Invisible Treasure, Ovalhouse


There’s always a promise held somewhere in interactive theatre. There’s the idea, cherished by so many of its makers, that by making the audience physically active we’ll become activated in other ways as well. That by getting us on our feet and interacting with one another, we’ll be shaken out of our stupor and become – however briefly – part of the sort of utopian community that all theatre holds the fragile potential for.

So much interactive theatre, though, has become lazy or cynical or both, trading on a label that suddenly has currency in the “experience economy” we now live in. Far too often, “interactive” (encased suspiciously in quotation marks) means little more than a marketing tick-box. Supposedly unique experiences are deeply derivative and being physically active becomes just another way of being mentally passive.

In their ambitious new show, fanSHEN are attempting to recover some of that essential promise. With no performers but a hefty load of technology, Invisible Treasure is experimenting with what it’s possible for people to do together in a space: how far they are willing to play and to work together, and when they will challenge authority. This is theatre that’s trying in some way to model how we interact in the world beyond these four walls; as the company’s description puts it, it is a world “that feels like the inside of a computer game but yet seems strangely similar to our own”. It is, as I say, ambitious.

And for the moment, at least, fanSHEN fall short of those ambitions. They’ve saddled themselves with a Catch-22 of a project: to develop, Invisible Treasure needs testing with audiences, but that testing requires exposing it in a delicate, unfinished state. It’s still a work-in-progress, then, ironing out flaws and glitches along the way. Writing about it also feels like something of a work-in-progress – an unfinished response to an unfinished show.

The computer game reference point in Invisible Treasure’s blurb is an apt one. Walking into the sleek white box of Cécile Trémolières’ design, all we have to go by is a single screen displaying cryptic instructions. It’s like a puzzle, but one that can only be collectively solved. There are lights, sounds and a colourful, textured floor, as well as a huge, ominous white rabbit looming in the corner (echoes of Alice in Wonderland as we plunge down the digital rabbit hole). A Big Brother-esque figure is watching and our actions as we progress through confusing levels can either please or displease him, as updates on the screen inform us.

Audience involvement requires a careful framework, establishing parameters in which participants can exercise a degree of freedom. It might go against what fanSHEN are trying to do, but audience members – especially awkward, reserved, stereotypically British audience members (*raises hand*) – respond well to guidelines and limitations. As it currently exists, Invisible Treasure is just a bit too baffling and amorphous. Whether or not you choose to play by them, games need rules. The different levels here are often frustratingly opaque, and whether we progress by effort or by default is unclear. It’s hard to know what we are supposed to be achieving or resisting.

That said, in certain moments the piece is skilful in coaxing its audience into involvement and cooperation. The simplicity of manoeuvring our bodies into shapes, reminiscent of school drama exercises, quickly gets everyone working together (if with mixed success). And I loved the dance sequence, in which we are all encouraged first in protective darkness and then in exposing light to boogie in a series of familiar styles (conclusion: I can’t line dance to save my life, but I love a bit of the twist).

After puzzling (often unwittingly) our way through the show’s levels, though, the final reveal (SPOILER ALERT) feels a little unearned. That slightly terrifying rabbit cracks open down the middle and we step through the looking glass into a backstage space, all wires and controls. This is where fanSHEN really frame the intentions of the piece, but it feels like something of a shortcut. On the outside walls of the space we’ve just emerged from, questions are scrawled, asking us about cooperation and resistance both within and beyond the walls of the theatre. Pens invite our responses, but most answers speak of confusion – a common response to the show, it would seem.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the complicated motion-sensor technology has eaten up much of fanSHEN’s development time, with the dramaturgy having to take a backseat. What the piece is trying to do – using interaction as a prompt to consider our interactions in the wider world and all of their political implications – is interesting and the set-up of the performance is intriguing, but as an experience it doesn’t yet cohere. Tensions that could be fascinating, such as that between the Big Brother element and the cooperation asked of us in each level, are currently just a bit awkward, while the directness of the questions we are issued with at the end feels as though it is making up for the lack of clarity elsewhere. There’s definitely something here, but it needs more time – and more audiences – to begin realising its ambitions. 

Photo: Cat Lee.

The Ted Bundy Project, Ovalhouse


Originally written for Exeunt.

The title of Greg Wohead’s show would have us believe that it is about Ted Bundy, the notorious American serial killer. And, in a way, it is. Wohead relates details from Bundy’s life, reproduces his confession tapes, teases out tiny details around the murder and decapitation of one of his victims.

But really, The Ted Bundy Project is about Wohead and about us.

At first glance, it might seem like an odd pairing of performer and subject matter. Wohead is so warm, so genial, so smiling. But then so, apparently, was Bundy. Wohead tells us that he was known for being a nice guy – or appearing to be, at least. He lured in his victims by quickly building up trust. He was handsome and friendly. He seemed … normal.

Wohead too seems normal, friendly, trustworthy. He opens the show by welcoming and thanking his audience, telling us a bit about Bundy, diffusing the tension with some nervous laughter. We hear a few details about Bundy’s life: his childhood, his education, all the familiar details of an unremarkable existence. And then Wohead comes sharply to the point.

“I guess you want to hear the juicy stuff.”

This desire for “the juicy stuff” is the real focus of Wohead’s show. He repeats and interlaces a number of different narrative strands: the murder of one of Bundy’s victims, the killer’s confession tapes, Wohead’s experience of listening to those tapes, a seemingly innocent memory of summer camp. By weaving together facts about Bundy and personal recollections, Wohead increasingly blurs the line between the two, gradually exposing the submerged violence in him and in his audience.

The whole thing is a dare to our dark side, a teasing appeal to the Ted Bundy in all of us. How much do you want to see? How much gore are you willing to stomach? How many of the gruesome details is your mind luridly colouring in? Like the complicity of imagination created among the audience in The Author, Wohead cannily leaves it up to us to manufacture the nastiest of the images he describes. On stage, there is not so much as one drop of blood, but our minds are bathed in horror.

Two devices are particularly striking. One is the density of fact and speculation surrounding the crime scene that Wohead constructs around one particular murder, blandly repeating the phrases “what we know is …” and “what we don’t know is …” It’s the precise, careful language of police investigations, but also the language of curiosity, of meticulously combing through details. It leaves us disgusted and yet fascinated, morbidly eager to hear more.

The other is a “reaction video”, a genre familiar to anyone who has spent a bit of time on YouTube. The video being reacted to is provocatively titled “one lunatic, one icepick”. You can probably guess the rest. But what Wohead smartly achieves by repeatedly projecting this reaction video – which shows a group of young men recoiling, covering their eyes and mouths, and in one case vomiting – is to hold a mirror up to his audience. The attraction to images of extreme violence is one we can all recognise, whether it comes from (visit at your peril – though I guess that’s the point) or movies like Saw and The Human Centipede.

In the end, it’s up to us to turn away or to keep on looking.

Photo: Alex Brenner.

This is How We Die, Ovalhouse


Lights down. Spotlight, table, microphone. Christopher Brett Bailey – skinny form and violent shock of hair – walks on and sits down, mouth poised over the mic. And open.

Words words words so many words no pause even for breath seemingly faster even than the mouth the mouth in Not I and it’s a bit like Beckett the loops the associations the dark humour staring unblinking into the void but also like comic books graphic novels a comic book sketched out in words in imagination dark vivid lines phrases jump out “farting clichés” language is twisting mutating losing meaning “linguistic whitewashing” permeated with advertising with marketing with fucking capitalist bullshit and the rage the raw pulsing rage but we are here together and that’s something right here together and that bulge in my pocket is not a revolver I am not going to attack you.

How the hell is he talking so fast?

On stage, Bailey is part beat poet, part swaggering frontman, words curling from his lips with a punk rock snarl. His text, read from a slowly diminishing, neatly stacked pile of pages in front of him, is as linguistically dense as anything I’ve heard. And yet it has a musical quality. As the words pour out, they are sound as much as they are meaning. Language slithers and somersaults. It’s now a diatribe, now a painfully poetic digression, now a gleeful contortion of the way we make words mean.

It’s also bloody funny.

“This is a coming of age story no longer.”

At some point the twisting, turning narrative has become a comic strip of America, a dusty road stretching far into the distance. And here’s the shrapnel of every road trip movie you’ve ever seen, sharp splinters flying in the form of words. It’s cartoonish, but then dirty and bloody and totally fucking exhilarating. It’s every thrilling moment of violence in every Hollywood movie.

“Your life is not a thriller.”

So this is the bit about death. Is this how we die? In a mess of language and violence and desperate searching for meaning. Is this the end we’re obsessed with? The scrubbing out of a miniscule speck in a miniscule corner of the universe, the final heartbeat that we both anticipate and recoil from.

But we’re accelerating. The words are getting faster again Bailey’s mouth moving faster coiling itself around the words that are like weapons and the world around us is accelerating too the world that condenses time and space and all of human knowledge into a black box that can fit in the palm of your hand and now where are we there’s a crowd we are the crowd we are the gladiatorial mob baying for blood demanding a performance demanding the words

the words

the words

And then the words are gone and Bailey is gone and all we have is the lights the blinding lights.

Language is dead.

Hum of bass from the gloom beyond the lights. Strains of violin. The noise builds, the light brightens. A fuck-off growl of electric guitar breaks through the strings. And then louder and louder, brighter and brighter. Shapes outlined faintly in the darkness – or is that my eyes playing tricks on me?

Now the sensory overload is almost unbearable and the music is moving in me, through me, vibrations rippling out from body to body. The sound is a primal throb and the noise and the lights are blinding and the noise and the room seems to hold its breath and the noise the NOISE.

I’m spat back out into the Ovalhouse foyer, ears ringing and hands slightly shaking. I struggle to remember the last time I emerged from a show feeling so physically shaken, so aware of my own body in the charged space of the theatre.

I think: this is theatre you feel. Theatre you feel in your gut and on your skin. Theatre that leaves you a little breathless. And that’s an experience which is all too rare.

The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, Ovalhouse


Originally written for Exeunt.

“Can we finally be post-Thatcher?” asks nat tarrab, arms flung out in a gesture of frustration. The performer, one half of Mars.tarrab, doesn’t want to make a show about the Iron Lady; the duo already made that show earlier this year for Ovalhouse’s Counterculture 50 season. Then, just six weeks after the run, Margaret Thatcher died. But, contrary to tarrab’s hopes, Maggie’s legacy is far from departed.

This simultaneous presence and absence persistently haunts Mars.tarrab’s reworked version of The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, which – like the country itself – can never quite shake off the ghost of Thatcher. Bounding onto the stage in neon lycra and legwarmers, Rachel Mars and nat tarrab promise to transport us back to the 1980s, the decade of Madonna, monetarism and the mega musical. But these are not the “plastic fantastic” 80s, tarrab insists; this is a decade of monumental political struggles and shifts. As Mars.tarrab go on to demonstrate, however, the two are not necessarily distinct.

The driving tension at the centre of the piece stems from the two women and their very different experiences of the decade they are attempting to evoke. For Mars, who was a child of ten at the close of the 80s, it represents the era of Cats, lycra cycling shorts and Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love”. Tarrab, on the other hand, was eighteen by the end of the decade and actively protesting against the destruction wreaked by Thatcher’s policies. At the outset of the show, their experiences of the 80s are mapped out on their bodies with coloured tape, a playful but knowingly inadequate visual representation of the dramatically different but equally lasting impressions left on them by the decade. They are both, in contrasting ways, Thatcher’s children.

This tension, established early on, remains taut throughout the show. Mars.tarrab have the appealing, combative chemistry of a double act: Mars short, playful and frenetic, tarrab tall and full of righteous rage. Their competitive dynamic and apparently incompatible views of the 80s act as a motor, powering the piece forwards at a furious pace through the Faulklands, the free market economy and Section 28. The inspired framing device of the show, meanwhile, is also born through a kind of conflict, as Thatcher’s speeches are spliced up with lyrics from songs by female artists of the decade. Monetarism meets “Material Girl”, while homophobic rhetoric enters a head-on collision with Whitney Houston.

Out of this structure of conflict and juxtaposition emerges a show that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. The utterly bonkers joy of the two performers on space hoppers jars painfully with the sinking of the Belgrano; tarrab’s deeply felt objections to representing Thatcher are silenced with a showering of milk. There is, both in the positions represented by each of the artists and the string of contrasts throughout, a duality that reflects the problematic legacy of Thatcher and the decade she dominated. One is given the impression, despite the resistance to this idea, that there is no going back to before – before Thatcher, before the free market, before everything that is now so embedded in our society – and that Mars and tarrab’s opposed experiences will never quite be reconciled. Even at the show’s beautifully judged climax, which recognises and seemingly relents to the seductive power of nostalgia and sentimentality that 80s pop culture understood so well, tarrab stubbornly reminds us that this is no straightforward resolution.

The troubling ambivalence of the decade as seen through the eyes of Mars.tarrab is perhaps best summed up in one moment: Mars as a riotously zealous Thatcher announcing Section 28, while tarrab perches precariously on a teetering pile of chairs, speaking the words of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” as an anguished appeal to the audience. Like the show itself, it’s a simultaneous punch to the gut and the funny bone, with a queasy aftertaste of discomfort.

The Anatomy of Melancholy, Ovalhouse


Anyone remember that Russell Howard skit about everything the Daily Mail has reported as increasing your chances of getting cancer? It lands a fairly easy punch, reeling off the ridiculous and frequently contradictory list of factors that have been warned against in the paper over the years. You’re more likely to get cancer if you’re a man, if you’re a woman, if you don’t eat a certain food, if you do eat a certain food – you get the picture. Unexpectedly, it was this video that I found myself thinking of while watching Stan’s Cafe’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

The book of the same name by Richard Burton on which the show is based is essentially a litany along the same lines as that issued by the Daily Mail, multiplied a few times over. First published in 1621, this 1,424-page tome attempted to comprehensively outline understandings of melancholy and its causes, symptoms and cures at the time. The problem, of course, is that not everyone agrees. One philosopher or scientist recommends one course of action, while another flatly contradicts this. We are recommended exercise, but not too much exercise; study might be a cure, unless our melancholy is born of “overmuch study”.

From this description alone, it hardly sounds like a text that is begging for a stage adaptation. It’s interesting to discover, therefore, that this production is the result of a challenge by a fellow theatremaker to stage a text that would be considered by many as unstageable. And, though The Anatomy of Melancholy is an undeniably unwieldy text, the premise is promising. Both the marketing material and the initial set-up suggest that Stan’s Cafe will be engaging not so much with an adaptation itself but, far more interestingly, with the whole idea of adaptation. How does one even begin to stage a book this long and intricate? How can it possibly be faithful to the sheer volume of information in the original? What does it even mean to be faithful when transforming a work for the stage?

This, however, turns out to be a red herring. There are certainly gestures towards a meta-theatrical framing; the four performers, who don’t seem to have fully agreed on how they are going about the staging, hold scripts in hand, occasionally debating over digressions and scribbling out lines. There is also something intriguing about the decision to distribute Burton’s reflections between more than one performer and emphatically employ the collective pronoun “we”, suggesting the internal discord that is perhaps the source of Burton’s own melancholy. But this device never goes anywhere, taunting us with the unfulfilled promise of flipping the whole piece on its head.

Instead, what we get is a fairly straightforward walk-through of Burton’s text, progressing from causes to symptoms to cures, with particular examples, such as love, highlighted along the way. The whole thing is littered with paper, from the seemingly never-ending flipcharts that line the back of the stage – amusingly recalling both the school and the conference presentation – to the many quotations that are displayed to the audience. This crowded, untidy knowledge is mirrored in Harry Trow’s set, which is, like the studies of most academics I know, a book-filled portrait of ordered chaos. It’s a fitting representation of the mind itself, and Burton’s mind in particular: messy, cluttered, jammed full with competing ideas.

In the process of sorting its way through this jumble of information, the central problem of Stan’s Cafe’s adaptation is that it cleaves too closely to the content of Burton’s book rather than to its spirit. There are plenty of oddities among Burton’s outdated theories, some of which are treated with a light touch of silliness, but it strikes me that there is far more interest to be found in the figure of Burton himself, his compulsion to write of melancholy to escape the melancholy that he himself felt, and the challenges inherent in bringing this work to the stage. By largely ignoring all of this and faithfully conveying Burton’s arguments, Stan’s Cafe assault the audience with a deadening barrage of information, delivered with little variation in pace or tone. The programme warns us that it is natural to drift off, but the show offers little to wake us up again.

The one angle that Stan’s Cafe do seem to take on this material is an attempt to draw attention to certain contemporary resonances. While we can laugh at Burton’s description of the humours, his observations about the prevalence of melancholy and the desperate human desire for a quick fix are equally relevant to us today. In a society where rates of depression are rising and the government is obsessed with “happiness indexes”, there is certainly a case for the prescience of Burton’s text. Money, food and thwarted love are all causes of distress that have persisted down the centuries, while Burton’s description of life as a prison could have been plucked right out of Discipline and Punish.

Rather than shedding any significant light on our present day maladies of the mind, however, The Anatomy of Melancholy seems to shrug its shoulders with an attitude of “twas ever thus”. What we leave with is the same knowledge that we brought in, that unhappiness is an unfortunate but unavoidable fact of human existence. I did find myself contemplating, as I shifted restlessly in my seat, whether it might all be an ironic demonstration of its subject, inducing in its audience the same melancholy that it monotonously dissects. If so, then it unquestionably succeeds.