SmallWaR, Traverse Theatre

SmallWar-brochure-_2995274b

BigMouth, the powerhouse show that Valentijn Dhaenens premiered at the 2012 Fringe, was all about oratorical sway. Now SmallWaR offers a bleak snapshot of what those speeches really mean for ordinary men and women. Joining the rash of World War I centenary productions, the show discusses both the First World War and conflict in general through the voices of those who experienced it firsthand.

Inspired by a collection of war testimony and owing a heavy debt to the likes of Johnny Got His Gun, SmallWaR offers up various fragments of conflict and its aftermath. These are expressed by Dhaenens in the guise of a nurse, sitting or standing at the front of the Traverse’s wide stage, and by the shadowy soldier figures (all recorded copies of Dhaenens) who appear as projections on the screen that slices across the playing space.

In this ghostly hospital ward, voices rise and fall; reflections, letters home, quiet howls of despair. These scraps of found text are knitted together by the nurse, commenting calmly on the horror she witnesses around her, and by the thoughts and dreams of a man who has lost all means of movement and communication, barely remaining alive in his hospital bed – a medical “miracle”.

As a companion piece to BigMouth, immediately linked by the same unsettling rendition of “Nature Boy”, SmallWaR makes a chilling follow-up. Here lies the result of all that rhetoric: broken bodies and tortured minds. And all that talk of democracy and honour and glory means nothing when staring death in the face. As Dhaenens dully intones, “nobody dies for something”.

Yet this all feels surprisingly distant. There is certainly rage in SmallWaR’s sentiment, but not in its cool execution. Dhaenens’ sleek, controlled delivery is pitch perfect as a series of persuasive leaders in BigMouth or a slippery politician in Ontroerend Goed’s Fight Night, but here it jars with the intent of his words. There are moments of quiet, haunting impact, but Dhaenens never reaches across the gulf between stage and audience to infect us with the fury that radiates from his text.

“If I had a mouth, I would scream,” a disembodied voice tells us through the speakers. Dhaenens has the means to speak, but his is a resigned sigh rather than a yell of anger.

Advertisements

Banksy: The Room in the Elephant

5623188440_a4ca36eaa3_o

“Ain’t no one want the truth, they want the story.”

In February 2011, ever-elusive street artist Bansky spray-painted the words “this looks a bit like an elephant” on the side of a water tank in Los Angeles. This tank, abandoned up in the hills, had been a man’s home for the last seven years. Of course, as soon as word spread that there was a new Banksy work on the loose, art dealers quickly swooped in to remove it from its site, with hopes of making a tidy profit. The tank’s inhabitant was left homeless.

It’s a good story. So it is hardly surprising that journalists quickly latched onto it, desperate to find out more about Tachowa Covington, the man who had made the water tank his home. Speculation spiralled around Covington’s life, his residence in the water tank, the circumstances of his eviction and the mysterious intentions of Banksy. One such article in the Independent inspired director Emma Callander, who asked Tom Wainwright to write a play about this series of events. So here was another story, and now that the piece arrives at the Arcola on its latest tour, it is joined by an additional piece in the jigsaw puzzle: Hal Samples’ documentary film Something From Nothing.

I first saw Banksy: The Room in the Elephant at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, armed with relatively little information about its intriguing subject. Wainwright, who has changed Covington’s name to Titus Coventry for the purposes of the play, has framed the tale within the fictional context of the water tank’s inhabitant telling his own story. Gary Beadle’s Coventry has broken back into the tank, now held in a secure warehouse in LA, and is recording a video of his version of events, with the intention of uploading it to YouTube. The show is careful throughout to remain playful in its handling of truth and fiction, inserting the storytellers into the tale and troubling the narrative it relates (if not always with a subtle hand). We are never entirely sure what to believe.

There is an irony, as Wainwright admits, in becoming part of the “land grab” for Covington’s story at the same time as he implicitly critiques it. Essentially, this play is embarking on the same act of artistic and narrative appropriation committed by both Banksy and the journalists who followed in his wake. Its possible redemption, however, is in its insistent questioning of the stories we tell, how they are told, and who gets to tell them. It’s no accident that Wainwright’s script is drenched in borrowed Hollywood references; I’m reminded of Hannah Nicklin’s comment that capitalism has stolen our stories and is selling them back to us. Everybody here has a story, we are told of LA, but not everyone has the power or the platform to tell theirs. Covington, for one, seems to have been refused the right to his own story.

With all of this in mind, it’s fascinating to watch the show a second time alongside Something From Nothing. The documentary actually pre-dates Banksy’s intervention; filmmaker Hal Samples had a chance encounter with Covington while in LA in August 2008 and began filming him and his eccentric home. After public interest in Covington exploded, Samples continued making the film, which goes on to chart its subject’s life post-Banksy and document his journey to Edinburgh to watch the play (to which he gave his blessing, before starting on some performing of his own).

It’s an engrossing film, but watched through the lens of the preceding play it is seen with wary eyes. For all the assumed authority of the documentary form, this is still, unavoidably, just one part of the story. While Covington might get the chance to speak up and to share the work of art he made out of the water tank long before Banksy came along, his life is nevertheless seen once again from another’s perspective. Leaving the Arcola, interest freshly piqued by this extraordinary character and his attempt to live outside the structures of society, I still feel that I have seen the story, not the truth.

Beginnings and Endings

Show_3-600x399

Originally written for Exeunt.

Let’s start with a beginning.

Sitting in the stalls of the newly plastic-swathed Lyric Hammersmith this September, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such palpable anticipation in the moments before a show. As suggested by the words “Secret Theatre”, most of us in the audience did not know quite what to expect. The curtain was eventually raised to reveal the performers in a line at the back of the stage, dressed in plain white shorts and vests. Accompanied by a sinister, clinical voiceover, these figures rushed forward to drink from bowls of water, scrambling over one another in a desperate, animalistic struggle. What followed might not have been the best show of the year, but it is hard to think of a more memorable opening.

As I attempt to craft some sort of assessment of the year in theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre project feels like an apt emblem for the change that is slowly pressing in on multiple sides. This time last year, writing another of these deeply subjective round-ups, I reflected that 2012 felt like a year of “small tectonic shifts”. While those shifts might not have precipitated a violent eruption of change across the landscape of British theatre, the last 12 months have nonetheless seen ripples of movement – just more gradually than perhaps anticipated.

Unlike the noisy, thrilling arrival of Three Kingdoms last year, the changes of 2013 have been subtle and structural, hinting more at future promise than present fulfilment. Chief among these changes is the exciting wave of new artistic directors who have either taken up post or been announced: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield. Whether these appointments will really offer the shake-up they hint at is still to be seen – though the early signs of Featherstone’s tenure are encouraging – but the collective urge for new ways of working is clear.

The impetus towards change is also characteristic of one vein of work that has particularly stayed with me this year. The phrase “political theatre” always feels like a misnomer – isn’t all theatre political in some way? – but a clutch of angry, thoughtful and passionate productions in 2013 have dealt specifically with ideas of political change and protest. How to Occupy an Oil Rig playfully explored the demonstration (in every sense), while Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father offered a decidedly personal perspective on protest – almost reducing me to tears in the process. And another kind of activism is at the heart of Bryony Kimmings’ bold and brilliant Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel project, which twice bowled me over with both its raw emotion and the galvanising ambition of its aims.

Elsewhere, the potential for future change was more lightly hinted at. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dan Hutton and I noted the theme of hope that threaded its way through several of the productions we saw, complicatedly paired with both critique and irony. Contrived as this narrative perhaps is, it is one that has retrospectively haunted many of this year’s shows, inflecting my way of watching and thinking about theatre. From its very explicit presence in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening to its troublesome ghost in The Events, the question of hope has been a key feature of much of the most interesting work I’ve seen over the past 12 months.

Chris Goode's The Forest and The Field ©Richard Davenport

Closely linked to hope is the idea of community, which is often vaunted as being at the heart of theatre as an art form. We share the same space in the theatre, after all, so we must be a community of sorts, right? This was tested in various ways by much of the best theatre of 2013, be it the stunning yet gentle intellectual interrogation of Chris Goode and Company’sThe Forest and the Field or the joyously communal celebration of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – which arguably nailed the whole thing by staging itself in a pub and throwing in some song and dance for good measure.

Similarly to Prudencia Hart, music was a key ingredient of the fleeting community forged night after night in Edinburgh by The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project; food took the same role in Only Wolves and Lions, reminding me of the simple community we build when we cook and eat together. It’s not insignificant that that last example was part of Forest Fringe, a gorgeous instance of transitory artistic community in the midst of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. This community also offered up countless other small scale theatrical highlights of the year, among them Ira Brand’s delicate contemplation on ageing, a consideration of our addiction to virtual communities in I Wish I Was Lonely, and Deborah Pearson’s haunting The Future Show.

One show that managed to be both small and epic was Grounded, the absolute standout production of the Fringe for me. The remarkable Lucy Ellinson once again looms large over my theatregoing memories of the year after her compelling delivery of George Brant’s tightly written, blistering monologue, all the while imprisoned within the striking grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s design (as an aside, cubes seemed to be big this year – see Chimerica). Ellinson also dazzled, though very differently, in #TORYCORE, a deafening, devastating scream of rage against the destructive policies of the coalition government.

And it was not only the politicians of today who found themselves criticised in theatres this year. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a number of pieces have already directly or obliquely approached her legacy. Theatre503’s quickfire offering of short plays produced a decidedly mixed bag, although Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho’s glorious drag queen rendering of the Iron Lady has deservedly lingered in my memory. The difficulty of discussing Thatcher’s legacy was addressed in all its complexity by Mars.tarrab’s brilliantly titled The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, while perhaps the most striking visual representation of Thatcher came courtesy of Squally Showers, a show that touched on her and her politics only indirectly. Yet somehow, in the image of a performer in a Thatcher mask holding aloft an inflatable globe while surrounded by the detritus of a wild party, Little Bulb wordlessly directed a powerful judgement at the world left to Thatcher’s children.

Little Bulb's Squally Showers

Squally Showers also provided plentiful helpings of sheer joy, a theatrical quality not to be underestimated. Alongside the charming eccentricity of Little Bulb’s latest show, the Edinburgh Fringe also offered the utterly bonkers but irresistibly endearing Beating McEnroe,which will forever leave me with the glorious memory of Jamie Wood pretending to be a tennis ball. An equally joyous moment to imprint itself on my mind this year emerged from Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, in which I screamed with laughter at the four male performers’ move by move recreation of the dance in the Kate Bush music video, while the final scene of rain-drenched anarchy in the RSC’s As You Like It topped off a production that was a delight from start to finish. And no assessment of theatrical joy in 2013 would be complete without pausing to remember Zawe Ashton’s frankly inspired rendition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ in Narrative, a show that achieved the rare feat of being both absolutely hilarious and intellectually meaty.

While it may not fit neatly within the thematic threads I’m attempting to loosely weave through my overview of the year, any consideration of 2013 has to include a mention for Headlong. The company has had a ridiculously successful 12 months, encompassing the slick, stylish storytelling of Chimerica, a bold and theatrically astute new interpretation of The Seagull and – best of all in my opinion – the complete headfuck of Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s stunningly intelligent adaptation of 1984. I’ve missed out on American Psycho,but from the outside it appears to offer a striking end to a fairly extraordinary year for Headlong.

As averse as I am to naming any one production “best”, when looking back over the year I find my mind dragged time and time again back to Mission Drift. For many this hardly counts as a “new” production, having first been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but this summer’s run at the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space was my first opportunity to see The TEAM’s dizzying trip through 400 years of American capitalism. Fast-paced, sexy and beautiful to look at, Mission Drift can also justifiably be described as epic, an adjective that I rarely find myself applying to theatre. Its scope, energy and excitement has become my personal benchmark against which to measure the year’s theatre, and very little in the subsequent months has equalled it.

As I opened this narrative with a beginning, I might as well close with an ending. Looking ahead to 2014, February will see the dismantling of The Shed, whose garish red silhouette on the South Bank has come to stand for vitality and experimentation at the heart of an institution often associated with tradition – as the narrative it spun to celebrate its 50th anniversary did little to challenge. One can only hope that The Shed’s spirit of innovation, together with that of Secret Theatre and Vicky Featherston’s Open Court festival this summer, finds a way to continue into the next 12 months.

I also contributed to a collective look back at 2013’s theatre with the rest of Exeunt’s writers.

Rosie Wyatt

BLINK_3_Rosie Wyatt as Sophie_Photo Sheila Burnet (2)

Originally written for The Stage.

Rosie Wyatt loves to look audience members right in the eye. In Bunny, a solo show about a teenage girl increasingly out of her depth, she offered an intense portrait of adolescent swagger and anxiety, breathlessly delivering Jack Thorne’s narrative directly to the audience. In the absence of connection and intimacy available to her character in Blink, she instead gazed outwards, finding points of contact with spectators; even delivering a script-in-hand reading, her stare can penetrate right through a play.

“It’s just about being really honest and genuinely telling a story,” Wyatt explains when we speak, quickly adding, “not acting talking to the audience, but actually talking to the audience. That sounds like something really simple but it is very different.” With care, she discusses the unique demands of direct audience address, in which “the audience are your other character”.

“If you act a traditional scene with dialogue, you’re always looking at how you’re affecting that other person and what you want to do to that other person in the scene. When you’re talking right out to the audience it’s the same thing: it’s what do I want to do to the audience, what am I trying to tell the audience?”

This way of relating to an audience was initially developed while performing in Bunny, Wyatt’s first job out of drama school. Thorne’s blistering monlogue went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 – where it won a Fringe First – travelled down to London for a run at Soho Theatre, and eventually ended up in New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway season. “It couldn’t have been a better start for me really,” says Wyatt, describing herself as “incredibly lucky”. “You can’t ask for more from a first job: for it to be able to give you your debut, your London debut and then your New York debut.”

But it must have been intimidating to take on a one-woman show straight out of drama school? “Yes, petrifying,” Wyatt says with a laugh. “It was an amazing experience because I got this showcase that was just me, but it was also incredibly exposing and scary.”

This showcase certainly opened doors; “it got me in front of people and got me to meet a lot of people,” Wyatt says. The play’s success quickly led to her second job in the Paines Plough tour of Love, Love, Love, and she says that even her casting in this year’s national and international tour of One Man, Two Guvnors can be traced back to that first job. Other gigs to follow the acclaim of Bunny have included roles in Mogadishu, Blink and most recently Virgin – all new plays.

Despite this impressive track record with new writing, Wyatt reveals that her passion for acting has much more traditional roots. “I sort of fell in love with the theatre because of Shakespeare,” she tells me, recalling the regular trips she used to make to RSC productions while she was a sixth form student in Stratford-Upon-Avon. “I hadn’t really known about the world of new writing until I stepped into it doing Bunny,” Wyatt admits. Now, however, she describes working on new plays and originating roles as “the biggest joy” of what she does, adding, “I feel very happily placed in the world of new writing”.

The other notable feature of Wyatt’s career to date is the amount of touring work she has taken on. As well as the tour of One Man, Two Guvnors, which visited destinations such as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, Wyatt has taken to the road with Bunny, Love, Love, Love and Mogadishu. “I don’t think it gets any easier,” she says of the touring lifestyle, “but I think what you do is learn your way of doing it that keeps you sane.”

What she relishes, however, is the opportunity to constantly perform in front of new audiences. “Every play I’ve done, you find that you get different responses in each city,” Wyatt says. “That’s so interesting and that’s something that I feel like I’ve been really lucky to get to do.” While these regional and cultural differences can sometimes be challenging – particularly when elements of the humour in One Man, Two Guvnors got lost in translation – Wyatt explains that “you just learn to always bring to it the same energy and always give that best version of the performance that you would want to give”.

Wyatt will soon have the opportunity to travel again as she returns to Blink, which is going out to India before opening for a second time at the Soho Theatre in December. Phil Porter’s off-kilter romance, which Wyatt first performed in at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, tells the story of an unusual relationship between two shy outsiders – not the most obvious export. Wyatt confesses that she’s got “no idea how they’re going to engage with our little love story”, but she is excited to return to the play.

“I think actually the experience of re-rehearsing something having had some distance and some time away from it is really quite valuable,” she reflects. “Returning to a script you already know but with fresh eyes is really useful and makes for an interesting production. In a script as good as the one Phil has written, there’s always more to be found and more to get to know about these two characters.”

Photo: Sheila Burnet

The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity

Web-Infinite-Nullity-Summerhall_view

Revisiting a production for a second viewing is always a slightly odd experience. The performance is strangely haunted, inevitably occupied by the lingering ghosts of that previous encounter. Each movement appears like an echo of its last enactment and each moment is stained with a dreamlike residue of familiarity. The performance is at once the same and different.

This metaphor of haunting is particularly apt for Clout Theatre’s new show, in which the dead do not pester the living so much as the living revisit the dead. The three figures who populate the piece are stranded in a sort of purgatorial state, stuck in a relentless cycle of living and dying; kicking the bucket in ever more ingenious and gruesome ways, in between which they are desperate to achieve the semblance of life. Elements of the lives they have left doggedly return to them – unfinished business that refuses to release its hold.

I first saw The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity on the Edinburgh Fringe this August, in the suitably atmospheric surroundings of Summerhall’s Demonstration Room. Watching the piece then, although able to admire the stunning images crafted by Clout Theatre, I struggled to fully engage with it. That might, admittedly, have had as much to do with the context of Edinburgh as with the show itself. Let’s not pretend that seeing four or five shows a day leaves a critic in the freshest state of mind when approaching new work.

Whatever the reasons, I took a lot more from The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity on this second viewing. Particularly with heavily visual work of this kind, it strikes me that you often almost need two chances to take it all in and process it effectively. There were elements that I missed, had half-forgotten or didn’t fully consider the first time around: the grey wash that repeatedly floods the stage, suggesting the surreal tedium of this existence; the shadowy, ghost-like movements visible behind the set’s plastic shroud; the importance of the childhood motifs that keep popping up.

This final strand was one that particularly struck me when watching the show at BAC. In this second encounter with the piece, the childlike behaviour that often characterises the performances suddenly seemed hugely, glaringly important to the whole thing. There are hints – in the items of school uniform, in the water guns spewing fake blood, in the gurning, exaggerated throes of death – of familiar playground games; playing dead, only here they aren’t playing at all. This recurring element also adds to the heightened and often hilarious tone of the show as a whole, which insistently draws out the ridiculousness of both life and death. It’s at once funny, tragic and grotesque.

Previously I had complained that the various striking scenes that make up The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity “feel like a string of stage images and little more”. Revisiting this opinion, I still feel that the piece is a little slight, but its images speak powerfully for themselves. Tea cups – ever-present symbols of banality – suddenly slice open throats; fake blood splatters against plastic; an innocuous skipping rope becomes a deadly weapon; a performer’s face is horrifyingly drenched in red liquid.

And then, perhaps, the most effective image of all: a woman lying on the floor, draped in plastic, her incessant, trivial chatter slowly muffled by a downfall of earth. Buried alive and still worrying about what to cook for dinner. Moments like this are when Clout Theatre are at their best, tapping into the essential absurdity of everyday existence and presenting it with a flourish of the surreal.