RoosevElvis, Royal Court

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ELVIS: I always saw my life like it was a movie. Ever since I was a little kid.

Ever imagined your life as a movie? Not the movie of your life, all carefully edited highlights and an actor with much better hair in the lead role. Just day-to-day life seen through celluloid: getting ready in the morning, heading to work, going out for drinks. The banality of routine made exciting through the frame of Hollywood.

It seems only right that The TEAM, a company at once in love with and critical of Americana, should go to the movies. The outlines of Hollywood, so often overlapping with those of the American Dream, were there in Mission Drift, but RoosevElvis takes on that most quintessentially American of film genres: the road trip. Except this road trip is one – as per the title – with Elvis Presley and Teddy Roosevelt: two very different American heroes and two very different versions of masculinity.

I mention Mission Drift because it’s hard not to watch RoosevElvis through the remembered lens of that earlier show. Even just thinking about that production exploding across the stage of (the venue formerly known as) the Shed, all sexy chaos and soul-shattering songs, makes my heart beat a little faster. It was a show that locked horns with the American Dream and the history of capitalism by embracing the messiness, the unruliness, the unencompassable hugeness of its subject matter. It was all excess, bursting at the seams with images and ideas, yet the unrestrained aesthetic felt completely apt.

RoosevElvis has just as much going on, but the mash-up is slightly less convincing. It’s grappling with a hell of a lot: gender, sexuality, images of American masculinity, heroes and icons, the mythology of the roadtrip, the intoxication of adventure. As in Mission Drift, there are two main strands: the struggle undertaken by Ann, a lonely and lost 35-year-old in a dead-end job at a meat-processing plant, to find herself on the road to Graceland; and a hallucinatory meeting between Elvis (Ann’s hero) and Roosevelt (Elvis’s own hero in turn). And it’s all performed by two women – The TEAM’s fantastic Libby King and Kristen Sieh – in glorious, pointedly fake drag.

When we first meet Ann, she’s hooking up with Brenda, a visiting taxidermist she met on the internet. Brenda is everything Ann isn’t: self-assured, wisecracking, thirsty for adventure. As she puts it during their three days together, the reserved Elvis fan is “remarkably unbrave”. (That particular choice of words – “unbrave”, not “cowardly” – lands with a surprisingly devastating weight.) As her time with Brenda comes to an abrupt end and she struggles again with her identity, Ann conjures the spirits of Elvis and Roosevelt and the three of them hit the road, making a meandering pilgrimage to Graceland.

This all takes place within a makeshift film set, surrounded by screens playing snippets of Thelma and Louise and a series of movie-like on-location scenes, gorgeously filmed by Andrew Schneider. There’s more than a hint of The Wooster Group to this ubiquitous presence of televisual media, as movies become absorbed into the texture of everyday life. Thelma and Louise is a thematic and aesthetic reference point throughout, in fact, its simultaneous homage to and subversion of the road trip buddy comedy providing a blueprint of sorts for The TEAM. Here, again, two women critique the centrality of very particular ideas of masculinity to the American psyche – only these two women are playing two men.

King and Sieh’s embodiment of the two famous men smashed together in the title is one of the show’s great joys. The aptly named King lends Elvis both swagger and vulnerability; he can entrance the world with a swing of his hips, but yearns for his momma’s love. Also playing Ann, King deliberately blurs the edges of the two roles and the genders they represent, the same submerged melancholy bleeding into both characters. Sieh’s riotous Roosevelt, meanwhile, is a hyperactive pastiche of rugged yet intellectual manliness, burying emotions in books and hunting trips. It’s an incredible comic turn, made all the more impressive by its contrast to the persuasive naturalism of Sieh’s performance as Brenda.

RoosevElvis is a show of fantastic moments. Roosevelt throwing ridiculous punches at projected buffalo on a screen. Roosevelt and Elvis (or “Elvees”, in Roosevelt’s Katherine Hepburn-esque accent) lounging in a motel room, the latter in a monogrammed dressing gown. A finale that flips from the laugh-out-loud to the poignant and contemplative in an instant. Between these moments, though, it often veers from the road, going off into digressions or tipping the absurdity just that bit too far. Teddy and Elvis’s little skits, while ushering in most of the laughs, rarely move the narrative forward. I begin to wonder, as other interesting fragments of ideas around privilege and legacy periodically surface, whether the piece has taken on just a little too much.

But what The TEAM are great at, as ever, is pulling apart the threads of American mythology. In the opening scene of the show, as the two icons at its heart compete for attention like movie stars at a press conference, Roosevelt launches into a segment from one of his speeches. There’s a pause. Then he says, grinning, “what a great quote”. The twenty-first-century portrait of the USA drawn by The TEAM is one of national culture as quotation and national identity as an awkward yet enduring assemblage of freighted symbols.

This all resonates, too, with the construction of personal identity – a fraught ongoing battle for Ann. Whatever the show’s stumbles, there’s something brilliant about the staging of a queer woman’s journey towards self-realisation, in the process hijacking a narrative form that is so often (as the inserted biographies of Elvis and Roosevelt – always gently subverted by the simple fact of the casting – make clear) dominated by (straight, white) men. RoosevElvis might be critical of the traditional markers of American masculinity – guns, aggression, arrogance – but it also opens up the possibility of a new sort of identity, one still connected to but not hemmed in by the long chain of past heroes.

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Finding The Words

©Richard Davenport 2012. London UK. Chris Goode Publicity Images

Originally written for Exeunt and the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.

I’m sat on the edge of my bed, postponing the moment when I need to leave for work, staring with feverish intensity at the glowing rectangle of my phone. In these stolen minutes at the start of the day I’m reading every last word I can about Three Kingdoms, the new production at the Lyric Hammersmith that has sparked a long, sprawling critical debate. My own words are also out there, somewhere in the tangle of online criticism, and for the first time since releasing my opinions into the virtual world I feel as though I’m part of a real conversation.

I walk out of This Is How We Die at Ovalhouse with ears ringing and skin prickling. I don’t have the words to describe what I just experienced, and I’m not sure I ever will, but the search for them feels like the most important thing in the world in this moment. On the bus home, hands still shaking a little, I type an inadequate, sweary tweet on my phone and wonder if a piece of theatre will ever leave me this exhilarated again.

It’s late. Far too late. Far too late – or rather too early – to still be tapping away at my laptop with a full day’s work waiting for me in the morning. But I just can’t stop. I’m writing about Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, a gently mind-stretching essay of a show, and wrestling at the same time with some of the really big, essential questions about this art form that I love. What is theatre for? Why do we make it or see it? What really happens when we all gather in a room together to experience a show?

Who knew theatre could be so epic, so thrilling, so sexy? It takes about five minutes for The TEAM to steal my heart and squeeze it tight with the gorgeous, adrenaline-fuelled juggernaut that is Mission Drift, their warp-speed race through 400 years of American capitalism. Later, catching my breath and staring at a blank Word document, my only thought is: how do I possibly write something even a fraction as exciting as what I just saw?

These experiences are rare. In a lifetime of faithful theatregoing, they appear as sporadic, fleeting flashes on an otherwise calm horizon. It’s the promise of such moments, however, that keeps me going through all the boredom and mediocrity. It keeps me hopeful and it keeps me questioning, two vital qualities for anyone who wants to write about theatre with any kind of passion. No matter how many awful shows I’ve seen, the words constantly on my lips – like a much less glamorous version of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret – are “maybe this time”.

I find it hard to think of any one piece of theatre that set me on a course towards criticism. Writing about theatre, like so many other things in life, was essentially a bit of an accident. As an undergraduate student I kind of liked theatre, I kind of liked writing and I kind of wanted to start a blog – it wasn’t any more interesting or exciting than the serendipitous alchemy of those three things combined. Instead, what I find easier to pin down are the shows that subsequently kept me on that strange, coincidental path.

When first writing about Three Kingdoms and still feeling a little dazed, I suggested that “we need new ways of seeing, of experiencing, of expressing”. This is what the best theatre provokes. There’s a line that I love in Irving Wardle’s book Theatre Criticism: “In the midst of an earthquake, the critic is no better a guide than anyone else”. It’s a slightly embarrassing thought for critics, but an inspiring one for theatre-makers. They trace new contours in the world; we scrabble around to redraw the map.

Or, to put it another way, the theatre that I most want to write about is the theatre I don’t yet have the words for.

Beginnings and Endings

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Let’s start with a beginning.

Sitting in the stalls of the newly plastic-swathed Lyric Hammersmith this September, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such palpable anticipation in the moments before a show. As suggested by the words “Secret Theatre”, most of us in the audience did not know quite what to expect. The curtain was eventually raised to reveal the performers in a line at the back of the stage, dressed in plain white shorts and vests. Accompanied by a sinister, clinical voiceover, these figures rushed forward to drink from bowls of water, scrambling over one another in a desperate, animalistic struggle. What followed might not have been the best show of the year, but it is hard to think of a more memorable opening.

As I attempt to craft some sort of assessment of the year in theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre project feels like an apt emblem for the change that is slowly pressing in on multiple sides. This time last year, writing another of these deeply subjective round-ups, I reflected that 2012 felt like a year of “small tectonic shifts”. While those shifts might not have precipitated a violent eruption of change across the landscape of British theatre, the last 12 months have nonetheless seen ripples of movement – just more gradually than perhaps anticipated.

Unlike the noisy, thrilling arrival of Three Kingdoms last year, the changes of 2013 have been subtle and structural, hinting more at future promise than present fulfilment. Chief among these changes is the exciting wave of new artistic directors who have either taken up post or been announced: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield. Whether these appointments will really offer the shake-up they hint at is still to be seen – though the early signs of Featherstone’s tenure are encouraging – but the collective urge for new ways of working is clear.

The impetus towards change is also characteristic of one vein of work that has particularly stayed with me this year. The phrase “political theatre” always feels like a misnomer – isn’t all theatre political in some way? – but a clutch of angry, thoughtful and passionate productions in 2013 have dealt specifically with ideas of political change and protest. How to Occupy an Oil Rig playfully explored the demonstration (in every sense), while Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father offered a decidedly personal perspective on protest – almost reducing me to tears in the process. And another kind of activism is at the heart of Bryony Kimmings’ bold and brilliant Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel project, which twice bowled me over with both its raw emotion and the galvanising ambition of its aims.

Elsewhere, the potential for future change was more lightly hinted at. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dan Hutton and I noted the theme of hope that threaded its way through several of the productions we saw, complicatedly paired with both critique and irony. Contrived as this narrative perhaps is, it is one that has retrospectively haunted many of this year’s shows, inflecting my way of watching and thinking about theatre. From its very explicit presence in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening to its troublesome ghost in The Events, the question of hope has been a key feature of much of the most interesting work I’ve seen over the past 12 months.

Chris Goode's The Forest and The Field ©Richard Davenport

Closely linked to hope is the idea of community, which is often vaunted as being at the heart of theatre as an art form. We share the same space in the theatre, after all, so we must be a community of sorts, right? This was tested in various ways by much of the best theatre of 2013, be it the stunning yet gentle intellectual interrogation of Chris Goode and Company’sThe Forest and the Field or the joyously communal celebration of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – which arguably nailed the whole thing by staging itself in a pub and throwing in some song and dance for good measure.

Similarly to Prudencia Hart, music was a key ingredient of the fleeting community forged night after night in Edinburgh by The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project; food took the same role in Only Wolves and Lions, reminding me of the simple community we build when we cook and eat together. It’s not insignificant that that last example was part of Forest Fringe, a gorgeous instance of transitory artistic community in the midst of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. This community also offered up countless other small scale theatrical highlights of the year, among them Ira Brand’s delicate contemplation on ageing, a consideration of our addiction to virtual communities in I Wish I Was Lonely, and Deborah Pearson’s haunting The Future Show.

One show that managed to be both small and epic was Grounded, the absolute standout production of the Fringe for me. The remarkable Lucy Ellinson once again looms large over my theatregoing memories of the year after her compelling delivery of George Brant’s tightly written, blistering monologue, all the while imprisoned within the striking grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s design (as an aside, cubes seemed to be big this year – see Chimerica). Ellinson also dazzled, though very differently, in #TORYCORE, a deafening, devastating scream of rage against the destructive policies of the coalition government.

And it was not only the politicians of today who found themselves criticised in theatres this year. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a number of pieces have already directly or obliquely approached her legacy. Theatre503’s quickfire offering of short plays produced a decidedly mixed bag, although Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho’s glorious drag queen rendering of the Iron Lady has deservedly lingered in my memory. The difficulty of discussing Thatcher’s legacy was addressed in all its complexity by Mars.tarrab’s brilliantly titled The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, while perhaps the most striking visual representation of Thatcher came courtesy of Squally Showers, a show that touched on her and her politics only indirectly. Yet somehow, in the image of a performer in a Thatcher mask holding aloft an inflatable globe while surrounded by the detritus of a wild party, Little Bulb wordlessly directed a powerful judgement at the world left to Thatcher’s children.

Little Bulb's Squally Showers

Squally Showers also provided plentiful helpings of sheer joy, a theatrical quality not to be underestimated. Alongside the charming eccentricity of Little Bulb’s latest show, the Edinburgh Fringe also offered the utterly bonkers but irresistibly endearing Beating McEnroe,which will forever leave me with the glorious memory of Jamie Wood pretending to be a tennis ball. An equally joyous moment to imprint itself on my mind this year emerged from Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, in which I screamed with laughter at the four male performers’ move by move recreation of the dance in the Kate Bush music video, while the final scene of rain-drenched anarchy in the RSC’s As You Like It topped off a production that was a delight from start to finish. And no assessment of theatrical joy in 2013 would be complete without pausing to remember Zawe Ashton’s frankly inspired rendition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ in Narrative, a show that achieved the rare feat of being both absolutely hilarious and intellectually meaty.

While it may not fit neatly within the thematic threads I’m attempting to loosely weave through my overview of the year, any consideration of 2013 has to include a mention for Headlong. The company has had a ridiculously successful 12 months, encompassing the slick, stylish storytelling of Chimerica, a bold and theatrically astute new interpretation of The Seagull and – best of all in my opinion – the complete headfuck of Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s stunningly intelligent adaptation of 1984. I’ve missed out on American Psycho,but from the outside it appears to offer a striking end to a fairly extraordinary year for Headlong.

As averse as I am to naming any one production “best”, when looking back over the year I find my mind dragged time and time again back to Mission Drift. For many this hardly counts as a “new” production, having first been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but this summer’s run at the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space was my first opportunity to see The TEAM’s dizzying trip through 400 years of American capitalism. Fast-paced, sexy and beautiful to look at, Mission Drift can also justifiably be described as epic, an adjective that I rarely find myself applying to theatre. Its scope, energy and excitement has become my personal benchmark against which to measure the year’s theatre, and very little in the subsequent months has equalled it.

As I opened this narrative with a beginning, I might as well close with an ending. Looking ahead to 2014, February will see the dismantling of The Shed, whose garish red silhouette on the South Bank has come to stand for vitality and experimentation at the heart of an institution often associated with tradition – as the narrative it spun to celebrate its 50th anniversary did little to challenge. One can only hope that The Shed’s spirit of innovation, together with that of Secret Theatre and Vicky Featherston’s Open Court festival this summer, finds a way to continue into the next 12 months.

I also contributed to a collective look back at 2013’s theatre with the rest of Exeunt’s writers.

Mission Drift, National Theatre Shed

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Originally written for Exeunt.

How do you tell the story of 400 years of American capitalism? The TEAM approach that seemingly impossible challenge by going right to the heart of what sustains it: mythology. Their searing, sexy, gloriously shambolic voyage through the heartland of the great American Dream takes on one myth with another, using a symbolic saga of American youth, adventure and frenzied acquisition to intelligently skewer an economic system fatally fixated on growth. And there are songs. Brilliant, heart-stopping, floor-shaking songs.

The narrative device driving this gorgeous, chaotic juggernaut is actually deceptively simple. Using one of the staples of the Hollywood movie – that other great cornerstone of American identity – Mission Drift pursues the spirit of capitalism through a pair of intertwined love stories. Catalina and Joris are two immortal Dutch teenagers who travel over on one of the first ships to the New World, forever fourteen as they hungrily chase the frontier, while in post-credit crash Las Vegas, a cocktail waitress and a desert-dwelling cowboy seek shared respite from financial collapse. Playing tricks with temporality, the show effortlessly jumps between these two couples, its fleet-footed narrative overseen by Heather Christian’s captivating songstress Miss Atomic.

The resulting atmosphere in The Shed is somewhere between theatre, gig and cabaret show. It’s thrilling, it’s explosive, it burns with the heat of flashing neon and sun-soaked desert sand. This is unapologetically exciting theatre, giddily romanticising Americana at the same time as dismantling it. Through the furious pace, Christian’s electric music and the astonishing energy of The TEAM’s performers, the audience is bathed in the white heat of financial risk and lightning growth. Its implicit confession is that capitalism is undeniably seductive. This truth is repeatedly acknowledged as Mission Drift races through boom and bust, charting first the unstoppable march of the frontier and then the inexorable growth of Las Vegas, its neon towers thrusting up out of the desert in the ultimate expression of the capitalist dream. And all the while the action is underscored with a greedy, breathless hymn to the pursuit of growth. Bigger, bigger. Better, better. I want, I want.

At the apex of this progress is the atomic bomb: explosive, destructive, yet strangely beautiful, watched by sunglass-clad gamblers during tests at the nearby Nevada Proving Grounds. Here, that violent and seductive presence is wrapped up in Miss Atomic, whose songs blow the place apart with her namesake’s intoxicating cocktail of power and beauty. She is, in a sense, the face (and blistering voice) of it all – the bomb, Las Vegas, the unstoppable force of capitalist desire. But Catalina and Joris, played by the tireless and ever-animated Libby King and Brian Hastert, are also the blazing symbols of the American Dream. A pair of entrepreneurial Peter Pans, these two Dutch adventurers attain an eternal adolescence that hints at both the immaturity and the headiness of their restless greed. They also lay claim to that very American right to reinvention, renaming themselves at each new frontier until those names become meaningless.

The TEAM’s distinctly postmodern version of the USA is one that Jean Baudrillard would instantly recognise, in which signs have replaced reality. The desert of the real is Las Vegas’ sign-littered Neon Boneyard, cradling “the fragile bones of electric dinosaurs”, while history itself has become a theme park ride – set to warp speed and decked in flashing lights. The platform on which the band performs is flanked by tree trunks, the backdrop behind them suggesting the wild, unexplored forests of the frontier, but now that frontier is only an empty image glossed over with the glitter of the casino. It’s all a mirage.

It might all be simulacra, but this breakneck production still dazzles, sweeping us up in its epic scope. Momentum builds and builds, in step with the pioneers and the skyscrapers, leaving the scattered debris of stage mess in its wake. In the words of Miss Atomic, it “grows so fast that you can see it, and feel it, and be afraid of it”. It’s only in the final half hour or so that this pace begins to flag, with music and chaos dropping away in favour of calm, reflective storytelling. While it’s with a hint of disappointment that the pulse-quickening action departs, the lull feels necessary, the sudden shift in aesthetic reflecting the water-treading stasis of recession that we still find ourselves mired in. This structure is, in itself, a sort of warning. No matter how fast you spin it, the roulette wheel always has to stop turning sooner or later.

Photo: Ves Pitts