Cheese, 29-31 Oxford Street

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As fanSHEN’s creative director Rachel Briscoe commented in a blog for The Guardian, “starting points matter in theatre”. Unlike others, who may interrogate the damage done by our resource-hungry society through content and even form but leave the structures that support them unexamined, sustainability is at the very foundation of fanSHEN’s work. However powerfully it delivers its punch, it’s hard not to watch a technically accomplished show like Earthquakes in London and wonder cynically where the energy is coming from; in the case of Cheese, fanSHEN’s new site-specific look at the financial crisis, there’s no need to wonder.

Every last element of this production is influenced by its relationship to the company’s sustainability aims. Joshua Pharo’s unusual but striking lighting design is a necessity of limited energy, all of which is provided by electricity generated in local gyms and community centres; the DIY aesthetic and unmasked theatricality are a consequence of constraints set by the company on the materials it uses. Because these limitations are there from the beginning, embedded right in the heart of the company’s philosophy, they end up closely married to the work. As well as practising what they preach, fanSHEN’s dedication to sustainability is reflected off every facet of their work, both informing and supporting it. This is theatre that recognises its role in making as well as showing, enacting at the same time as it represents.

Unfortunately, however, the different strands of the show itself do not gel quite as cohesively. Nikki Schreiber’s play adopts an absurdist approach in order to take a sideways look at the financial crisis, creating an allegory that substitutes cash with cheese. Protagonists Joe and Freya seem pretty cosy in their Emmental house, but when their supply of cheddar, brie and gruyere suddenly dries up overnight, they are forced to reassess their existence – and their diet. Freya is quick to pursue a new life, while Joe stubbornly clings to the vestiges of the old one until disillusionment and hunger send him on a journey in search of fresh flavours.

The central story of Joe and Freya’s rise and fall is a cannily plotted exploration of the predicament we now find ourselves in, using a metaphor that functions both as a lucid explanation of the financial crisis and a means of highlighting the absurdity of the actions that caused it. The surrounding narrative, however, is not so tight. Joe’s journey, despite offering a series of entertaining encounters, takes a decidedly meandering route. At one point, for instance, he finds himself talked into participating in a psychological experiment, the outcome of which offers a telling and unsettling diagnosis of our response to perceived authority. While this sequence is sharp, disturbing and theatrically compelling, however, it serves as a distracting digression from the main trajectory of the piece, addressing a question that is fascinating but tangential.

The play proper is also framed by another reality, which is where the site-specific element of the piece comes in. The fictional setting of this very ordinary office space on Oxford Street is the London Mortgage Company, which is having its last post-liquidation hurrah by putting on this deeply apt bit of theatre for its departing employees. This device acts as an explanation for the potentially temperamental power – the company haven’t been able to pay their electricity bill – and for the deliberately shoddy props. With simple and often hilarious flourishes of ingenuity, elastic bands become pieces of cheese and bulldog clips stand in for tomatoes.

This framing is the source of much of the piece’s humour, as the cast get to relish in some of the worst excesses of am-dram and theatrical tricks are stripped back to their bare basics. But Rachel Donovan, Jon Foster and Jamie Zubairi are all far too good to consistently convince as awkward novice thesps, while the truly beautiful theatrical moments that emerge from the enforced simplicity are undermined by the implicit mockery. The relationship between frame and image also feels regrettably underexamined. Why are the employees choosing to put on this play? Are they aware of its shattering resonance with their own predicament? The dissolving layers of meaning would seem to suggest so, as distress and anxiety bleed both ways, but the interaction between the two concepts demands further scrutiny.

Despite these criticisms, however, there is much that the piece offers by way of obliquely insightful political comment. The impulses that invisibly motor our society are unveiled through the distance offered by metaphor, while the possibility of resolution is complicated by an astute critique of localism and a recognition of our continuing desire to protect our own interests first and foremost. But there is still hope. Alongside sustainability, central to fanSHEN’s work is a belief that imagination, not fear, is the pathway to change. So, despite the underpinning of self-interest and the ambivalent attitude towards the wider world, we are ultimately offered a chink of much needed optimism. This too is inherent in the very mechanisms of the work, which makes its own change. If fanSHEN can shift the way in which their structures operate, then why can’t we?

Photo: Conrad Blakemore.

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.