I Predict a Riot

Originally written for Fest Magazine.

“What makes people act?” Director Clare Quinn’s question sounds simple enough, but its answer is anything but. As her company Gramophones Theatre bring their new show The Smallest Light to the Edinburgh Fringe, the subject of political action feels particularly raw. While television screens beam over images of unrest in Turkey and Brazil, the UK continues to reel from the impact of Occupy and the 2011 summer riots amid a building sense of dissatisfaction with the current government. For Quinn, however, the question of inertia is just as pertinent as that of action.

“I think that we’re actually in a situation now where people believe that protest does not work and so disengage from it,” she explains, partially blaming the way in which protests have been reported in the media in recent years. “Just as the systems of government in this country have failed us, I think traditional forms of protest have as well. I think that protest has been marginalised to the point where it doesn’t really relate to most of our community.”

Gramophones Theatre’s response to this disengagement has been to commit to positive action. Performers Hannah Stone, Ria Ashcroft, Rebecca D’Souza and Kristy Guest have each chosen an issue they care about, from food waste to domestic violence, and set about trying to instigate change. The eventual show will chart their progress. “It’s not very high concept,” Quinn says, almost apologetically. “It’s just about what happens if you try and change something.”

Theatre-maker Daniel Bye agrees with Quinn that the media’s presentation of protest has led to a level of apathy. “There’s a huge amount of misrepresentation of the act of protest, of the people protesting and of the ideas behind the protest,” he says. Of course, as he adds, “the generation of that fear and anxiety is actually quite useful to people who would rather that there wasn’t more widespread protest.”

His new offering, How to Occupy an Oil Rig, finds a solution born from that ubiquitous modern source of both knowledge and frustration: the instruction manual. “For quite a while I’ve been completely fascinated by ‘how to’ videos, instruction manuals, self-assembly kits – all these instructions which purport to make simple the complex,” Bye says. Taking inspiration from ‘how to’ videos on YouTube, the show engages with demonstration both in the political sense and in the sense of explaining how to complete a task.

As well as providing a practical set of instructions about the act of protesting, which exists in constant tension with the irreducible complexity of the issues that protest might be in response to, Bye hopes that this format will begin to demystify political action. “It’s a way of saying this is really a normal thing to do – it’s not an outlandish act.”

This demystifying of protest also takes place in Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation With My Father, which is just what its title suggests: a conversation between protestor Nicklin and her retired police officer father. While the piece is unavoidably political, Nicklin emphasises that it is personal first. “I’ve always thought it has to be about me and my dad,” she says, “because we can debate the issues, but actually that’s the story only I can tell.”

It is important to Nicklin that this personal narrative is told as simply as possible, because “I didn’t want it to look like it could have been made up.” Her hope is that by relating her own experience as honestly as possible and admitting the complexity of the issues she’s addressing, she might prompt audiences to think and talk about these ideas. Above all, she is emphatic about the power of stories: “I think that storytelling is a vital civic act.”

The work of Kieran Hurley, who had Fringe success last year with Beats, is also steeped in storytelling. “I’m kind of obsessed with stories,” he admits with a slight laugh. This was evident inBeats, which told the tale of a teenage boy caught up in the rave culture of the 90s, and is equally important to the new play he has co-written. Chalk Farm, receiving a new production from Thick Skin for this year’s festival, is a response by Hurley and theatre-maker AJ Taudevin to the “reactionary kneejerk conservatism” of the media’s coverage of the 2011 riots. Through storytelling and empathy, Hurley and Taudevin hope to offer an “alternative perspective” on these events.

“It’s just a story, but simplicity and complexity are often two sides of the same coin,” says Hurley. He describes the riots as the play’s backdrop, explaining that it is more about social class and the demonisation of certain sectors of society. While Hurley thinks that all theatre is inherently political, he’s not interested in what he calls “agit-prop polemic”. Instead, he talks about the power of “collectively sharing a little bit of space and imagining possibilities about how we might relate to each other”, and through this process exploring political alternatives.

Nicklin defines political empowerment as “the ability to re-see, to reflect, and to react to the world around us.” Considering theatre’s potential for offering such empowerment, she suggests that it can achieve the first two through providing a space where the world can be seen anew, but that the third is ultimately out of its control. “I don’t think theatre will ever make anyone act,” she concludes. “I think it will just bring you to the point at which you can choose to if you want to.”

Bye equally believes that is up to the individual to choose to act, expressing a certain queasiness about theatre that hopes to provoke its audience to action. “If guilt is what moves an audience to do something when they leave the room, I’m almost not sure that I want them to,” he says. “I would rather recruit an audience’s genuine positive sense of will to act on something.”

This aim to reposition political action as something positive is echoed elsewhere, contrasting with the negative presentation of protest in the media. “If anything, I’d say what we’re making is a celebration of protest,” says Quinn. After all, as she puts it, “having an opportunity to do something about the things that you feel are wrong in the world is a positive, happy, joyful thing.”

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No Place Like Home

Originally written for Exeunt.

In the immortal, celluloid-enshrined words of a ruby-slipper-tapping Dorothy, there’s no place like home. Or at least, even if our birthplace is somewhere from which we run kicking and screaming at the first opportunity, the place we come from inevitably shapes and defines us in some way, as do all the other places we subsequently call home.

So what does our local theatre say about us or about the community it is born from? Growing up in something of a cultural grey zone whose sole theatrical offerings seemed to be incessant tours of Grease and the obligatory ABBA sing-along, my loyalties as a theatregoer were aligned to London almost by default. It is a city I have yet to actually live in, but to which I feel inextricably bound by my connection with its culture. My personal experience, which I suspect is partly down to my hometown’s relative proximity to the huge variety of theatre available in the capital, is thankfully not indicative of the state of regional theatre on the whole. But even in areas with a thriving theatre scene, how much of the work is really wedded to its surroundings?

There is, of course, an immediate flipside to this argument. Just as the dearth of roles for women is not necessarily addressed by female writers, who are often wary of confining themselves to female experience for fear of being shoved in the box labelled “feminist playwright” and never allowed back out, regionality can be shunned by artists operating outside the capital. “Regional” is a tag that risks being used to imply something limited, something insular and blinkered, perhaps even something quaintly pastoral. As Daniel Bye’s column about Northern Stage at St Stephen’s suggested, it is easy for a national theatre culture still largely centred on London to pinpoint regionality as a basis for criticism.

What Bye also proposed, however, is that we should ultimately be proud of where our theatre comes from. In his words, the programme at St Stephen’s was “marinated in its distance from the cultural centre”; whether consciously “regional” or not, work made away from London is inevitably coloured by the site of its origin, as much as London-based theatre is arguably lent a certain quality by its position in the capital. So why are we reluctant to celebrate these regional differences?

As with anything, there are startling exceptions to the picture of regional theatre that I have – admittedly very roughly – begun to sketch above. Chris Goode’s 9, for instance, programmed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of the Transform Festival earlier this year, worked with local people to create a series of solo performances, crafting a piece of theatre fused to its place of origin through tangible human links. Remaining in Yorkshire, Invisible Flock’s Bring the Happy chose to investigate the concept of happiness through the very specific focus of Leeds, while their current project Sand Pilotexplores an equally specific relationship with the natural environment in Morcambe Bay. In a slightly different approach to regionality, Joel Horwood’s  Peterborough was commissioned by Eastern Angles with the brief of responding to the city of its title, a place referred to by the Arts Council as a “cultural cold spot”.

Many other examples could doubtless be cited, but what British theatres often lack is a truly regional aspect to their overall programming. Compared with the system in Germany, for example, where the dramaturgy departments of individual institutions set themes for each season based on a mix of wider social issues and subjects of particular local resonance, the UK model makes a striking contrast. Thanks to the touring structure, London is frequently either the source or the desired end point for work, generating an influx of shows geared towards the capital and casually indifferent to their location. When people complain that the theatre on offer in their local area has no relevance to them, it is easy to appreciate this perspective.

A couple of weeks ago, Lyn Gardner bravely lit the touchpaper in the ever fiery arts funding debate by suggesting that subsidy should be channelled away from major institutions and instead invested into “the bottom of the pyramid”. While this takes us into complex and thorny territory, one vital point that Gardner makes is about the participatory nature of the arts. As she stresses, for those who end up working in this industry, nearly all have found their initial point of entry through involvement of some kind, often no doubt through their local institution.

If such institutions were more attuned to their surrounding area, maybe more of those “ghost” artists that Gardner writes about would recognise the relevance of theatre to them and be able to realise their potential. A more local focus might also enable the feeding of funds into the grassroots, supporting emerging artists in the immediate region in a way that could allow major organisations and smaller companies to happily and productively co-exist.

To distil a piece of theatre down to any one element is of course reductive, ignoring the myriad influences that help to shape it. But to pursue the opposite extreme and discount location entirely is to also ignore something, something beautiful and idiosyncratic and married with a sense of community that is all too often missing from our theatres. As new artistic director Roxana Silbert’s spearheading of Birmingham REP’s centenary season recognises, theatres and artists have a vital role in serving their communities, be that through responsive programming or local engagement. And through this engagement maybe, just maybe, they can secure themselves an integral place for the future.

PULSE Fringe Festival

I’m sitting in an orange camper van – the sort of camper van where chintz comes to die and in which families spend weeks of cramped, forced jollity in the British countryside. Perched on a small bench, a performer kneels almost uncomfortably close, her eyes fixed steadily on mine. In a swift one-on-one performance that brings a whole new meaning to theatrical intimacy, I am told a secret.

This is the Campsite, a venue “dedicated to supporting unfeasible ideas and impractical performance work” at the PULSE Fringe Festival in Ipswich. That might also work as a strapline for the festival as a whole, or at least for the little I saw of it over the weekend (2nd-3rd June). While some of the work is being presented in a finished state (though it must be said that much of this finished work is cordoned off from reviews because of Edinburgh Fringe First eligibility guidelines), this is chiefly a space for experimentation and scratch performances, an opportunity for artists to trial their work outside London. As such, there is a messy feel to proceedings – not necessarily a bad thing, but a fact that can make the festival tricky to write about.

Let’s start, then, with the camper vans. There are five in total, each with its own name, as well as a couple of tents pitched up in the small space behind the New Wolsey Studio. It’s impossible to see everything on the Campsite, but I spend most of my time there in the chintz-decked Joni. The brief secret relayed to me in these surroundings is part of Everything You Ever Wanted to Say But Didn’t, a project curated and performed by Rhiannon Armstrong. The title says it all: Armstrong is collecting admissions from strangers, building an anonymous bank of things left unsaid and performing these in intimate settings. In this sense, the camper van works perfectly for her, enhancing the slightly uncomfortable sense that something private is being shared and compressing the usual distance between performer and audience – in this case an audience of one. It is a nice idea, but an inevitably slight one, particularly as the arbitrarily chosen secret I am told is very short. It is difficult to convey much in a couple of minutes.

The cosy intimacy of Joni works even more effectively for Fergus Evans’ gentle piece about the notion of home. For this, four of us pile into the camper van with Evans, where we write our names and the places we call home on stickers. In this home of kinds, Evans speaks surprisingly movingly about his hometown far away in Atlanta, transporting us from drab drizzle to stifling heat with his unshowy yet poetic words. He also implicitly questions our memories of home and how we describe it to others, delicately exposing the lies he tells and by extension the lies that we all tell when wearing the rose-tinted glasses that seem to inescapably accompany thoughts of the place we call home.

In contrast to the intimacy of these pieces, Daniel Bye’s performance lecture The Price of Everything is an exercise in miniaturising something that is usually performed to a crowd of significantly more than the three of us squeezed onto the camper van bench. I can in some ways see how it might work better in a bigger setting, particularly the powerpoint presentation elements, but there is also something powerful about the ugliness of capitalism being brutally satirised mere inches from you. There is certainly no room to escape or ignore Bye’s thought-provoking investigation into the worth of things versus their monetary value.

This, of course, is just scratching the surface of the diverse array of work on offer in the collection of caravans and tents dotted around the site. I was particularly curious about an interactive performance inspired by Where the Wild Things Are, which based on an outside view seemed to mainly involve noisily testing the caravan’s suspension to breaking point, while I was disappointed to miss a hilarious sounding site-wide musical version of Ghostbusters. The variety, while doubtless hit and miss, is all part of the beauty.

Away from the Campsite, which is pretty much a case of rock up and see what’s going on, the shows elsewhere follow a slightly more structured pattern. However, this doesn’t necessarily make them easier to write about. The performances at PULSE often resist being weighed up and judged within any formal structure, not least because many of them are still works in progress (more on that later), but in a slight nod to the traditional review format I’ve collected together some thoughts on each of the individual shows below:

[Where the piece is a work in progress, I’ve indicated this with an asterisk. I also saw Thin Ice and My Robot Heart, but both have review embargoes ahead of Edinburgh.]

Good Boy*

Joseph Mercier’s short work in progress advertises itself as a dance solo, but contains strikingly little movement. For the majority of the twenty five minute piece, Mercier speaks Felix Lane’s text (inspired by Jean Genet) in a strangely haunting monotone from behind a microphone, intermittently lit by mesmerising, pulsing spotlights. The sexually explicit yet poetic language draws primarily on Genet’s portrayals of homosexuality and the idea of being an outcast, confronting uncomfortable taboos with softly spoken words.

The gestures may be minimal, but even the simple clenching and opening of a fist speaks of the guarded harshness and open vulnerability that mingle within the piece. The tenderest moment arrives when a member of the audience dances slowly with Mercier on the stage, suggestive of the delicate connections that can be forged between strangers. The show lacks coherence and unity, but this may be a symptom of its currently unfinished state. Even with its flaws, however, I found myself oddly absorbed without being able to quite pin down why.

Emily’s Very Sad Play*

Despite being one of the roughest, sketchiest performances of the weekend, this was also one of the most fascinating. I’ve already laid out a few initial thoughts on the show, which I’ll attempt to extend a little further here. Starting with the basics, Sara Pascoe’s solo performance is about Emily, a character of questionable sanity who is struggling to separate her own story from all those she has read in books. She lies, plagiarises, continually spouts literature and searches for the truth. It is, as I have already written about, an intriguing and intelligent investigation of the intertextuality of our lives, playing with the literary fabric of the knowledge we gain almost by osmosis, questioning how much of our identity we borrow from books. Emily is an extreme, but none of us are entirely free from the influences that threaten to swallow her whole.

The piece is performed in a stream of consciousness style by Pascoe, an appealingly oddball and often very funny performer. Our ideas of madness are challenged, as Emily tells us that “it’s easy to prove you’re crazy – just say everything you’re thinking”. After all, how sane are any of us really? Another interesting element that I only lightly touched upon previously is the implicit examination of women and madness. Emily’s literary references, from Medea to Ophelia, plug into a recurring literary trope of female madness and hysteria, and it seems significant to this character’s relationship with literature that she is a woman (here my mind immediately leapt to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic). Emily’s obsession with pregnancy is linked to a conception of the female sex as defined by motherhood, while her humorous description of the unrealistic romantic expectations engendered by the likes of Jane Austen hits on an uncomfortable truth. These ideas are not fully fleshed out in this early version of the show, but they open up discussions that I’m keen to see continued.

Tatty-Del Are Making It Work*

… or “can friends make art together?” tatty-del, a collaboration between friends and theatremakers Natalie and Hanna, were in trouble. Last year, Natalie attempted to “break up” with Hanna following multiple artistic disappointments, prompting the pair to go to couples’ therapy and delve into past friendships to try and (you guessed it) make it work. This work in progress is the result of that process, a messy patchwork of memories and conversations that address the nature of friendship and collaboration. These ideas are approached with humour, as the pair take us back through adolescent relationships that prove cringingly recognisable and establish the extent to which our friendships influence who we become.

While the compatibility of art and friendship is a big idea to tackle and one in which few conclusions are reached, almost more interesting is the way in which tatty-del figure our memories of friendship. Once important relationships become amusing anecdotes, told over and over again until they are little more than stories (something that is underlined by the inherent artificiality of repeated performance). It is fascinating to see acted out before us the way in which our past friendships become markers in the story of our lives, exposing the half-fictions we all build around our own identity. In the show’s current bitty and confused incarnation, I’m not quite sure that Natalie and Hanna are making it work, but this certainly feels like the start of something rather than the ending that the duo came so close to.

Legs 11

Tom Marshman, a performer with long, shapely legs and a history of varicose veins, ended up being an unlikely finalist in Pretty Polly’s search for the best legs in the country. This appealingly quirky true story forms the basis for Marshman’s solo show, an odd cabaret-style performance that takes us on a journey through Marshman’s turbulent relationship with his legs and brings in elements of gender identity. There are some striking images that emerge: the piece opens with Marshman in relative darkness, speaking breathily into his microphone, as an almost hypnotising display of synchronised leg movements is projected onto a screen; during the operation to remove his varicose veins, Marshman holds out a blue, plastic surgical gown as a screen behind which his legs are hauntingly silhouetted, all to a soundtrack of waves lapping the shore. There is also some particularly inventive audience participation involving punch, tights and a pair of very long straws (I’ll cryptically leave it at that for you to conjure your own image).

Somewhere during the hour-long performance, however, Marshman lost me. In his opening address to the audience, he suggests that his experiences will have something to say about the wider issue of body confidence, but the only body under the microscope here is Marshman’s. Perhaps my disappointment with the show is partly to do with it not delivering what I was hoping for, in which case its perceived shortcomings are a result of my own subconscious prejudices, but this ultimately seems like little more than a mildly entertaining ego-trip. Marshman may well have overcome his body issues, and should be congratulated for that. The self-congratulation he thrusts upon his audience, however, eventually becomes just plain boring.

Buttercup

Tom Wainwright’s odd little creation was one of the surprise joys of the weekend for me. The eponymous Buttercup is a “fat cow” from Lancashire, an unloved character who finds herself thrust into the limelight when she is selected to take part in a Jamie Oliver show, a brush with fame that leads to a stint on Masterchef and her very own reality show, The Only Way is Lancashire. As might be expected from this description, Wainwright’s is a show that skewers our obsession with reality television and our fetishisation of fame, albeit very amusingly. He also has a good prod at lazy middle-class perceptions of characters such as Buttercup and at a London-centric view of the country.

This sixty-minute show is for the most part riotously funny. Alongside his characterisation of Buttercup, accompanied with spirited stamps and tail swishes, Wainwright proves to be a mean impressionist, switching between uncanny imitations of TV chefs and the “stars” (inverted commas firmly in place) of The Only Way is Essex. The laughs have a harsh edge, however, that elevates this into something far more interesting than an exercise in imitation, while startling moments of emotional truth break through the comedy. Making your audience laugh at themselves and following that with a bitter pill of realisation is quite a skill, and one that Wainwright pulls off effortlessly. Hilarious it may be, but this is comedy with bite.

Goose Party

The weekend concludes, appropriately, with a party. Little Bulb, probably best known for fringe hit Operation Greenfield, present a performance that is more of a gig than anything else. The infectiously energetic group veer from folk to blues to rock, all with equal flair, concluding their schizophrenic musical stylings with the observation that each of us is “a hundred different people”. There is a loose message about identity in there, but this is really about having a good time, which Little Bulb are extraordinarily good at. As the performances ratchet up their energy, we are assaulted with bubbles, glitter, feathers, costume changes galore. There soon remains little option but to grin stupidly and be taken along by it all. To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure how else to write about Goose Party; it’s tough to distil pure joy.

——–

Alongside assessing the work on an individual, specific basis, I have a few wider questions born out of the weekend that I’d also like to address – or, in some cases, to simply ask. Firstly, this issue of how to write about work in progress. It’s something that Lyn Gardner recently wrote about for the Guardian, in a piece in which she expressed concerns that reviewing work in the early stages of its development might be damaging rather than constructive. That might well be the case within the mainstream media review format, limited to a few hundred words and forced to stamp the piece with a star rating, but is it any different in the online space?

I must admit, I’m not sure. I think that constructive dialogue is an important stage in developing a piece of work, but whether a review is the best way in which to conduct such dialogue is questionable. This possibility of conversation between theatremakers and (for want of a better word) critics is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and something that has been influenced by my own recent experience of being invited into a rehearsal room. I don’t have huge confidence in my own ability to help shape a piece of work with my input, but I’m ready to try, whether that be airing my thoughts in a rehearsal room or scribbling them down. While I’m not restricted by word limits in this space, the sheer volume of work at PULSE has caused me to rein in my responses slightly, but if any of the theatremakers involved in the shows I’ve written about above happen to be reading this and want to talk further, then please feel free to get in touch.

Secondly, an intriguing thought occurred to me while watching tatty-del’s show about truth and artificiality in performance. I’m probably not saying anything new here, but I had a slight light bulb moment in connection with the tension in theatre between repetition and liveness. What do I mean? Well, theatre (or at least most theatre) is essentially the same thing night after night; the same lines, the same movements, the same scenes being played out. Yet simultaneously it is a live art form and therefore necessarily shifting and ephemeral. The former brings with it artificiality, because everything is carefully planned and repeated, but the latter implies a sort of truth that is inherent in the liveness and unique to that moment.

These thoughts were prompted by tatty-del because their piece was about emotional truth within their relationship and at the same time about how fake some elements of friendship can be, both of which seemed wrapped up in their style of performing. Which made me think that perhaps in scratch performances, this paradox sits closer to the surface than in most theatre, lending such performances an element of excitement and discovery that has sometimes been ironed out of slick, finished work. Of course, whether a piece of theatre is ever really finished is another question entirely and one that also came up when I recently sat in on rehearsals, but I’ll leave that particular door closed for now.

Even after writing at such length, there’s still lots more to digest and think over. What sort of implications do the experiments taking place at festivals such as PULSE have for the wider dynamic between performer and audience? How do these festivals contribute to the theatre ecosystem as a whole, and where do they sit within that? Is the availability of this work outside London actually having any impact on regional theatre? I had one conversation with a fellow writer and festival-goer about the concern that we are just talking to ourselves; he was worried that the same people attend the same sort of events and that there is no new audience for this work. Looking around at the sparse audiences for some of the shows and recognising the same faces certainly reinforces that concern. Does it matter that this is the case if such festivals continue to support the process of making work? And how do these events engage new audiences? I’m not going to attempt to answer such questions here, but they deserve to be asked.

Finally, in the spirit of honesty, I have to confess that I found the weekend a bit of a struggle. An enjoyable struggle, certainly, but a struggle nonetheless. There is something about work in progress that proves more demanding of an audience than finished work, but beyond the work itself it was also difficult to document it. I had hoped that the festival would be an opportunity to explore new and different modes of theatre criticism, including a range of mediums and immediate responses, but I underestimated the hectic festival atmosphere and my own need to mull things over. While I made some attempts at live-blogging, I discovered that it was tougher than it appears and that perhaps I just wasn’t very good at it.

Before this gets too downbeat, I’m still enthusiastic about the possibilities of digital criticism, I just have to concede that my own brand of digital criticism, like much of the work at PULSE, is still at an embryonic stage. But both are a start.

For my aforementioned fragmented attempts at documenting my festival experience, take a look at my Tumblr blog, my collected tweets from the weekend and my Pinterest festival pin board. I will also be writing a more concise round-up for Fourthwall.

Translunar Paradise & Critical Distance

If you’ll forgive the cliché, sometimes less really can be more, as Theatre ad Infinitum prove with their delicate essay on love and loss. The plot is simple, the production accomplished through a blend of simplicity and ingenuity. The elderly male protagonist is coming to terms with the loss of his wife, still taking down two cups from the cupboard instead of one, rifling through suitcases brimming with memories; his wife’s ghost looks on, gently but firmly wrenching herself from his grieving grasp. This is all told, over an hour, with no words. Instead we have the sigh and hum of an accordion, the narrative precision of movement. In a beautifully judged touch, masks are inventively used to convey age, whipped away to transport the couple back to their youth and lightly hinting at the deceptive proximity of these two states.

Through a series of smoothly executed flashbacks, we are given a glimpse into this couple’s life together, from the moment they meet, through their small joys and disappointments, to the little tragedies that touch their existence and eventually wrench them apart. Into this moving story of the lives of one ordinary couple, Theatre ad Infinitum even manage to weave one of the most chillingly evocative visualisations of war and its traumatic psychological scars that I’ve seen on the stage. On real and dreamed battlefields, performer George Mann is pummelled by invisible blasts, painfully contorted, violently tossed about by nightmarish forces. Not all of Spielberg’s mud and gore can quite match it for emotional force.

Speaking of emotional force, while watching I couldn’t help thinking of Lovesong. While these may in many senses be two very different pieces of theatre, there are common elements that immediately leap out: the process of a man coming to terms with the idea of losing his wife, the centrality of physical movement, the melting of past into present. I found, however, that Translunar Paradise was more genuinely moving in its wordless simplicity than Lovesong was in all its none too subtle emotional manipulation. Sobbing is all very well (though not something I’m particularly susceptible to in the theatre, to my immense discomfort as everyone around me at the Lyric Hammersmith sniffed into their tissues) but an excess of tears can blur meaning beyond intelligibility.

While Lovesong sacrificed promising debates about the nature of time in favour of prodding at our tear ducts, here such underlying strands are given more nuanced exploration. Through what is, on the surface, an ordinary tale of two ordinary people, Theatre ad Infinitum delicately investigate the fluidity of time and, linked to this, memory. Form subtly reflects content; the flashbacks emerge as snapshots, flicked through with vivid energy. These elegantly choreographed scenes from the past rather appropriately have the stuttering quality of early film, jumping from action to action, meticulously wrought expression to expression. There is all the frenetic motion of memory and the seemingly speeded up time of youth.

After seeing this moving and beautifully assembled piece, however, I found myself thinking as much about how my impression of the performance had been refracted through my experience of speaking to creator Mann as I was thinking about the show itself. This is not to detract from Translunar Paradise in any way, but perhaps rather to detract from my own abilities and assumptions as a reviewer. As a result, this has morphed from a review into a not-quite-review with a bit of reflection on the distance between theatremakers and critics thrown into the mix.

This issue of distance was not something that had previously worried me. Yes, I sometimes review shows after writing features about those shows, but usually I still feel qualified to form an independent opinion; I don’t know the creators of the theatre well enough from one short interview to be swayed by any personal connection to them, and often there is much about the piece that still remains to be discovered even after discussing it. While it might have put a slightly different slant on those reviews, I hadn’t really thought about it in any great depth until recently.

Then the idea of ’embedded’ critics started getting thrown around. A good place to get started if you’re new to this discussion is Andrew Haydon’s blog, where he has written twice about the idea of embedded criticism, with Daniel Bye’s response making good follow up reading. Distilled down and somewhat simplified, embedded criticism denotes the deeper involvement of the critic in the piece of theatre they are writing about, be that a full immersion in the creative process or more of a surface paddle. There are lots of different ways in which this might function in practice, but the driving idea behind it is that being embedded in the process could provide illumination on both sides: critics bring their outside eye and in return gain insight into the process of making.

I’m not going to discuss embedded criticism and all its benefits and drawbacks here, partly because others have already done so fairly comprehensively and partly because I’m yet to fully make my mind up about it. I’m equally fascinated by, excited about and wary of the idea. Which brings me to the particular wariness I felt while watching Translunar Paradise. I think these concerns arose in relation to this particular production simply because Mann spoke in such eloquent detail about the process of meticulously piecing this show together. Through hearing about creative choices, I felt somehow involved in them, and the end product immediately prompted memories of the process that Mann described to get to this stage. As such, I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects.

There is always the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that as an audience member you will be unable to distinguish between whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to. There are even occasions, such as I found with Headlong’s confused and frankly bizarre touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.

Aware of this danger, doubts insidiously imposed themselves on my reading of Translunar Paradise. Was this really an exercise in precision, or did I simply see precision because I knew about the lengthy creative process? Here I feel fairly confident that yes, Theatre ad Infinitum’s work was beautifully precise, but when it comes to other building blocks of the piece I am less certain. Would I have read quite so much into the choice of accordion accompaniment had Mann not spoken about the importance of an instrument that “breathes”? Would I have picked up on the influences of photography and graphic novels? How much would I have scrutinised the physical embodiment of age had Mann not admitted that it took him a lot of work to perfect the gait of an old man?

But for all my doubts, I also feel immensely grateful for the insight that I gained into the process that made this piece of work. Ultimately I found watching Translunar Paradise a hypnotically captivating experience, which I suspect was a mixture of the show itself and the tiny glimpse I had gained of its loving creation. I also hope that any insight provided by Mann’s words might enhance the experience for other audience members. It’s a lot like the magician and his illusions; magical as it might be to be tricked and dumbfounded, another part of the mind always wants to know how it works, to feel for the cracks. And sometimes being shown the process behind the illusion even makes the illusion itself all the more beguiling.

Image: Alex Brenner