Wanted, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Transform_Site_Wanted

What do you want to see on stage?

That’s the question that Chris Goode and Company asked the people of Leeds. And it seems like an apt question to kick off a weekend of looking ahead to the new, expanded incarnation of Transform, a reimagined theatre festival for the city. Transform will take its official first steps as an independent, international festival next year; over two days on 22nd-23rd April, it offered a taster of what’s to come. What better way to anticipate and develop a city-wide festival than to ask the people of that city what they actually want to see?

I was, then, immediately on board with the premise and intentions of Wanted. As invitations go, it’s full of possibility. Scrap that: it’s defined by possibility. The only limits, in theory, are the imaginations of participants and the resources of the festival. So I stepped into West Yorkshire Playhouse on the Friday night of Transform expecting to see gloriously wonky, DIY attempts to make people’s wildest dreams come true on stage. I had images in my head of papier-mâché dragons and confetti cannons and a riot of movement and colour. I was expecting, above all, something theatrical.

But what Wanted really seemed to ask (or what its participants seemed to answer) was a different question: what do you want to do/say on stage?

Though the individual three-minute segments were hugely varied, a pattern of statements emerged. Intriguingly – and somewhat surprisingly in the moment, if not so much on reflection – most of the people and organisations with whom Chris Goode and Company made the show treated this opportunity as a platform. The stage became a vehicle for causes, passions and beliefs, from world peace to the Yorkshire dialect. Wanted thus felt, in many ways, like a not-so-distant cousin of Stand, another Chris Goode and Company show about the idea of standing up for what you believe in.

So we in the audience are asked to check our privilege. We are told about the plight of Kurds in the Middle East. We learn about the work of local charities and community groups. We are urged to respect difference. Voices are given to young people with learning disabilities, to the LGBTQ community, to survivors of abuse and oppression. The theatre feels like a political chamber and the stage finally seems to boast that democracy that it so often aspires to.

Except, of course, it’s not entirely democratic. What we see in front of us has still been chosen, curated, squeezed into snug three-minute slots. It makes me want to know more about the process. How did Chris Goode and Company go about extending this invitation? Who else did they speak to? How did they decide who to include and exclude?

Then there’s the limit of those three minutes, another element (if an understandable one) of control on the part of the “professional” theatre-makers. How much can you really say or do or show in three minutes? How do you choose to use that time? And to what extent does that restriction impel or restrain the voices and creativity of those involved?

Before I misrepresent the experience, it’s not all preaching and protesting. There’s also a toddler being swung round in the air (and my God does it look fun) and a rabbit (with a case of stage fright on the night I attend) hopping around to the strains of “Bright Eyes”. There’s a woman gently, humorously remembering her trips with her late mother to the very theatre we’re sat in. There’s a David Bowie impersonator singing “Heroes”. There are kids dancing in superhero costumes. And it’s all as heart-melting and grin-making as it sounds.

But the most interesting thing about Wanted is, ultimately, the invitation issued to its participants and how they have chosen to interpret it. Does that make it any better or worse as theatre than the loveably over-ambitious, confetti-strewn extravaganza I’d constructed in my imagination? I still can’t decide.

I’ll close, instead, with some words from Chris Goode’s new book The Forest and the Field that feel particularly apt when thinking about Wanted. This passage seems, to me, to convey some of the thinking and feeling that feeds into Wanted, if not necessarily (again, for me) reflecting the reality of it as an experience. Maybe Wanted is best thought of as one inevitably flawed articulation of this understanding of theatre – one of the “pieces”, to borrow Goode’s words from elsewhere, that nod towards a whole.

“[…] at its best, you can live inside theatre, in the way that you might feel that you live inside a set of political or religious commitments: the feeling that you don’t contain such commitments – they contain you. Thus theatre becomes a way of looking at the world, a way of forming and deepening relationships, a way of connecting the intellectual and the romantic, the political and the sexual, the individual and the collective, the civic and the visionary, the present and the future. To borrow what the poet Roy Fisher said (of Birmingham): theatre’s what I think with. Seen always as a hybrid art and a social practice, theatre will expand to accommodate whatever you bring to it; everything can be taken to the work, nothing is necessarily excluded.”

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The Forest and the Field, Ovalhouse

“Everything is still problematic concerning the real effects of the Theatre” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

As Tassos Stevens so helpfully puts it, the experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it. Therefore the beginning of my experience of The Forest and the Field dates back a while, its very first seeds planted in an idea of theatre that Chris Goode expressed in the eye of the Three Kingdoms storm. Germinating away for almost a year, the thoughts sown at that moment finally broke through the surface in a meandering thought piece that I wrote for Exeunt in anticipation of seeing this show, which feels worth including again here. Not a preview as such, but rather a pre-review. A review in anticipation.

“All the world’s a stage”. It’s an almost meaninglessly ubiquitous snippet of the Bard that, as a theatre writer, I ought to have a dread of opening with. Yet those five painfully over-quoted words carry an intriguing implication. Because if we really do conceive of the world as a stage and our everyday exchanges as another kind of performance upon it, what does that do to theatre itself? And what impact does that understanding of the world have on the relationship between the reality of the theatre and the reality outside?

As these questions might suggest, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about theatre and the wider world – not so much in the sense of whether or not theatre can make a difference in the world beyond the space of its performance, which is an argument so often short-circuited by being debated in disingenuous or misguided terms, but more in the sense of how we imagine theatre’s place within society. This is partly due to a weekly seminar that has had me returning to – and in some cases reading for the first time – the series of relationships between theatre and society that have been theorized over the centuries: Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Schiller, to name just a few of the headliners. Whether conceiving of that relationship as vexed or harmonious, the obsession with it is strikingly persistent.

Such thoughts have also surfaced partly in anticipation of Chris Goode & Company’s The Forest and the Field, which I’ll be seeing at Ovalhouse this week. As the Ovalhouse website helpfully informs me, this is “a gently seductive, immersive piece of non-fiction storytelling, which asks its audience to look at themselves, and to consider what we’re all doing when we meet in a theatre space”. Unsurprisingly, it’s that last little bit that most interests me. I didn’t see the piece’s previous incarnation back in 2009, but Chris’s distinction between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things” has been snagged on my brain long enough to made me hungry to interrogate that idea further, even if – as I suspect – I’m not fully up to the task.

The answer to that question of what we’re all doing in a theatre space might seem staggeringly obvious. Surely we are gathered together in one place, usually under the anonymous blanket of darkness, to watch other people perform. At the end we will probably applaud. We might, hopefully, think about what we’ve seen. The optimist might even insist that we leave the theatre changed in some way, galvanised to meet the challenges of the world outside.

My use of the word “outside” is not accidental. The concept of “outside”, naturally paired with “inside” as its polar opposite, seems to haunt much theatre and the discussion that surrounds it. Inside or outside the bounds of the performance event, part of or on the fringes of traditionally understood definitions of theatre, internal or external to the text. Understood in such dichotomised terms, theatre is always inside, referring to an outside that is ever separate and elsewhere. If all the world really is a stage, then perhaps the theatre is its rehearsal space.

But what my initial, crude description of what theatre does deliberately neglects is any sense of real action or making within the sphere of the event. Something happens in that space between the people who occupy it. It might have a bearing on or a certain understanding of the world beyond those four walls – in fact, it would be fairly impossible for it not to have some kind of relationship, however big or small, with the society in which it exists – but it isn’t simply a suspended act, somehow separate and sealed off from its “real” surroundings. Theatre is always in some way doing and making, perhaps at the same time as representing, and that doing is an act in and of itself, whether or not it offers a model for wider change. When thought of in this way, inside and outside – those troubling ideas that we stubbornly try not to taint with one another – become sort of irrelevant. The theatre event is both and neither and a mashed up mixture of the two.

While these confused and simplified thoughts lack nuance, at the heart of the image of theatre I’m beginning to form is a melting of the divisions drawn by the thinkers I find myself reading each week. Running through many of their arguments, whether for or against theatre and its position within society, is an assumption that theatre does one of two things: create through its form an ideal (or not so ideal, depending on the perspective) version of society within the space of the theatre event, or communicate and thus teach a mode of interacting with one another that is then to be applied to society outside. An either/or situation, not bridged by an “and”.

Although the context and exact terms of these discussions differ, there seems to be – at least to my mind – a certain similarity with Chris’s differentiation between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things”. Showing versus making, passive representation versus active enactment. What I find myself wanting to ask is whether these two functions can occur at once. Can theatre not be aware of what it’s making within the space and simultaneously offer through a form of showing or representation a new way of looking at the world?

Theatre is constantly and often unhelpfully attended by binaries – entertaining and pedagogical, dramatic and postdramatic, text based and non-text based – the most enduring of which is arguably the line it seems to draw between fiction and reality, play world and real world, whether this line is sketched at the edge of the stage or intersects with the performance itself. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that again and again its purpose has been starkly seen as either demonstrating or doing, acting as performance or acting as action. But is it really so hard to imagine that it might be both?

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an of theatre to be engaged” – Peter Brook

First of all, there is no such thing as an empty space. This is important. As soon as our gaze fills the space, it can no longer be empty. It’s the paradox at the heart of Peter Brook’s famous statement, and a starting point of sorts for The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode & Company’s quiet yet powerful meditation on what the hell we’re all doing when we gather together in the theatre. It’s framed as an act of storytelling, but it feels more like a gentle and occasionally troubling dream, vitally prodding at questions that permeate our modern experience of theatregoing. What do we as an audience want? What are we doing when we meet in a theatre space? Can theatre really change anything, or is it indeed theatre and our engagement with it that needs to change?

Talking of starting points, it now feels overwhelmingly apt that I began my musings on theatre and the world with a quote from Shakespeare. Because The Forest and the Field is drenched in the Bard, from the tremulous “oh” that opens Henry V to the intoxicating island of The Tempest, recognising the extraordinary extent to which Shakespeare defines our understandings of theatre. Shakespeare also offers one of the key locations of the title: the forest. This might be an actual forest, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, or it could be the island of The Tempest, the chaotic society of Illyria in Twelfth Night, the furious storm that punctures King Lear – liminal spaces, spaces that enact a certain transformation.

That “oh” that I mention from Henry V is just one of many Os dotted throughout the piece: the groaning animal “oh” of wanting; the wooden O of the original Globe theatre; the O of the appropriately shaped Ovalhouse, copied again in the circular, inward facing arrangement of the audience. O is of course also zero, a void, nothing. An empty space.

The Forest and the Field is challenging that empty space, as well as challenging the perceived emptiness of the theatre as a place apart from the rest of the world. It primarily throws open a space – not empty, but full of our thoughts and gazes – for reflecting, a space in which we might reconsider our understanding of theatre and how it works. This mainly takes the form of Chris Goode speaking to the audience as he moves around the space, while fellow performer Tom Ross-Williams adopts the more traditional role of “actor”, reciting speeches from Shakespeare and impersonating a series of figures, from Brook himself to John Cage to O.J. Simpson.

This foregrounding of the practice of acting feels significant within a piece that is deeply concerned with what theatre does, presenting us with a frame in which the idea of the actor and the actor’s role can be seen afresh. The actor is spoken of as appearing as both self and other; as spectators, we thus engage in simultaneous processes of identification and confrontation. Through the dialogue that this “acting” enters with Chris’s more direct address, we are made aware of such processes, forcing our attention on not just how theatre itself works but how we as audience members work with it.

It’s also worth pausing on that notion of the frame for a moment. As already noted, the space is arranged in a rough circle, with audience members seated on a variety of levels and in variety of positions around it. The middle of the room, at the centre of the O, is packed with a thin layer of earth, while pot plants are dotted around the audience and a large tree branch sits at the edge of the performance space. This is an evocation of the forest in the title, perhaps, but it’s a forest that we already seem to be on our way out of, the foliage thinning. Change, it suggests, is already underway. Meanwhile the light that is used throughout the piece, often illuminating the audience and denying distinctions between spectators and performers, is pointedly artificial; we are genially introduced to the technicians sitting on a raised platform in the corner, highlighting their presence. Mechanisms are visible, uncovered – or at least almost uncovered. The clothing is never quite fully stripped away.

“To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself” – John Berger

Nakedness – or rather the idea of nakedness – threads its way throughout the piece. I say the idea of nakedness because, despite the rather wonderful notice on the door warning that “this piece contains nudity and a cat” (the latter seemed to be a bit shy on the night I attended), what we see in the performance is just that – nudity. It is never true nakedness, though nakedness is what it self-declaredly aspires to. Naked body, naked earth, naked desire. The excruciating nakedness of that wide, round “oh” of wanting. As the piece itself asks, what would it take for us to bare our naked desire, to openly say aloud what we want? Can the theatre ever become a space in which this might be possible?

Through such questions, we are repeatedly asked to contemplate what theatre might be capable of achieving. Theatre’s potential is often located in its liveness, a term that we all tend to be very fond of. It suggests something exciting, something immediate, something radically opposed to a culture of distant and deferred digital communication. That notion of opposition might just be key, as it’s arguably only through the rise of a mediated, non-live (depending of course on how we define and understand “live”, a debate far too large and complicated to include here) culture that “liveness” has gained its meaning and its supposedly radical power.

This is something that The Forest and the Field lightly plays with, quietly exploiting our mediatised ways of seeing (the unavoidable echo of John Berger in that phrase feeling utterly apt in the context of this show). At one end of the space, a projector screen is suspended from the ceiling, which Chris explains was built into the show before they decided not to use video. At various points throughout, a light is shone onto the screen and Chris asks us to look at it, imagining the film sequences that are not there. In this way, recorded media – a form that has irrevocably changed our mode of perception and our understanding of the live – is only present in its absence. By pointedly not including such media, we are reawakened to its constant background presence in our lives and the saturation of our culture with its tropes and particular models of perception. This is also, of course, just another empty but not empty space onto which we project our own images.

There are other, less signposted ways in which recorded and digital media seeps into the piece. One thing that struck me about all the external material and references that are used and cited (perhaps as a way of blurring those lines between inside and outside, theatre and world, as well as recalling Barthes’ idea of the text as a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”) was the lack of a structuring cultural hierarchy. A ballad from Carousel sits alongside snippets of Johns Cage and Berger; the plentiful nods to Shakespeare are joined by an extract from O.J. Simpson’s book. Notions of high and low art don’t really enter the equation (although of course they equally never completely disappear, as my noting of these contrasts bluntly demonstrates), which perhaps hints at the breakdown of other hierarchies. It’s all quotation, all part of the fabric of modern life, of which theatre is also a part.

In the series of dream sequences that punctuate the show, using more self-consciously “theatrical” means of expression, media-soaked ways of seeing the world are again brought into play, as are other influences of today’s world. Our subconscious playgrounds take the shape of sensational movie sequences or are filled with row upon row of consumer goods we might buy – endless, tyrannical “freedom of choice”. This conjures the “synthetic wanting” of capitalism, where we can have anything we want but in fact we don’t want anything – a marked and deliberate contrast with that wanting that is so profound it can only express itself through a moaned “oh”, an absence of words. By inserting this plastic desire into the frame of a dream, its permeation is absolute; dreams and reality have become indistinguishable, and the dreaming space of the theatre takes on a strange new identity.

Gazing out of the train window, a tree is just visible over the jagged fences that line the railway, its bare, crooked branches laden with cuddly toys – a grubby menagerie of childhood remnants. Three days later, in the empty yet not empty space of Ovalhouse, another tree, dead and wrenched from nature, glares out at the audience. This tree is draped with a scarf, a plastic doll, one forlorn half of a Christmas cracker. The rescued fragments of performance.

“Performance’s only life is in the present […] Performance’s being […] becomes itself through disappearance” – Peggy Phelan

During one dream sequence, Chris floats the premise that theatre, like so much human ritual, might gain a meaning through its ending. I’m instantly reminded of Peggy Phelan’s insistence on the disappearance of performance, which she claims as the art form’s essential attribute; for Chris, though, this is a problem rather than a liberation, an impossible puzzle of how to cling on to puffs of smoke.

It’s a concern that seems to be validated in the process of writing, itself a kind of performative act. Already the performance is slipping away from me, its memory increasingly clouded in my mind, more so with every moment that passes and every word that I write. But isn’t this thought and writing also a kind of extension of the piece? It’s a remnant of sorts, yes, but also a continuation. And without the one thing ending, the other would not be able to gain shape and meaning.

“We are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads. And above all else, theatre is made to teach us this” – Antonin Artaud

For all its bleak implication, I like the first part of that quote – particularly the image of the sky falling on our heads. It recalls childish fears, summoning those early moments of realisation that the world is capable of collapsing around us. And that childishness seems fitting, as this is something that we first learn as a child, taught by the experience of growing up, but that we later forget and need to be re-taught – if we agree with Artaud – by theatre. It’s at odds with the common idea that theatre is about a fictional elsewhere, that in the theatre we go to hear confessions in the conditional, a world predicated on the “what if”. But today, Chris suggests, theatre might be a space in which to assert the “what is” in the middle of the “what if” that has expanded outwards to swallow all of modern urban life. In the theatre, we need to be reminded of the way the world really is.

There seems, however, to be a certain contradiction in some of what The Forest and the Field is ultimately suggesting. Theatre, if I’ve understood correctly, needs to push against the stultifying “what if” with an assertion of “what is”, a distinction that seemingly makes it separate from the conditionality of the world in which it exists. But at the same time we are told that theatre is “just one small part of everywhere”, in the same way that “dreams are edgeless”. Theatre is and isn’t different to the rest of the world. Or maybe this is in fact doing exactly what I was trying to grasp at in the piece I wrote before seeing the show, confusing that artificial line between inside and outside.

Before I tie my brain in too many knots, I wonder if these are misplaced concerns. Perhaps the most revelatory and intoxicatingly optimistic realisation of the piece is that, as Chris points out, “we haven’t made all the theatre yet”. This isn’t it yet – its yearningly outstretched fingers never quite graze the ideal that Chris is aspiring to – but it also doesn’t have to be. Because of course the accusation that theatre can’t change the world is really just saying that it hasn’t found a way to change the world yet. In a world that’s constantly changing, the accusation doesn’t mean that theatre might not still find a form through which it can initiate that change.

All the way through this response, I’ve kept using the word “piece”. Part of that is just lazy, imprecise writing; as a critic, it’s one of many terms that I use interchangeably when talking about the production in question, even though each of those terms implies something slightly different. But there’s also something a little more precise and considered about that choice of word here.

During a talk at the Bush Theatre’s RADAR season, Chris picked up on this insistent use of “piece” by both the people making theatre and the people writing about it. In response, he posed a challenging series of questions: “If what I make, if what we make, are ‘pieces’, then what’s the whole of which each of those pieces is a piece? And how can I make the work that I share with audiences, and with my fellow artists, representative in every case of the whole of what I want? Socially, politically, sexually. What are the theatrical forms and structures that will enable me to want in public everything I want in private?”

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and I’m not entirely sure The Forest and the Field does either. But it’s sort of liberating to think of this show as not just a solitary, isolated piece and instead to think of it as one piece of a larger whole. We haven’t made the whole yet, and perhaps we don’t yet know how to make it, but we can at least make a start on the pieces.

One O, two Os, three Os. A chain, like the interlinked, messily pritt-sticked rings of paper once hung up around the house at Christmas. You can’t make nothing out of nothing. A double negative, recalling the insistent refrain of Kieran Hurley’s Beats: “it doesn’t mean nothing”. It doesn’t mean nothing.

P.S. The photos of various bits of forest dotted throughout are all mine, taken near my parents’ house in Sussex an in the New Forest. As well as feeling appropriate, it seemed only fair to break up the horrendous volume of words with a bit of visual interest.

Monkey Bars, a Not Quite Review

“That is my world,” one of the performers in Chris Goode and Company’s new show gently tells us, candid but shy. She is talking about singing, her favourite hobby. One day, she continues, she just opened her mouth and discovered that this was something she was good at; “I had a voice”.

It is a poignant and strangely loaded moment in this gorgeously thoughtful slice of theatre, a gentle hour and fifteen minutes that begs us to look again at children and their view of the world. The performer in question is a middle-aged woman, dressed professionally in a crisp black suit, but her words are those of one of the 72 eight to ten year olds interviewed by Goode’s collaborator Karl James to create this delicate verbatim performance. Her one tentative admission is a reminder, like the show as a whole, that children are too often robbed of a voice, denied the opportunity to speak up.

The playing of child characters by adults is, of course, nothing new. Perhaps taking very seriously the warning never to work with children or animals, many productions feature adults who double up as kids, all too often indulging in snotty caricatures. The adults in Monkey Bars, however, are not playing children. They may be speaking the words of primary school kids, but they are demonstrably, emphatically adults. They dress as adults, they speak as adults and Goode’s production places them in conspicuously adult situations, sipping wine or getting ready for work.

Yet, for all this emphasis on adult activity, there are distinct traces of childhood about Naomi Dawson’s design. The set, with its grass-like floor, is mainly composed of large white plastic blocks that are illuminated from within, a cross between building blocks and night lights. While we usually see the performers in deliberately adult set-ups, they also occasionally sit protectively round-shouldered as they eat from lunch boxes, suddenly collapsing back into kids in the playground. The onstage props include, contrastingly, wine glasses and a bubble machine.

This mingling of the mature and the childish hints at the dizzying cocktail of these qualities in all of us, no matter how “grown-up” we may appear. It often seems as though growing up is really a process of gradually realising that we are all making it up as we go along, perpetually waiting for the moment when it all slots into place. Figured in this way, James’ young interviewees are not all that different to their adult performers or audiences.

But one significant point of difference is their lack of power to make themselves heard. As in the scenario I opened with, the frustration of not being listened to is a recurring theme and a major concern of the piece. One of the most heart-tugging monologues comes courtesy of a girl who feels “all alone in the world” when others don’t listen to her, while another child’s broken arm goes unnoticed by adults who ignore his insistence that he is in pain. The desire for superpowers becomes a motif that intermittently resurfaces, implying a fierce longing to change things without knowing how to make an impact.

Forced to listen as we are by the show that Goode has pieced together from these interviews, it is startling just how much these children have to say. While there are, unsurprisingly, some hilarious moments which verge on Children Say the Funniest Things territory, on the whole the piece reveals just how perceptive these young individuals are. Asked about their ambitions, one child wonders whether he will be a tramp or a banker, satirically remarking that they are essentially the same thing. Another two boys berate their generation in the manner of grumpy old men, tutting at girls who try to grow up too fast. Perhaps most affecting are the repeated protestations against war: “I think people should stop now – game over, you know?”

But this is more than just a vehicle for the opinions of children. As a piece of theatre, Monkey Bars is appealingly self-aware. Neatly side-stepping the issues faced by much verbatim theatre and avoiding the need for lengthy programme notes, Chris Goode and Company simply confront their process head-on. One of the first recordings we hear is that of James explaining the concept of the show to the children he is interviewing, an explanation that also conveniently clarifies the process for the audience. The actor representing James at this point adds, with a playful grin, “we’ll see if the audience finds that interesting”.

There is no doubt about whether the end result is interesting – it’s nothing short of fascinating – but as to the purposes of this piece of theatre and its success on those terms, I’m a little more tentative with my praise. Had the show zeroed in on one aspect of childhood and interrogated that individual angle using this intriguing process, it might come across as more of a complete piece, if not perhaps as meaty. Instead, by speaking to these children about such a wide range of subjects, from families to politics, Chris Goode and Company have created a view of the world that is potentially infinite and open-ended. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – I like theatre with question marks – but it makes the piece’s process of selection and editing somewhat problematic.

This touches upon one of my issues with verbatim theatre as a form, which is something I’ve been mulling over for a while and assessing more thoroughly since seeing London Road earlier this month. It is, as a method of theatremaking, overtly “truthful”. By which I mean, because the words are purely those of the subjects, it is their truth – verbal stumbles and all – as unmediated as possible without placing them on the stage before us. It might not be a profound, universal truth, but it is truthful to the experience of those interviewees.

At the same time, however, it screams its artificiality. By being so conspicuously “real”, so hammered home with “erm”s and stammers, it simultaneously advertises the fact that these genuine, un-airbrushed words have been uprooted from their source and dumped on a stage, a transplant which implicates its process. In Monkey Bars, this process attracts even more attention to itself through the additional layer of meaning and representation created by the use of adults to speak the words of children.

So, as a result of this odd, dislocating blend of truth and artificiality, I always feel very aware of the hand of the editor. (That might also be something to do with being a writer) In this particular case, therefore, the tiny part of my brain not enraptured by the show was nagging away at me, asking what the guiding intention was behind these particular choices.

Has the material been selected in such a way as to expose how children swallow and regurgitate the opinions and values of their adult counterparts? Has the guttingly profound been favoured over the silly or mundane? Of course, this is a conversation I would need to have with Chris Goode (and one that I’d be more than happy to engage in if broached), but I couldn’t help wondering: why these stories?

Not that such doubts and questions are substantially damaging to the experience of watching the beautiful, surprisingly urgent piece of theatre that Chris Goode and Company have created. Where Monkey Bars functions perhaps most effectively is as a warning, a reminder and a bleak unveiling of the lies we have come to blindly accept with age. We can smile at childish fears and anxieties, but essentially these are smiles of complacent denial. The world is a scary place; we have simply taught ourselves not to notice.

The (not quite) End

– this is where the review proper (if it can even be considered “proper”) concludes, but there are also a few other, messier, more experimental thoughts that I felt compelled to put into words …

One of the moments in the show that most tickled me was the recording in which a girl who writes stories is asked about her writing, rendered in a scene arranged much like a television interview. It made me quietly giggle because it reminded me so much of myself as a child, always dreaming up other worlds and fiercely scribbling away, deadly serious about whatever tale I was currently spinning. Inspired by this, I found myself thinking about the child I once was, with the below result.

A letter to my younger self:

Hi there. Just me. So … this feels a bit weird. Why am I writing to you? Well, it’s a critical experiment. That probably doesn’t make much sense to you now, but it will one day. Which, I know, is one of the annoying things that adults say when they don’t feel like explaining something, but this time it’s true. Maybe I’ll explain it some time, but right now I have a couple of other things that I want to say.

I want to say that I remember that it’s hard, even though sometimes I forget and think that it used to be easy. People will tell you that it only gets harder, and that might be true, but it’s also pretty hard right now. It’s especially hard right now because people don’t always listen, but that will get better, if only by a little bit.

I also want to say that it’s good that you’ve learnt to pretend. Pretending is important. Not just because watching people pretending will one day be among your favourite things to do, but because the pretending never ends, not really. That’s the big secret. We all still feel like kids playing at being grown-up, hoping that no one will catch us out in the act of make believe.

And one day a man called Chris Goode and some of his friends will, through some pretending that isn’t quite pretending, make you realise that it’s not just you who feels that way. And it will be comforting but also a little bit heartbreaking, though you won’t be quite sure why. You’ll try writing about it anyway though, because that’s what you do.

Well … that’s all I wanted to say, really. I know that writing letters is boring and not as much fun as writing stories, but perhaps occasionally you can write back to me and remind me what it’s like to be a kid? I’d like to be reminded of that. Now you probably want to ask me what it feels like to be an adult, which seems like a fair exchange. But the answer is, I just don’t know.

Oddly, to depart on a complete tangent, writing the above reminded me vividly of Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, a piece of theatre that I think I short-changed slightly on first assessment and that has insistently stayed with me over the intervening weeks. In that show, the child performers address recordings of their younger selves, sadly, ashamedly and sometimes wistfully regarding the people that they used to be.

One of the most heartbreaking moments is one boy’s protestation that “this is not me”. In thinking back to the person I used to be, prompted by Monkey Bars to remember what it was to be a child, I was struck by how I both am and am not that wildly imaginative young person, so much like the little girl in the show who speaks earnestly about her stories. This is not a particularly original thought, but perhaps we are all a long series of different people, simultaneously embodying a number of past versions of ourselves and the person we are in the present moment. The child in us never quite goes away; it just takes an experience like Monkey Bars to be reminded of that.

The reviewed performance was at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Monkey Bars will continue to tour around the country throughout the autumn – full tour dates here.