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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Rachel Chavkin: Riding the Elephant

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Originally written for Exeunt.

For a theatremaker whose work has a distinctly American flavour, Rachel Chavkin has a surprisingly close relationship with British theatre. The artistic director of The TEAM, a company who have made a name for themselves interrogating modern American identity, was last over here with Mission Drift, which had its first London run at The Shed last summer after premiering on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011. When we speak, she is in Newcastle for rehearsals of her new stage version of Catch 22 at Northern Stage; other ongoing projects include a collaboration with Chris Thorpe and a new TEAM show being made in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland.

“It’s the culture of theatre here,” Chavkin explains the continuing appeal. In contrast to American theatres, which rarely have in-house bars or restaurants, she is drawn to the community that gathers around theatres in this country, where people meet to socialise and extend the conversations started on the stage. “The idea that the theatre is a building of culture and life has had a huge influence on my work with The TEAM and my sense of what I want theatre to be doing in the world.”

For her latest project, however, Chavkin is making work for British audiences without the company of The TEAM. The idea of adapting Catch 22 for Lorne Campbell’s first main stage season as artistic director of Northern Stage was first suggested in early conversations about the programme, as it emerged that Chavkin had long nurtured an interest in Joseph Heller’s novel. When they discovered that Heller himself had already written a stage adaptation of the book, Chavkin was the obvious choice for director.

She describes the novel, which follows the nightmarish experiences of Captain John Yossarian during the Second World War, as an “extraordinary piece of philosophy and absurdism”. The novel offers a formidable challenge in its presenting of events out of sequence, mirroring the rule of its title in its circular, repetitive structure. It is the book’s more philosophical strands that Chavkin hopes her production can draw out, conveying the “feeling of existential despair” that the narrative builds to.

“The sense of purgatory, of Yossarian caught in this kind of purgatorial loop, that’s the driving idea behind this production and behind the staging,” Chavkin explains. While Heller’s script brings with it certain limitations, she tells me that “the back story and wealth of worlds that Heller presents in the novel has a profound impact on how we’re able to understand the play”. The novel is informing how she presents the “space around the text” and has influenced an aesthetic which contrasts an atmosphere of celebration and fun with the unremitting devastation of conflict. “War is great, other than the war part.”

The advantage of the novel is that, despite not being able to directly consult the writer about the production, there are pages upon pages of additional material available at Chavkin’s fingertips. In this sense, she suggests, “you sort of do have the writer with you”. Chavkin explains that as a freelance director she is more accustomed to working with writers on new plays, a practice that has increasingly fed into the way she creates work with The TEAM.

“When The TEAM was first beginning to create, and for many years of our company’s life, we would always try to fix problems by rewriting them,” Chavkin recalls. “We always turned to writing first and foremost if something didn’t make sense to us. And actually now I have become much more protective of each individual writer’s contribution within The TEAM. Because as a freelance director I have to protect a new writer or a new play all the time, from both myself and the actors, who just may not understand it yet. Sometimes it means that there should be a rewrite, but very often it means there’s some different logic at work in a play and you just have to work a little bit harder to understand that.”

While Chavkin’s different creative processes have points of convergence, she also discusses contrasts between her work as a freelance director and her projects with The TEAM. Whereas The TEAM’s process tends to be “very gnarly and pretty horizontal”, there is a much clearer hierarchy in place when Chavkin is directing elsewhere, though she stresses that she is still “deeply interested in what the acting company and designers might bring to a show”.

Chavkin is working in a slightly different way again on Confirmation, her current project with Chris Thorpe. It is being written by Thorpe, but as director Chavkin has been deeply involved in the research and development of the show. The piece, which is going up to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, investigates confirmation bias – the unconscious bias that leads us to interpret the world around us in ways that support our existing beliefs. Chavkin describes it as “a very aggressive force in our lives” and discusses how eye-opening their research has been.

“The image that a lot of the research uses is the rider and the elephant,” she says, explaining that the rider represents the conscious, rational brain, while the elephant is our unconscious. “The elephant is a much, much larger force than the rider, and the idea is that the rider can to a certain degree guide which way the elephant wants to go, but actually in most cases our rational brain exists to try to explain and justify to ourselves why the elephant is doing what it’s doing. The most surprising thing is the degree to which we are governed by our unconscious.”

It is going to be a busy Edinburgh Fringe for Chavkin this year, who is also presenting a workshop performance with The TEAM and the National Theatre of Scotland. The new collaboration between the two companies indirectly approaches the question of Scottish independence, exploring the national mythologies of both Scotland and the USA. Using the Scottish Enlightenment as its starting point, it traces the journey that the ideas emerging out of that era have made over the years, right up to the present day.

“The idea is that America was this place where all the ideas coming out of the Scottish Enlightenment actually got, like a petri dish, to act upon,” says Chavkin. “350 years later, I think America is finding itself in a somewhat bankrupt place with this radical misunderstanding of what Adam Smith wrote as our national religion, in terms of this incredibly unfettered capitalism.”

Talk of unfettered capitalism recalls Mission Drift, which took an epic, breakneck ride through 400 years of American history, from the earliest settlers to the twinkling spires of Las Vegas. There is undeniably a certain continuity that can be traced in The TEAM’s thinking, from the research into disaster capitalism that informed Architecting through to this latest project. “I think that’s a common theme in all our work,” Chavkin admits. “Something that comes up as an idea in one piece ends up developing and shifting and morphing into the germs of what inspire the next piece.”

Chavkin makes it clear that the new show, tentatively titled Scottish Enlightenment Project, is not explicitly dealing with the Scottish independence referendum and will not appear in its finished form until after the vote, which is a very deliberate decision. But again, as with so much of her work, it asks the questions that sit right at the heart of national identity. “Who do we want to be? What kind of democracy do we want to be? What are our values?”

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