The Chronicles of Kalki, Gate Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

If God did not exist, according to the well-worn Voltaire quote, it would be necessary to invent him. Deities – real or imagined – are at the heart of Aditi Brennan Kapil’s play, which takes Voltaire’s statement as a starting point of sorts. In today’s world, what need have we for divine beings?

Told in flashback, Kapil’s plot also borrows from the good old dramatic tradition of the newly arrived outsider. Kalki turns up, swift and unexpected as the rainstorm that accompanies her, right in the middle of a religious studies class. Just as rapidly, she befriends two bickering schoolgirls – known only as “Meat” and “Betty”, the nicknames Kalki christens them with – and throws their lives into temporary, gleeful chaos. Then, like the rain, she evaporates. The only difference with this new girl is that she might just be the 10th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

All this is revealed in snatches, as Kalki’s best friends are questioned by a cop apparently on the hunt for the mysterious girl-cum-god. It’s a play – and a production from Alex Brown – that peels itself back bit by bit. Not given to brevity, Angela Terence and Jordan Loughran’s evasive classmates slowly flesh out their fleeting acquaintance with Kalki, from house parties to cinema trips to schoolyard spats. The drab, bureaucratic surroundings of Madeleine Girling’s set are repeatedly and startlingly split open, as coloured lights usher in Kalki’s dazzling presence.

The teasingly unravelled narrative drops frequent – and not too subtle – hints about the identity of its elusive protagonist. But Kapil’s vision of this final avatar of Vishnu, foretold to destroy all evil at the end of time, seems just as indebted to the comics read eagerly by Kalki’s companions as it is to Hindu scripture. Instead of arriving on a white horse, this harbinger of the apocalypse is an arse-kicking bad girl in ripped jeans and heavy eyeliner – the daydream alter ego, in other words, of every bored and bullied teenage girl.

Ultimately, Kapil’s play feels less about religion and more about the visceral, life-and-death experience of being a teenager, when every day might herald the end of the world. The supposedly life-shattering cosmic force that is Kalki is less vivid than the brutality and asphalt of the school playground. For “Meat” and “Betty”, both cruelly spurned by the cool kids, school is nothing less than a battlefield. Who wouldn’t want a god on their side in that relentless war?

Terence and Loughran make brilliantly believable teenagers, each an endearing mess of bravado, hormones and vulnerability. The problem is that alongside their all-too-earthly confusion, Amrita Acharia’s Kalki comes across as a flat if shimmering mirage of a girl. Not quite human, not quite divine, neither Brown’s production nor Acharia’s performance seems fully convinced by this immortal trickster. Just what are we supposed to make of Kapil’s creation?

The answer never quite arrives. Just as Voltaire’s words hang in the air, so too does the unexplained significance of Kalki’s sudden appearance. Kapil’s play has a certain appealing strangeness – how often do you see teenage angst bumped up against visiting gods? – but its extended riff on fantasy, religion and adolescence fades as quickly and enigmatically as its protagonist.

Photo: Helen Murray.

Chimera: The play about the twin inside

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Originally written for The Guardian.

We all have moments when we don’t quite feel ourselves. For some, though, fragmentation of the self is a biological as well as a psychological fact. Chimerism describes the medical state of having two sets of genetic material; it means, in other words, containing your own twin inside you.

This rare medical condition provides the unsettling premise for Deborah Stein and Suli Holum’s collaboration Chimera, which opens at the Gate theatre in west London this week. The show, written by Stein, performed by Holum and co-directed by the two women, tells the story of Jennifer Samuels, a scientist and mother who learns that she possesses two sets of DNA. Shaken by the discovery, Jennifer struggles to hold her splintered self together, while coming to terms with the idea that – genetically at least – her son is actually her nephew.

While Jennifer may be fictional, her crisis of identity stages an experience that is real. “The condition of being a medical chimera literalises something that I think is a pretty universal feeling,” Stein suggests, discussing the multiple versions of ourselves that we try to integrate on a daily basis. She was introduced to the science by Holum, who was intrigued by a true story she heard on the radio about a woman who discovered that her sons did not share her DNA. The pair decided to pursue the idea because, as Holum puts it, “neither of us could figure out immediately how it could be a play, how we could take this phenomenon and theatricalise it”.

Stein and Holum found their answer in a close weaving of form and content. As the show’s sole performer, Holum inhabits multiple characters, including Jennifer and her 19-year-old son Brian, while projections dance over her body and the smooth surfaces of the kitchen set. “Meaning is created by having these multiple voices in one body,” Stein explains, “because it’s about the condition of being more than one person, and one person, at the same time.” The kitchen, meanwhile, allows for “an exploration of surfaces and what lies beneath,” at the same time as suggesting and disrupting the traditional domestic sphere of the mother. “We do all kinds of surprising things with something that looks very simple and mundane,” says Holum.

The use of technology in Chimera, meanwhile, is an extension of the show’s central idea that “science and technology have got to the point now where they are showing us things that we have no framework for understanding”. Stein goes on to compare the way in which technology disrupts the lives of the play’s characters to how it has forced her and Holum out of their comfort zone as theatre-makers. What she has come to realise, however, is that the contradiction she initially perceived between the live theatrical experience and digital technology does not really exist. “Theatre is about being in the now, in the present moment, and our present moment has so much to do with screens and video and computer technology.”

What Chimera doesn’t do, its creators insist, is offer any answers to the scientific, moral and philosophical questions it throws open: questions about how far science and technology can define our existence, and the extent to which, if our sense of self is torn in two, we can be held accountable for our own actions. “We realised as we were working our way through the questions the play raises that we weren’t making something that answered those questions,” says Holum. “We realised we were working with questions big enough that they couldn’t be satisfactorily answered – and what we were creating was an event that didn’t tell the audience how to feel or think about something, but rather invited them to begin thinking about something and then carry that conversation forward after the event is over.”

“It sits in this really uncomfortable place of asking the audience to actually think and talk about things that we don’t usually get to think and talk about,” Stein adds, describing the play as a “stew” of ideas that we rarely consider alongside one another. “There’s pretty hard science in it, and then there’s also this story about a mother who doesn’t want to be a mother.”

This investigation of motherhood, it turns out, has been more provocative than the science, suggesting that Stein and Holum have hit on a collective raw nerve. In post-show discussions, the pair explain, it is Jennifer’s attempted flight from her responsibilities as a mother which has attracted the most debate. In this way, Chimera has travelled from the chilling but faraway realm of rare scientific phenomena to the more close-at-hand experiences of the theatre-makers and their audiences.

This journey is typical of the pair’s process, Holum tells me. “We start with research material, then we very quickly branch out pretty far afield from the original sources as we dive deeper and deeper into the process to unearth really what it was that drew us to the material.”

The questions they have arrived at are questions about identity, about motherhood, about the philosophy of science. But most of all, Holum suggests, Chimera asks what we believe in and where we find meaning.

“In the end we’re all searching for meaning, we’re all searching for a way of making sense of it all.”

Photo: Stephen Schreiber.

Stories About Stories

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In my first year of studying English at university, we were all enrolled on a course titled ‘Literary Transformations’. The blurb on the website mentioned the story of Troy, literary tradition, The Iliad, mediaeval literature. I was less than enthusiastic. In the end, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in three years of my undergraduate degree. Because actually, more than any of those things on the website, it was about the ways in which we tell and retell stories.

I was reminded of that course twice recently at the theatre. The first occasion was during Mr Burns, which over the course of 80 odd years in the wake of an imagined global catastrophe mutates an episode of The Simpsons through a similar series of transformations to that undergone by the Troy legend. The second was at Idomeneus, a playful exploration of the fate of the eponymous Cretan king after travelling back from war in Troy. And in between I saw Adler & Gibb, a piece about narrative appropriation of an altogether more disturbing character.

These shows are all stories about stories about stories; stories that are at once about the centrality, instability and dangers of narrative. We need stories, but stories can curdle and corrupt just as easily as they can comfort.

Much of the critical response to Mr Burns has fastened on playwright Anne Washburn’s use of The Simpsons as the cultural foundation of a fledgling new human civilization. Some shook their heads at the thought that pop culture would survive over great literature, while others suggested that an intimate knowledge of the television show was required to appreciate the play. There is a certain cultural snobbery to these criticisms, as Mark Lawson has pointed out, but they also miss the point spectacularly.

The reason The Simpsons works so brilliantly as the focal point of Washburn’s game of post-apocalyptic Chinese whispers is because it is already a gleeful mash-up of different cultural references. The Cape Feare episode that gets retold in each act (first as campfire tale, then as primitive performance, and finally as a gloriously gaudy opera) is a parody of the Robert De Niro film Cape Fear – which was itself a remake of an earlier film – and also contains allusions to numerous other sources. What better starting point to demonstrate how humans recycle and repurpose culture? There is also the suggestion that our cultural inheritance is as much a product of mistake and reiteration as anything else – a troubling thought for some, perhaps, but also a liberating one. Suddenly the behemoths of high culture look a little less indestructible.

For evidence that this habit of narrative borrowing and transformation is as old as the idea of civilization itself, just swap one Homer for another. The story of Troy that we see a partial glimpse of in The Iliad and that has filtered down through Western culture over thousands of years in countless different forms is perhaps one of the most mutable myths we have. In its intelligent, multi-layered retelling of one small facet of this myth, Idomeneus – both Roland Schimmelpfennig’s script and Ellen McDougall’s playful production – is sensitively attuned to the processes by which stories become solidified and then dissolved again into countless possibilities.

As realised by McDougall, the whole thing is an inventive modern riff on the Chorus of Greek tragedy. A collection of awkward, displaced strangers wander onto the stage and begin to tell us about Idomeneus, a Cretan king and general who has been away for years fighting the Trojans and has made a terrible bargain to ensure his safe homecoming. But where tragedy usually presents us with fate and inevitability, here the story is told in all its shaky contingencies, pausing and rewinding to offer an audience all of its possible permutations. This is no longer one story, but many, the once firm outlines blurred over the centuries. And now, Idomeneus appealingly implies, we have the choice to tell it how we like; we can change the outcome.

But there is a darker side to the playful, potentially democratising stories of Mr Burns andIdomeneus. In the recovering society of Washburn’s ravaged near future, an embryonic form of capitalism is driven by the desire for stories. Half-remembered lines of old television episodes become commodities to buy and sell, while competition between storytellers is cutthroat. And there is an even more crucial way (only lightly touched upon by Mr Burns) in which the stories that provide the foundation for a new civilization can shape what that civilization eventually becomes – for good and for bad.

The danger circling the multiple stories of Idomeneus is more elusive, only occasionally glinting beneath the grins and giggles of its mischievous players. Violence – conveyed in striking visual metaphors of water, ink and chalk – always sits just underneath the narrative, insistently saying something about how we tell stories of conflict. There is an implicit comment on the insidious ability of stories like this to rile and rouse, with their undercurrents of glory, honour and destiny – an ability that is unsettled, but remains exposed.

In Adler & Gibb, which is much more critical of our storytelling strategies than either Mr Burns or Idomeneus, narrative is both a tool for manipulation and a commodity to be traded. Tim Crouch’s knottily self-referential play shows us a pair of actors representing (at first cursorily, and then increasingly naturalistically) another actor and her coach, who are preparing to make a film about a fictional pair of contemporary artists, the eponymous Adler and Gibb. Supposedly on the hunt for authenticity, they break into the house shared by the two artists in their later years, only to be confronted by an ageing Gibb. This is all framed by another story in another time, as a nervy student delivers a presentation on the lives and work of the artists. Got that?

Throughout the show, Crouch repeatedly aims his fire at the ways in which artworks and the stories surrounding them are commodified by a fiercely acquisitive capitalist economy. Scorn is poured on the art dealers, critics, journalists, filmmakers and obsessive fans who all want a bit of Adler and Gibb – not just their work, but them as individuals, or at least the romanticised story that has been cultivated around them. Everybody wants a scrap of the myth.

There is also an important comment on the shapes that our stories take. Extending the focus on theatrical form that has characterised all of his work with co-directors Andy Smith and Karl James, Crouch needles once again at representation. Throughout the first half, dialogue is directed blankly out at the audience, while two young children disrupt the workings of the theatrical machine, standing in for various elements of the narrative and substituting props – a spade for an inflatable bat or a gun for a lobster (one of many sly nods to modern art). From this base, the piece moves progressively through realism towards a kind of Hollywood hyperreality, asking difficult, brow-furrowing questions about our artistic efforts towards “truth” and “authenticity”.

In one of the show’s crucial moments, we see a screen wheeled onto the stage and witness the first kiss between Adler and Gibb cruelly snatched for the sake of cinema – or, as the actor would insist, art. “Is this the way you want your stories?” Crouch finally seems to ask, as we watch brutality in the flesh morph into high definition passion on the screen. And the answer, uncomfortably, is “well, yes”. The high stakes drama and hyperreal film that emerge in the second half of the evening are far more gripping than the cool, distanced intellectualism of the first – a high risk but brilliant strategy from Crouch, Smith and James. If we stick out the frustration of the opening scenes, we get our pay off, but at a mind-twisting price.

In all of these stories about stories, there is a further comment to make about the presence or absence of irony – one of the most familiar characteristics of the way in which we mould our narratives in the 21st century. In his chapter in Vicky Angelaki’s excellent collection Contemporary British Theatre: Breaking New Ground, Dan Rebellato intriguingly suggests that a “turning away from irony” characterises a certain strand of British drama in recent years, pointing to examples such as Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London and the work of Simon Stephens. He argues that in these plays, irony has been replaced with “a self-consciously naive sincerity”, or “radical naivety”.

While the cultural bricolage of Mr Burns might share many traits with postmodernism, what struck me about the play’s central retellings was their sincerity. Here are a group of survivors, completely without irony, piecing their world back together through the recovery of pop culture. Even the final act, with its knowing blend of references, is played remarkably straight. Irony is not exactly removed from Idomeneus, but again there is often a startling sincerity in the possibilities that the performers put forward for the characters whose story they are telling. And while it is difficult to know what to grasp onto in Crouch’s slippery play, the postmodern irony that suffuses so much contemporary art is given a ribbing at the same time as its strategies are appealingly deployed, leaving it in a problematic place. In these stories, are we turning, finally, to a new mode of sincerity?

Taken together, what these three pieces of theatre amount to is an ambivalent affirmation of storytelling. Ambivalent because stories emerge as slippery, dangerous things, as capable of betrayal as redemption. Affirmation because their very existence performs once again the importance of stories to human culture and their inherent possibility. Perhaps it’s all in the telling.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole, Gate Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

If stress is the number one modern malady, sleeplessness might just be a close second. Distracted by technology, preoccupied with work and perpetually pumped with caffeine, it is harder now than ever to get a good night’s kip. This is certainly the experience of Rodrigo García’s restless narrator – hence the cumbersome title of this slender, slippery monologue. Railing against the tedium of insomnia and the spectres of capitalism that keep him up at night, García’s unnamed protagonist is adamant that “you have to do something”.

His idea of doing something is blowing his life’s savings, shipping over a fashionable philosopher and breaking into Madrid’s Prado museum out of hours to gaze at Goya’s Black Paintings. An unlikely brand of rebellion. Along for the ride are his two young sons, who in Jude Christian’s bold production take on a startling, scene-stealing form. Joining lone actor Steffan Rhodri on stage are two small, cute and surprisingly loud piglets, greeted with a ripple of excitement from the audience. Immediately, we are in surreal territory.

Like the piglets, who wriggle and squeal in Rhodri’s arms, García’s play is difficult to get a grip on. The furious, fidgety stream of thought goes round in circles – or, perhaps more accurately, spirals, as we never return to quite the same place as before. The narrator is at crisis point, that much is clear, his words a wounded howl against the plastic deities of Coca-Cola and Disneyland. There are hints at a fractured family and a lifetime of disappointments, but all we can be certain of is an underlying queasiness towards the modern world. As our protagonist succinctly puts it, “life’s a bloody mess”.

If modern existence is a cesspit, then we are all rolling in the filth. This is perhaps the point of the piglets, who also stand in for the animal urges and images of gluttony that crop up periodically in García’s text. When the animals’ unpredictable bathroom habits play momentary havoc on stage, it seems apt that Rhodri is literally cleaning up shit. But beyond these obvious associations, the piglets also have a distancing effect, enhancing the protagonist’s dislocation from his sons, the world around him, and possibly even his own existence.

The strange inner world of García’s narrator is strikingly drawn out by Christian’s production, which has created a captivating visual and aural landscape. The show opens with Rhodri’s tall form crammed into a grubby miniature kitchen mounted on the back wall, which suddenly begins to turn on its axis; the world is off-kilter and the protagonist is a hamster trapped inside an ever-turning wheel. This visual fluency is characteristic of Fly Davis’ design, which hems Rhodri and the piglets inside a clinical white space, surrounded by toys as brittle as the happiness they promise. Adrienne Quartly’s uneasy sound design, meanwhile, presses in on an already beleaguered mind with a tumult of heartbeats, ticking clocks and blaring sirens.

At the centre of this bewildering, claustrophobic world, Rhodri makes a compellingly embattled anti-hero. In spite of the anger, self-destruction and unsavoury streak of misogyny glimpsed in the character written by García, Rhodri renders him surprisingly sympathetic – more of a bitter lost soul than a listless misanthrope. There is also a sense, supported by the visual language of the piece, that his response to the modern world is the only one left available; even if his pursuit of Goya ultimately lacks meaning, it’s better than the Disneyland his sons would prefer. García’s short monologue might be a frustrating, evasive slip of a thing, but this arresting production makes its searching, impotent fury feel uncannily resonant.

Steffan Rhodri’s theatrical road trip with piglets as passengers

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Originally written for The Guardian.

On the tiny stage of Notting Hill’s Gate theatre, Steffan Rhodri is joined by a pair of unlikely co-stars. Director Jude Christian’s production of the awkwardly titled I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole has added two small, headstrong piglets to Rodrigo García’s surreal monologue.

“I was bemused by this decision at first,” the actor says, “but I’ve sort of learned to love it.” He adds that the pigs, who stand in for the protagonist’s two sons, are “unpredictable”, but the chaos and absurdity of their presence is oddly fitting for the piece. The animals and their unscripted behaviour send out a strong signal to audiences: “It immediately sets that surreal tone, that absurd tone of we are not in naturalistic reality here, this is up to you to interpret what this man is on about.”

García’s play follows a man in the grip of a midlife crisis; he is “railing against the materialism of life, but also searching for some meaning”. As the man questions his own existence, he tells the story of a hedonistic road trip with his sons, which culminates with breaking into the Prado museum, in Madrid, to look at Goya’s Black Paintings. The line between fantasy and reality, however, is constantly blurred.

This character’s experience mirrors, to an extent, Rhodri’s reasons for taking on the role. The actor is best known as Dave Coaches from the television comedy Gavin and Stacey, which quickly became a runaway hit for the BBC. Rhodri says of the show that he was “lucky to be involved, but not defined by it”. He has since taken on a string of roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company and in the West End, as well as making a brief appearance in the penultimate Harry Potter film. This production is an opportunity to break out of that mainstream trajectory and do something “completely off the wall”. It is Rhodri’s window-smashing moment.

He is also firm in his belief that this sort of risk-taking, form-pushing work should be the purpose of fringe theatre, pointing out that a play such as this one would never be produced in the West End. “Quite often these days fringe theatre can be used in a very safe way as a vehicle for smaller, cheaper versions of mainstream theatre,” he says. “I think this is very different.”

As well as contending with the whims of the piglets, Rhodri has the formidable task of carrying García’s anarchic narrative alone each night. Although this is Rhodri’s first solo show, he describes himself as “a sucker for a challenge” and is excited about standing the piece up in front of an audience. “I never imagined myself doing a one-man show,” he confesses. “If I’m going to do one, I’d rather do one that breaks all the rules.”

Rhodri is also relishing the challenge of the “particular openness” that this slippery, ambiguous play allows. He compares it to Beckett and the absurdist tradition, as well as identifying “a sort of dreamlike quality that is reminiscent of Pinter”.

What most excites Rhodri – and, he hopes, the audiences who will come to see it – are the ideas that García is grappling with. “It is about the big questions of life, in a very short, punchy piece. How should life be lived? How should life be experienced? Do we need to make plans and be safe, or do we just need to do things?”

Photo: Tristram Kenton.