, I didn’t necessarily feel I had definitively gotten it right, but I did feel that I’d gone as far with memory and nostalgia as I wanted to go. I felt that I had kind of internally resolved it as a theme for myself. Then The Future Show came along and it turned out that there was another aspect of time – which I suppose was to do with our orientation in time, and anxiety, and the unknown, that started to really interest me. Then I thought I was finally done with time. But my newest piece that opens next year, History History History, is about our personal relationship to history. So I guess I’m never done with time. It is the most universal theme, I think. It is the one thing that we’re all subject to, that we’re all at the behest of. Whether or not you fear for your own mortality, we are all on this merry go round made of time together.”

There’s also something particular about time, and our changing relationship to it, in the twenty-first century. We’re living in an age in which everything is speeded up and – thanks to the internet and cheap, fast air travel – time and space have become compressed. The emphasis is on the now. “Fredric Jameson talks about the end of historicity in his recent lectures,” says Pearson. “He claims that we’re living through a time where there is no past and certainly no future. We are obsessed with the momentary.” While Pearson has her doubts about some of Jameson’s claims – “it could also be that Jameson is just getting old and nearing the end of his own life” – she thinks “it would be difficult to argue that using the internet as frequently as most people do is not having a profound impact on our understanding of time and on our attention spans”. By comparison, theatre is a slow form in a fast world, forcing us to experience the slipping away of the minutes without the distraction of multiple devices or browser windows.

Over the years, time has also had its effect on how Pearson understands (and will understand) the shows she’s made about its passing. “When people asked what Like You Were Before was about, I used to say that it was about the maddening fact that time keeps going. But having just started dipping my toe into re-learning the script and the show, I think what it’s really about is mourning the passing of a time and place in one’s life – the end of an era, that is only really recognised as an era at all because it ended.” Meanwhile The Future Show has, like all one-time possible futures, become a thing of the past.

“I had to stop re-writing The Future Show,” Pearson explains, “because, just as I had predicted in an early version of the script, it made my obsessive compulsive disorder worse and would give me anxiety about ridiculous things. At some point it was clear that the task of rewriting The Future Show was as unhealthy for me as it was interesting for an audience, and sometimes more unhealthy for me than it was interesting for an audience.” The version coming to BAC, then, is a mix-tape of different imagined futures from the show’s 27 past performances. Reflecting on the show’s life since it was first created in January 2013, Pearson comments that “it does something very strange to one psychologically to have painstakingly thought through all your future actions on that many occasions”.

Following the compilation shows at BAC, The Future Show’s next (and possibly final) outing will be on the page, a medium that – unlike theatre – allows readers to encounter it in multiple different, idiosyncratic parcels of time. This month, Oberon Books are publishing a volume containing a “score” for the piece and past scripts of The Future Show from three different performances in three different time zones: Brighton, Lisbon and Austin, Texas. It’s the latest experiment with the subject that continues to niggle away at Pearson. “I’m really interested in knowing how the scripts are going to work in this form, and whether or not they can give a casual reader who hasn’t seen the show a sense of it,” she says (or rather said, at her computer in Toronto, from a different time zone in the recent past). “I guess time will tell.”

Oxford’s everyday activists inspire audiences

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Oxford’s residents have a history of taking a stand. Over the years the city has been home to the likes of Emily Wilding Davison, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Tony Benn and John Ruskin. During the English civil war, it had associations with the radical Levellers movement, two of whose members were executed near Gloucester Green. The city’s Ruskin College has long been a symbol of workers’ education, as well as hosting the inaugural Women’s Liberation Movement conference in 1970. But as Oxford celebrated its radical history last year, theatre-maker Chris Goode and the Oxford Playhouse were more interested in what it means to be radical today.

Commissioned for the Playhouse’s Radical Thinking season, the show Stand – now on at Battersea Arts Centre in London – celebrates the ordinary and extraordinary ways in which local people are standing up for what they believe in. For some, that means activism in a familiar form: campaigning, demonstrations, occupations. For others, it’s simply about being a parent. In the show, Goode has captured and told six of these stories.

The Oxford Playhouse asked its community a simple question: when was a moment you stood up for something you believe in? “I feel like the callout set the bar quite high,” Goode reflects. “There’s something nicely self-selecting about it, because it means that the people who want to talk really want to talk.” Having chosen his six storytellers, Goode interviewed them all over a couple of weeks, gathering the material that would later be performed by his cast of six actors.

The stories they found were as varied as the people sharing them. There’s a climate campaigner, a woman who works with refugees, a mother, an activist who campaigned to save the alternative community at Oxford’s Jericho boatyard, one of the founders of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, and a man in his 80s who has spent most of his life protesting against animal testing.

Isn’t there a danger, though, that these eclectic narratives just end up serving a structure imposed by the theatre-makers? Goode’s answer to that question is to be constantly confronting it. “I just think being really aware is half of the task,” he says. “You have to let go of your agenda quite often, because it has to be about the people rather than about the issues that you’re trying to articulate.” All of the interviewees speak, for example, about their childhoods, offering a portrait of their personalities as much as their acts. “I think one of the virtues of Stand is that you see everyone in quite high resolution,” says Goode. “Hopefully you get a real sense of the details of people’s lives, so that they’re not just mouthpieces for certain points of view.”

That said, Goode admits that he and his team always had the aim of inspiring their audiences, with the hope that they in turn will go on to stand up for their own causes. “I felt like there had to be that call to action embedded in the show,” Goode explains, “quite gently, but definitely there.” For that call to action to be heard, though, the show has to connect with audiences who might feel worlds away from the activists sharing their stories – “you have to feel like you’ve been listening to people like you,” as Goode puts it. That’s where the human detail comes in.

“One of the really nice things about the people we found is that they were all really quick to talk about themselves in ways that pointed at moments where they’d failed, moments when things had gone in an unexpected direction – moments of daftness,” says Goode. Activism has its fair share of the ridiculous alongside the serious – “bizarre situations where they’re superglued to something or they’re wearing a costume in a peculiar place”. And what Stand’s storytellers all share, like so many of us, is a guilty feeling that they could be doing more: “Even among really hardcore activists, there’s always someone who’s more hardcore.”

Stand was also an opportunity to present people’s courage in a new light. “People don’t often see themselves in that way,” says Goode, “they don’t see their own bravery.” One example is Jan Thomas, who wanted to celebrate her adopted daughter’s small stand against injustice, but found to her surprise that Goode was more interested in her story as a mother. “I felt I had done nothing special,” she tells me. Since taking part in the project, though, she has been bolder in taking a stand, joining some of her fellow participants in their campaigning activities. “After seeing Stand and meeting the others I resolved to be much more active in standing up for the things I believe in.”

A big part of the project has been about engaging new audiences with the work of the Playhouse, not least through performing the show in a local community centre. “I think there’s a perception around Oxford Playhouse, as there is around a lot of venues and organisations of that scale, that they’re slightly fortressed,” suggests Goode. “It felt really important to them as well as to us that this was a way of opening up some different doors.” Producers Hannah Bevan and Michelle Walker describe Stand as unlike any other show the Playhouse has ever worked on, adding that “to be bombarded with audience responses ever since the show opened about how joyful and inspiring they found it was nothing short of a dream”.

“I’ve never done anything with quite such a strong local focus,” adds Goode, questioning how that might translate to audiences during its London run at BAC. “There’s definitely a strength in that specificity, but I don’t know whether it’s a crucial strength yet.”

Just days after Goode and I spoke, Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall was hit by a devastating fire, followed by an overwhelming show of support for a venue with a radical history of its own. It seems that in Battersea, as in Oxford, there continues to be a tradition of standing up for what matters.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

This Room, Battersea Arts Centre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Twice in the last twelve months, I’ve taken a mental health questionnaire – not in the office of a doctor or psychologist, but in the theatre. 

At one point in Are You Lonesome Tonight?, Ellie Stamp’s playful but urgent interrogation of mental health, creativity and the perils of diagnosis, she reads out a list of statements and asks us to lower our arms – which are raised at the start of this exercise – as soon as we hear one that describes our experience. Mine is down like a shot; before long, everyone’s hands are back in their laps. And the statements? They describe the symptoms of a recognised mental disorder.

There’s a similar device used in This Room, which takes an affecting look at the treatment of mental illness and what it really means to “get better”. At the start of the show, theatre-maker Laura Jane Dean reads from a list of unwanted, “intrusive” thoughts, later gently asking us which of these thoughts we’ve ever had. They range from worrying that the door has been left unlocked to the sudden, unwelcome, unnerving thought of slitting your wrists or throat when looking at a sharp knife (yep and yep).

Both question the idea of some kind of mental “norm” and divergences from that norm. Both trouble the dichotomy of “ill” and “well”. Both create a space where we can look at ourselves and each other and maybe, just maybe, collectively admit that we’re not OK. And that’s OK.

In This Room especially, well and not well are allowed to sit alongside one another. The room of the title is a doubled, overlapping space, referring both to Dean’s bedroom, where her crippling anxiety began, and to the room where she underwent cognitive behavioural therapy following her diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder. These are spaces at once comforting and terrifying, safe and perilous. No more powerfully is this the case than when Dean recalls the time her therapist accompanied her home, permeating the divide between the two rooms, and urged her to confront her fear of hurting herself in her sleep.

Meanwhile the room of the performance, haunted by the presence of those two other rooms, feels like an archive of anxiety. Dean’s medical notes, from which she reads at several points, are housed in boxes and blu-tacked to the walls. From another box, Dean produces a handful of tights, bundled away out of fear that she would use them to hang herself in the middle of the night. As she clutches them in tight fists, holding them out to us, these everyday objects take on an almost alien quality, the fear they represent becoming tangible and heavy in the room.

This Room is full of moments like this, when worry seems to vibrate through the air and tingle on the skin. Dean reads from her case notes into a microphone, her speech faster and faster and faster, skipping along at the pace of her anxieties. She stands on a chair and gazes out at us in a long, suspended moment. The lightbulbs suspended from the ceiling flare and flicker like neurons firing in the brain. All the while, Melanie Wilson’s lightly throbbing soundscape gives voice to the background buzz of unease, its constant hum occasionally bursting into crescendos of panic and fear.

As a viewer, it’s impossible not to be present in the room – this room – and be uncomfortably aware of that presence. At times, as in the vacuum cleaner’s raw and affecting show Mental, the intimacy almost feels too much. Should we really be here? Is it right for these delicate experiences and thoughts to be relived for us? As a result, the power dynamic between performer and audience is one that is always in flux, creating a sense of shared responsibility for this space we’re all in, a space where we might not all be OK.

The questions “am I OK?” and “are we OK?” are ones that are left open. This Room feels like a searching, reaching gesture rather than one that ever reaches a destination or closes a fist around its object. There can be no neat resolution, no satisfying arrival. Because when the thing that harms you is part of how your brain works, how do you get away from that? Where does the illness end and the person begin? And if being “ill” is who you are, then what does it mean to get better?