Lucy Ellinson

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“I think I’ve always been a little bit cross about fourth wall theatre, if I’m really honest,” Lucy Ellinson suddenly admits in the middle of our conversation in the Albany cafe. She’s smiling as she speaks, any crossness buried beneath a warm grin, but a quick glance at her work is enough to confirm this aversion to distanced realism. Her last project was Unlimited Theatre’s Money the Gameshow, a show dissecting the current financial crisis through the interactive format of the TV gameshow, while she’s now appearing in a piece of lightly immersive solo storytelling. Even in the Gate’s thrillingly visceral production of The Trojan Women, in which Ellinson appeared at the end of last year, she had an itching temptation to “sneak under” that invisible barrier, to sit amongst the audience and “do a little agitating”.

“It’s never been part of my understanding of what performance is,” she goes on to explain. “I’ve always felt that it’s a strange condition to set in a room where we’re all clearly present and clearly needing each other to make this thing happen.” For the show she’s currently touring, Jane Packman Company’s A Thousand Shards of Glass, the necessity of this co-presence is not immediately obvious. It’s a show in which everything is told and evoked rather than shown, seeming to share more in common with the radio play than with the rough immediacy of live performance. Yet somehow, as Ellinson is keen to emphasise, the presence of the audience, arranged in a circle, is central to the piece’s effectiveness: “Even though it is a private journey, I feel like there’s a level of engagement that absolutely has to exist in order for the piece to be able to be told.”

The show, described as “a surround-sound adventure which happens mostly in your head”, uses Ellinson’s persuasive storytelling and a vivid soundscape by Lewis Gibson to create an action-fuelled thriller that sprints through the landscape of the imagination, narrating a story of resistance against a dulled corporate world. Despite the relative lack of visual stimulus, its rapid shifting from frame to frame acquires the quality of a graphic novel, just one that’s sketched in the minds of the audience. The graphic novel is also an apt reference point for its invitation to the reader’s imagination, offering just enough to work with. As Ellinson explains, “you look at it, you imagine yourself right into it, but you’re still aware of yourself as a reader, as an outsider – you’re able to do those two things simultaneously, which I really like”. In this sense it’s similar to the radio play, which is “around and inside your mind at the same time”.

I’m reminded of Robert Wilson, who has described his ideal theatre as “a cross between the radio play and the silent movie”; in each genre, both the medium and the imagination are that bit sharper due to the absence of either image or dialogue. Hoping for a similar sharpness, the landscapes that the company wanted to conjure in A Thousand Shards of Glass were always at the forefront of the creative process. “We had a process where we’d talk a lot about the worlds that we were trying to establish; this hyper-realised, capitalist, futuristic world, where all the sensual, visceral elements of life sort of disappeared into this corporate sheen.”

Beyond simply sparking the imagination, Ellinson notes how the show speaks to the current political situation, describing it as “very prescient, very relevant”. This was a piece that felt the impact of both Occupy and the riots, and without reaching for any explicit link, these influences show. For this reason, a level of audience autonomy – “allowing them to take that bit of work on their own shoulders and do something with it” – is essential. Ellinson adds, “it’s much more of an offering, which feels politically more in tune with the themes of the piece”.

There was a similar sense of an offering in Ellinson’s interpretation of her role as the Chorus in The Trojan Women. In Caroline Bird’s new version of the Euripides, the Chorus was pared down to just one individual, an ordinary and ignored pregnant woman. Speaking of the “sense of solidarity” that this device created between the Chorus and the audience, Ellinson describes a “funny little space” that existed between a fourth wall standing and being torn down: “There were moments where the Chorus was asked to laugh – it was scripted ‘the Chorus laughs’ – and the audience would do it, so after a while I sort of let them take that part of me on. It was an interesting blurry line.”

There is a blurry line, too, between the more traditional, text-driven process of The Trojan Women and the collaborative, devised work that is Ellinson’s preferred realm. She reflects that director Christopher Haydon “would have cast me because he knows I’m a deviser and like chirruping up with what I think here, there and everywhere”, before suggesting that collaborative ways of working are becoming more common, regardless of the pre-existence of a text.

“I think it’s just an idea, and then you gather artists around the idea. That certainly seems to be what I’ve encountered in different processes, whether it’s a play or whether it’s a devised piece which becomes a piece of written performance text; the idea is there in the middle, and then I’ve worked with directors who’ve pulled different artists around it. That idea could be an already finished script, or it could be something that we’re going to make. Long may that continue, because then it’s about serving that idea.”

As Ellinson also explains, the artists involved in that process need not all be theatre artists; they could be videographers, jewellery makers, musicians. Making that point, one of Ellinson’s most striking projects over recent months – and the winner of the Arches Brick Award in Edinburgh last year – is Torycore, a furious marriage of austerity politics and death metal music, performed by Ellinson alongside Chris Thorpe and Steve Lawson. Borrowing lyrics from government speeches, the piece is being continually reworked to reflect the latest cuts, with a new outing later this year drawing from the 2013 Budget and the most recent slashes to welfare. As Ellinson bitterly observes, “there’s no end of amazingly, startlingly brutal language coming out of the present government, so there’s lots of text”.

“It’s been really interesting tracking their language,” she continues, mouth stretched in a grim smile. “There’s Iain Duncan Smith saying this is fair, these welfare changes are actually fair, and then there’s this wonderful quote from David Cameron about a year and a half ago saying that ‘we need to redefine the word fair’. It’s been fascinating to me to track the journey of that word in particular and how they’ve used it. They have been absolutely audacious in trying to remould the meaning of the word in the public consciousness in order to open the door for these sorts of ideological cuts.”

In the midst of all this calculated rhetoric, Ellinson recognises that it can be challenging to express one’s own political opinion. This difficulty to speak out is part of the impetus behind another of her ongoing projects, One Minute Manifesto, which will be returning to Battersea Arts Centre in May. Offering participants their very own soapbox and a platform to address as many or as few people as they like, the simple premise is to speak on a chosen subject for 60 seconds. The aim is that it facilitates the airing of those passionate opinions that might otherwise remain unspoken, something Ellinson has grown increasingly galvanised by: “the more I do it, the more I feel it’s really quite an important exercise to do”.

Ellinson tells one story of a woman who was paralysed by nerves during her allotted one minute, unable to wrench out any words before the time was up. Afterwards they went for a walk that lasted over an hour, speaking about this woman’s life, her opinions, her view of the world. She was “hugely articulate”, yet she struggled to believe that her thoughts were worth hearing. For the very reasons illustrated by this example, the conversation that happens around that minute is just as important as the minute itself. “That timing, that 60 seconds, it’s deliberately there to provoke a response to want to continue to talk.”

Ultimately, this seems to be the driving force behind much of Ellinson’s work – getting people talking. As Ellinson drains the last of her tea and I gather my things, we continue chatting; about some recent work Ellinson was involved with at the Women of the World Festival, about getting primary school girls energised by the idea of feminism, about Ellinson’s connection with Forest Fringe and their current residency at the Gate. Even as we’re both glancing at our watches, conscious of the need to continue with our days, the pull of that conversation is hard to resist.

Money – The Gameshow, Bush Theatre

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Ever wondered what 10,000 pound coins look like? The immediate answer is not very much. Walking into the main space at the Bush Theatre, configured as a gameshow set complete with flashing lights and garish set decoration, the pile of shiny gold items is disappointingly and surprisingly small. While this underwhelming realisation might not be the intended effect of placing so much cash on stage, it does have a fitting resonance with the performance of money in our society. Like the illusion of theatre, it relies on us believing in it, accepting one thing as standing for another. Except the idea represented by money is a hollow one, divorced even from the gold that the coins’ shiny surface suggests – a sign with nothing behind it, empty simulacra. We’re in the desert of the real and everything is up for grabs.

The function of the cash on stage in Clare Duffy’s show is to explain the financial crash of 2008, with a little help from two hedge fund managers turned performance artists. Queenie and Casino, played by the brilliant Lucy Ellinson and Brian Ferguson, split the audience into two teams and pit us against each other, playing games and placing bets in a bid to win the pile of coins; games fittingly involving bubbles and balloons teach us about long and short bets, dramatising with the help of audience members the culture of risk that led to financial collapse. The other and arguably more powerful effect of these games is to draw us into the adrenaline-fuelled thrill of the trading floor, injecting us with the giddy exhilaration that drives bankers, gamblers and gameshow contestants alike. Between these games, short scenes narrate the story of Queenie and Casino’s own involvement in the financial crisis, a bursting of the bubble that, far from avoiding, they actually placed a high-stakes bet on taking place.

In contrast with the alienating jargon that excludes many from an understanding of financial operations, the games devised by Duffy are pointedly accessible and quickly recognisable, evoking the playground more than the trading floor. Players shout and laugh in excitement, the audience whoops and jeers, Queenie and Casino bicker and tease. This childishness is visually reinforced at every turn, surrounded by bubbles and balloons, buckets and spades. The implication is perhaps that there is something immature and stunted about this way of playing with money, or maybe it is a game that has a primitive appeal to all of us. The riotous fun that is encouraged, however, threatens to undo its own work; as soon as the experience becomes too game-like, the sensation that all this risk-taking is ‘just playing’ becomes once again perpetuated, distancing us from a crisis that we can therefore dismiss.

Similarly, the doubled performance of money, while making these signifiers strangely unfamiliar, also runs the risk of departing so far from the real that it can be consigned simply to fiction. The further we feel from what the money represents, the more we think – like the traders – that what we do with it doesn’t have real effects. It is this flirtation with the performative function of money, however, that is one of the most fascinating aspects of the production. As Queenie and Casino repeatedly assert, money is founded on belief, on faith. But what happens to that belief in a theatre environment? What happens when a mimetic act is folded over on itself? Reflecting on the performance, it suddenly occurs to me that coin is an anagram of icon, with all its connotations of belief and worship but also a suggestion of something ultimately empty, a shiny surface concealing nothing beneath. It’s the exposure of this concealment that the show partly enacts, a stripping away of our socialised belief in money, but by the end the sheen is beginning to return.

The final portion of the show, once the games have been played and the fate of Queenie and Casino decided by which of their teams wins (Queenie’s – my team – on the night I went), there is a jolting gear change. Suddenly plunging us into the bleak reality of our zombie economy, accompanied by an abrupt shift from the flashing lights of the gameshow to a row of stark, blinking fluorescent strips, the piece changes track so rapidly that it’s possible to be derailed. There is a hovering moment at which the audience lurches uncertainly between smiling humour and a tentative suspicion that this is meant to be taken seriously. And it is horribly, gut-twistingly serious. The conclusion, unravelling slightly, but aptly so, reminds us of the situation that we push to the back of our minds, that we paste over with stories and a stubborn belief in shiny, worthless objects. It’s chaotic and terrifying and depressing.

As Queenie and Casino dance a dangerous tango, narrating the process of financial collapse as they twist around the stage, they refer to something known as ‘Roadrunner Syndrome’: “when you run off a cliff so fast that you keep on going on just thin air. It’s only when you notice that the ground isn’t there anymore that you fall.” This is what happened at the start of the crash, as banks ploughed on oblivious to the bubble bursting around them. But in many ways I’d suggest that we’re still treading that thin air, supporting ourselves on a slim but persistent belief in the mimetic structures of money. This production might make us glance down for a moment, maybe drop a couple of feet with a lurch of the stomach, but we don’t quite hit the levelling ground.

Image: Simon Kane.

Is not Money the Bond of all Bonds?

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“I really love that they’re the colour of gold.” Writer and director Clare Duffy is speaking about the 10,000 pound coins that she will soon be bravely putting on the stage of the Bush Theatre for MONEY the Gameshow, a piece asking meaty questions about money, the financial crisis and how we understand value. Deliberately eschewing the familiar image of floods of crisp bank notes, Duffy thinks there is something even more profoundly seductive about the materiality of pound coins, something deeply rooted in the way we think about money.

“Why aren’t they purple?” she grins at me across our table in the Bush cafe. “Why aren’t they striped? It’s so interesting how profound that symbolism is, because although we all know it’s not real gold, we like the fact that it’s gold coloured and shiny; it hearkens back to a folk memory of gold standard, when money was directly linked to a standardised value.”

Putting those 10,000 round, shiny objects on stage has a history and a whole host of problems. The idea first arose from an earlier play of Duffy’s, in which a couple put a pound coin in a jar for every day they spend together and are then faced with splitting the amassed sum after their break-up; when it was performed, Duffy placed 500 pound coins in the centre of the playing space, prompting the realisation that this immediately shifted the way in which these objects signify. “What happens when it becomes a prop?” Duffy ponders. “Does it still feel like it has that value? And what kind of performances does it demand from the audience?”

When she won the Arches New Director’s Award in 2011, Duffy identified a way of posing these questions, deciding to put the £6,000 prize on stage and use it to tell the story of the financial crisis. Through the experience of presenting scratches of the piece and developing it again for the Bush, Duffy’s feeling that the environment of the theatre changes the nature of the money on stage has only intensified. While money typically relies on a shared belief in its value, Duffy observes that “when you put it inside a theatre, which is a place of make believe, it sort of becomes something else”. How does an object that is already engaged in a mimetic act – standing in for a value that it does not embody but only represents – transform under another layer of representation?

The money on stage is also influenced by the necessary mechanisms that surround it; as the £10,000 used in the show is a loan, the theatre has had to install CCTV cameras and a security guard to ensure that no audience members are sneakily slipping coins into their pockets. Rather than considering it an irritating practicality, however, Duffy has creatively seized on these intrusions, describing them as “both real and not real at the same time”. It is through such external structures, she believes, that the central notion of money is upheld. It follows that perhaps through revealing and disturbing such structures we might be able to interrogate and displace that notion.

This process of interrogation and displacement is just what MONEY the Gameshow sets out to achieve. Led by two hedge fund managers turned performance artists, played by Lucy Ellinson and Brian Ferguson, the audience are divided down the middle and given the piles of pound coins to gamble with, placing bets and competing to win. The purpose of this involvement, Duffy explains, is to draw the audience into the adrenalin-drenched world in which such individuals operate and to make them complicit in that irresistible excitement.

“You’re given a stake in the risk of the story,” Duffy continues, “aligning the risk of the games with the risk of the story. Because that’s what the story is about, it’s about playing a game and winning or losing.” The story that runs alongside these games is the story of both the former hedge fund managers and the entire financial crisis, tracing the factors that led to collapse and the state of extended resuscitation that has followed, stubbornly reviving what Duffy calls a “zombie economy”. We have all played a losing hand, but we’re still trying to hold onto our chips.

Duffy believes, however, that the current crisis is as much of an opportunity as it is a disaster: “What’s exciting about now and about talking about money now is that anything’s possible and the most crazy ideas should be talked about”. Throughout the process of making the show she has spoken to a number of individuals from the world of finance that she is depicting and has been surprised by the openness of some of their attitudes. “Politically we’re probably coming at these things from very different points of view, but there’s a convergence point,” she says, suggesting that this location of convergence is born from our present state of crisis. “Interestingly, it creates a space where people from really radically different points of view and walks of life can actually meet and talk.”

Getting people talking is, as Duffy recognises, the first step towards any change, but there are a number of barriers to that conversation. As Duffy observes, the financial industries are constructed to keep people out, fenced with technical jargon and barbed with complexities. “It seems to be to be so important and yet so little understood,” she says, admitting to her own ignorance prior to the research undertaken for the show. Her hope is that, as well as shifting audiences’ perceptions of money and value, she can simply make them feel more comfortable talking about it.

The idea of talking about money inevitably leads us into the territory of how money is discussed within the arts. This is a thorny subject, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by cuts, where the effort to defend the arts is often weakened by internal disagreements about the rhetoric in which that defence is to be mounted. Duffy is of the opinion that those working in the arts should take up all the arguments at their disposal.

“I think you just have to make the argument every which way you can, as much as you can,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of value in making as watertight an economic argument as you can. There’s an expression: making your argument in your master’s language. Sometimes you have to make the argument in terms that the people in power will understand or accept. However, at the same time you have to realise that you’re seeding power when you do that, so you have to be making that argument in another way. You have to fight on as many fronts as possible.”

The concern, as I say to Duffy, is that the eloquent economic arguments that are being put forward by some will be at the expense of the arts’ intrinsic value. If we succeed in binding the arts to measurable economic outcomes, this monetary worth quickly becomes the only value that can be ascribed to them. Duffy sees it, however, as a distinction between short term and long term solutions. “Short term sometimes it’s worth making that argument, it feels appropriate to make that argument, but at the same time you have to be making the more important point,” she suggests. Proof of economic worth might win the battle, but it is the search for a non-monetary language about value that is key to the longer term struggle.

“And that is what the show is really passionate about,” Duffy persuasively concludes. “It’s about asking the question: what is money?”

Photo: Simon Kane

The Trojan Women, Gate Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

The king is dead, Troy is burning and the “crème de la femme” of the city are imprisoned in the maternity ward of the hospital, awaiting their fate amid teddy bears and pill bottles. The chorus screams while the gods cackle through mounted television monitors, peering down at the anguished humans with hand-rubbing glee. The Gate Theatre’s bold, visceral new realisation of the fall of Troy and the long tumble from grace to which its female inhabitants are subjected is certainly not a tragedy given to moderation.

Caroline Bird’s thrilling, muscular adaptation of Euripides is, as Poseidon sneers down from his distant Olympus, “an artistic impression” of Troy – a contemporary riff on tales indelibly impressed on the collective cultural memory. This allows for an implicit critique of the way such wars and massacres are historicised; an arch, glancing appraisal of the passing of stories from mouth to mouth. “Am I a poem?” asks Lucy Ellinson’s compelling one-woman chorus, begging the question of how individuals are memorialised, be it by Homer or Euripides or the modern media. It is a question that is as relevant to the depiction of perceived “victims” in present day conflicts as it is to the reading of ancient literature.

And Bird certainly isn’t shy about underlining Troy’s contemporary resonances, as she and director Christopher Haydon wrench Euripides’ characters out of the ancient world and into an unspecified modern realm. This Troy may still have gods in the form of Roger Lloyd Pack and Tamsin Greig’s pre-recorded deities, but it also has smartphones, machine guns and anti-monarchy blogs. This tension between ancient faith and modern secularism emerges repeatedly throughout the piece, with the fickle and malicious gods worshipped by the Greeks and Trojans becoming an apt reference point for the shifting, false idols of our age.

Just as the chorus, cannily pared down to Ellinson’s pregnant woman of the people, wonders whether she is merely “the idea of woman”, this interpretation also feels its way around what it means to be a woman caught in the conflict of motherlands. Louise Brealey’s dazzling, chameleonic portrayal of three of Troy’s pivotal female figures – Cassandra, Andromache and Helen – functions to illustrate three different facets of how women have been painted in the Troy legend: as hysterics, helpless victims and temptresses. The clinical surroundings of Jason Southgate’s striking design, meanwhile, define these women through the role of motherhood, mocking them with the hope of offspring that will be ripped from their breasts while childish paraphernalia laughs down from the walls.

But for all its brutally poetic language, searching interpretation and sheer winding power, there is something that grates a little within this reimagining. Rather than teasing out timeless threads from Euripides’ tragedy and applying these to our current predicament, Bird’s adaptation grasps and rips with both hands. As a result, the stubbornly imposed contemporary parallels, such as Talthybius’ use of Western democracy’s rhetoric to justify the Greek invasion of Troy, sit somewhat disjointedly with the Classical references preserved from Euripides. Meanwhile, the pointedly modern gadgets and glib, incongruous video sequences – as predictably enjoyable as Lloyd Pack and Greig’s performances are – have a touch of smugness that threatens to blunt the potency of the whole.

Heavy-handed as it may be, however, it’s hard not to be enthralled by the antiseptic horror and devastatingly intense performances. There is also something profoundly timely in Troy’s excess and destruction that speaks louder than all of the grinningly placed modern references. As the doomed spires of Ilium look more and more like the towering skyscrapers of late capitalism, perhaps this fresh, harrowing vision of Troy is a Cassandra for our times.

A Thousand Shards of Glass, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

Much like the inevitable solo film trilogy, a piece that advertises itself as a one woman action adventure thriller is the sort of theatrical experience usually best avoided at the fringe. It sounds suspiciously as though it might involve a diluted Lara Croft figure and misguided martial arts. Jane Packman Company and consummate storyteller Lucy Ellinson, however, demonstrate that genre can be a tool for reinvention as well as a chain to confine.

The show’s staging, like its premise, is deliciously deceptive. Seats arranged around a circle enclosing nothing more than a ring of lights linked by fat, snaking wires, this would appear to be the height of theatrical minimalism. In a sense it is. As the piece progresses, however, the conceptual care behind each simple creative choice becomes ever more apparent. Nothing here happens by accident.

In the absence of any concession to naturalistic scenery, the tale that Ellinson spins takes place in the vast landscape of our imaginations. Seated in our circle of chairs, gazing across at one another, the audience configuration is reminiscent of the campfire – a forum for fantastical stories since stories began. As spectators, we are also fragmented, separated, identified as individuals rather than as part of an amorphous whole and thus forced to fully engage with the performance. Creeping around this circle, Ellinson conjures a flat, projected world, a Matrix-like illusion in which the human race are trapped and from which she alone can save them.

In this magical realist, two-dimensional space, there is an apt element of the graphic novel to the text’s vivid yet artificial frescos. One of the most vibrant scenes is that in which Ellinson’s character circles around Egypt in a taxi, ticking off colourful scenes of the surrounding market that summon a bustling mental picture, but one which snags uncomfortably on the corners of the mind; like the protagonist, we too can see the edges. Repeated images whirl past in aTruman Show carousel of fakery, seeming real but not quite real enough.

That my references are all to films is no mistake. It is from this art form that Jane Packman Company takes its stylistic cues, borrowing from Hollywood tropes and flitting schizophrenically from scene to scene in the manner of the scissor-happy action movie aesthetic. Lewis Gibson’s evocative soundscape, the piece’s one aid to the imagination other than the loop of flickering lights, is a nod to the surround-sound conventions of modern cinema, as noises emit from speakers dotted throughout the space and two sound boxes are passed between members of the audience.

The influence of film, among the most elaborately artificial and widely reproduced artistic mediums, also seems fitting for an imagined world constituted of signs. This flat world, this “desert of the real”, to borrow – as The Matrix does – a phrase from Jean Baudrillard, becomes an unsettling metaphor for a society which has accepted the flat, airbrushed reality of capitalism. In contrast to this steady stream of simulacra, the tricks of the production are all visible and unmasked, from the protruding wires of the lights to the sound boxes that travel from hand to hand – a method of staging that seems appealingly mutinous in itself. This may only be a story of resistance, but its rebellious sentiment is one that outlives the narrative.

At a festival where epic ambition is often traded in for intimate bite, Jane Packman Company has found a gorgeously simple way to happily marry the two. The literal space occupied by the piece is bare and compact, paced by Ellinson alone. But the cavernous realm of the imagination, unrestrained by practical limitations has far greater epic sweep than even the most immense of stages.