YOUARENOWHERE, Shoreditch Town Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Comeback Special, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Originally written for Exeunt.

1968, Burbank, California. Six years after his last number one single, Elvis Presley records an intimate television concert surrounded on all sides by screaming fans.

2016, Shoreditch Town Hall, London. Greg Wohead re-enacts the television broadcast, now known as the 1968 Comeback Special. Well, sort of re-enacts it.

In The Ted Bundy Project, Wohead dissected our morbid fascination with violent figures and his own disturbing attraction to serial killer Ted Bundy’s confession tapes.Comeback Specialonce again unravels the fabric of fascination, though this time it’s the famous rather than the infamous under the microscope. What makes an icon, a King? And what might happen if we try, briefly, to bring him back?

Wohead arranges the audience on four sides of a raised square stage in Shoreditch Town Hall, mirroring the layout of the Burbank studio. Chairs and a microphone stand are placed just so. It’s a perfect reconstruction in some ways, deliberately imperfect in others. Drained of the bright, synthetic colour of 1960s fashion, Wohead’s version is a shadow or skeleton of the original event. Recreated in monochrome, this is a black-and-white negative of the 1968 Comeback Special. An echo. A ghost.

The whole event is, supposedly, about authenticity. “I want you to see who I really am,” says Wohead/Elvis in a seductive drawl. That was the whole point of the television broadcast: to offer fans a glimpse of Elvis the man as well as Elvis the star. The King and his musicians jam together, while Elvis talks to the audience between songs. Yet at the same time, as Wohead tells us, this was all carefully constructed: the television show was pre-recorded and released in multiple different versions. How is it even possible to recreate something that exists under myriad guises?

Wohead builds his re-enactment slowly, in careful layers. At first, the dynamism of the gig is rendered oddly static. Everything is told, not shown: Elvis’s appearance, the layout of the television studio, the position of the cameras, the clothes worn by the fans. Wohead talks us through every last detail of the recording, the meticulous description juxtaposed with a complete refusal to imitate. “You can see that my hair is black, obviously,” says Wohead, looking at us through his mousy mop. Even the lyrics are spoken, deadpan, rather than sung.

And then gradually, bit by bit, Wohead takes on aspects of Elvis’s physicality. A curling lip. A thrusting hip. Then, later, that distinctive voice. That unmistakeable “uh-huh”. Wohead’s is a fragmented impersonation, isolating individual elements of Elvis’s performance. He works like a forensic scientist, as if in search of some elusive essence. Is it in the voice? The recognisable quiff of hair? Those hips?

But meaning resides as much with the audience – the audience then, in the television studio, and the audience now, in Shoreditch Town Hall – as it does with either Elvis or Wohead. Attention is drawn to the ways in which individual spectators cherish moments of eye contact or precious souvenirs: a sweat-soaked handkerchief or a piece of lint plucked from Elvis’s cheek. A good chunk of the show is dedicated to recreating one small moment of interaction between Elvis, the audience and one of his band members, Wohead building the encounter piece by tiny piece with the help of the audience.

The choice of re-enactment also feels crucial. The 1968 Comeback Special is the scene of Elvis’s career resuscitation. But it is also, perhaps, the moment everyone realised for the first time that he was human and fragile and as vulnerable to time and age as the rest of us mere mortals. This is not Elvis as he was in the years before his death – fat, drug-addled, washed-up – but he is no longer quite the untouchable young man he once was. He is, as Wohead puts it, “caught between”.

Scrolling through YouTube the day after watching the show, there’s something hypnotic about the videos of the 1968 Comeback Special. It’s the way the whole event flirts with failure: Elvis interrupts his own songs, jokes about forgetting the lyrics, laughs in a way that is at once exposed and in control. This is not Elvis at the height of his powers. And the footage of the television show itself, when it finally appears in Wohead’s performance, seems flimsy and thin, projected onto translucent cloths hanging behind the four sides of the stage. The King is little more than a flickering image, fleeting and insubstantial.

Photo: Manuel Vason.

So It Goes, Shoreditch Town Hall

So It Goes Production Photos

Originally written for Exeunt.

So It Goes is about the unspeakability of grief. About those wounds so raw they resist words.

Strike that. Start again.

So It Goes is about Hannah Moss. When Moss was 17, her dad died. For a long time, she didn’t talk about it. In the show she has made with David Ralfe, she doesn’t talk about it either. Or at least not out loud.

Recognising that some things are impossible to speak, So It Goes reaches for other forms of communication. Instead of talking to us, Moss tells her story in written fragments, holding up placards and scribbling on whiteboards strung around her neck. Childlike in its simplicity – reflecting, perhaps, the early memories of her dad that Moss gleefully reenacts for us – the spirit of this central device extends to the cartoonish, storybook aesthetic of the whole show. Backdrops are outlined in bold sweeps of felt-tip pen and props come in the form of cardboard cut-outs.

Actions, replacing as they do words, are similarly broad-stroked. There’s a silent-film-meets-Lecoq influence to Moss and Ralfe’s use of movement, whether in energetic running montages or endearingly gawky dance sequences. At times, this style animates Moss’s story in ingenious and surprising ways. A reconstruction of the moment Moss’s parents met is gorgeous and bittersweet, while the sudden revelation of her dad’s illness slices abruptly through the carefully constructed whimsy that surrounds it. At others, though, the form feels forced, hampering rather than driving the narrative.

On the one hand, words can only say so much. The beauty of the show’s concept is that it places a light but poignant emphasis on the unsaid and the unsayable. At her dad’s bedside, Moss struggles to fit her feelings in the limited space she has given herself, repeatedly scrubbing out half-started sentences. In the end she just settles for “goodbye dad”. A chorus of “oh”s in the doctor’s office is all that needs to be – or can be – said, while the power of those six terrifying letters, “CANCER”, is even more suffocating in stark back and white.

On the other hand, words can only say so much. Especially when those words are limited to the surface of a small whiteboard. Often, there is the sense of one idea being stretched to fill an entire show, limiting its scope in the process. The form puts brakes on the content, short-circuiting complexity. The feelings that both Moss and the piece are grappling with are big and messy, but presented like this they become deceptively simple and neat-edged, like the hand-drawn scenery they play out against. Sentimentality trumps complication.

 

Longwave, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Originally written for Exeunt.

For the last week, in just about every snatched moment I can grasp hold of, I’ve had my head buried in the first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Min Kamp series. It’s utterly gripping, with the intensity that I forget novels can possess until I tumble headlong into another one. And yet it’s so ordinary. Described as an “autobiographical novel”, it charts little more than the day to day fluctuations of its author’s life, from youth through adolescence to adulthood, all in meticulous, banal detail. Whole pages are devoted to cleaning or eating; one long section laboriously outlines a clumsy teenage attempt to smuggle beer into a party.

In a very different way, Chris Goode and Company’s Longwave achieves a similar sort of compelling simplicity. As with the Knausgaard, it’s hard to pin down just what captures the attention and refuses to let it go. The show, first made in 2006 and now reincarnated for a new tour, consists of two men, one radio and no dialogue. There are plenty of words, but none of them are shared between the pair of living, breathing characters. Instead, they belong to the inanimate (or perhaps not as inanimate as the men might hope) third protagonist, humming away menacingly in the corner of the room.

For reasons never made clear, the two men are away from home, holed up together in a shed in what appears to be a cruelly inhospitable landscape. We first see them in bright yellow protective gear, retrieving and proceeding to conduct experiments on an unresponsive, haggis-shaped object. We are instantly in the realm of physical comedy, with performers Jamie Wood and Tom Lyall making a sublimely silly double act. They poke, they prod, they throw. The subject of their experiment is rolled, jabbed, sent into the air with a mini parachute – Lyall even tentatively licks it. The lab isn’t all that different from the playground.

But Longwave is about much more than straightforward tomfoolery. As the piece goes on, we witness the regular rhythm of the men’s shared life, from the lucky dip of each evening’s tinned dinner – Lyall invariably ends up with the raw deal – to the little rituals they indulge in either side of the curtain that provides their only privacy. Lyall sketches delicate outlines of birds; Wood clumsily unfolds a massive map of the world. Both long for elsewhere.

And it’s that silent sense of longing, along with the wacky but utterly charming companionship they find in one another, that really makes the piece sing – or crackle, as the mood of the wireless dictates. As the radio takes on a life of its own and this little isolated world the pair have made for themselves begins to collapse in on itself, forcing them to either step into the unknown or stay behind, Goode and his collaborators reveal themselves to be expert manipulators of the stage’s affective technologies. We know little about these men beyond the small routines of their daily life, yet our hearts begin to crack open for them.

The whole thing is gorgeously offbeat, from the shed’s ragtag array of objects to the strange and ambiguous scenario in which the two central characters find themselves, but actually it’s the ordinariness that turns our emotional machinery. It’s the human bond, it’s the moments of hidden yearning and loss, it’s the way in which a shared routine establishes itself even in the oddest of circumstances. And it’s how even the most hackneyed and familiar of cheesy love songs can suddenly kick us full in the guts.