Josephine and I, Bush Theatre

Cush Jumbo, photocredit Max Narula 7

Framing history with the contemporary is nothing new. The best backward-looking art uses the past as a way of illuminating the present, often saying things about the now that might otherwise be perceived as too raw or too crude. Likewise, applying an autobiographical lens to historical material can sometimes offer fascinating new insights, using the subjective voice as a pathway to wider understanding. When the slippage between these layers – of past and present, of fact and fiction – is too pointed, however, the result can become a tangle of distractions.

This is a fate to which Josephine and I veers dangerously close. In her self-penned one-woman show, actress Cush Jumbo plays a fictionalised version of actress Cush Jumbo, who in turn plays twentieth-century entertainer and activist Josephine Baker. Confused yet? When she first appears, it seems plausible that Jumbo really is playing herself – or at least a version of herself, as anyone arguably is as soon as they place themselves in a public space. By way of introduction, she explains her almost lifelong obsession with Baker, a fascination sparked as a young child by the surprise of seeing a black woman starring in a film from the 1930s. This soon segues into representations of Baker herself, establishing a back and forth habit of shape-shifting that characterises the structure of the show. Throughout, the action flits regularly between telling Baker’s extraordinary life story and giving way to interjections from the storyteller.

As the show goes on, however, and we receive more and more direct addresses from the (never named) modern-day black actress, this character gradually diverges further from Jumbo and the truth of her escalating confessions is thrown into deliberate doubt. (Small disclaimer: I interviewed Jumbo before seeing the show and was therefore perhaps better placed to discern what was “real” and what wasn’t, but the framing makes it fairly clear that this is not in fact Jumbo speaking – or at least not always) Some aspects of the character tally with what we might know about Jumbo, although that of course depends on an audience’s familiarity with the performer’s background, but others are evidently fictional. Which is where the framing of the piece begins to become unstuck.

There are entirely understandable reasons why Jumbo has adopted this approach. Beyond the obvious vulnerability inherent in exposing oneself, unmasked, to an audience, there are important points that the show attempts to make through the parallels drawn between Baker and her modern-day narrator. As well as questioning the nature of success and how that success is judged by others, the show uncovers the race and gender-related prejudices that continue to persist today, while throwing in a central dilemma to trouble the “have it all” philosophy that modern women are so often fed. But the central themes, one suspects, would peek through the narrative without the occasionally heavy-handed fabrications, which run the risk of undermining themselves through the doubt that they cast on the rest of the show. I find myself wondering if it might be more interesting to see Jumbo’s unadorned take on Baker, framed with her own experience.

Instead, what we are left with are questions that deflect interest away from Jumbo’s political points rather than enhancing them. Is this Jumbo speaking, or is this a fictional character whose thoughts are being expressed? Are we watching Baker, or are we watching a version of Baker that serves the motivations of the character portraying her – or indeed the motivations of Jumbo herself?

Differently structured, the tension and uncertainty between these layers could be intriguing and productive in their own right. Unfortunately, Jumbo’s device is not quite cheeky enough to make an arch comment on its own meta-theatricality and not quite persuasive enough to tug us along with its semi-fictional heroine regardless. Instead we are left slightly dislocated, ricocheting between Jumbo’s real and fictional selves while increasingly doubting the veracity of everything we’re told. Which is perhaps the point – there’s definitely something interesting to be said about the constructed public persona, particularly when considering such a chameleonic figure as Baker – but its articulation is unclear.

What saves the piece – perhaps ironically – is Jumbo herself. She is a consummate performer, papering over any cracks in the piece with energy, humour and sheer, incandescent charisma. A cynical perspective might write this off as a simple showcase, calculated to allow its star to shine as blindingly as possible, but Jumbo’s obvious passion for her subject dispels such ungenerous doubts. She throws herself into every last jazz number and dance move with tireless intensity (not easy in this heat), while effortlessly morphing from character to character, voice to voice – as much a master of reinvention as Baker herself. She’s also naturally funny, lending an easy conversational charm to the segments in which she addresses the audience.

The only problem with Jumbo’s intoxicating stage presence that it occasionally threatens to obscure Baker, whose story she is so intent on telling – and, for the most part, tells with dazzling force. As presented here, it’s not hard to see why Jumbo was compelled by Baker’s remarkable life. This was a woman who had already been in and out of two marriages and performed on Broadway before becoming a celebrity in Paris at the age of 19, where she moved in starry artistic circles that included Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. During the Second World War she played a key role in the French Resistance and in the following decades she supported the American Civil Rights Movement while creating her own “rainbow tribe” of adopted children from around the globe. For once the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” feels justified.

In the process of retracing this astonishing life, we’re left in no doubt that Jumbo is an extraordinary performer, and although my criticisms might suggest otherwise, this remains an engaging and entertaining show. The cabaret set-up of director Phyllida Lloyd’s production is perfectly judged and the best sequences are those in which Jumbo joyously embraces the staging, venturing out into the audience and fully occupying the role of entertainer. In fact, Jumbo herself is so winning that it seems a tad churlish to lodge so many objections to the piece she has painstakingly crafted. Whatever popular opinion might suggest to the contrary, it’s never nice to feel mean as a critic.

There’s one startling, standout moment, however, that neatly points up the flaws elsewhere. Reading from the reviews that Baker received upon her return to New York after making her name in Paris, the shocking racist content stretches almost seamlessly into a comment that Jumbo reveals, in a gut-punching transition, to have been posted on a profile on the Observer website just last year. Here, through a precise and disturbing jolt, the entire thematic heft of the piece is loaded onto a few bigoted words, illustrating just how far we still have to go. Unlike the clumsy shifts and laboured parallels elsewhere, this scene administers raw, immediate shock. Sometimes, the more simple and bare the statement, the greater the punch.

Photo: Max Narula.

Money – The Gameshow, Bush Theatre

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Ever wondered what 10,000 pound coins look like? The immediate answer is not very much. Walking into the main space at the Bush Theatre, configured as a gameshow set complete with flashing lights and garish set decoration, the pile of shiny gold items is disappointingly and surprisingly small. While this underwhelming realisation might not be the intended effect of placing so much cash on stage, it does have a fitting resonance with the performance of money in our society. Like the illusion of theatre, it relies on us believing in it, accepting one thing as standing for another. Except the idea represented by money is a hollow one, divorced even from the gold that the coins’ shiny surface suggests – a sign with nothing behind it, empty simulacra. We’re in the desert of the real and everything is up for grabs.

The function of the cash on stage in Clare Duffy’s show is to explain the financial crash of 2008, with a little help from two hedge fund managers turned performance artists. Queenie and Casino, played by the brilliant Lucy Ellinson and Brian Ferguson, split the audience into two teams and pit us against each other, playing games and placing bets in a bid to win the pile of coins; games fittingly involving bubbles and balloons teach us about long and short bets, dramatising with the help of audience members the culture of risk that led to financial collapse. The other and arguably more powerful effect of these games is to draw us into the adrenaline-fuelled thrill of the trading floor, injecting us with the giddy exhilaration that drives bankers, gamblers and gameshow contestants alike. Between these games, short scenes narrate the story of Queenie and Casino’s own involvement in the financial crisis, a bursting of the bubble that, far from avoiding, they actually placed a high-stakes bet on taking place.

In contrast with the alienating jargon that excludes many from an understanding of financial operations, the games devised by Duffy are pointedly accessible and quickly recognisable, evoking the playground more than the trading floor. Players shout and laugh in excitement, the audience whoops and jeers, Queenie and Casino bicker and tease. This childishness is visually reinforced at every turn, surrounded by bubbles and balloons, buckets and spades. The implication is perhaps that there is something immature and stunted about this way of playing with money, or maybe it is a game that has a primitive appeal to all of us. The riotous fun that is encouraged, however, threatens to undo its own work; as soon as the experience becomes too game-like, the sensation that all this risk-taking is ‘just playing’ becomes once again perpetuated, distancing us from a crisis that we can therefore dismiss.

Similarly, the doubled performance of money, while making these signifiers strangely unfamiliar, also runs the risk of departing so far from the real that it can be consigned simply to fiction. The further we feel from what the money represents, the more we think – like the traders – that what we do with it doesn’t have real effects. It is this flirtation with the performative function of money, however, that is one of the most fascinating aspects of the production. As Queenie and Casino repeatedly assert, money is founded on belief, on faith. But what happens to that belief in a theatre environment? What happens when a mimetic act is folded over on itself? Reflecting on the performance, it suddenly occurs to me that coin is an anagram of icon, with all its connotations of belief and worship but also a suggestion of something ultimately empty, a shiny surface concealing nothing beneath. It’s the exposure of this concealment that the show partly enacts, a stripping away of our socialised belief in money, but by the end the sheen is beginning to return.

The final portion of the show, once the games have been played and the fate of Queenie and Casino decided by which of their teams wins (Queenie’s – my team – on the night I went), there is a jolting gear change. Suddenly plunging us into the bleak reality of our zombie economy, accompanied by an abrupt shift from the flashing lights of the gameshow to a row of stark, blinking fluorescent strips, the piece changes track so rapidly that it’s possible to be derailed. There is a hovering moment at which the audience lurches uncertainly between smiling humour and a tentative suspicion that this is meant to be taken seriously. And it is horribly, gut-twistingly serious. The conclusion, unravelling slightly, but aptly so, reminds us of the situation that we push to the back of our minds, that we paste over with stories and a stubborn belief in shiny, worthless objects. It’s chaotic and terrifying and depressing.

As Queenie and Casino dance a dangerous tango, narrating the process of financial collapse as they twist around the stage, they refer to something known as ‘Roadrunner Syndrome’: “when you run off a cliff so fast that you keep on going on just thin air. It’s only when you notice that the ground isn’t there anymore that you fall.” This is what happened at the start of the crash, as banks ploughed on oblivious to the bubble bursting around them. But in many ways I’d suggest that we’re still treading that thin air, supporting ourselves on a slim but persistent belief in the mimetic structures of money. This production might make us glance down for a moment, maybe drop a couple of feet with a lurch of the stomach, but we don’t quite hit the levelling ground.

Image: Simon Kane.

Is not Money the Bond of all Bonds?

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“I really love that they’re the colour of gold.” Writer and director Clare Duffy is speaking about the 10,000 pound coins that she will soon be bravely putting on the stage of the Bush Theatre for MONEY the Gameshow, a piece asking meaty questions about money, the financial crisis and how we understand value. Deliberately eschewing the familiar image of floods of crisp bank notes, Duffy thinks there is something even more profoundly seductive about the materiality of pound coins, something deeply rooted in the way we think about money.

“Why aren’t they purple?” she grins at me across our table in the Bush cafe. “Why aren’t they striped? It’s so interesting how profound that symbolism is, because although we all know it’s not real gold, we like the fact that it’s gold coloured and shiny; it hearkens back to a folk memory of gold standard, when money was directly linked to a standardised value.”

Putting those 10,000 round, shiny objects on stage has a history and a whole host of problems. The idea first arose from an earlier play of Duffy’s, in which a couple put a pound coin in a jar for every day they spend together and are then faced with splitting the amassed sum after their break-up; when it was performed, Duffy placed 500 pound coins in the centre of the playing space, prompting the realisation that this immediately shifted the way in which these objects signify. “What happens when it becomes a prop?” Duffy ponders. “Does it still feel like it has that value? And what kind of performances does it demand from the audience?”

When she won the Arches New Director’s Award in 2011, Duffy identified a way of posing these questions, deciding to put the £6,000 prize on stage and use it to tell the story of the financial crisis. Through the experience of presenting scratches of the piece and developing it again for the Bush, Duffy’s feeling that the environment of the theatre changes the nature of the money on stage has only intensified. While money typically relies on a shared belief in its value, Duffy observes that “when you put it inside a theatre, which is a place of make believe, it sort of becomes something else”. How does an object that is already engaged in a mimetic act – standing in for a value that it does not embody but only represents – transform under another layer of representation?

The money on stage is also influenced by the necessary mechanisms that surround it; as the £10,000 used in the show is a loan, the theatre has had to install CCTV cameras and a security guard to ensure that no audience members are sneakily slipping coins into their pockets. Rather than considering it an irritating practicality, however, Duffy has creatively seized on these intrusions, describing them as “both real and not real at the same time”. It is through such external structures, she believes, that the central notion of money is upheld. It follows that perhaps through revealing and disturbing such structures we might be able to interrogate and displace that notion.

This process of interrogation and displacement is just what MONEY the Gameshow sets out to achieve. Led by two hedge fund managers turned performance artists, played by Lucy Ellinson and Brian Ferguson, the audience are divided down the middle and given the piles of pound coins to gamble with, placing bets and competing to win. The purpose of this involvement, Duffy explains, is to draw the audience into the adrenalin-drenched world in which such individuals operate and to make them complicit in that irresistible excitement.

“You’re given a stake in the risk of the story,” Duffy continues, “aligning the risk of the games with the risk of the story. Because that’s what the story is about, it’s about playing a game and winning or losing.” The story that runs alongside these games is the story of both the former hedge fund managers and the entire financial crisis, tracing the factors that led to collapse and the state of extended resuscitation that has followed, stubbornly reviving what Duffy calls a “zombie economy”. We have all played a losing hand, but we’re still trying to hold onto our chips.

Duffy believes, however, that the current crisis is as much of an opportunity as it is a disaster: “What’s exciting about now and about talking about money now is that anything’s possible and the most crazy ideas should be talked about”. Throughout the process of making the show she has spoken to a number of individuals from the world of finance that she is depicting and has been surprised by the openness of some of their attitudes. “Politically we’re probably coming at these things from very different points of view, but there’s a convergence point,” she says, suggesting that this location of convergence is born from our present state of crisis. “Interestingly, it creates a space where people from really radically different points of view and walks of life can actually meet and talk.”

Getting people talking is, as Duffy recognises, the first step towards any change, but there are a number of barriers to that conversation. As Duffy observes, the financial industries are constructed to keep people out, fenced with technical jargon and barbed with complexities. “It seems to be to be so important and yet so little understood,” she says, admitting to her own ignorance prior to the research undertaken for the show. Her hope is that, as well as shifting audiences’ perceptions of money and value, she can simply make them feel more comfortable talking about it.

The idea of talking about money inevitably leads us into the territory of how money is discussed within the arts. This is a thorny subject, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by cuts, where the effort to defend the arts is often weakened by internal disagreements about the rhetoric in which that defence is to be mounted. Duffy is of the opinion that those working in the arts should take up all the arguments at their disposal.

“I think you just have to make the argument every which way you can, as much as you can,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of value in making as watertight an economic argument as you can. There’s an expression: making your argument in your master’s language. Sometimes you have to make the argument in terms that the people in power will understand or accept. However, at the same time you have to realise that you’re seeding power when you do that, so you have to be making that argument in another way. You have to fight on as many fronts as possible.”

The concern, as I say to Duffy, is that the eloquent economic arguments that are being put forward by some will be at the expense of the arts’ intrinsic value. If we succeed in binding the arts to measurable economic outcomes, this monetary worth quickly becomes the only value that can be ascribed to them. Duffy sees it, however, as a distinction between short term and long term solutions. “Short term sometimes it’s worth making that argument, it feels appropriate to make that argument, but at the same time you have to be making the more important point,” she suggests. Proof of economic worth might win the battle, but it is the search for a non-monetary language about value that is key to the longer term struggle.

“And that is what the show is really passionate about,” Duffy persuasively concludes. “It’s about asking the question: what is money?”

Photo: Simon Kane

Where is the Audience?

Originally written for Exeunt.

The question that forms the title of this column might sound like a strange one. The audience are out there surely, in the dark, occasionally punctuated by the odd surreptitiously scribbling critic. They are a vital part of the circuit, without which theatre and performance would not be able to fire. They constitute theatre’s purpose, its immediacy, the second half of its violently beating heart.

Yet I wonder if the audience, robbed of light, are failing to be seen. On Monday evening I attended the latest Platform event as part of the Bush Theatre’s RADAR festival of new writing, an event entitled “how is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the terms in which this question was framed, the contributions – from Sean Holmes, Andrew Haydon, Ramin Gray and Maddy Costa – were centred on interrogating the directions in which both critical discourse and contemporary theatre might be heading and how they might or might not be in step with one another. And those contributions were thoughtful and nuanced and exciting and made me want to start new conversations.

In all of these many heady conversations that I and others have been participating in over the last few months, however, there is a nagging absence. It acts as a black hole, the latent subject around which all our discussions revolve and to which they are irresistibly drawn, but that does not quite show itself. Just as they find themselves shrouded in darkness in the auditorium, the audience have remained barely visible in these discussions, a constant yet silent presence whose lack of visibility only became fully clear to me after it was raised in two separate conversations following the RADAR Platform. Where is the audience in this dialogue?

Being a big fan of conversation – as my friends can no doubt exasperatedly attest to – the thought that critics and theatremakers might be starting to talk more to one another can only be a good thing. But while we alternate between knocking heads and sharing ideas, the very people for whose benefit we’re loudly wrangling might be hovering awkwardly over our shoulders, struggling to find a way in.

At another panel talk I recently attended, I sat stranded in the tides of discussion, uncharacteristically tongue-tied and unable to navigate a route into the conversation. That wasn’t the fault of anyone speaking, but I’d hate for my own excited immersion within the current bubble of critical discourse to make others feel that same sense of marooned dislocation. The bubble is delicate and beautiful, but it might also be exclusive and eventually stifling. After all, there’s only so much air to go around.

It strikes me as ironic that the Platform at the Bush, in which the audience were curiously quiet, was followed later that same evening by the inclusive powerhouse of Kieran Hurley’s Beats. An exhilarating mash-up of storytelling and techno music set to the backdrop of the rave culture of the early 1990s, Hurley’s play hinges tantalisingly on the idea that a live gathering of people might be something inherently radical. It’s an act of immediate togetherness that seems ever more subversive in an age of digital connection that has both expanded and fractured human relations. Set against the emailing, the tweeting, the blogging, the simple idea of collecting in one physical location to share a fleetingly live experience becomes something that breaks the norm, interrupting the electronic noise at the same time as it contributes to it.

As I felt while watching Beats, a belief in the power of theatre must also be a belief in the potential of the shared space and the collective experience. At an earlier Platform event as part of RADAR, which responded to the provocation “one idea that could change our theatrical landscape”, Chris Goode offered up the possibility of “making the space for something to happen in”. Since being generously invited into rehearsals by Greyscale earlier this year, I’ve come to agree with Chris that the site of process is often more interesting and exciting than the “finished” (note the scare quotes) work. I’m utterly, giddily seduced by the fragile magic of the rehearsal room. Setting aside my own desires, however, perhaps what we ought to be looking for is a space – either literal or figurative – that can include everyone; a space that might, as Chris suggests, “scuff the distinctions between process and product, and artist and audience”. Isn’t that the space that we (in which I include both critics and makers) should be really interested in creating?

But before we all berate ourselves too much, perhaps the kernel of a solution to this issue of including and engaging the audience was already there, in the speeches and provocations at the Bush and the enthusiasm- and wine-fuelled conversations in the bar afterwards. At one point during her contribution, Maddy Costa highlighted the US site Culturebot, its guiding concept of “critical horizontalism” and its dedication to a response that is “the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist”. That dialogue that the artist has initiated is surely a dialogue with the audience of the piece, a dialogue in which the critic has a role as both a participant and an enabling force. Critics’ conversations with theatremakers, whatever form those conversations might take, are not exclusive duologues; for the health of the discussion and of the art form, we need to get everyone talking.

Of all the speeches made on the stage of the Bush Theatre on Monday evening, the one in which the audience figured most heavily was given by Sean Holmes. Based on his experience at the Lyric Hammersmith, he spoke of audiences that were hungry, starved of something that British theatre is not currently providing them with – a ravenous desire that is not reflected in mainstream criticism, but that perhaps in fact those audiences don’t mind about not seeing mirrored there. It’s a hunger that theatres and makers should be striving to feed, and that for the most part I think they are striving to feed. But that shouldn’t let theatre criticism off the hook. How do we turn on the lights, get talking and find the food to satisfy that appetite?

Beats, Bush Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

The most disturbing aspect of the dystopian nightmare constructed by George Orwell in 1984 is not the unblinking eye of Big Brother, or the children blithely betraying their parents, or even the terrors of Room 101. What really conjures the cold, black grip of dread is the whispered name of the Thought Police, the idea that the final refuge of the mind might be infiltrated and soiled. It is the untamed power of the mind to resist that holds possibly the greatest subversive power, because thoughts are impossible to capture; as Kieran Hurley breathes into his microphone at the beginning of Beats, eyes wide, “they can’t arrest your imagination – yet.”

On the surface, Hurley’s startling piece appears to be simply a surprising blend of storytelling and techno music. These unlikely bedfellows are harnessed to relate the distinctly ordinary narrative of Johnno McCreaddie, a fifteen-year-old boy growing up in Livingstone who becomes entangled in the rave culture of the early 1990s, while at the same time policeman Robert wrestles with the day to day demands of his job and the insistent, disappointed ghost of his father. Yet Beats is, in its own pulsing, unapologetically noisy way, one of the most invigorating pieces of recent political theatre. It’s a strobe-lit love song to the radical potential of the collective act of imagination, the live sharing of thoughts that can’t be clubbed or cuffed.

Although speaking deafeningly to the disillusioned present moment, Hurley’s narrowed focus is 1994 and the Criminal Justice Act’s bizarre outlawing of public gatherings to listen to music that consists primarily of “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Collected in the Bush Theatre to the pounding soundtrack of DJ Johnny Whoop, we are – according to this definition – breaking the law. Hurley, an unassuming but fiercely captivating performer, flirts with this idea of transgression and with the lines drawn between real and imagined in the space of the theatre, playfully suggesting that because it’s not real its criminality doesn’t really count.

While Hurley’s characters are vividly drawn and fleshed out by his morphing voice and physicality, much of the weight that gathers behind this simple narrative is reliant on the sound with which it is intertwined. Audience members become auditors in the most literal sense, as the piece channels the power inherent in music and its force to bring people together against the atomising efforts of those in authority. The integral beats of the title are not just beats of music, but beats of the heart, beats in time, the very stuff of humanity and of history.

From the exhilarating rush and noise of the show Hurley has crafted, one grinningly rebellious anecdote sounds a note above the rest. In the immediate wake of the Criminal Justice Act, one of Johnno’s mates explains how the song blaring from his car speakers has no repetitive beats at all – not one. Each series of beats follows a different rhythm, scattering logic. If they had a rave and only listened to this one track, the boy continues, no one could legally arrest them.

It’s a fitting analogy for the subversively chameleonic nature of resistance, which will constantly find new ways to push against imposed systems from within, often using those systems’ own apparatuses. It also speaks to Hurley’s own recycling and reinvention of the essentially traditional form of storytelling in which he is working, visually hinted at by the rather old-fashioned wooden desk at which he sits and its juxtaposition with the light and sound enveloping it. As Johnno puts it upon entering his first rave, “it’s been done before, but not by me” – a fresh sense of novelty that Hurley manages to inject into his mode of narrative, generating a kind of optimism in the ability of political theatre to shift and evolve at the same pace as its circumstances.

As the pulsing sound and lights finally dim, what Beats leaves us with is a collective conviction that this matters. Hurley’s closing refrain, the piece’s own pulse and repetitive beat, rings out as a subversion of the criticism so often levelled at the seemingly marginal activities of political theatre: it doesn’t mean nothing. A simple, casually deployed double negative delicately inverted to reveal its true meaning. It doesn’t mean nothing.