Longwave, Shoreditch Town Hall

3673-600x400

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.

Engaging with Disappearance

DSC_0080-600x401

Originally written for Exeunt.

So much of theatre is about ephemerality. At least as far back as Peggy Phelan’s famous statements in Unmarked, live performance has been associated with disappearance; it exists just once, in the moment, and then disappears (almost) without a trace. So what happens when you try to recapture that moment?

It’s a question that Chris Goode and Company are currently attempting to answer. Thanks to recommission, an initiative run by touring network house, they are returning to Goode’s 2006 show Longwave and remaking it for a new tour. The same team has been reunited, with the aim of jointly excavating a piece that was last performed seven years ago. There was no script, no available video recording, just a jumble of different notes.

“In a way it’s a process that’s about theatricality,” Goode suggests, explaining that “what we’re engaging with all the time is disappearance, the ways in which certain things leave a trace and others don’t”. It has also been a process of detective work, deciphering notes from various different sources and comparing the memories of those in the rehearsal room. Luckily, the shape of the show has been recovered more easily than Goode anticipated.

“It’s been so interesting feeling our way back into it,” he reflects partway through the process. “What really fascinates me is that there are some things that we just knew straight away back in the room on day one, there were things that we remembered very clearly, and then there were other things that only came out of our heads again on day eight. It’s been really interesting the way that those things re-emerge and how often actually we find ourselves thinking through a problem and then remembering that we made exactly the same decision last time. Just recalling the same bumps in the road. Which is nice because it suggests there’s a certain logic to how it all fits together.”

Goode admits that he would have been unlikely to revisit Longwave without the opportunity presented by recommission, but he believes that this is the right piece to return to. “It was just recent enough to know that it was still part of our current work or our current thinking,” he says. Another reason he was keen to recreate this particular show was because it is completely without dialogue, adding another layer of difficulty to the challenge that he and his collaborators have set for themselves.

In the absence of words, Longwave’s narrative is communicated through the gestures of performers Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood and the broadcasts playing from the radio that is their characters’ only window onto the outside world. Stuck together in a shed and surrounded by a hostile environment, the two men perform experiments, entertain one another and squabble over the radio – which eventually takes on a life of its own.

“One thing that intrigued me was that it’s so much about the relationship between Tom and Jamie,” Goode says, pointing to this as another reason for returning to the show. He describes the “brilliantly exciting dynamic” between the pair and the desire to see what new insights they would bring to the piece after seven years of honing their separate practices as theatre-makers. “There was a sense of us in the present dancing with us in the past a little bit and seeing what that kind of duet was,” Goode explains, quickly adding, “not quite a duet, it’s more complicated than that.”

This process of recovery could have been a laborious one, but instead Goode has been surprised by the pleasures of retracing old paths. “In a pretty narcissistic way I think we’ve been rather delighted by a lot of the choices that we made before and quite pleased with ourselves,” he says. “It’s very difficult to imagine that anything you were doing that long ago can possibly have been any good. We kind of knew it was, but it’s been really nice to meet ourselves coming back and find that we made some really delightful decisions.”

Despite the joys of recreating Longwave, however, Goode remains ambivalent about returning to previous work. “I feel so invested in the idea that theatre disappears and that you make a thing that speaks to its moment, that speaks to a time or a cultural moment, a conversation that seems to be happening, and that it should then disappear,” he says. He suggests that the promise of recovery and recreation contained in printed scripts is “a little bit of a red herring”, but recognises its appeal nonetheless.

“There’s an instinct in us to want to crawl back. I think there’s something really interesting in the challenge that theatre puts to us, which is to continually try to be in dialogue with the present rather than indulging our very human instinct both for nostalgia and for the idea of improvement, the idea of going back and making something better. I’m not sure that either of those things are what I think the live spirit of theatre is about.”

Goode’s answer to this “retrospective impulse” is to put a personal stipulation on returning to old projects: there has to be a conceptual reason for revisiting it. “You want it to be conceptually rich and interesting in itself rather than simply getting something out of the freezer and putting it in the microwave because it’s been successful before,” he insists. “If the original thing was speaking to a particular moment, then maybe a different moment comes along that feels like it can shine a different light on that work.”

Goode is also careful to avoid “over-decorating or over-elaborating” what was a seductively simple show, emphasising the importance of “a real feeling of space” in the piece. Most importantly, the show has to feel as alive to Goode and his team as it will to the new audiences encountering it for the first time. “It has to feel like a task of invention in the room still. It can’t only feel like a historic re-enactment society.”

DEFRAG_, Camden People’s Theatre

IMAGE_3282_landscape (2)

I have a confession to make: I hardly ever defragment my laptop hard drive. I know I should, as friends far more conversant in technology than I am repeatedly tell me. But, like that filing system I keep telling myself I’m going to install in my room, it seems like too much hassle, too much time. It’s a fitting metaphor for the endless mental stuff we accumulate, thoughts and facts and ideas all stuffed into dusty corners of our mind and left to languish there, victim to that “maybe tomorrow” attitude that always seems to attach itself to the task of organisation. The thought of sorting everything into neat little packages is appealing, but continually put off.

This is the metaphor that codes its way through DEFRAG_, Tom Lyall’s gently compelling love letter to artificial intelligence and one of a clutch of futuristic visions being presented at the Camden People’s Theatre as part of their Futureshock programme. Half lecture, half something else, Lyall’s solo show is continually surprising in its unapologetically geeky, dryly amusing intelligence. Starting with the appeal of the defrag – the seductive idea that you might be able to realign your thoughts and free up space elsewhere – Lyall’s protagonist is a broken, recovering individual, attempting to reassemble his identity in the same way that a computer retrieves scattered files. Until, that is, he discovers that there might be a computer that could do it all for him.

Both playing on and eschewing the dystopian fear of the computer as ultra-intelligent other, the relationship that DEFRAG_ nurtures with artificial intelligence is an altogether more affectionate one. Lyall speaks to anyone who has ever fallen a little bit in love with a lightning-fast operating system or sexy interface, acknowledging the strange allure of an intelligence governed by reason alone. How appealing to be able to make decisions uninfected by neuroses, to be able to organise thoughts into easily accessible files and folders. There is a sort of fear wrapped up in this too, as acknowledged through the interjecting narrative of a super-computer designed to beat its human competitors in the US gameshow Jeopardy – the fear that the computer might simply be better than we can ever aspire to be. The other can be as seductive as it is threatening.

The structure chosen by Lyall is one that neatly reflects this murky division between human and machine. He delivers the first half standing at a lectern, cultivating a genial mode of delivery that sits somewhere between lecture, confessional and storytelling, as he tells us about the gameshow storming super-computer Watson, his relationship with computers, and his growing mistrust of his own internal hard drive following a brain injury. But just as Lyall has lulled us into the rhythm of his narrative, it slides suddenly into sci-fi territory, a canny move that snags our attention as we find ourselves just as dislocated as Lyall’s imprisoned protagonist, with nothing to rely on but a disembodied electronic voice. The piece can thus seemingly be divided along clean lines into the corporeal and virtual, but it is never quite this simple.

No one trick geek, Lyall is as sensitive to the conventions and contrivances of theatre as he is to the jargon of computing. With the house lights still up, he gently mocks the art of representation by “acting” the drinking of a glass of water and acknowledges his artificial surroundings – “I see you’ve met the set” – while also drawing attention to the relationship between theatre and value. Are we getting what we’ve paid for? This is only loosely knitted to the main weave of what DEFRAG_ is doing, but when interrogated more closely, Lyall’s attention to the blurred line between the fake and the real seems ever more integral in its relationship to the content of the piece. The computer, after all, is just another imitation of human faculties.

While DEFRAG_ might fascinate and tickle the secret sci-fi fan in me, it is ultimately the human story weaved by Lyall that becomes the most engrossing. The fears he delicately touches upon, of losing memories or finding one’s sense of self unravelling, are ones that afflict us all. Storytelling is also cast in a central position within our relationship with artificial intelligence; as Lyall’s unnamed protagonist backs up his life onto a super hard drive, stories are passed from file to file in the same way they once travelled from mouth to mouth, the currency of our humanity deposited into a bank that might well have its own agendas. If our stories and memories can be appropriated, what remains to separate us from our machines?

There are no real answers, but that feels right. Because if there’s one thing that sets humans apart from our machine counterparts, it’s that ambiguous area of grey that renders the defiantly black and white process of the defrag impossible.

Image: Rachel Ferriman