The Life & Loves of a Nobody, The Albany

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Anyone can be famous these days. Even a nobody. At least, that’s (part of) the premise of Third Angel’s new show, which wraps an unremarkable story in a skin of media lampooning. The problem is that The Life & Loves of a Nobody, like its double-layered structure, seems to be about two quite separate and not entirely reconciled things.

Here’s one way of looking at it. The Life & Loves of a Nobody is just what its title suggests, relating the humdrum story of unseen protagonist Rachel. Rachel is normal, or ordinary, whatever those words mean. She’s 36, we’re told, with a family and a job and a romantic history that are all more or less familiar. Aged 18 she tried to run away with the circus and ended up flipping burgers, which says all you need to know about the pattern of her life. She’s a thwarted dreamer, her eyes on the stars while her feet remain firmly on the dull, grease-splattered ground.

But that perspective ignores the telling and the reasons for it being told at all. Because we never hear from Rachel herself; instead, her narrative comes to us via Rachael Walton and Nick Chambers’ slick and slightly unsettling presenters. It’s established early on that we are the audience in some kind of controversial media spectacle – so controversial, in fact, that there are protesters apparently hurling shit outside. And at the centre of this contentious televised stunt, Rachel is what she’s always wanted to be: the star.

Her life up to this point, then, is framed as an X-Factor style backstory. Except it’s shown through sweet and slightly wonky storytelling rather than cannily edited video montage. It’s here that the whole concept starts to wobble a little, as the style and its ends sit awkwardly alongside one another. Just what are the motives of our two hosts? The presentation of Rachel’s life is by turns tender, mocking and disinterested, not to mention burdened by all sorts of pretty but cumbersome visual devices – a swarm of paper butterflies or a miniature, blinking tower block window. What’s the game here?

The show might hold its cards close to its chest, saving the big, explanatory reveal for the final moments, but the hand it produces fails to fully justify what has come before. Without giving everything away, the question asked is essentially: to what lengths will we go to achieve fame? And, fast on the heels of that, is it better to lead a life that is unremarkable and unremarked upon, or to sacrifice it all in pursuit of “immortality”?

A recent article in Aeon suggested that “what we perceive when we are reproduced in the cultural sphere” – be that as a statue, a name in the history books, or a face on TV – “is a kind of magical act of creation”. Just like so much that masquerades as magic, though, that promise of immortal fame is pretty flimsy when you actually take a look at it. The point is implicitly made at one point in Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, as she recalls the untimely demises of “27 club” members Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in autumn 1970 in a matter-of-fact, grief-tinged tone. Their deaths are not romantic; they’re just wasteful.

The Life & Loves of a Nobody, however, gives only glancing attention to such ideas. Its interest feels torn, between the insidious influence of the media and the desire for fame on the one hand, and the question of whose stories get told on the other. Both are resonant, particularly the latter under a political elite determined to grind down and silence “ordinary people”, but they don’t fully align. The sensationalising media culture being clumsily skewered is all about elevating the ordinary, selling a populist ideal of stardom that is unattainable except for the very few. Whereas the spotlight pointed on Rachel’s life feels more aimed at an affirmation of all human experience, validating the extraordinary and mundane stories of everyone. Even the nobodies.

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What I Heard About the World, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

What do you think of when someone mentions Brazil? Israel? How about Korea? The concept behind this collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe is born from the partial knowledge that we can now boast about all the far-flung corners of the world, dinner party trivia that slots together into a fragmented vision of the globe. As Thorpe puts it, “the more we know, the bigger the world gets”, and the more knowledge is accumulated, the more that the gaps in our knowledge glare out at us.

Creating a colourful theatrical map, Thorpe, Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly and mala voadora’s Jorge Andrade relate stories and quirky snippets of facts from around the world, communicated through direct narration, through pen-scrawled pictures, through roughly assembled sketches and through electric guitar accompanied music. Eschewing the indifferent wisdom of statistics, their charming and disturbing anecdotes all veer on the wacky side of odd, from cardboard cut-out figures issued by the American military to the families of servicemen and women, to a confession hotline that promises to cleanse you of your sins at a reasonable rate.

It rapidly becomes clear that what all of these stories share is their focus on artificiality. In a newspaper in Singapore, the editors photoshop suits onto obituary photographs; in Brazil you can hire mourners, while in Germany paid-for protestors are a booming commodity. Most staggeringly, a couple in Korea allowed their own baby to starve to death because they were so fixated on caring for their virtual child that they forgot they had a real one. Everywhere, it seems, signs and substitutes abound, and anything can be bought if you know who to call. The piece skilfully traces a map of an increasingly connected yet dislocated globe, around which revolves a Baudrillardian precession of simulacra.

As a backdrop to this carousel of eccentricity, the stage at St Stephen’s is packed with paraphernalia both homely and exotic – an apt accompaniment to the driving thoughts behind the piece. A fish tank and a sofa sit in the same space as a poolside life-belt and a paper plane, speaking of a yearning for both adventure and hearth. It is, as the piece recognises, essential to our self-identity to have a sense of place, a sense of place that is as much defined by stories of the “other” as it is by the idea of home.

As Thorpe, Kelly and Andrade repeatedly emphasise, the stories they tell are all true, collected through a formidable process of research and reassembled in different formulations for each of the show’s incarnations, but the very theatricality of the piece inherently begs us to question this truth. And, of course, we are right to. For these can only ever be constructions of the truth, ephemeral simulacra in the same way as the photoshopped suits or the donkeys painted as zebras in Gaza zoo. As soon as a piece of information is passed on, it gains a new identity, clothed in a thin film of fiction.

Yet, as inaccurate and incomplete a cartography as they draw, there is something oddly comforting about the stories that this production collects in cupped hands. As one woman from the anecdotes recognises, stories are a way of staying alive, of passing down a legacy that might cross mountain ranges and oceans. Simple facts, like national borders, can melt, change and die away, but stories are ever present.