Destruction and Renewal


Originally written for Exeunt.

A cacophony of voices drowning each other out. A pulverised culture retelling its stories. An ear-splitting scream of sound. A beautiful howl of despair. A giant subterranean drain. A devastating downpour of blood. Oddly, sounds and images of destruction dominate a year that has been characterised – theatrically if not otherwise – by reinvigoration and renewal. Often the most thrilling theatre I’ve happened to experience has also been the bleakest in its take on where we are right now.

Pomona, with its stark diagnosis that “everything bad is real”, epitomises this strand of shows. Alistair McDowall’s Escher staircase of a play was exhilarating, it was intelligent, and it was pitch black in its outlook on the modern world. Sending a violent jolt through the Orange Tree Theatre, it dazzled with both its ambition and its swirling mind-fuck of a plot, tangling up fiction and reality in a way that was at once disorientating and unsettlingly familiar. Here was a dystopia of a distinctly uncanny flavour.

The dark undertones of Pomona echoed a mood that had already established its hold on the year’s theatre. In The Body of an American – an early highlight of my theatregoing year at the Gate – the devastation was found in faraway warzones and much closer to home. Alice Birch’s blistering Revolt. She said. Revolt again. ripped up both patriarchy and the rulebook, suggesting flawed and angry responses to a broken world. And two parts of the great “Chris Trilogy” (completed by Chris Thorpe’s knotty Confirmation), the beautifully furious Men in the Cities by Chris Goode and Chris Brett Bailey’s mind-blowing, eardrum-destroying This Is How We Die, offered two different but equally excoriating critiques of late capitalism.

Then there’s master of bleakness Beckett, whose swirling, cyclical monologue Not I – most famously performed by the late great Billie Whitelaw – was given a mesmerising (and astonishingly speedy) new rendition by Lisa Dwan at the Royal Court at the beginning of the year.

While much of the new work I saw in the last 12 months was unsurprisingly shadowed by dismal visions of the world, the attitude also stretched into some of the year’s best revivals. Ivo van Hove’s production of A View From The Bridge scratched decades of dust and school assignments off Arthur Miller’s 20th-century classic, transforming it into a muscle-clenchingly tense tragedy, Jan Versweyveld’s black and grey design matching the gloom of its dramatic atmosphere. Katie Mitchell’s version of The Cherry Orchard – paired with a scrape-your-jaw-off-the-floor gorgeous design by Vicki Mortimer – was exquisite in its quickening decay. And two Ibsen productions at the Barbican – Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People and Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck – wrenched the playwright’s work devastatingly into the 21st-century.

Another of 2014′s great revivals was Our Town at the Almeida, in a US-imported production from David Cromer. It arrived billed as a bold reimagining, but much of what made it work was – apart from the stunning final reveal – determinedly ordinary. Thornton Wilder’s characters appeared to us as unremarkable yet remarkably real, making their everyday sufferings all the more heartbreaking. There was a similar sort of quality to Robert Holman’s Jonah and Otto, a play that made a quiet art out of conversation. Both productions gently asked us to pay attention.

Other shows demanded the attention of their audiences rather more forcefully. Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No 7, visiting the Barbican as part of this year’s LIFT, had me from the first of its giddying procession of images. The same director’s wonky take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perhaps not as beautiful to look at, but just as enchanting, capturing something of the strange alchemy of theatre. In the National Theatre’s newly reopened Dorfman (i.e. the theatre formerly known as the Cottesloe), meanwhile, glittering new musical Here Lies Love relentlessly swept me along with it even in its naffest moments. Most recently – and in spite of its flaws – the dazzling to look at Golem made me understand all the fuss around 1927′s wittily precise animation.

One of the aesthetic offspring of 1927 is Kill the Beast, a company who marry visual detail with grotesque narrative flair. This year their latest show, He Had Hairy Hands, had me roaring along twice to its tale of werewolves, cops and arse-kicking monster hunters, as well as offering hands down the best gag of the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s also up there grappling for most jofyul theatregoing experience of the year, in a close-fought tussle with Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. The latter just about snags the prize, stealing my heart over and over with its flailing hopefulness – and its joy-drenched rendition of “Proud Mary”.

A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is also, in part, about how we tell stories. There were lots of stories about stories this year. Coincidentally running at the same time, Mr Burns at the Almeida imagined how our culture might be passed on after a future apocalypse, while Ellen McDougall’s production of Idomeneus playfully traced the same process of narration and mutation over previous centuries. The dangers of narrative appropriation were disturbingly outlined in Tim Crouch’s multi-layered, head-scratching Adler & Gibb; in Wot? No Fish!!, storytelling was a simple source of charm and love.

Along with all the theatre that filled me with joy, plenty that I saw this year also left me filled with tears. Spine‘s double-whammy of the personally and politically emotive forced those tears to spill over, as did James “the vacuum cleaner” Leadbitter’s overwhelmingly intimate Mental. After the small but exquisite experience of Greg Wohead’s headphone piece Hurtling, I walked the streets of Edinburgh with heart thumping and eyes stinging; ditto Hug, Verity Standen’s “immersive choral sound bath” (there’s really no better way to describe it than she does). Then there was Kim Noble’s brash but bruised You’re Not Alone, which took a long time to relinquish its haunting hold.

Elsewhere it was the lulz that stayed with me. That giant ballpond and the IRL memes in Teh Internet is Serious Business. The smart silliness of funny women Sh!t Theatre and Figs in Wigs, turning their humour to Big Pharma and online narcissism respectively. The funny-sad sequence of cheesy song lyrics in RashDash’s Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered. The sheer joy of watching Jamie Wood and Tom Lyall clown around with what appeared to be an alien haggis in Chris Goode’s remounted Longwave. Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner being punk rockers in their pants in Am I Dead Yet? (the most funny-yet-thoughtful show you’re likely to see about kicking the bucket).

With the requisite predictability of the end-of-year round-up, no survey of 2014′s theatre can seem to get away without a mention of King Charles III. Mike Bartlett’s concept – a future history play in iambic pentameter – sounded like a potential disaster, but turned out to be a slice of genius. It was thoughtful, it was witty, and it was as much about our theatrical heritage as it was about the traditions of monarchy. And to top it all off, it was designed by the brilliant Tom Scutt, who once again came up with one of the designs of the year with his dizzying visual concept for the Nuffield Theatre’s excellent revival of A Number.

Now from the big to the small. I’m still unapologetically head over heels for one of the most intimate shows I saw this year: Andy Field and Ira Brand’s fragile, heart-fluttering put your sweet hand in mine. Seating its audience in almost uncomfortable proximity to one another and to the two performers, it gently prodded at closeness and distance and love in all its different forms. Just gorgeous.

Also small – in staging if not in ideas – was Barrel Organ’s debut show Nothing. This series of intertwined monologues, performed in a newly improvised order each night with no set or props, was just as bleak in its way as some of the year’s more explicitly dark offerings. For a confused 20-something, it also terrifyingly captured the anger, uncertainty and disconnection of a whole generation. It feels like one of the real discoveries of the year, as does Chewing the Fat, Selina Thompson’s glittery but difficult look at weight and body image.

After opening with destruction, I want to end on a slightly more hopeful note. For all the darkness and devastation, few pieces of theatre have stayed with me quite so insistently as Duncan Macmillan’s not-quite-monologue Every Brilliant Thing, which was indeed brilliant. For once, cliched claims of “it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you laugh” were entirely justified, as I giggled and sobbed – sometimes at the same time – throughout.

Quite how a show about suicidal depression can be so life-affirming I’m still trying to fathom. It probably has a lot to do with the irresistible warmth of performer Jonny Donahoe, without whom I suspect it wouldn’t be half as good. But it also plays, as many of the best shows of the year have done, to theatre’s strengths: the unpredictability of live performance, the thrill of proximity, the possibilities of all being together, now, in the same space. Here’s to more of the same in 2015.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Alistair McDowall

Pomona rehearsals - Alistair McDowall 2 (photo Manuel Harlan)

Originally written for The Stage.

Conversation with Alistair McDowall is cluttered with cultural references. Names of books, films and comics all fly off the playwright’s tongue; a rich and varied vocabulary of influences, from Sarah Kane to William Faulkner. “If I’m not working I spend all of my time consuming,” McDowall explains, “reading novels and plays and watching films and TV and listening to music and reading comics – whatever I can get my hands on.”

This passion for culture in all its forms – “generally I’m just a fan,” McDowall enthuses – filters through to his plays, which often marry the mundane and the fantastical. Brilliant Adventures shoved a time machine into a Middlesborough housing estate; in Captain Amazing, an ordinary dad is a reluctant, cape-clad superhero. “I think my plays sometimes feel quite noisy,” McDowall suggests, attributing this background buzz to all the cultural “stuff” that has influenced them.

“I was just obsessed with stories in any form,” he says of the many narratives that fed his creative imagination in his childhood and teens. After years of dreaming about making films, McDowall put on his first play with friends at the age of 16 and discovered a way of immediately bringing his ideas to life. From that point onwards he didn’t stop, continuing to write plays throughout school and university and staging his work in fringe venues after graduating.

The turning point came when Brilliant Adventures won a judges award as part of the Bruntwood Prize in 2011. For McDowall, the timing could not have been better: he had lost his day job in an art gallery the day before the prize was announced. “When I look back at that, the overwhelming feeling I have about winning it is just relief,” McDowall remembers. “I didn’t really have that much time to suddenly get above my station; it was just like yes, I can still eat.”

McDowall is frank about the economic restraints that hamper many would-be theatre-makers, who he describes as being “robbed of their talent” through financial circumstances. “There’s no reason why I should have been able to see this as a career,” he reflects on his own relatively modest background. “I just never really considered doing anything else other than making stories.”

When discussing his own stories, McDowall keeps coming back to their strangeness. Brilliant Adventures, which premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester after being recognised by the Bruntwood Prize, is “quite a peculiar play” according to its writer, while he describes his latest play Pomona as “really odd”.

Pomona, which is about to receive a production from McDowall’s fellow University of Manchester alumnus Ned Bennett at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, was born from the place that its title refers to. The playwright describes this desolate strip of land awaiting development in Manchester as a “ghost town” and recalls his desire to capture it on stage somehow, at the same time as being interested in conveying the experience of living in the 21st century.

“I wanted to write something that was more led by a certain kind of state of mind and mood and tone,” McDowall explains. “It feels internet-y in its form and structure and it’s about a certain type of anxiety that seems to me to be very, very contemporary.” And perhaps even more so than his previous work, it is strewn with pop cultural detritus, from TV shows to fast food.

Despite his interest in all the other cultural forms that inspire his work, McDowall keeps coming back to theatre because it’s a medium in which “you can do anything”, a realisation prompted in his teens by binge reading the plays of Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

“When I think of the things that had the biggest impact on me, it’s quite often that they reminded me that you can do whatever you want,” says McDowall. “You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it with passion and integrity and craft, you can do anything.”

Theatre is a “collective imagining,” he adds, later going on to describe a play as a magic trick. “I think the magic trick is almost aren’t we all having fun making this magic trick together, rather than actually trying to deceive you that it’s anything other than a magic trick,” he explains, capturing his interest in both narrative and theatricality.

The one thing that theatre-makers have to do, McDowall insists, is justify why their stories belong on stage. There might be no rules, but the question the playwright always asks himself is “does the audience still need to be in the same room for this to happen? And if the action could continue without them, if the equation is complete without them, it just doesn’t feel like it’s the best use of everyone’s time.” Or, putting it another way, “I’ve asked all these people to turn up, so I’d better fucking put on a show.”

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Pomona, Orange Tree Theatre

Pomona- Zeppo (Guy Rhys) and Keaton (Sarah Middleton)

Alistair McDowall has written an Escher staircase of a play. Or perhaps a spiral, looping around to almost but not quite the same point. Or perhaps it’s the M60 ring road at night, circling the city under the orange glow of the streetlights. Round and round.

Pomona is a nightmare. A thriller. A game. A mystery. A trip down the rabbit hole. A journey into the desert of the real.

Ollie is looking for her sister. She hopes to find her in Pomona – a desolate concrete wasteland just minutes from the centre of Manchester, a yawning void at the heart of the city. This place is also at the heart of McDowall’s tangled plot, the shadowy secret it hides offering the answer – or at least an answer – to his characters’ fearful questioning. Whether they want to see it, however, is another matter.

Layered on top of and bleeding into the real Pomona and the horrors it contains is another world, one of imagination and gameplay. Somewhere else in the city, sweetly enthusiastic nerd Charlie has found an unlikely friend in Keaton, the mysterious girl who joins in with the game of his own invention. Only the game has terrifying echoes of reality. Or is it the other way round?

Both McDowall’s writing and Ned Bennett’s adrenalin-pumped production are soaked in popular culture, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Indiana Jones. H. P. Lovecraft. Dungeons and Dragons. Horror movies and internet detritus. Chicken nuggets. It’s all distraction, all surface, as fleeting as the flash of the lights that flicker on and off between scenes.

This is theatre that worms its way inside the 21st-century state of mind, nestling itself amid internet memes and junk food. Pomona depicts a world where we can find out anything at the swipe of a finger. Information is endless, as one character articulates, so we have to choose. And if we choose what to know, then we also choose what not to know.

Pomona is about what we choose not to know. It is a play populated by all the things that lurk beneath: the monsters under the bed, the ghosts hiding in the shadows, and the murky, underground world that we all wilfully ignore. The dark, rising tide of urban myths. 

Everything about Bennett’s production heightens the lingering sense of unease. In designer Georgia Lowe’s sunken playing space, transforming (together with Elliot Grigg’s eerie lighting) the Orange Tree Theatre into a grimy subterranean landscape, the inhabitants of McDowall’s play scrabble around in the gutter, sucked inexorably towards the drain at its centre. There is no escape.

The characters, meanwhile, all have hints of the uncanny. Guy Rhys’ Zeppo, a man with an approach of studied ignorance towards the shady figures he deals with, leaps out of the show with cartoon-like detail, stealing the first scene with his lengthy, animated retelling of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ollie, played by the shape-shifting Nadia Clifford, seems not to be what she first appears. Even endearing, innocuous Charlie, getting most of the laughs in the capable hands of Sam Swann, has a murkier aspect. And most unsettling of all is Sarah Middleton’s precise, controlled Keaton – sometime girl, sometime monster.

But the terrifying thing is not the fiction, not the squid-headed creatures from the deep. The truly monstrous side of Pomona is to be found in the ugly, urgent truth its many tentacles prod at. As Zeppo puts it, “you go deep enough, you’ll find all this stuff, the detritus of our lives, it’s all built on this foundation of pain and shit and suffering”. That foundation usually sits, festering, at the edges of our consciousness; McDowall drags it to the centre. And when we find ourselves inside the game once again, there is a queasy feeling that this is a container for the all the things we can’t quite look in the eye. We need places to dump all the nastiness, places like Pomona.

We’re back to where we began. But wait – not quite. Is this game or reality now? Where are we? Haven’t we been here before?

Round and round. Round and round.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.