Something Very Far Away, Unicorn Theatre

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For all those who dream of time travel, that enduring obsession of physicists and sci-fi fans alike, there’s one way in which we already can defy the divisions of past, present and future. Look at the stars and you look back in time. The speed of light dictates that by the time the light of distant galaxies reaches us, what we are looking at is already hundreds of years old. The constellations that we blink up at in the night sky are actually no more than ghosts.

This is the central premise around which the Unicorn Theatre’s Something Very Far Away heart-breakingly revolves. Its star-gazing protagonist Kepler is well aware of the fact that “the deeper into space you look, the further back in time you see”. When his beloved wife is tragically killed in a circus accident, this magical fact of the universe becomes more than just another superfluous piece of knowledge; it becomes a promise, a guiding star for Kepler’s tireless pursuit of lost love. Knocking up his own homemade space rocket and hopping between the planets, telescope in hand, Kepler is constantly chasing the minutes that will inevitably snatch his sweetheart away from him again and again.

This moving story of a love greater than solar systems is narrated through a wordless combination of puppetry and animation techniques, filmed and projected live before our eyes. Its aesthetic marries the delicate paper manipulations of The Paper Cinema with a low-tech, almost childlike brand of puppetry, the rickety figures carrying a charming air of the homemade. The visibility of its crafting might be expected to detract from the story itself, but instead it only enhances it. As well as the ability to see the work of the performers adding to an audience’s awe at their sheer skill, this artistic choice compounds the narrative’s terrible weight of inevitability. We can always see what is coming next.

Meanwhile, the simple ingenuity of this approach is in many ways more impressive than a slick piece of animation could ever be. An audience is left helplessly, admiringly grinning by the use of water trickling through the bottom of a plant pot to represent rain, or by the intricate movement of slender paper figures against a painted backdrop. And for all its poignancy, the piece also incorporates charming, witty snatches of humour. As Kepler cobbles together his spaceship with nothing more than a hammer and a saw, his neighbours curiously drawn to the strange banging, there are surprising echoes of Wallace and Gromit. It’s A Grand Day Out with none of the cheese but a generous helping of emotion.

And it is this – this unadorned, generous, unapologetic emotion – that ultimately holds the piece together. By trusting entirely in its young audience’s comprehension of the challenging emotions it grapples with, Something Very Far Away effortlessly achieves that rare triumph of equally captivating both children and adults. Love, after all, needs little translation.

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Teenage Riot, Unicorn Theatre

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In many ways, adolescence is an age of slammed doors. Arguments with family are followed by the shudder of wood against frame; the entrance to adulthood, close enough to touch, remains stubbornly sealed, the world behind it distantly alien. In Ontroerend Goed’s Teenage Riot, the second in a trio of pieces the company has made with and about teenagers, this barrier is made material and dumped centre stage. The show’s eight teenage performers, who walk on one by one in dim lighting, lock themselves away in a large wooden box, a hermetically sealed retreat from the encroaching adult world. We want no part in this, the gesture seems to say.

For the remainder of the piece, this box simultaneously acts as a frame, a cage and an escape. It is a frame in the sense that it conspicuously outlines what we do and do not see, as well as framing how we see it. Once the doors are closed, our only glimpses inside this adult-free space are delivered via film projections onto the front of the box, using a mediated form that is in the hands of the teenagers, who are quite literally projecting themselves. We see snatches of them drinking, undressing, dancing, plastering their faces with make-up, the distinction between what is being filmed live and what has been pre-recorded always cleverly blurred. The young performers deliver revealing monologues to camera, offer us slimming tips, mock their adult counterparts with brutally accurate observations.

The statement of shutting themselves off from the world, meanwhile, filters our reading of what these teenagers say, immediately establishing a dynamic of resistance and rebellion that is of course reinforced by the title (which is itself arguably more charged now, particularly for British audiences, than it was when the show was first made). While in some senses this retreat liberates them, they are at the same time trapped in a cage of their own making; they can exercise their individual freedom while within these restraints, but their spitting rage at the world they see through the bars is reduced to impotent protest. This is what constantly lies underneath the pulsing music and gleefully anarchic hedonism. Raw anger spills through the cracks.

Yet, in a sense, the anger isn’t raw at all. The show was first seen in Edinburgh almost three years ago; the then fourteen and fifteen year olds are now seventeen and eighteen, on the verge of adulthood themselves. This is rage repeated, frustration on a loop. But perhaps the time that has elapsed has only intensified the furious impetus at the show’s core. The individuals who rail so passionately against adult defeatism, who chuck tomatoes at images of the audience and deliver us with stark, unflinching accusations, are moving swiftly, inexorably closer to becoming that which they hate and deride. Mirroring the show’s final, poignant action, in which the performers choose either to return to their box or sit among the audience they have been attacking, soon it really will be time for them to make their choice.

For me, despite the challenges offered elsewhere, it is this final, lose-lose decision – to quietly submit to adult acceptance of the world as it is, or helplessly rage against it from within a contained environment – that lands the most bitterly bruising punch. This, I suspect, is largely down to my own position in relation to the piece. I wonder if, as an audience member, my specific age creates something of the uncanny; familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. Unlike the majority of Ontroerend Goed’s intended audience (despite its current inclusion in the Unicorn’s programme, it was originally made for adults) my teenage years aren’t all that distant. Indeed, it seems my skin still hasn’t quite received the memo that I’m now in my twenties. It’s therefore an age both near and distant, closer at hand yet less accessible than childhood. I can recognise a lot of the anger and frustration that Teenage Riot lays out on stage, but in a way that feels sadly distanced, or else pragmatically suppressed. Their accusations make me feel both defensively prickled – I’m not that much older than them, I’ve inherited the same shit, I’m equally fighting with how to deal with it – and guiltily uncomfortable. I ask myself whether I can still say I’m as angry as a seventeen year old, and I’m not sure I can.

As unsettling as Teenage Riot is, however, it also makes me bridle in a way that’s unrelated to my own piercingly pin-pointed failings and hypocrisies. For all that it repeatedly reinforces the message that this is its teenage performers’ own worldview, spoken in their own voices, I can’t help but ask “really?” In the same way that verbatim theatre’s enshrining of its own veracity instantly brings out the sceptic in me (as I’ve discussed before), anything that proclaims its authenticity inevitably ushers in doubt with the same breath. Apparently, according to numerous interviews with director Alexander Devriendt, the performers really were given control over how they present themselves in the show, but this doesn’t entirely resolve my reservations. The hand of Devriendt in the making of the show must have had some influence, however small, while the very nature of the presentation unavoidably alters its content. These are not just teenagers on stage, they stand in for a wider portrait of teenage experience – transformed, almost unwittingly, into representatives for a whole generation. It all smacks a little, dare I say it, of exploitation.

But then this too contributes to the mechanics of the piece and the discomfort it relentlessly engenders in its audience. There’s always something just a little unsettling about the sort of doubling created by the at once authentic and inauthentic; these are actually teenagers, but they are also in a sense playing teenagers. Further, the performers’ age and the way in which – whether intended or not – their highly subjective statements are recruited into a representation of adolescence, implicitly asks troubling questions. Do they really know the implications of their actions on stage? As (mostly) legal minors, who is responsible for their wellbeing in this situation? Is it OK that we as an audience are watching the events contained within this deliberately private space, positioned as voyeurs? We don’t need the camera to be turned on us to recognise the problematic nature of our gaze.

Without quite intending to, I realise I’ve ended up levelling a lot of criticisms at Teenage Riot. Much of this is simply an attempt to get to the bottom of my own troubled reaction to it, which in itself says something about its power as a piece of theatre. Unlike a lot of the shows I’ve seen this year which, however enjoyable in the moment, have left me fairly quickly, this continues to chip away at me. It’s a piece that manages to be thrilling, reflective, beautiful and disturbing all in the space of an hour, leaving behind a trace that is not easily shrugged off – even after more than 1,000 words of analysis. What is perhaps most haunting is its bleak presentation of the world into which these almost-adults are about to step. In the end, as the performers stare out at the debris of a world that is not of their making but that they will have to navigate a route through, the question is simply: “what are we supposed to do with this?”

Photo: Mirjam Devriendt

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.

DNA, Unicorn Theatre

A group of teenagers are in trouble. Big trouble. What began as a playful bit of bullying – ‘a laugh’ – has spun wildly out of control and one of their classmates now lies dead in the woods. The only solution, as it appears to this shocked group of youngsters, is to cover it up. It seems like they might just get away with murder, but the lie that they have fabricated soon becomes bigger than they could have anticipated in Dennis Kelly’s unsettling thriller, originally written for the National Theatre’s Connections programme and now revived by the Hull Truck Theatre.

Unlike some other dramatists targeting troubled youth as their subject matter, Kelly does not patronise his adolescent protagonists, nor does he dwell gratuitously on their violence. The terrible act that binds the group together takes place off stage, as does a subsequent instance of violence, thus refusing to make these shocking events the visual centrepiece of the play. Instead, this incident becomes a springboard to explore this group of teenagers and their relationship to the world and one another, relationships that are heightened by the predicament they find themselves in. The central moral dilemma faced by the teenagers – is it better to come clean or to cover up what they have done for the greater good of the group? – is the hinge of the piece, but is far from the only issue that Kelly is prodding at.

Much of these issues are communicated through the character of Leah, who barely pauses for breath throughout most of the play. In a constant stream of chatter that betrays her brittle insecurity and desperate need to be liked, this waffling yet oddly insightful teenager touches on profound questions of time, meaning and the nature of humanity in a delicately poignant performance from Leah Brotherhead. While the unrelenting talk occasionally verges on the irritating, Kelly has wrapped up in Leah that very teenage contradiction of developing self-awareness and crippling anxiety, and through her seemingly light conversation begins to get close to the truth of what it is to be trapped in the confusion of adolescence.

Leah’s verbal diarrhoea is contrasted with the brooding, indifferent silence of her companion Phil, who seems more intent on his food than on anything she spouts. Crisps, sweets, a waffle meticulously drizzled with jam – rarely has food occupied such a demanding place in centre stage. Despite barely uttering a word, James Alexandrou pulls off the most genuinely disturbing performance of the piece as this determinedly mute yet commanding figure, and when he does open his mouth he formulates a plan to get the group out of trouble with the calm, calculated precision of a psychopath. The most impressive achievement of Kelly’s writing, however, is his lack of condemnation; while we appreciate that what this group of teenagers have done is deeply wrong, we continue to be compelled to care about them and even to an extent to understand the situation that they have backed themselves into. This, we can imagine, is just what a group of panicking teenagers might do when offered what seems to be a way out.

While the young characters themselves are for the most part rendered plausibly – if perhaps a little less foul-mouthed than might be expected under the circumstances – the world that Kelly has created has a nightmarish, surreal quality, with echoes of Lord of the Flies inevitably raising their voices. Before the squirming teenagers know it, they are blocked in behind the bars of their own lie, forced down the increasingly twisting paths of a complex labyrinth of deceit. They have fallen down the rabbit hole and there is no way out. The sense of heightened reality is intensified by the pulsing lights and dazzling projections of this production’s simple but striking design, although the mat of grass that is regularly dragged out for Phil and Leah’s scenes together seems an unnecessary item of clutter in an otherwise effectively minimal set.

For such a darkly atmospheric piece, however, there is a sense in which this feels oddly, paradoxically safe. The description of Adam’s death, while building escalating tension, lacks a chill of horror; we never experience the visceral shiver of shock that ought to accompany the darkening action. This may partly be due to a certain elusive ingredient missing from Anthony Banks’ otherwise impressive production, but I suspect that it might have more to do with the text’s uptake by the GCSE curriculum. I certainly have nothing against introducing schoolchildren to such compelling and challenging work – this is just the sort of thing that we should be encouraging young people to see – but I fear that this revival, which has clearly been created with students in mind, has taken the edge off Kelly’s script. Ironically, it is that very edge that might have really captured the attention of its young audience.

DNA runs at the Unicorn Theatre until 28 April and is then touring until 25 May.

Image: Simon Annand