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Why We Perform Words

I went to see Peter Arnott’s scratch of Talent Night in the Fly Room (which was an open-hearted blast, by the way, and I’m really looking forward to the finished thing), and something he said at the beginning struck me:

Working with actors is like doing it in laboratory conditions — it tests writing in a real-world way. People say “That’s not funny” and you say . . . “You’re right. It isn’t.”

That’s pretty much how I feel about performing poetry. Performing a poem to an audience is an essential part of the creative process for me. How can I know the words are right until the audience has reacted to them? Why on earth would I trade this for the trickle of response from readers when a piece is publishd? Why would I ask for critical commentary from trusted readers and not from trusted listeners? Why would you?

And if you don’t think your poem is auditory, why do you use alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme? Why do your poems have shape? Do you really not sound them at least in your mind? Do you not roll the words around your mouth? So why don’t you perform them? It will test them in a real-world way.

Fringe Reflections, pt. 2

I’m currently based in Edinburgh. The world’s biggest arts festival happens to be here. Here’re some part reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre. Part 1 (featuring Freefall, Penelope, The Author, and much Forest Fringe) was here.

NTS, Bryony Lavery and Frantic Assembly: Beautiful Burnout @ Pleasance Courtyard

Three theatre-makers I love greatly collaborating on project about boxing: like a dream. When a project brings in heavyweights you expect it to pack a punch – how does that expectation frame your experiences? It largely depends on the individual, I suppose: those I went with were mostly mildly confused and disappointed: I was delighted, enchanted. The play was deeply experiential, deeply in the present, in its music and video, in its movement, in its speeches: everything was about what is happening right now. Memories of the past were treated with scorn, hopes for the future drove only immediate action. Jab. Cut. Punch. Yes, to go into the issues and feelings in more depth would have been more recognisably satisfying – but I licked the way this grazed huge moral conundrums, vast emotional chasms, and then rapidly moved on. Like most of life, like most people’s lives.

Aces Wild: The Tempest @ C Too

Sometimes it can be fun to see a production so awful that by its depths it serves as a warning, reminds you what to avoid in making theatre. The metre was ignored, voice weakly squeaked emotion, bodies were floppy and unresponsive, the cuts were nonsensical, the characters ciphers – oh my, it was so very bad. But they were trying to hard! It breaks my heart to see a group who clearly cares about theatre, who clearly wants to make good theatre, do so many things so obviously wrong.

Simon Callow / Jonathan Bate: The Man from Stratford @ Assembly

A biographical lecture in theatrical form. Surprisingly not as pompous as I thought it would be, actually rather tender at points – though too often it is a vehicle for Callow to plum his way through his favourite snippets of verse in his hammy way. I didn’t learn much, but I did get to thinking how the cipher of Shakespeare’s life allows authors and actors to fill him up with their own lives and desires – so though we know nothing of how Shakespeare made it into theatre, Callow tells a story of gradual working upwards through roles that is remarkably similar to his own. But I suppose that’s part of the fun, in the plays and the person.

Michael West / Corn Exchange: Freefall @ Traverse

A startlingly beautiful deathbed play, in which four actors take on a dizzying array of roles comic and tragic, playing out an ordinary Irishman’s life for him in his final moments. Only occasionally mawkish and frequently hilarious, it touched me rather deeply. And yet. The narrative was wonderful, but what do I remember the next day? What ideas it had were trite – it was only an emotional storyline which carried me through. So beautiful, but not so substantial. Another note: the protagonist seems quite the most blameless man in theatrical history, having seemingly said only one misanthropic thing in his life, for which he immediately apologised.

(Pro-feminist pedantry: yet another play in which all female characters are defined solely by their relationship to a man, and in which an elusive Mother and a longed-for-to-protect Maiden are the driving forces. Sigh.)

Enda Walsh / Druid: Penelope @ Traverse

Well gosh. It feels like a play that could have been written 50 years ago, very consciously in the shadow of Beckett and Ireland’s great male dramatic blarneyists (Farquahr, Wilde, Shaw, Coward, Beckett . . .) Four awful men compete at the bottom of a decaying swimming pool for Penelope’s affection; they are lover, soldier, justice, pantalone, and death. They meditate on life, masculinity, love, porridge. There is a dazzling and brutal quick change act. While it sometimes mistakes verbosity for erudition, and while we really do not need yet another play about maleness in which the female role is a purely mythic ideal, it is conscious of these flaws and brilliant despite them. I was quite breathless. From laughter as much as from action and thought. It lasts.

Camille O’Sullivan @ Assembly

At the forefront of contemporary cabaret, singing songs from throughout the 20th Century, performing everything from an astonishing impression of Tom Waits to a gorgeous reimagining of Jacques Brel. I’ve heard her music before, but now her promoters are seriously trying to make her a moneyspinner – she’s the most advertised show in Edinburgh, as far as I can see. It hasn’t done her enormous harm, but there is this strange thing that happens to musicians as they grow in scale: they get excited by the possibilities of new money, start hiring more musicians, expand the effects of the show. And, of course, the best ones discover that they were better off minimal all along. I preferred her when she just had a piano and a coupla horns, when her theatricality and persona weren’t dwarfed by the staging, tighter, crazier, sexier.

An odd thing happened at the show: a couple booed her country rock cover of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (a fantastic stomping feminist reappropriation of the mellow anthem). I’ve never heard a boo at a music show before! Only for comedians, or for performers being genuinely offensive. What would move someone to do that? It really threw her: she said a couple of angry things, and then dissolved into tears, apologising for being mean, saying nothing like that had ever happened before. I wouldn’t apologise for telling asses to piss off – but she was that sweet. And vulnerable. A theme for this festival: the vulnerability of performers, the uncertainty of being on stage in front of people, the necessary critical self-consciousness of performance. Dangerous, intoxicating, enthralling.

Fringe Reflections, pt. 1

Part Edinburgh reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre.

Kieran Hurley: Hitch @ Forest Fringe

A monologue and video performance about hitch-hiking to the 2009 G8 conference in L’Aquila, Italy. Direct, simple and moving – a performance about travel and about political action, dwelling lightly but significantly on the meaning of both, telling a good story and a few jokes. Sweet, and a little inspiring.

Fish and Game: Two Trillion @ Forest Fringe

An unusual play about biology, performance and Abraham Lincoln and death, as well as a lot of other things. Employs so many theatrical techniques and touches on so many themes that it sometimes seemed incoherent, but it was at least a fun an hyper-real journey through thoughts and experiences. I liked the frankness of the delivery especially, the feeling that the avant garde elements weren’t self-consciously or pretentiously outré: they were just presented for what they were.

Zambezi Express @ Assembly

An African drumming and dance show strung along a paper-thin plot about football. The music and movement is stunning – skilled, celebratory and exhausting. The story is a near-nonsensical retelling of the boy-wins-girl triumph-over-adversity plot, hopping effortlessly from cliché to cliché. It feels like a very Western myth, as well, which leads me to think hard and confusedly about the semiotics of the show: what does it all mean? What roots does this show have, and how much is it a construction for Western audiences? What does it mean to the participants, and where they’re from? Whenever I see something fusion or cross-cultural, I feel my ignorance strongly.

ArtsAdmin: Future Editions @ Forest Fringe

You roll a dice and get a library ticket; you enter the library and find your book – a human, with whom you have a conversation about the future. Mine was a Town Planner from Edinburgh; my conversation was enlightening and enjoyable. I liked this concept a great deal, but felt that its programming didn’t allow it to fulfil its potential: there was only really time for me to have one ten-minute slot. I wanted to browse this library! I felt under pressure, instead of enjoying being around fascinating tomes. Hopefully we’ll see it more, with more leisure.

Tim Crouch: The Author @ Traverse

This play’s been causing a lot of talk. The audience are sat in banks of seats facing each other, with no stage space, and the actors are spread among us. It’s a play that tells the story of a play about violence – The Author is about the portrayal of violence in our culture, why we make art and view art about violence, and what it means for us. Here’s what I wrote about it in response to this Guardian article.

1 ) Violence and Walkouts

I’m in the happy position of not understanding in the least why anyone would walk out of this play. (Not counting the initial staged walk-out.) There’s nothing particularly sensational or awful going on — to repeat a cant that’s only got a little tired, there’s no narrative of something happening off-stage that is any more unpleasant than in, say, Titus Andronicus. Despite the unexpected staging, the audience is genuinely made to feel comfortable, the actors work hard to keep on-side, even when perpetrating acts of violence on their ears and minds. This is really a very conventional play, about subject-matter we should be used to dealing with. Of course, if someone is uncomfortable they have every right to leave — but I wonder if some audience members don’t go to supposedly controversial plays with the intention of walking out. Still, it does make for good drama!

2) Violence and Interactivity

This is not an interactive play. It starts with the illusion of interactivity, but this simply serves to put the audience in the right frame of mind for thinking about the play, rather than to create a contract of interaction with the audience. There are no choices for the audience, no branching points, no option of guiding or refusing the narrative. (I tried, at one point, when “Tim” asked if we wanted him to stop, saying “Yes”. The audience whooped a little, the script carried on relentless.)

As such, the play constitutes an act of violence on its audience: like “Esther”‘s “Karen”, we are offered the illusion of choice, only to have it roughly taken away.This is a neat reflection, only a little too neat, which helps to bring out some of the salient themes — but I do wonder whether it wouldn’t have been more interesting to have a play that’s genuinely interactive. To have a genuine conversation about these ideas. To have a play that’s really happening, rather than purely representational. As it is, despite the beauty of the writing and the depth of the thought, the approach to choice can seem as trite as the closing of Ben Elton’s “Popcorn” . . .

3) And is it any good?

Well, yes. It’s a very good play, a beautiful and sensitive approach to its subject matter. But, at the same time, being a play about theatre most of all, and culture/media in general more widely, it has rather limited scope and appeal — that is to say, it’s a play written for theatre people. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is limited. While the post-modern game-playing isn’t too overwhelming (thank goodness — that would be morally irresponsible for this subject), it is still a bit smug, a bit exclusionary. I wonder if the play “The Author” describes wouldn’t in fact be a wider and more interesting and more accessible exploration of the same subject matter. I’m reminded of the Presnyakob Brothers’ “Terrorism”, which deals with many of the same ideas — the meanings of violence, of choice, and of the infectiousness of representations of horror — but with more humour, wider scope, and greater relevance.

Finally: I’d find it a bit sad if this were indeed Edinburgh’s most talked-about play. That would show an extreme insularity of theatre-goers — one which I suspect exists, but which I wish didn’t. For us to be talking about a play which talks about talking about violence — oi, that’s a little too circular and self-referential for my tastes. Yes, this play is excellent, but I’d still rather be actually doing things instead.

Polar Bear: Return @ Forest Fringe

A “spoken word film” about Birmingham and coming home. Beautifully written and performed, with charm and grace. Only a little maudlin at times, only a touch slow and meandering. But full of moments of pure light.

I’m thinking about this directness and simplicity thing a great deal, as it’s a current not just at the Forest Fringe, but throughout contemporary fringe performance, especially in the penumbra of Live Art. Commonalities: an artful artlessness, a lack of guile and deception, the presentation of a performance for what it is, a thing in itself rather than a thing which is represented, a desire not to overreach, an imagination that plays very directly with the audience rather than to the audience. I can only explain the phenomenology of these shows by implication, but it is there. I wonder what it means. I like it, but I’m uncertain of it, and it does have to recognise the virtues of whimsy, utopia and entertainment, to avoid being too self-satisfied in its simplicity.

Still to come: Beautiful Burnout, The Tempest, The Man from Stratford, Penelope, Freefall, Camille O’Sullivan

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