Mother Figures

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Selma Dimitrijevic and I first began talking about her play Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone almost three years ago. It’s been a long, meandering, stop-and-start conversation, via sitting in on rehearsals, watching performances and dress runs, chatting over coffee in various cafes in various cities. Aptly enough, Gods is also about those conversations that stretch over years: the well-worn family routines that regularly pause, rewind and restart.

The play’s history is even longer. Selma’s delicate depiction of one mother-daughter relationship was originally written as a commission for Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint series back in 2008. Across just four scenes, Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone (the title borrowed from John Steinbeck) suggests a lifetime’s worth of love and resentment between thirty-something Annie and her mother, their repeated small talk increasingly charged. It’s a small story, but one that reaches far beyond its two characters.

When it was produced at Oran Mor, Gods got what Selma describes as a “very naturalistic” treatment. Watching it, she felt that something was missing. “It was one of those things when you see a piece of work that you have made and there’s nothing you can say that is wrong with it,” Selma explains, “but the product wasn’t necessarily the kind of thetare that excites me. So I was looking at it and thinking ‘how did I help make this piece of theatre that I wouldn’t be that excited about as a theatregoer?’”

But it was only after encountering a Russian version of the play directed by Viktor Ryzhakov in 2011 that Selma thought of having a stab at it herself. Despite failing to get into the country to see it, Selma later got hold of a recording of the performance and found herself incredibly moved by it. “I saw a video of it and it just made me cry,” she remembers. “It went straight to the heart of what I was trying to do.” Ryzhakov cast two women of the same age as mother and daughter and contained them inside a pen for the length of the play, delivering the dialogue at high speed. Selma saw something in her play that went beyond domestic realism.

But it was only after encountering a Russian version of the play directed by Viktor Ryzhakov in 2011 that Selma thought of having a stab at it herself. Despite failing to get into the country to see it, Selma later got hold of a recording of the performance and found herself incredibly moved by it. “I saw a video of it and it just made me cry,” she remembers. “It went straight to the heart of what I was trying to do.” Ryzhakov cast two women of the same age as mother and daughter and contained them inside a pen for the length of the play, delivering the dialogue at high speed. Selma saw something in her play that went beyond domestic realism.

“Once I saw that, I thought actually I want to do my own attempt,” says Selma, explaining that her intention was to approach it “just as a piece of writing”. She got this opportunity through her company Greyscale, who were offered a spot in the 2012 Almeida Festival. Now, eight years after first writing the play, she tells me that the text of Gods feels oddly distant. “I kind of keep forgetting that I wrote it,” she laughs.

What’s most distinctive about Selma’s version of Gods – at least at first glance – is her decision to cast male actors Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull as mother and daughter. At the time when the Almeida Festival opportunity arose, Selma was working with the pair on Greyscale’s Theatre Brothel and something about their relationship resonated with the relationship in the play. It was, as she puts it, an artistic choice that came from the gut rather than the head.

“I’m a big believer, as a writer, that my subconscious is a better writer than I am,” Selma says by way of explanation. “So when things just come out, they’re usually much better than when I think about it. And the same thing as a director: I bring a lot of things into the rehearsal room that are instinctive. I can’t explain why.”

She’s been reluctant, therefore, to identify any intention behind the cross-gender casting, preferring to keep readings open. And while on the page this casting choice is what grabs attention, in performance it becomes almost irrelevant. Once accepted, the fact that these two female characters are being played by men seems perfectly natural. After all, theatre is always asking us to believe that one thing stands for something else. There’s no attempt by Sean and Scott to ape femininity; these are demonstrably two men, but also two women.

As I put it to Selma during that initial rehearsal period, the production’s non-naturalistic casting somehow frees it from the burden of specificity. Because these two men are clearly not attempting to represent two “real” women, the piece is allowed to speak through and with them, elevating it to something far more wide-reaching than the bare bones of the script might suggest. Discussing the casting now, Selma’s stance is simple and equivocal: “It just feels right, and as long as it feels right and interesting and exciting, and people react to it in an interesting way, we’ll keep doing it.”

Looking back on audience’s reactions to the casting during their latest tour, Selma draws attention to one response in particular. “This really interesting thing happened: there were a couple of men who mentioned that they don’t know if they would come and see it if it was just a show about a mother and daughter, and that they might not have connected with it personally if it was just a real mother and daughter and two actresses on stage. I don’t know how to feel about that.” It points to how, culturally, we still see narratives of female relationships as being aimed primarily at women, whereas narratives of male relationships are read as universal. As Selma puts it, “if it’s one, it’s a minority narrative, and if it’s the other then it’s for everyone”.

Other responses to Selma’s casting choice were more indignant. “A lot of people asked me how did the writer feel about me messing with their play,” she says, “which always makes me laugh.” For Selma, this complaint has a familiar ring, revealing much about the differing attitudes towards writers and directors in British theatre. “It feels a little bit like yes, you can do things to my play, but only if you do them well,” she continues. “Well of course, I wouldn’t be suggesting things otherwise. My intention is to do it well; I can’t promise I will.”

Selma’s other intriguing creative choice in directing Gods was to put a real mother and daughter on stage with Sean and Scott, quietly looking on from the back of the stage. Selma describes the pair as a kind of “amplifier” for the performance: “We’ve never had mother and daughter react in any emotional way if either audience or actors weren’t genuinely vibrating with emotion. But if it it is an emotional show, they make it a bit more emotional, and if it’s a funny one then them laughing on stage makes it even funnier.”

And although Selma insists that she doesn’t make “theatre with an agenda”, she has noticed over the life span of the show that it is also capable of making small changes in the lives of the mothers and daughters who take part. “They get to spend an hour looking at each other, talking to each other afterwards, as two adults, and see each other slightly differently after the show,” says Selma. Having lost her own mother before directing the play – “I’ve completely missed that opportunity” – these small moments of connection are particularly precious.

As much as Selma insists on the importance of instinct and chance in her work, with Greyscale she has been working hard over the last few years to give those instincts as much breathing space as possible. “It’s a combination of us being lucky,” she says of choices like the casting in Gods, “but also being good at creating circumstances in which things like that can happen.”

That means spending time together, sharing creative experiences, seeing other theatre. Selma explains that she, Sean and Scott have seen and talked about several shows together and have participated in a range of different workshops, giving them a shared toolkit and vocabulary. “We’ve filled the last twelve months with things for us to do together that have to do with art but don’t need a result and just allow space to be together and to talk about things,” she says. It is, she adds, “the poor man’s way of trying to do the ensemble thing”.

After three years of working on the play on and off, it’s now “properly like family”. Like the mother and daughter in her play, Selma and her team have a shared history, shared conversations and shared irritations – so much so that she suggests it’s barely acting for Sean and Scott anymore. “They’ve been repeating it for three years, so now when mother or daughter gets annoyed about things happening over and over again, they have it in their core, because they’ve done it so many times – they don’t have to pretend that they’re annoyed.”

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Me and Mr C, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

This show, we are told from the outset, might be a bit shit. It’s improvised, you see, and performer Gary Kitching can’t make any promises. Some nights it’s good, some nights it’s bad. Unlike most theatre, we are encouraged to start from a position of deflated expectations.

To review this piece of theatre, therefore, is to tell a small lie. The performance I saw was unique to the specific number of audience members in the space, the personalities and experiences that those audience members brought into the room, the particular mood of Kitching as a performer and the thoughts that floated to the fore of his mind in that 50 minutes. It might be argued that every performance is specific to the performative moment, but improvised performance is more specific than most. So, acknowledging my limitations at the off, I would like to follow Kitching’s lead and lower any expectations from this piece of criticism.

Of two things, however, we can be fairly certain. The “me” of the title is Kitching, emerging as a lonely wannabe comedian, and the Mr C is his fiery haired ventriloquist dummy, possibly the most terrifying prop to grace a stage at the fringe this year. This pairing is a nod to comedy convention, following in the tradition of Keith Harris and Orville, but that is where the piece’s conformity ends.

Kitching’s principal trick is to upturn expectations, both comedic and theatrical. As Kitching ever more despairingly attempts to engage in conversation, the ventriloquist dummy, usually the loquacious linchpin of a comedy double act, remains obstinately silent. During the comedy club interludes in which Kitching’s aspiring stand-up comedian is steadily broken, the audience is actively invited and even taught how to heckle – in fact, we are told, we will ruin the show if we don’t – inviting ever more inventive jeers from the crowd.

The extent to which the audience truly determines the piece is, unsurprisingly, limited. There is a sort of formula to the show that Kitching has shaped, one that relies on certain inputs but that calculates these into an answer that one suspects does not greatly vary. The audience interaction that Kitching does cultivate, however, slots fluidly into the piece and rarely falters thanks to a performance that puts us oddly at ease but never lets us switch off.

Where the role of the audience really becomes interesting, though, is when the piece takes a darker turn. Viciously plucking at the sinister undertones that have lingered throughout, Kitching car crashes closer and closer to destruction, releasing a raging torrent of self-hatred. With startling suddenness, the flavour of the audience’s involvement shifts without prompting, as sensitive a barometer as any to the mood of the work. Within moments, what has thus far been lightly, intelligently entertaining is transformed into an altogether blacker and more poignant proposition. It might not smash the low expectations that Kitching sets us, but it certainly exceeds them.

Tenet, Gate Theatre

Originally written for Spoonfed.

Greyscale’s latest work, the first in the Gate’s ‘Resist!’ season, comes with a tongue-twisting disclaimer. This is, as we are told upon entering the auditorium, “a very true story about the revolutionary politics of telling the truth about truth as edited by someone who is not Julian Assange in any literal sense”. If that’s a mouthful, then what we are fed after we take our seats is even harder to digest.

Intertwining the lives of Wikileaks founder Assange and revolutionary nineteenth-century mathematician Evariste Galois, Tenet plays with truth, mathematics, radicalism, power, metaphor, roots and polynomial equations. Keeping up?

At the centre of the piece is the concept of mathematical logic as a radical way of seeing the world. Performers Lucy Ellinson and Jon Foster begin with a familiar mathematical question – how do you find x? – and use this as the basis for questioning our understanding of truth and of the world around us. Like radical genius Galois, we are prodded into finding a new way of thinking. In maths, as arguably in life, the radical simplifies a complex equation; radical thinking, therefore, is demanded if we are to understand and challenge the complicated nature of the status quo. Behind this there is also the issue of Assange’s role as the “editor” of Galois’ life and work, questioning the power and reliability of those who hold the book of facts.

There is a lot going on here, sometimes too much. Despite running at a swift sixty minutes, this is full to the brim with ideas, and difficult ideas at that. As our heads swim with numbers and concepts, it can feel like we, along with the tragically short-lived Galois, are running out of time to work it all out. Fortunately, creators Lorne Campbell and Sandy Grierson never make this feel too much like the classroom; as Ellinson knowingly comments, you can’t make the audience work that hard.

Despite the demanding subject matter, the piece that Campbell and Grierson have assembled is also very funny, and when it gets too hard there are always tea and biscuits helpfully on hand. Maths and theatre, meanwhile, make unlikely but surprisingly comfortable bedfellows. After all, the metaphor that we willingly immerse ourselves in when we watch a performance is just another kind of equation – one thing always stands for another.

The conventions of theatre are also up for analysis in a performance that is sardonically served with a “soupçon of post-modern deconstruction”; we are presented with a set within a set within a set, the performers interrupt the narrative to contradict one another, an explicitly mentioned fourth wall is conjured up and smashed down.

Upon exiting Greyscale’s world, there is a desire to echo Galois’ call for more time and rewind this tightly packed performance in order to mull it over again in all its intricate complexity. Maths may be a straightforward case of black and white, but this intriguing, challenging night of theatre treads the same area of grey occupied by the company responsible for creating it.

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Some further thoughts on Tenet

Never does the vicious word count seem more cruel than when attempting to crystallize a piece such as Tenet. During the hour-long performance, I scribbled possibly the most notes I have ever made at the theatre, all the while trying to keep my eyes ahead so as not to miss one minute of the ever-shifting performance. I feel as though I really needed two viewings to fully process everything that was going on – one to take notes and one to simply absorb. Away from the rush and heat of the performance space, my initial impressions have cooled, but there are still a good few more words to peel away from my frazzled brain.

Firstly, I want to write more about Julian Assange’s role as the “editor” of the piece. If we’re getting critical, this is slightly underexplored, but that is perhaps because there is simply so much else going on. Since formulating my own thoughts above, I’ve read other reviews of the play, some of which see Assange as an outlying narrator whose relevance is crowbarred in. While Assange may be less of a central figure than Galois, this was not how I saw it at all. If anything, he functions as an essential conduit for Galois’ story; we see only what he chooses to select from his “book of facts”, further illustrating the reiterated point that knowledge is power. As an individual who demonstrated to the extremes just how powerful knowledge can be and whose actions prompt troubling questions about what knowledge should and should not be released, Assange’s inclusion is anything but arbitrary.

Lucy Ellinson’s Assange protests early on “I am not involvable”, before proceeding to involve himself again and again in the process of storytelling. The two performers frequently interrupt and contradict one another, their voices competing for our attention, Assange overwriting Galois’ own story. It is a potent demonstration before our eyes of the immense influence held by the gatekeepers of history. Who are we meant to believe? What can we trust? For me, Tenet was not only deliciously perplexing because of the complexities of advanced algebra (and maths was never my strong point); Greyscale invite complexity and ambiguity from all angles, a risky but laudable choice. This is theatre which demands engagement from its audience.

Which conveniently brings me onto the second point I wanted to explore further: audience interaction. This has to be possibly the gentlest brand of interactivity to be found on London’s stages – one game audience member was even offered an encouraging hug on press night. With the help of some tea and biscuits, Greyscale seem to have perfected the delicate balance of involving their audience without scaring them off. Yet while the level of performance asked of the audience is relatively minimal, its use prompts intriguing questions about the performer/spectator relationship, the audience dynamic and the wider issue of public protest.

At one point, Jon Foster’s frantic Galois raises us all to our feet, gets us to hold hands and has us collectively, if a little awkwardly, humming “La Marseillaise”. It is a vivid illustration of the power inherent in harnessing an audience. But a moment later we are back in our seats and the balance has shifted back once again to where it was, demonstrating that the wall can be smashed through but it will always quietly reform – a fact that resonates with politics as much as with theatre. As Galois observes, a situation can change, but it can also change back. In another interesting choice, Ellinson and Foster also openly discuss the deliberate choice of the Gate and its typical audience demographic, which opens up a whole other debate about the importance of the type of audience (and their political leanings) to a piece of theatre.

Without seeing this piece all over again, which I’m sorely tempted to do, it is impossible to fully investigate Greyscale’s creation to the level it deserves. Part of my brain is still trying to catch up. Perhaps the best sort of metaphor for Tenet is not an algebraic one but, inspired by the emergency biscuits, a dessert related one. Because really Greyscale’s play is a lot like brain freeze; it makes the head hurt, but it’s more than worth the pain.