SmallWaR, Traverse Theatre


BigMouth, the powerhouse show that Valentijn Dhaenens premiered at the 2012 Fringe, was all about oratorical sway. Now SmallWaR offers a bleak snapshot of what those speeches really mean for ordinary men and women. Joining the rash of World War I centenary productions, the show discusses both the First World War and conflict in general through the voices of those who experienced it firsthand.

Inspired by a collection of war testimony and owing a heavy debt to the likes of Johnny Got His Gun, SmallWaR offers up various fragments of conflict and its aftermath. These are expressed by Dhaenens in the guise of a nurse, sitting or standing at the front of the Traverse’s wide stage, and by the shadowy soldier figures (all recorded copies of Dhaenens) who appear as projections on the screen that slices across the playing space.

In this ghostly hospital ward, voices rise and fall; reflections, letters home, quiet howls of despair. These scraps of found text are knitted together by the nurse, commenting calmly on the horror she witnesses around her, and by the thoughts and dreams of a man who has lost all means of movement and communication, barely remaining alive in his hospital bed – a medical “miracle”.

As a companion piece to BigMouth, immediately linked by the same unsettling rendition of “Nature Boy”, SmallWaR makes a chilling follow-up. Here lies the result of all that rhetoric: broken bodies and tortured minds. And all that talk of democracy and honour and glory means nothing when staring death in the face. As Dhaenens dully intones, “nobody dies for something”.

Yet this all feels surprisingly distant. There is certainly rage in SmallWaR’s sentiment, but not in its cool execution. Dhaenens’ sleek, controlled delivery is pitch perfect as a series of persuasive leaders in BigMouth or a slippery politician in Ontroerend Goed’s Fight Night, but here it jars with the intent of his words. There are moments of quiet, haunting impact, but Dhaenens never reaches across the gulf between stage and audience to infect us with the fury that radiates from his text.

“If I had a mouth, I would scream,” a disembodied voice tells us through the speakers. Dhaenens has the means to speak, but his is a resigned sigh rather than a yell of anger.

Born to Run, Traverse Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

Fresh out of the patriotism-drenched self-congratulation of the Olympics, it’s not as if we are in need of further excuses to hear Vangelis’ iconic, now numbingly ubiquitous theme to Chariots of Fire. Gary McNair’s play, however, casts a new and markedly less heroic gloss on the activity of running. Born from the idea that even the most exercise-shy of us are running either away from or towards something, this piece projects running as both symptom and cure, a way to escape and a way to get to where you want to be.

For McNair’s protagonist Jane, running is her salvation. Diagnosed with epilepsy and struggling to cope, she discovers that going for a jog can stall her seizures, leading her to plant trainers around her house, in the office, tucked away in her handbag – at any moment, she can run away. Framed within the context of a mammoth 110 mile ultra-marathon across the North American desert, the piece opens a window into Jane’s mind as she steadily eats up the miles while desperately reaching for a decision that eludes her.

In an impressive display of stamina, Shauna Macdonald performs the entire show on a treadmill, pounding the act of running further into her identity with every step. Running is not just something Jane enjoys, it is a part of who she is – “it’s what I do” – replacing her crippling condition as a vital fragment of her identity.

What McNair has created is essentially a psychological study of his protagonist, drawing both on the scientifically and anecdotally proven power of running to clear the mind and on ideas of mental refuge and escape. As Jane repeats, “it’s amazing what you can do if you don’t put your mind to it”, a throwaway assessment of human thought processes which could be given further examination.

Giving rein to Jane’s thoughts and memories, McNair’s staging is fittingly simple, leaving the space around Macdonald empty save the treadmill she is running on. The only intrusions into this space are slickly executed projections which fire out questions and scroll through internet pages, visualising the ultra-connected anxiety that plagues the modern consciousness in a world in which every illness can purportedly be diagnosed through Google. Alone with her thoughts, Jane’s sole interaction is with her running app, a poisonously smug electronic voice that counts down the miles.

While Macdonald is an engaging and fiery performer, the piece as a whole is oddly unsatisfying, limping off with aching muscles and minimal lasting impact. As a personal story it is absorbing while it lasts, but in a way that is not far removed from the inspirational profiles that make convenient news programme fillers; impressive and often poignant, but easily switched off at their close. Its main power is derived from its near-universal resonance, the ability it allows for every spectator to identify with Jane’s struggle. After all, “everyone runs, don’t they?”

Monkey Bars, a Not Quite Review

“That is my world,” one of the performers in Chris Goode and Company’s new show gently tells us, candid but shy. She is talking about singing, her favourite hobby. One day, she continues, she just opened her mouth and discovered that this was something she was good at; “I had a voice”.

It is a poignant and strangely loaded moment in this gorgeously thoughtful slice of theatre, a gentle hour and fifteen minutes that begs us to look again at children and their view of the world. The performer in question is a middle-aged woman, dressed professionally in a crisp black suit, but her words are those of one of the 72 eight to ten year olds interviewed by Goode’s collaborator Karl James to create this delicate verbatim performance. Her one tentative admission is a reminder, like the show as a whole, that children are too often robbed of a voice, denied the opportunity to speak up.

The playing of child characters by adults is, of course, nothing new. Perhaps taking very seriously the warning never to work with children or animals, many productions feature adults who double up as kids, all too often indulging in snotty caricatures. The adults in Monkey Bars, however, are not playing children. They may be speaking the words of primary school kids, but they are demonstrably, emphatically adults. They dress as adults, they speak as adults and Goode’s production places them in conspicuously adult situations, sipping wine or getting ready for work.

Yet, for all this emphasis on adult activity, there are distinct traces of childhood about Naomi Dawson’s design. The set, with its grass-like floor, is mainly composed of large white plastic blocks that are illuminated from within, a cross between building blocks and night lights. While we usually see the performers in deliberately adult set-ups, they also occasionally sit protectively round-shouldered as they eat from lunch boxes, suddenly collapsing back into kids in the playground. The onstage props include, contrastingly, wine glasses and a bubble machine.

This mingling of the mature and the childish hints at the dizzying cocktail of these qualities in all of us, no matter how “grown-up” we may appear. It often seems as though growing up is really a process of gradually realising that we are all making it up as we go along, perpetually waiting for the moment when it all slots into place. Figured in this way, James’ young interviewees are not all that different to their adult performers or audiences.

But one significant point of difference is their lack of power to make themselves heard. As in the scenario I opened with, the frustration of not being listened to is a recurring theme and a major concern of the piece. One of the most heart-tugging monologues comes courtesy of a girl who feels “all alone in the world” when others don’t listen to her, while another child’s broken arm goes unnoticed by adults who ignore his insistence that he is in pain. The desire for superpowers becomes a motif that intermittently resurfaces, implying a fierce longing to change things without knowing how to make an impact.

Forced to listen as we are by the show that Goode has pieced together from these interviews, it is startling just how much these children have to say. While there are, unsurprisingly, some hilarious moments which verge on Children Say the Funniest Things territory, on the whole the piece reveals just how perceptive these young individuals are. Asked about their ambitions, one child wonders whether he will be a tramp or a banker, satirically remarking that they are essentially the same thing. Another two boys berate their generation in the manner of grumpy old men, tutting at girls who try to grow up too fast. Perhaps most affecting are the repeated protestations against war: “I think people should stop now – game over, you know?”

But this is more than just a vehicle for the opinions of children. As a piece of theatre, Monkey Bars is appealingly self-aware. Neatly side-stepping the issues faced by much verbatim theatre and avoiding the need for lengthy programme notes, Chris Goode and Company simply confront their process head-on. One of the first recordings we hear is that of James explaining the concept of the show to the children he is interviewing, an explanation that also conveniently clarifies the process for the audience. The actor representing James at this point adds, with a playful grin, “we’ll see if the audience finds that interesting”.

There is no doubt about whether the end result is interesting – it’s nothing short of fascinating – but as to the purposes of this piece of theatre and its success on those terms, I’m a little more tentative with my praise. Had the show zeroed in on one aspect of childhood and interrogated that individual angle using this intriguing process, it might come across as more of a complete piece, if not perhaps as meaty. Instead, by speaking to these children about such a wide range of subjects, from families to politics, Chris Goode and Company have created a view of the world that is potentially infinite and open-ended. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – I like theatre with question marks – but it makes the piece’s process of selection and editing somewhat problematic.

This touches upon one of my issues with verbatim theatre as a form, which is something I’ve been mulling over for a while and assessing more thoroughly since seeing London Road earlier this month. It is, as a method of theatremaking, overtly “truthful”. By which I mean, because the words are purely those of the subjects, it is their truth – verbal stumbles and all – as unmediated as possible without placing them on the stage before us. It might not be a profound, universal truth, but it is truthful to the experience of those interviewees.

At the same time, however, it screams its artificiality. By being so conspicuously “real”, so hammered home with “erm”s and stammers, it simultaneously advertises the fact that these genuine, un-airbrushed words have been uprooted from their source and dumped on a stage, a transplant which implicates its process. In Monkey Bars, this process attracts even more attention to itself through the additional layer of meaning and representation created by the use of adults to speak the words of children.

So, as a result of this odd, dislocating blend of truth and artificiality, I always feel very aware of the hand of the editor. (That might also be something to do with being a writer) In this particular case, therefore, the tiny part of my brain not enraptured by the show was nagging away at me, asking what the guiding intention was behind these particular choices.

Has the material been selected in such a way as to expose how children swallow and regurgitate the opinions and values of their adult counterparts? Has the guttingly profound been favoured over the silly or mundane? Of course, this is a conversation I would need to have with Chris Goode (and one that I’d be more than happy to engage in if broached), but I couldn’t help wondering: why these stories?

Not that such doubts and questions are substantially damaging to the experience of watching the beautiful, surprisingly urgent piece of theatre that Chris Goode and Company have created. Where Monkey Bars functions perhaps most effectively is as a warning, a reminder and a bleak unveiling of the lies we have come to blindly accept with age. We can smile at childish fears and anxieties, but essentially these are smiles of complacent denial. The world is a scary place; we have simply taught ourselves not to notice.

The (not quite) End

– this is where the review proper (if it can even be considered “proper”) concludes, but there are also a few other, messier, more experimental thoughts that I felt compelled to put into words …

One of the moments in the show that most tickled me was the recording in which a girl who writes stories is asked about her writing, rendered in a scene arranged much like a television interview. It made me quietly giggle because it reminded me so much of myself as a child, always dreaming up other worlds and fiercely scribbling away, deadly serious about whatever tale I was currently spinning. Inspired by this, I found myself thinking about the child I once was, with the below result.

A letter to my younger self:

Hi there. Just me. So … this feels a bit weird. Why am I writing to you? Well, it’s a critical experiment. That probably doesn’t make much sense to you now, but it will one day. Which, I know, is one of the annoying things that adults say when they don’t feel like explaining something, but this time it’s true. Maybe I’ll explain it some time, but right now I have a couple of other things that I want to say.

I want to say that I remember that it’s hard, even though sometimes I forget and think that it used to be easy. People will tell you that it only gets harder, and that might be true, but it’s also pretty hard right now. It’s especially hard right now because people don’t always listen, but that will get better, if only by a little bit.

I also want to say that it’s good that you’ve learnt to pretend. Pretending is important. Not just because watching people pretending will one day be among your favourite things to do, but because the pretending never ends, not really. That’s the big secret. We all still feel like kids playing at being grown-up, hoping that no one will catch us out in the act of make believe.

And one day a man called Chris Goode and some of his friends will, through some pretending that isn’t quite pretending, make you realise that it’s not just you who feels that way. And it will be comforting but also a little bit heartbreaking, though you won’t be quite sure why. You’ll try writing about it anyway though, because that’s what you do.

Well … that’s all I wanted to say, really. I know that writing letters is boring and not as much fun as writing stories, but perhaps occasionally you can write back to me and remind me what it’s like to be a kid? I’d like to be reminded of that. Now you probably want to ask me what it feels like to be an adult, which seems like a fair exchange. But the answer is, I just don’t know.

Oddly, to depart on a complete tangent, writing the above reminded me vividly of Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes, a piece of theatre that I think I short-changed slightly on first assessment and that has insistently stayed with me over the intervening weeks. In that show, the child performers address recordings of their younger selves, sadly, ashamedly and sometimes wistfully regarding the people that they used to be.

One of the most heartbreaking moments is one boy’s protestation that “this is not me”. In thinking back to the person I used to be, prompted by Monkey Bars to remember what it was to be a child, I was struck by how I both am and am not that wildly imaginative young person, so much like the little girl in the show who speaks earnestly about her stories. This is not a particularly original thought, but perhaps we are all a long series of different people, simultaneously embodying a number of past versions of ourselves and the person we are in the present moment. The child in us never quite goes away; it just takes an experience like Monkey Bars to be reminded of that.

The reviewed performance was at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Monkey Bars will continue to tour around the country throughout the autumn – full tour dates here.

Theatre Uncut in Edinburgh

Originally written for Exeunt.

Against a backdrop of crisis, cuts, turmoil and disillusionment, theatre seems to be reclaiming its place as an art form at the heart of popular protest. Only a few days after the widely attacked sentencing of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, a verdict whose announcement was marked by a day of protest across the world – including an event at the Royal Court Theatre – an embryonic glimpse of this year’s new international incarnation of Theatre Uncut is seen at the Traverse Theatre. It is the sort of protest that feels rough, messy, alive.

The series of short play readings, a taste of what to expect from the full autumn event, takes place not in the auditorium but in the theatre’s bar. We are told that this is to demonstrate that these plays can be performed anywhere; the hope is that this November they will be given life by hundreds of people in village halls and cafes, pubs and community centres. Beyond this straightforward aim, the bar feels like an open, sociable space, a space where audience and performers are not divided by an invisible barrier but where we are able to feel like simply one group of people gathered together with a common interest.

Extending this united messiness, none of the work that is presented is in anything near a finished state. Everyone’s time is given free to Theatre Uncut, meaning that actors assembled from across the festival have had only one hour in which to rehearse and still clutch scripts in their hands. There is something appealingly untidy about it, lending the event a fitting air of urgency. A more slick and polished product would take something from the importance of its message; here the potency lies entirely with the writing.

The pieces that are showcased at the morning event all take differing approaches to the political stimuli, a recognition of the multiplicity of voices and perspectives to which Theatre Uncut is responding. Anders Lustgarten’s The Break Out is succinctly metaphorical. A scene between two women given the chance to escape a benign prison and offered a choice between being “comfortably miserable or scarily free”, it confronts our apathy-inducing state of comfort and the illusion of freedom that can be so easily cast.

Meanwhile Blondie, written by Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme graduate Hayley Squires and absolutely nothing to do with Debbie Harry, takes the dystopian route. Playing with the cult of personality that has dominated politics in recent years, reaching its apex with Blair’s brand of “Cool Britannia”, Squires paints a portrait of a leader elected on pure, blonde-haired appeal. The brutal lesson that this leader then teaches the country – to “get a grip” – is lacking in subtlety, but lands a few painful punches on our greedy, fiercely consumerist lack of perspective. Dire as the situation here may seem, Squires reminds us, it is much worse elsewhere.

The most striking piece of the morning, however, is Clara Brennan’s Spine. Heartbreakingly performed by Rosie Wyatt, it tells the tender story of an unlikely friendship between a frail old woman and a teenage girl, while also writing something of a love letter to our dying libraries. It is a delicately multi-layered monologue, touching upon the deep and damaging cuts, the concept of political power and the idea that there is “nothing more terrifying than a teenager with something to say”, but its primary cry is one for compassion. Politics has forgotten people, something that this deeply moving piece does not allow us to do for a moment.

The morning is closed by two pieces even more ad hoc than the rest. In recognition of the Pussy Riot trial that has provoked so much protest around the world, and as a sort of epilogue to the event at the Royal Court at which the defendants’ testimonies were read, three actresses pull on balaclavas while we listen to the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. This is then followed by a rapid response piece by David Greig, written over a matter of days and inspired by recent news. This move towards immediacy is one which helps to solidify the ideas that have been floating shapelessly around the room, firmly reminding us that this is an event connected to and speaking out against very real problems.

But there is also an awareness that this is not enough. Sitting in a room listening to and talking about political issues is not quite action in itself. As Marco Canale’s candid monologueThe Birth of My Violence recognises, putting pen to paper instead of placard can be interpreted as an act of cowardice, an evasion of genuine action in favour of weak intellectualising, and perhaps it is.

What Theatre Uncut lacks in this current presentation is what makes it what it is: the element of mass protest. Performed in a closed space to a few dozen gathered people, these pieces can feel like cursory gestures. But when taken ownership of by people all over the country in a unified raising of voices, these short plays have the power to be much, much more.