YOUARENOWHERE, Shoreditch Town Hall

YOUARENOWHERE, all one word, can be read two ways. It can be a statement of certainty, of being decisively placed in the world: you are now here. Or it can be a revelation of nothingness, of uncertainty: you are nowhere.

Andrew Schneider’s glitching mindfuck of a show is sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both. It is, in every sense of the word, disorientating. It jolts its audience out of time and space – or maybe it just makes us realise that time and space are one and the same, and that everything is happening all at once.

From the moment we first see Schneider before us, the rules by which we usually order world and stage are violently disrupted. Schneider doesn’t enter; he suddenly materialises. The lights snap on and there he is, shirtless and panting, as if vomited up out of nowhere into this bare white space. In appealing disarray, he begins to talk to us, but the mechanics of the show around him keep interrupting. Coloured lights flash on and off. Huge swells of sound swallow his words. Technology glitches.

You think of time like a line, right? Or like a road, stretching out behind and ahead, you gliding along in the driver’s seat. Wrong. In his quick-fire, cut-up lecture – stories are abruptly truncated, ideas diced up and thrown back together – Schneider rapidly unsettles popular, shared notions of time. The references whizz by so fast it’s almost impossible to grasp them – Einstein’s theory of relativity gets a nod, I’m pretty sure – but the overall sense is of a sudden unmooring from the certainties of seconds, minutes and hours.

It’s about form as much as, if not more than, content. There are moments in the show when we feel time, we note its passage (even if “passage” is just another flawed metaphor for a false, man-made construction). At other points, we can see its signifiers – the clock rapidly counting down, the lights flickering on and off – but feel somehow wrenched out of it. Or at least I do. As Schneider makes clear, different perspectives create different realities.

Death, as well as time, is a constant preoccupation. If there’s any way in which we can individually grasp time, after all, it’s as an inexorable movement towards our eventual demise. What if, Schneider poses, every time you thought about death there was another you, in a parallel reality, who had actually died in that moment? Like a morbid take on Sliding Doors, or a version of Constellations with a rapidly mounting body count.

And there’s more. There’s all this stuff about missed connections, fate, love. The loneliness of being trapped inside your own head, your own existence, trapped outside the perceptions of others. Forever separate. “We exist in each other’s realities,” says Schneider. “But not in the way that we think we do.”

Those words might read as a thesis of sorts, if it were possible to boil YOUARENOWHERE down to anything as simple or straightforward as a thesis. As a demonstration of its own ideas, Schneider’s show refuses to slot into any kind of linear logic, impressing itself on the consciousness as a disconnected series of images and sounds and thoughts. But, whatever physics might say, we humans are meaning-making creatures, and so meaning emerges nonetheless.

Schneider, though, has a few tricks to unsettle that instinctive dot-joining. The second half of the show is a series of dazzling, gasp-out-loud rug pulls, each more audacious than the last. Just as we think we’ve found our footing, Schneider sends us stumbling once again. The last reveal in particular robs me of my breath and makes my stomach fall entirely away. I feel dizzy, discombobulated, as lost as the man on stage.

But what’s really there beyond the trickery? Is it, I ask myself, just a load of superficially clever posturing dressed up in the kind of pulse-raising stagecraft that makes me go giddy? There are definitely bits of YOUARENOWHERE that feel like the “gobbets” Irwin encourages the Oxbridge hopefuls to use in The History Boys: chunks of borrowed cleverness, plundered with little care for their origins. And yet. Whether it’s the startling precision of Schneider’s staging or the cumulative effect of the show’s snippets of physics and philosophy (most likely both), something about YOUARENOWHERE lingers. Days later, its echoes still intermittently rupture the rhythms of the day like a shiver down the spine – or, perhaps, like the unnerving feeling that I’ve been here before.

Presented by Shoreditch Town Hall, Gate Theatre, Notting Hill and LIFT. Part of LIFT 2016.

 

 

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The Roof: Free-running Meets Gaming

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Originally written for The Guardian.

In an age of screens, avatars and online anonymity, David Rosenberg and Frauke Requardt’s latest collaboration performs an intriguing reversal. The Roof, which is part of the London international festival of theatre, explodes the video game out of the screen and into the open air. In a car park opposite the National Theatre, audiences are invited to look on as a three-dimensional hero runs, jumps and fights his way through level after level. Virtual meets real.

Surprisingly, neither Rosenberg nor Requardt are big gamers. The concept of gaming as a structural and visual reference point emerged from the idea of an audience inhabiting a single character at the same time as being able to observe that character’s actions from an external perspective – the relationship between gamer and avatar, essentially. The resulting show is, according to Rosenberg, “a bit of an out-of-body experience”, in which audiences invest in an avatar whose movements they have no control over.

This unsettling dual experience is created through the use of headphones and binaural technology, harnessing immersive sound to transport audiences to the heart of the action. But while each audience member is offered an individualised, isolated experience through the soundtrack being pumped into their ears, Rosenberg and Requardt insist that it is vital to observe the piece as a group. “We want to create an environment where the audience feel that they’re part of a mob and there is something gladiatorial about the perspective that they have on the action,” says Rosenberg. As a group, spectators can watch, but not intervene.

“We never set out to create an interactive experience where an audience can determine an outcome,” Rosenberg explains. He compares the helpless experience of both inhabiting and watching a character to how we live our lives “through a collection of mainly random events and attempt to attach our own agency onto those events”. As Rosenberg and Requardt discuss, the clear parallels between gaming and life – progression, growth, levels – invite an audience to draw such connections.

“We were interested in taking the structure from gaming because the structure holds the audience through the show,” Requardt adds, suggesting that the “predictability” of this structure helps to give shape to a piece which relies more on movement than on words. Layered over this simple logic, Requardt’s choreography has been able to access a more abstract language, exploring “existential things about what it’s like to be alive”.

Despite this abstraction, Rosenberg and Requardt are also interested in some of the concerns particular to gaming – violence chief among them. The Roof may not explicitly address this issue, but Requardt believes that “there’s a question about violence which is raised, just because it’s a live performance and it’s not a game”.

The implications of this might have as much to say about the culture from which those games arise as the games themselves. After all, as Rosenberg reflects, “there aren’t many video games where you get rewarded for altruism or empathy”.

Photo: Paul Hampartsoumian.

Opus No 7, Barbican

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If you haven’t seen Opus No 7 and you still have an opportunity to, stop reading now.

Go see it.

There’s not really a plot as such to spoil, but the below will unavoidably outline some of the images that gain so much of their power from surprise. So be warned.

Dmitry Krymov has a talent for making the ordinary appear strange, for transforming the familiar into the singular. Limbs explode from cardboard walls, startlingly divorced from the bodies that own them. Splashes of black paint morph into shadowy figures. A blizzard of newspaper scraps conjures debris one moment and confetti the next. The dead hold hands with the living. The inanimate is given life. Image bursts into reality and reality solidifies into image.

Opus No 7, the designer turned director’s latest production, is a dazzling procession of such transformations. So composed is it of images, the performance does not yield willingly to language. As elusive as it is astonishing, its qualities slip from the critical grasp – shape-shifting, like Krymov’s captivating pictures, just as the mind begins to outline them. This is theatre made for feeling, not thinking.

There is a structure of sorts, though this too is elusive. The first half, Genealogy, yawns with loss. In it, a group of figures sift through fragments of history, clutching at names, photographs, items of clothing. Phoenix-like, they move among the ashes of the past. Though abstract, the scenes allude in their haunting imagery to the Holocaust – but strikingly unshackled from the now familiar visual markers that history has attached to it. In its sudden, surprising evocation of loss, there is something inexplicably moving about a performer walking along a pair of tiny red shoes by their laces, or a cardboard arm suddenly reaching up to take that same performer’s hand.

The second half offers us a visual biography of composer Dmitry Shostakovich, who we see first nurtured and then smothered by an oppressive Mother Russia. As a child-like figure at the opening of the act, hugging to Mother Russia’s skirts, the wooden skeleton of a piano is Shostakovich’s climbing frame, his creativity given free and playful rein. But the same power that initially encouraged the composer later ensnares him, pinning a medal on his chest that stabs him through the heart. As Soviet repression and censorship reaches its height, Mother Russia pulls the trigger on her artists and the piano bursts into flame.

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Fittingly, given the subject of the second act, Opus No 7 operates more like music than theatre. It is, for a start, largely wordless. There are echoes and refrains: the chilling tread of an SS officer in the first half becomes the boot of Mother Russia – realised as a huge and often terrifying puppet – in the second. Silence and stillness are juxtaposed with furious flurries of activity, as pitch and tempo both fluctuate. The theatrical crescendo, as rusty pianos invade the stage and crash violently into one another, is powerful as much for the accompaniment of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No 7” as it is for what we see.

And the performance provoked in me the kind of raw, visceral, emotional response that I more readily associate with music – and, interestingly, with visual art – than with theatre. When I walk around a gallery or listen to a piece of music, my reaction (at least my first reaction) is instinctive rather than cerebral. If I really, really love a painting or a sculpture or a song, the feeling it stirs is perhaps best described as an ache; pleasure bruised with just a hint of pain. Opus No 7 leaves behind that same sort of ache.

At one point during the first half, I remember thinking: there’s too much. Not, I should hastily add, in a negative way. At the Barbican, we are seated on the stage of the main theatre, thrillingly close to the action. It is a wide, wide stage. Placed right up close to the performance, it is therefore impossible to take in everything that is happening at one time – the playing space is just too big. The experience of watching, then, is to a degree overwhelming. And I wonder if this is part of its power. Like the aesthetic sublime, it is too much to take in at once, to comprehend as a whole. For that reason, it both awes and captivates.

Watching theatre like this, I’m aware more than ever of the visual poverty of so much of what we see on Britain’s stages. Where, apart from a scattering of bold efforts, is our designer-led theatre? The visual, as Krymov and his team prove, can be just as eloquent as the verbal. Opus No 7 is no less rich for its scarcity of language; ideas, though slippery, still move under its mesmerising surface of unforgettable images. The impact is indescribable, yet indelible.

Photos: Natalia Cheban.

Gatz, Noel Coward Theatre

A small disclaimer: the performance I’m writing about was technically a preview, though Elevator Repair Service have in fact been performing this show since 2004. This also seems a slightly superfluous disclosure considering that I don’t expect what follows to be a “proper” review in any conventional sense. If either of those two statements displease you, probably best to stop reading now …

As I probably don’t need to tell you, the headline-grabbing aspect of Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, currently visiting the West End as part of LIFT 2012, is its length. A performance in which every last word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is read aloud, this sort of anti-adaptation is eight hours long. Eight hours.

Except that’s already a slight lie. Intervals factored in – including a fairly generous dinner break – this is actually more like six hours of stage time in total. And in fact, astoundingly, the length is probably one of the less extraordinary things about Gatz. People arrive prepped for an act of endurance; the group next to me seemed to have packed an entire picnic and, to my slight envy, a flask of tea. Twitter reveals more of the same, some theatregoers even arming themselves with pillows. But, with the minimal aid of caffeine top-ups, this is far less of a marathon than it appears. More of a pleasurable and mildly tiring fun run, perhaps.

The concept is brilliantly simple. A bored office worker, the staggeringly excellent Scott Shepherd (more on him later), arriving at work to find his computer on the blink, stumbles across a copy of The Great Gatsby on his desk. He begins to read, and continues to do so for the following eight (minus intervals) hours. I say read, but in a mind-boggling feat of memory, Shepherd knows the whole thing off by heart, *spoiler alert* as he stunningly proves during the final 45-minute sequence delivered entirely without the prop of the book. *end spoiler alert* Although I’d happily be lulled by Shepherd’s strangely hypnotic voice alone, he is also joined one by one by other figures in the office, who gradually take on roles within the novel.

And that, essentially, is it. Except it’s also so much more. Elevator Repair Service’s staging seems like a good place to start. The entire thing takes place in a typically stale and soulless office, naturalistically rendered down to each last biro. My immediate assumption, though this isn’t confirmed by any period-specific references, is that we’re in the late eighties or early nineties, based mainly on the appearance of Shepherd’s faulty computer. I can’t help wondering if this vague, recent-ish setting has a calculated resonance with Fitzgerald’s novel; though we’re far from the steel and glass of Wall Street, the implied era is that of the sort of greed and excess so grotesquely satirised by Caryl Churchill in Serious Money, a world not dissimilar from the pre-Crash extravagance displayed at Gatsby’s parties. The expensive calm before the storm.

Beyond the usual office paraphernalia, the only thing out of the ordinary in Louisa Thompson’s set is an onstage sound deck, which later becomes key to the subtle evocation of the world of Fitzgerald’s novel. Visually, this is the antithesis of Baz Luhrman’s forthcoming film, the trailer for which is all glitter and no grit. In the decidedly drab surroundings of Elevator Repair Service’s production, the responsibility for the glitter lays entirely with the text, which dazzles all by itself. I suspect that I was in the majority among the audience in having already read the novel, albeit several years ago, but even for those familiar with the book this is something of a journey of discovery.

The beauty of this unconventional method of staging a novel is that it becomes so much more about the literary work at its centre than any traditional adaptation ever is. Fitzgerald’s prose is both protagonist and creator; everything is born from the words. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but for such a celebrated classic The Great Gatsby has a remarkably slight plot. Condensed right down, it is essentially the classic spiky love triangle (or love square, perhaps, if we’re including Myrtle). Illicit romance, the return of an old flame, betrayal and jealousy – nothing ground-breaking. What’s more, if you’re purely focusing on events, Nick barely features, lingering perpetually on the sidelines.

All of which is exactly why Gatz works so brilliantly. There is of course so much more to Fitzgerald’s novel than a hackneyed love story and so much more to its narrator, who is revealed in the prose as a central character in his own right. In a normal adaptation much of this is lost, whereas Elevator Repair Service have not only preserved this but actually enhanced it. As Jay McInerney pointed out recently in the Observer, “Fitzgerald’s prose somehow elevates a lurid and underdeveloped narrative to the level of myth”. In reinventing the act of reading on stage, I would go as far as to suggest that Gatz elevates this (no pun intended) a level further.

The literary junkie’s ultimate high, the only way to really, accurately describe Gatz is as reading intensified. It’s that fevered devouring of a novel without all the cheating, not allowing you to skim through sections that seem unnecessary to the story, and in the process revealing those bits as absolutely necessary. Such a treatment obviously wouldn’t work for every book, but for The Great Gatsby it’s perfect, polishing every last buried gem in Fitzgerald’s language and lending his prose a heightened poetry through Shepherd’s mesmerising tones.

We also glimpse before our eyes that slipping away of the real world as the world of the book takes its grip. Piece by piece the office morphs into the glamorous parties of the twenties; hedonism is casually evoked by a fistful of papers tossed in the air, while the sounds of jazz gradually infect the stage. I was beguiled by the way in which reality and fiction are ever fluid, meshing with one another and then suddenly jarring, until by the end, *spoiler claxon* as Shepherd lays down his book, it is no longer clear which is which. In the way that only a great novel can, Fitzgerald’s world has engulfed all around it.

And as I mentioned already, we are treated to many little discoveries along the way. It may have simply been that at the age of sixteen, when I first read the novel, I was spectacularly unobservant, but this presentation of the text revealed to me several new facets of Fitzgerald’s tale. This time around, perhaps influenced by the current state of the world, the novel’s attitude to capitalism seems even more scathing. For many of the characters, love and money are almost synonymous – the attraction of Daisy’s voice is that it rings with wealth. Elevator Repair Service’s concept underlines this obsession by placing it within the context of a space where making money is the main objective, generating only monotonous drudgery. Against this dull office setting, the American Dream is just that – dreamlike, insubstantial, and incompatible with the drabness of reality.

With a jolted remembrance of Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreal”, it suddenly seemed to me while watching that even in 1925 The Great Gatsby was oddly anticipating postmodernism, whispering of the substitution of the real with signs of the real. Nick describes how his mysterious friend experiences “the unreality of reality”; to Daisy, Gatsby – already concealed behind a false identity – resembles an advertisement; the all-seeing, bespectacled eyes of the same advertisement become an oddly sinister capitalist substitute for God; the treasured photograph of Gatsby’s lavish mansion is more real to his father than the house itself. The addition of another few layers of simulacra in the form of performance only serves to enhance this.

Which brings me back to the performance itself. Much of what I’ve written so far makes it sound as though Gatz is purely concerned with literature, but Elevator Repair Service also incisively interrogate the workings of theatre. The conventions of representation get a comical prod, as what we are offered visually often directly contradicts with what we are being told. Jim Fletcher is a particularly unlikely Gatsby in his mismatched pink suit, and there is a beautiful moment when Shepherd reads the line about girls rubbing champagne in his hair and pauses to look incredulously at the balding figure opposite him.

There is much more to Gatz than can be contained in one blog post without stretching to ridiculous lengths, but Shepherd deserves a special mention before I reluctantly leave the experience behind me. His performance would be extraordinary for the memorising of the text alone, but this is much, much more than an impressive act of recall. It’s difficult for me to pin down quite why he makes such a compelling presence, but I think the closest I can get to articulating it is that he lives the book. When he reads those final, gorgeous sentences, we don’t quite want to leave him and the story he has told behind.

Tipped out onto the pavement after several hours in the novel’s company, I felt dazed and dazzled, slowly emerging from the deep submersion of Elevator Repair Service’s storytelling, blinking against the glare of the outside world. As I finally finish writing about it almost three weeks later, it still hasn’t fully relinquished its grip on me. And that pretty much says it all.