Blank, Bush Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Texts for performance always involve filling in the blanks. No play can ever fully [BLANK] the world of the stage. So the latest play by Nassim Soleimanpour – writer of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit fame, known for scripts that [BLANK] the theatrical conventions of preparation and rehearsal – just takes that to its extreme. The [BLANK] that always takes place in staging a text is put on stage.

Blank is a story machine. Like White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, it requires a different, unprepared [BLANK] for each performance. On this occasion, it’s Hattie Morahan gamely picking up the script with no idea what to expect. She is the [BLANK] of tonight’s story. She begins reading, obediently filling in the gaps. She tells us about her [BLANK]. She answers questions about [BLANK]. As we gain a limited, [BLANK] version of her life and personality, the superficial markers of theatrical character – family, profession, favourite food – quickly become apparent.

Like Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, another [BLANK] that inserts an unprepared performer every night, Blank reveals truths about all theatre. These are [BLANK] that always take place when we share in the creation of stage fictions. And what are plays if not story machines? Here, those [BLANK] are just made visible. Stepping onto the stage with [BLANK], Morahan’s lack of rehearsal or prior knowledge [BLANK] the live experience of theatre. She laughs and stumbles her way through the [BLANK], with the audience as her co-conspirators.

And it’s not just Morahan completing the blanks. The audience, too, are [BLANK] to the show. We, the absent voice of the playwright tells us, are integral. We imagine a [BLANK] biography for our imagined writer and later [BLANK] the story of the show’s one-time protagonist, another member of the audience. It’s playful and gently entertaining, particularly as [BLANK] performed by Morahan, all smiling confusion. On this particular night, the show also has the advantage of a [BLANK] participant from the audience, who enters the show in precisely the spirit it asks for.

But blanks, like the blanks in this review, only cede so much control. By showing his hand, Soleimanpour invites [BLANK] of his authorial artistry. It’s a show that prompts responses of “ooh, wasn’t that clever?” Is it really as clever as it [BLANK], though? Unlike An Oak Tree, it’s hard to sense the substance beneath Blank’s surface of gameplay. It’s also [BLANK] to know how robust Soleimanpour’s story machine really is. This time, at least, it’s not really tested. Everyone [BLANK] the game. What would happen, I want to know, if someone really [BLANK] it, really pushed at its edges?

Theatre always happens in the live moment. Texts are always [BLANK] to interpretation. Playwrights are forever in the paradoxical [BLANK] of control and helplessness. Blankintroduces these observations and playfully teases at them, but it struggles to go much [BLANK] than that. In the end, it’s all a [BLANK].

 

Fuck the Polar Bears, Bush Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Humans are terrible at heeding warning signs. In Pompeii, people saw the smoke spewing from Vesuvius for days before it erupted. Few ran. Today, the alarm bells of climate crisis are ringing all around us, yet still we carry on as normal, exploiting the environment for every last penny. What’s future destruction compared to a few extra quid in your pocket today?

At least that’s the starting point for Tanya Ronder’s new play, which pits climate change against straightforward, self-destructive human selfishness. Her protagonist, Gordon (Andrew Whipp), has just been offered the job of CEO with one of the energy giants, a position that comes with dirty money – and lots of it. His wife, Serena (Susan Stanley), has her sights set on an exclusive riverside pad and London’s best prep school for their young daughter Rachel. The price? Only the planet they live on.

“I just want us to enjoy our lives,” says a stress-frazzled Gordon to his unfulfilled, fitness-obsessed wife. Money clearly hasn’t bought happiness for this couple, but still they grasp desperately at the climate-destroying possessions they feel they’ve earned. Their high-energy lifestyle, meanwhile, finds its contrast in their frantically recycling Icelandic au pair Blundhilde (Salóme R. Gunnarsdóttir) and in Gordon’s recovering drug addict brother Clarence (the ever-excellent Jon Foster), who has found refuge in a simpler life. Around them all, things start to fall apart.

Fuck the Polar Bears’ bludgeoning symbolism is about as blunt as its title. Lights flicker. Rubbish mounts. There’s a problem with the water. And Rachel’s toy polar bear is missing, nowhere to be found. In Caroline Byrne’s production, the building chaos of Gordon and Serena’s home is climate crisis in microcosm, everything spinning (literally, thanks to Chiara Stephenson’s sleek revolving stage) out of control. It’s not hard to see where this is going, or what it’s none-too-subtly pointing to.

As an idea, folding the predicament of the planet into a tightly focused family drama is a promising one. It’s often the small-scale that drives home the impact of the large. Here, though, everything is made unnecessarily explicit, while the tone teeters awkwardly between comic, surreal and earnest. Some sharp images jump out from Ronder’s text – Blundhilde’s description of Gordon as a necrophiliac “screwing a dying world” is one hell of an insult – but it does far too much explaining and debating, especially in later scenes. As so often with climate change plays, it all begins to sound a lot like a Guardian editorial.

These are vital discussions to be airing, especially as this winter’s climate change summit in Paris fast approaches. Humanity is on a deadline – if indeed the deadline has not already passed. But I wonder, as I wondered when watching 2071 last year, if this is really the forum for it. As with 2071, Fuck the Polar Bearsis hardly carbon neutral, and also as with 2071 it’s likely to attract a crowd who are already concerned about the issues it addresses. It’s hard not to ask, as Ronder’s characters fruitlessly circle her subject matter, “what’s the point?”

Islands, Bush Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Two weeks, two shows about the grimy underside of capitalism, two bullfight metaphors. Bull, Mike Bartlett’s cutthroat dance of competition between employees facing the chop, embodies the bloody sport in its very form, depicting two corporate matadors at their most deadly. In Islands, the tax haven satire devised by Caroline Horton and her company, there’s an extended riff on the same theme. “Mankind’s extraordinary,” Horton concludes her gory description of the ritual, “don’t you think?”

But where Bull is all brutality, Islands is all display. Horton and co’s mucky allegory speaks a visual language of grotesque, glittering excess – an apt enough, if not particularly subtle, vision of the tax-dodging economic elite, who have pumped an estimated $18.5 trillion into tax havens. Despite all the research that has gone into the piece, Islands’ approach is not a documentary one. Instead, it mashes up cabaret, satire and bouffon, casting Horton as a grinningly repulsive god lording over Haven, an island that has broken free of the blighted ‘Shitworld’ below. Along for the ride are gurning sidekicks Agent and Swill and aspirational proles Adam and Eve (geddit?), all intent on protecting their hoard from the outreached hand of the taxman.

If the synopsis sounds baffling, it’s no less perplexing in performance. There’s certainly an argument that money has achieved the status of a deity in the 21st century, with capitalism as the new global religion, but aside from that not-so-shocking insight, Horton’s Biblical references gain little purchase (pun intended). As the all-powerful Mary, Horton herself more resembles the fickle, guzzling gods of ancient Greek mythology, feasting on cherries and indulging in the endless pursuit of pleasure. The ‘fall’ that Adam and Eve experience from this superficial land of bliss, meanwhile, is a decidedly topsy-turvy one.

The metaphors Islands seizes on to make its points are just as confused as its central conceit. Some, like the cherries that Mary hoards, are powerful on their own. They of course stand in for money – everyone wants a piece of the cherry pie – but they also suggest forbidden fruit, loss of innocence (“popping your cherry”), and their punctured flesh drips like blood. Elsewhere, though, imagination comes at the expense of any coherence. It’s all as clear as the muck that surges up from below, mixing religion, gameshow, cabaret, bullfight and, of course, relentless waves of scatalogical humour. After a while, shit jokes are just shit.

As sheer aesthetic, Islands can be briefly, grubbily captivating. Oliver Townsend’s design is gorgeous in a squalid, gaudy kind of way, his sunken swimming pool set suggesting the filth and emptiness sitting just beneath the fantasy of escape, while the talented cast revel in the grotesquerie. But it all seems to obscure rather than illuminate. Reality – in the voices of Thatcher and her present day spawn – intrudes only in splintered fragments, so small as to just enhance the bewilderment of those not already clued up on the subject matter.

There’s more promise in the closing scenes, when it becomes sickeningly clear that even the fallout of economic crisis will leave Mary and her cronies unsullied by the shitstorm down below. Realising they’ve got away with it, Haven’s inhabitants tentatively call for something to “mark the occasion”. What starts out as modest self-congratulation quickly escalates into unbridled gluttony and hedonism – champagne, hookers, “a really small private jet”. There’s no one to stop them.

The trouble is, even in moments like this, the irony and glitter are spread so thick that the critique struggles to peek through. The anger that is the only conceivable response to the situation absurdly depicted by Horton and her cast is finally allowed to break the surface but is itself undermined, leaving few directions available. There’s half an eye throughout on the audience – the people – but our complicity is only cursorily courted. In the end rage, instead of boiling, cools to a sort of helplessness.

Photo: Helen Murray.

Am I Dead Yet?, Bush Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s a strange paradox at the heart of our treatment of death. On the one hand, we’re surrounded by it. 24 hours news channels spew out the numbers, names and circumstances of the dead; an endless stream of murders, casualties, epidemics. But on the other hand, death as a reality unmediated by a screen is shrouded in silence and ritual. Death is everywhere and nowhere.

This is the backdrop to Am I Dead Yet? Making a show “about” death opens up a vast range of possibilities; as someone commented to me after the show, it’s like making a show “about” life. Wisely, then – and a tad ironically, given their name – Unlimited Theatre have established limits to their scope. Their starting point is twofold. Firstly, they acknowledge that particular tight-lipped uneasiness that surrounds death and its invisibility while in plain view. Secondly, they fasten onto the idea that, thanks to advances in medical science, death might now be better thought of as a process – and, increasingly, a reversible process – than as a single moment in time. If our idea of death is changing, they reason, then we’d better start talking about it.

Double act Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner have multiple strategies for starting that conversation. Part Grim Reaper, part storyteller, part clown, each performer approaches the subject of death with both humour and seriousness. The structure, for the most part, is governed by a pair of interlaced stories and a series of musical interludes. Electric guitar snarls defiance towards death; voices gently, lyrically tell of two coppers finding a severed head, or of a little girl slipping unobserved through a sheet of ice. In between, Thorpe and Spooner offer facts about the process of the body shutting itself down and a guest paramedic performs the best CPR demonstration you’re likely to witness.

The science that Unlimited draw on, while sometimes sounding far-fetched, is – either brilliantly or terrifyingly, depending on your perspective – steeped in research. It is now technically possible to raise people, Lazarus-like, from the dead. But rather than looking too closely at the science itself, Unlimited are more interested in what this might mean for us as human beings – not medically, but psychologically, socially, politically. Most compellingly, they raise the all too plausible possibility of a society stratified according to access to life-extending technology. What happens when death is no longer a reality for one portion of humanity?

Rather than penetrating much deeper into any of the ideas they raise, however, Unlimited leave the extra mental legwork to us. Small details open up spaces for thought: the involuntary laugh of a policeman clutching a human head prompts reflections on our often unpredictable emotional responses to death, while the possibility of snatching people back from the dead provokes an unspoken question about what happens to that part of ourselves that makes us who we are. It’s refreshing – if a little scary – to have the room for this kind of thinking created in public.

Still, some of the individual threads could be pulled a little further; as it currently exists, certain elements of the show feel as though they stop just short of the idea they are reaching towards. Or perhaps that’s the point. There is, however, something appealing and surprisingly optimistic about creating a communal space in which we might be able to begin confronting and talking about death. And if we can get better at dying, maybe we can get better at living too.

We Are Proud to Present …, Bush Theatre

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For as long as art has sought to represent, the limits of that representation have been pushed and questioned. From Plato’s concerns that representing something betrays its essential truth, to Adorno’s famous claim that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, it is a debate that has preoccupied artists and thinkers down the ages. Where does one draw the line between what can and can’t be represented? And without representation, how are we to share human experience and history?

In Jackie Sibblies Drury’s sharp, unsettling play, the impulses to represent and to remember repeatedly butt up against one another. Contained within their conflict is an implicit, knotty, unanswered question: is it better to attempt to represent history and risk misrepresentation in the process, or to remain respectfully silent and allow that history to be forgotten?

It is the question, rather than its resolution, that We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 (titles don’t get much more belligerently unwieldy than that) stages. Drury’s play centres on a group of naive actors, engaged in an ill-judged attempt to address the subject matter of the title. As we are informed in a problematically pithy “overview” at the start, the German settlers in Southwest Africa carried out a brutal genocide against the people of the Herero tribe during the period in question, exterminating 80% of the population. Using the evidence that has been passed down to them – the vast majority of which comes from the German perspective – the six actors (three white, three black) spend the remainder of the show fumbling, arguing and improvising their way through this horrific chapter of colonial history.

The performers stage improvisations around letters home from German soldiers, bicker about how to represent the Herero, and increasingly slide into uncomfortable racial stereotypes. There is much debate about who can represent what – can a white actor portray a black character? and vice versa? – and about what does and does not need to be told. The action reveals as much about theatre as it does about history, lightly mocking popular acting technique (“I don’t know what my active verb is!” cries one character) and the pitfalls of collaborative creation. Through this, however, it approaches the difficult questions at its heart, becoming more and more preoccupied with heritage, identity, race and representation. Whose story is being told? Who has the right to tell it? And where do we draw the line between pretending to do something and actually meaning it?

There is, when discussing a play such as this, a danger of latching onto what it is superficially “about”. Michael Billington’s review in The Guardian, for instance, laments the fact that the show ends up focusing more on the theatrical process than on the genocide that is supposedly its subject matter. But I would tentatively argue that the only way this play can even begin to approach the topic it is nominally about is through a frame which acknowledges the impossibility of ever simply creating a piece of art “about” such subject matter. We Are Proud to Present … is not “about” the Herero, or the German settlers, or the genocide, or the impossibility of representation, or cultural appropriation, or the constructing of history, or the process of theatremaking, or notions of truth, or modern identity politics. It is about all of the above, none of which are easily extricable from one another.

Another issue that rears its head is that of relevance, that quality so beloved of theatre programmers, marketers and critics. There is a nagging desire on the part of the actors involved to relate to the story they are telling and to enhance its relevance for modern viewers – an impulse that many adapters will be familiar with. What this production cleverly manages to do, however, is to problematise that process, implicitly critiquing the drawing of parallels. In one sequence, an improvised encounter between a German soldier and a Herero man segues into a series of different accents, highlighting the similarities between this and other conflicts, at the same time as its distinct edge of discomfort reminds us of the dangers of eliding the historical specificity of each invoked parallel. The homogenising of history, to which Drury’s characters all too often fall prey (“they’re all the same – the names aren’t important”), is cast as a constant, dangerous spectre.

This particular production at the Bush adds an unsettling proximity to Drury’s play, particularly as it reaches its conclusion and we are made increasingly aware of our presence as an audience. Although the majority of the action is carefully scripted and (interestingly) does not stray far from Drury’s text, Gbolahan Obisesan’s direction and the performances of the uniformly strong ensemble manage to effectively evoke the unpredictable spirit of rehearsal room improvisation. Lisa Marie Hall’s set, meanwhile, is a versatile playground for the performers – emphasis on playground. With its movable pieces and gradually revealed sandpit, there is something distinctly childlike about the design, bringing in an aesthetic that jars interestingly with the content. Beyond the design, the playfulness of the whole production is at once wickedly entertaining and decidedly queasy.

But it is only in the final, quiet moments, after the action has reached an overblown, feverish pitch of excitement, that We Are Proud to Present … achieves the impact that justifies its early impishness. While the show’s climax is overdone, its wordless aftermath is a swift, unforgiving punch to the gut, leaving its questions hanging troublingly in the air.

Photo: Keith Pattison.