Wot? No Fish!!, Battersea Arts Centre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

History. It’s just one fucking thing after another, right? Wrong – at least if Danny Braverman has anything to do with it. In Wot? No Fish!! Braverman depicts history as a helix: spiralling steadily upwards, seeming to return again and again to the same place, only to discover that in fact the world has changed. The past can be present, but never in quite the same form.

The same goes for the art that sits at the centre of Braverman and director Nick Philippou’s show. Wot? No Fish!! tells the story of Braverman’s Great Uncle Ab, a Jewish shoemaker raising his family in the East End of London. Ordinary enough, you might think. What is extraordinary about this particular family history, though, is the astonishing document of his life that Ab left behind. For almost 60 years, Ab drew weekly pictures on his wage packets for his beloved wife Celie; love letters in another form, sketching both the ecstasies and tragedies of their life together.

Wot? No Fish!! is their story, played out against the tumultuous backdrop of the early to mid 20th century, and the story of Braverman discovering these images decades later. As Braverman sifts through Ab’s wage packets, the past is located in the now, revealing that what we are so often looking for in history – particularly family history – is a trace of ourselves. The way in which Braverman shares these drawings with us, pointing out details and making gentle speculations, makes the piece about him and about us just as much as it is about Ab and Celie. With so much of this relationship inaccessible to us, we like Braverman are left to colour in around the edges.

The drawings themselves are tiny yet oddly exquisite. As Braverman shows them to us one by one, we can observe Ab developing as an artist, starting with basic doodles of kitchen utensils and graduating to acutely observed scenes of domestic life. We see Ab and Celie as newlyweds in the 1920s and then as the parents of two sons; we see them battle through the relentless anxiety of the war years; we watch as they grow old together, Celie barely ageing a day in Ab’s loving depictions of her. And perhaps most extraordinary is the compulsive honesty of Ab’s art, which is as likely to show heartache as joy.

Given the huge scope of Braverman’s inheritance, this show can only ever be a fragment – a partial image, like Ab’s drawings. But the care taken in the selection and crafting of the piece is palpable. Braverman welcomes us warmly into his family history, making the audience feel like family by extension. We could all be part of one massive Friday night dinner, trading anecdotes over the fish balls (yes, contrary to the exclamation of the title, there is fish). Community, a quality that theatre so often reaches for, is created simply and unfussily.

Like two strands of a double helix, simplicity and complexity are bound together. Yes, on one level this is just about one family, laughing and crying and struggling like us all. But through this one family and the particularities of their everyday life, Wot? No Fish!! opens out into ideas that are much bigger than itself: love, the value of art, the movement of history, the finding of meaning and hope in narrative, and how, even when the path stretches treacherously ahead of us, we find the optimism to go on.

Photo: Malwina Comoloveo.

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Sketches of Love

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Originally written for The Guardian.

It’s hard to imagine a more complete depiction of a relationship than the one that Danny Braverman unearthed in a dusty shoebox five years ago. Laid down over almost 60 years, the 2,500 or so images were the work of Braverman’s great uncle Ab Solomons, a shoemaker who started scribbling pictures for his wife, Celie, on the back of his weekly wage packets in 1926.

Beginning in London’s East End, where Ab worked and lived, the drawings trace the evolution of a marriage, as flirtation gives way to bickering and domestic contentment is ruptured by painful events. There are bedroom scenes where Ab jokes about his snoring; and others where the quarreling couple are locked in stalemate. One is annotated with the telling words, “I can be as obstinate as you can.” We see the growth of Ab and Celie’s two sons, and the growing spectre of illness. Celie is a constant presence, pictured forever as she was when the pair married.

There is an extraordinary honesty in Ab’s refusal to skip over the agonising episodes in his life with Celie. “These aren’t cartoons; this isn’t being funny,” Braverman says. “As an artist, he had a compulsion to tell the truth.”

“I challenge anyone to find a more comprehensive picture of one person by another person,” agrees Nick Philippou, the director who helped Braverman bring Ab and Celie’s story to the stage. “It’s so vast and so relentless.”

Flickering away in the background is the social history of the 20th century, from blitz to boom to bust. Not surprisingly, anxiety pervades the drawings made during the war years. “It’s so monumental, it becomes like a Greek tragedy,” Philippou says. “And, like a Greek tragedy, it talks of all the things we can’t avoid: birth, life, death.”

Braverman, a writer and performer, shares his great uncle’s story in Wot? No Fish!!, which is about to begin a run at Battersea Arts Centre. Somewhere between a lecture and a performance, the show is delivered by Braverman himself, sifting through his surprising inheritance. Of the many questions the piece asks, Braverman highlights the way it prods at notions of high and low art. “What is the value of art in our lives?”

Philippou breaks in: “And who’s allowed to make it?” Both men describe the wage packets as an example of outsider art, but they are adamant that Ab is an artist by any standards. “Whenever anyone uses the word doodle I say no,” Philippou insists. “It is art, and it’s fantastic art.”

The outsider emerges as a recurrent theme of Ab’s art and of the show. As the son of Jewish immigrants, Ab was something of a marginal figure himself, with antisemitism casting a shadow over several of his drawings. In a Britain where immigration is once more the subject of fierce public debate, this is where the show’s subtle but insistent politics is located.

There is also, I suggest, a modern resonance to Ab’s compulsive sharing. What he depicted in art, we now publish on social media. In the same way that Ab’s drawings give equal space to death and trivia, as many Twitter posts are devoted to the serious as to the silly.

“It’s very different,” counters Philippou. “What you do in a tweet is you spend 10 seconds doing it; what you do with a work of art is you make it. You don’t make a tweet.” What has been lost, Philippou and Braverman suggest, is craft and care. “It does make you wonder about that mode of communicating – where is it now?” asks Braverman.

The answer, perhaps, is in the theatre. Wot? No Fish!! is not one but two stories, Braverman says. “There’s the story, and then there’s the story of the story. There’s the story Ab draws, but also the story of my discovery and my connectedness to it. It is about history in the present.”

“Somebody said the show is an act of love,” Philippou recalls. “I think that’s probably true, but it’s only true because Ab’s work was an act of love. The best way to love somebody is by not looking away. It’s continuing to look.”

Hotel, or Untangling the Knots

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Tuesday lunchtime: I’m sat in the Arcola bar, chatting to Danny Braverman and Nick Philippou about the brilliant sounding Wot? No Fish!! They are talking about making a story of a Jewish family speak beyond its immediate community, about the importance of outsider narratives in a political environment that stokes fear around immigration, about bringing an audience together in their difference.

Wednesday night: I’m perched on the edge of my seat in the Pit theatre at the Barbican, shoulders uncertainly shuddering with laughter. The cause of these tentative giggles is Young Jean Lee’s brilliantly unsettling The Shipmentwhich needles me with constant questioning of my own assumptions. How much is my view of the world tinted by race? Is this bit actually funny, or am I just helplessly falling into a trap? And actually – wait a minute – why am I making the experience of watching this show about me?

Friday evening: Partway through a panel discussion on arts criticism at the ICA, a woman in the audience raises the vital issue of diversity. How can critics – a deplorably white, middle-class breed – respond to work from cultures completely removed from their own? Just as I’m mentally firing that question at myself, Matt Trueman responds brilliantly and honestly with an admission of his own discomfort and uncertainty when having to review such shows (I’m really not doing his answer much justice – it was spot on).

Saturday morning: Playing catch-up, I read Andrew Haydon’s post about diversity (or lack thereof) in theatre. I’m particularly struck by two points. One: “A Soap For Every Race *cannot* be the goal for a diverse UK theatre”. Two: “We need to stop thinking that a ‘black actor’ *means* something *about* ‘Otherness’; if critics could stop reading a woman being cast as a man as some sort of comment on the ‘male’ character’s masculinity/effeminacy… That sort of thing”.

Saturday afternoon: I’m catching up again, seeing Polly Stenham’s new play Hotel at the National Theatre Shed (sorry, temporary theatre). And throughout this play about post-colonialism and Western responsibility, as shock follows shock and I hunch further and further down into my seat, I feel increasingly uncomfortable about its attitudes to race. And then I question my discomfort. And repeat.

Two days later and I’m still processing that discomfort. Race is (rightly) a knotty topic at the best of times, and with the conversations and reflections of the last week replaying in my mind I’m finding it increasingly tricky to untangle. Each time I do pick at the knots, my uneasy awareness of my own privilege halts me.

So perhaps privilege itself is a good place to start. I think it would be fair to say that Polly Stenham’s work to date has, among other things, concerned itself with a particularly privileged corner of British society. Her first three plays dissected white, upper-middle-class dysfunction, focusing on complex and often broken relationships between parents and children. First world problems of the highest order.

And Hotel opens in similar territory. A wealthy white family are holidaying on an unspecified desert island, where the fault lines of their relationships are soon exposed. Vivienne has just resigned from cabinet, made a laughing stock by her husband’s online indiscretions, while their teenage children Ralph and Frankie are messily entangled in the sordid affair (very messily, as it gradually transpires). The air is thick with betrayal and prickly with recriminations. And then – bang. The play that Hotel gave every indication of becoming is suddenly blasted to pieces.

On one level, Stenham and director Maria Aberg have done a very clever thing. The opening scenes of the play are one long teaser, playing on the expectations that Stenham’s previous work sets up, allowing the production to sharply pull the rug out from beneath our feet. What looked like a litany of middle-class moaning (played with claustrophobic precision by Hermione Gulliford, Tom Beard, Tom Rhys Harries and Shannon Tarbet) quickly turns into a tense hostage situation, as chambermaid Nala and her locally hired accomplice hold the family at gunpoint.

But this would-be kidnapper is not after money. Instead, her aim is to force an acceptance of responsibility from Vivienne, who was behind a deal that offered aid to Kenya in exchange for opening up unregulated trade. Free market capitalism under the guise of charity.

The point is a fierce and vital one. Exploitation does not just come in the form of colonial invasion, while globalisation closes the gap between action and consequence at the same time as it distances deed and responsibility. There is even a neat metaphorical resonance with the early domestic drama, as virtual transgression mirrors the way in which we in the West deny our complicity in the structures that oppress elsewhere. Just as Aberg’s production rips through the fabric of Naomi Dawson’s sterile white set – all pristine, synthetic luxury – the blind complacency of audience and characters is torn down the middle.

There are, however, some undeniable problems with this rapid shift. Because it comes out of nowhere, the motives for this sudden violence need a hefty bit of exposition, leaving Susan Wokoma’s Nala awkwardly delivering a lecture with gun in hand. Her accusations seek to leave our complicity in no doubt, but Wokoma’s brief, jarring recognition of the audience feels misjudged – a gesture, rather than a real effort of implication. Then the second narrative lurch is even more preposterous, injecting another shot of violence for little more than the shock it jolts through the audience. Sure, it’s gripping, but I can’t help wondering if this undermines rather than strengthens its point. A thriller is just that: thrilling. Which feels more than a little problematic given Stenham’s subject matter.

And so to those knots. Matt Trueman’s review grapples articulately with the possible racism in the piece, although I wouldn’t go as far in my reservations. My main concern lies in the limited representation of the play’s black characters. Nala plays a central role, but her accomplice is a crudely sketched outline, while the other black characters appear only fleetingly, their sole function being to deliver a further blast of violence. The focus remains firmly on the white, Western family, who squirm under the play’s microscope.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that a play skewering white privilege should concentrate its attention on white characters. Further, it could be reasoned that Stenham is deliberately putting herself in this picture, attacking a position that she feels able to speak from (and, of course, a position that many of her audiences at the National Theatre will share). It would also be difficult to argue that she has no right to deal with these issues, reducing the debate to the level of a question asked at this year’s National Student Drama Festival by a young audience member who was outraged that none of the performers in a show about homophobia in American high schools had ever themselves been on the receiving end of homophobia in an American high school.

Still, there’s something about Hotel that niggles at me. I think again of The Shipment, a play about African-American identity written by a Korean-American. It sounds potentially misguided, but as I noted in my review, Lee’s own struggle with the show’s ideas (developed, significantly, with the all-black cast) somehow allows an audience to acknowledge society’s inbuilt racial prejudices and our own implication in those. To echo Braverman and Philippou, it brings audiences together in their difference – without ignoring or obliterating that difference. Hotel, on the other hand, is in danger of simply reiterating difference, while its use of its subject matter could be seen as the same kind of stealthy colonialism it attacks.

I should stress that I remain uncertain, and I’ve contorted myself through various spasms of discomfort and anxiety in trying to tackle my uncertainty. But maybe that’s no bad thing. Towards the end of the stand-up routine in The Shipment, the black comedian turns his attention to those white people who constantly tiptoe on eggshells, cautious of offending and quick to apologise. But rather than attacking this attitude, as we are braced for, he approves of it. Because what’s wrong with being careful?

Photo: Kwame Lestrade.