Monday, August 26, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Birdhouse

There was a moment in the BBC’s rather one-note Hitchcock biodrama,The Girl, in which a tortoise-like, prosthetic-laden Toby Jones, playing the great director, repeatedly hurled live birds towards Sienna Miller’s immaculate ice-blonde head. Jammy Voo do something similar inBirdhouse, flinging ideas at the audience like winged things which flap and bat and peck at you without settling, without coming into land.

The initial premise presents us with a group of tweedy middle aged women, all dressed in guano-spattered vintage jackets and calf-length skirts, who have taken shelter in the Coronet cinema in the besieged Bodega Bay and are watching the events of Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, play out from the periphery. In later scenes they also use Du Maurier’s unexplained bird-black cloud as a metaphor for a more general sense of terror, of the unknown, of violence raining from the sky.

Both of these ideas are intriguing: their waltzing with such an iconic film and their tentative exploration of the power of nightmares. But both seem only to have been brushed against in what is more akin to a curious cabaret with musical accompaniment provided by a man in a popcorn booth. The songs are rather beautiful and the lo-fi shadow puppet sequences which pepper the show have real charm – particularly one in which a series of shadowy telegraph poles roll past a car windscreen brilliantly recreating the effect of rear-projection footage in an old movie – but there’s a disconnected, half-formed feel to the piece as a whole.

From an aesthetic point of the view the show is appealing and delightfully inventive. There’s a game show sequence in which two of the women are obliged to answer questions about collective nouns while a third arranges tiny black pegs on a clothes line above a model of the Brenner house. Sometimes the effect of the show is unsettling – when eggs emerge from their mouths or a crow jams its glinting beak into a woman’s eye – sometimes it’s just odd. There’s also quite a bit of bird puppetry, both of the shadow and feathered variety, some spectacular birds’ nest hair-dos and a fair bit of general Lecoqing about.

Structurally the piece feels like a thematically connected series of sketches with an ornithological obsession. Much of what these are funny and playful; the piece’s riffing on the language of 1960s cinema is witty and the songs are superbly executed, but it remains an opaque and distant thing, and the idea of transposing Hitchcockian dread to a contemporary world, the social spread of anxiety and paranoia, is only ever teasingly examined.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, August 23, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Each of Us

Ben Moor’s latest solo show is a delicate, glinting thing. It takes its audience on a quest for treasure and finds it in words, in the imagination, in each other, in a hot dark room in Edinburgh.

The play is ribboned with wit and word play, with linguistic zig-zaggery, images that lodge themselves firmly and deeply in the memory. Moor excels at taking familiar things and twisting them, spinning them a degree or two away from the expected. The universe he describes is recognisable and yet not. Concepts are inverted, upended, stood on their heads. There’s a streak of absurdist humour at play too in this story of relationships and connection and the hope we keep locked in boxes, a dash of Lewis Carroll. It’s hard to condense what is so text-heavy without merely repeating favourite lines or ideas or images. Part of the pleasure is in letting the story wrap its arms around you, like a hug. A big wordy hug.

The plot meanders through a series of chance encounters had by a narrator – a corporate thwart by profession, a generator of institutional incompetence – who has recently gone through a break up from his wife, Radium. It’s a mirror world Moor’s created here, but not in a satirical sense, instead it’s almost science-fictiony in its skewed view of things, a world in which the lonely reunite with people with whom they didn’t go to school and where children play with dystopian Lego. And yet it’s also very much the world we’ve made, a world where true communication can get lost amid the noise and we sometimes need to pause and remember what matters, what’s precious to us.

There’s nothing inherently theatrical about any of this. It’s just Moor talking, though his stage presence, if that’s the right term, is part of the appeal, measured, gentle, eccentric, slightly vulnerable. He pads around the studio space barefoot, a little hesitant at times. And yet he holds your attention throughout, transports you into his universe.

Some of his jokes are blunter than others (though this is very much comparative) and he’s not afraid of a pun when the moment calls for one (not a bad thing by any means). I would have appreciated more in the way of narrative momentum, but that’s a question of taste more than anything else. The piece as a whole speaks of the need for human connection, to be known, to be seen, to be held. “We are all transmitters and receivers of stories”, he says at one point and if you love language and the places it can take you, then you’ll listen to the story he has to tell.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: I Wish I was Lonely

At the 2003 Edinburgh Book Festival Douglas Coupland, on tour to promote Hey Nostradamus!, asked his audience to help him recreate an installation piece he’d created in response to the shootings at Columbine. Coupland had been fascinated by something one of the first police officers on the scene had said to the press. The sound that met him in that empty cafeteria, he’d explained, was not one of eerie silence but a growing tide of noise as one by one the students’ mobile phone began to ring, to sing, from within their abandoned bags and backpacks. He likened the sound to a flock of tropical birds. In a tent in Charlotte Square Gardens, Coupland asked people to exchange numbers and ring the person sitting next to them, and gradually the tent began to chirp and trill, the sound building, slowly at first but rising in volume: an insistent, unanswered chorus.

In times of disaster we reach for our phones, seeking contact, reassurance, to be cradled by someone else’s voice. Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe, co-creators of The Oh Fuck Moment, are interested in this impulse, in the way our relationship with these devices has reframed our ideas of intimacy and absence. Is it possible to be truly alone with a phone in our pocket? Are our relationships with the people we’re close to changing by the fact we never have to wait to share something with them, a joke, an idle observation, a piece of news that might upend their life forever?

We are encouraged on entry to leave our phones on, to remain connected, reachable. Walker and Thorpe actively welcome this potential for external intrusion and are cool with the poetry of their show being punctured by brief blasts of Beyonce and the blips and ribbets of incoming text alerts. If someone’s phone rings, they’re instructed to answer. “Sorry, I’m in a show.” “Yes. In a show. Right now.”

The audience are dispersed around the room on chairs, our phones in our hands and someone else’s number penciled on a piece of card. We are told to leave each other voice mails. As we key in the numbers and the first few phones begin to chirp I find myself picturing a field of invisible lasers, a kind of cat’s cradle of green beams connecting us all. I know how that’s not how it works but the image is appealing and, as phone after phone start to ring, I find myself visualising the lines that join us all together. One girl mistimes her call, answers instead, and ends up speaking to twin voices, the one in the room and the one in her ear. The lag between the two seems to unsettle her. “Hello?” she repeats anxiously, suspiciously. “Hello?”

Together we turn text messages into found poetry and experience the strange, transient intimacy of having a stranger’s words arrive in our inbox. Later Thorpe asks us to place our phones in a chalk circle in the middle of the room, a simple act which underlines what talismanic objects these thin, glinting things are to most people, digital tefillin, memory boxes. There they sit sun-spotted on the floorboards as he stalks among them like a crotchety giant. A couple of people get visibly twitchy, suffering from separation anxiety.

Walker’s more ambivalent relationship to her phone, her tendency to let texts go unanswered, her reluctance to respond instantly and immediately, is one I recognise. I often forget to switch mine on and rarely do I answer it unless I am somewhere indoors, somewhere quiet, somewhere safe. I do not relish the constant connection, the updates and alerts. I do not want to be locatable, traceable. I like to be able to shut the world up for a while, to be solitary, to focus on one thing without interruption, to hide in plain sight.

My scuffed seven-year-old Nokia looked so sad and small among the buckshot circle of sleek devices. As we create a wave of words, an undulating conga line of verse that rings the room, I start to wonder about interaction and this web from which I have chosen to exclude myself. Will this minor act of disconnection have increasing social consequences? Am I painting myself out of the world? Is the physic space gained worth the trade off, to be shut out, cut off from this process of continual engagement? On balance I still think it is, but, interestingly, with less certainty than I once did.

At one point Thorpe eyes one particular phone and snaps, stomps, shattering it underfoot. People gasp and whimper, than let out a collective sigh of relief when they realise it’s not their precious thing that has been Hulk-smashed into plastic debris. They’re safe.

And it’s a prop of course, a plant.

Except…on this occasion it’s not: something goes awry and it transpires that the battered, trampled phone actually does belong to a member of the audience, who is oddly accepting of this act of vandalism. This injection of accidental reality gives the performance an extra frisson. How would you react if your phone was suddenly erased, your connection suddenly severed? (Thorpe, to his credit, deals with his own oh-fuck moment swiftly and hugely apologetically, dashing off to secure a replacement immediately afterwards).

It’s easy thing to say, that a piece of theatre is thought provoking, but in this case I do sit in the sunny Drill Hall cafĂ© afterwards and think about the piece and my response to it, studying my black box, thinking about the things it holds and wondering if I’d be brave enough to silence it for good.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Knee Deep

There’s a wild free-running energy to Knee Deep. The four performers hurl themselves at one another, rubber-banding off one another’s bodies, teetering on the edge of stage. They stand on each other’s shoulders, climbing each other like vines, before dangling from the ceiling like human chandeliers.

This is the circus of exertion, the emphasis placed on the body and the limits to which it can be pushed. Performed by Australian circus troupe Casus within the crimson cocoon of the Spiegeltent, the audience are close enough to see them sweat, to watch their muscles pulse with the effort. It’s not that it’s not polished, because it is, but we’re also made aware of the element of risk involved.

The company are clearly interested in fragility. This is established in the opening sequence in which Emma Serjeant, the company’s only female member, places a couple of boxes of eggs on the stage. She then places her weight first on to one box than the other, standing on the eggs. They don’t crack; they don’t shatter – they bear her, hold her. It’s a striking image, performed with grace and delicacy.

The show takes the form of a series of wordless vignettes, some solo, some in which all four share the stage. There is much leaping, balancing and tumbling followed by silk and rope-work. They tread on one another’s shoulders, backs, even heads, and spin and throw each other around the place as if they were dolls; they turn their bodies into totems, sculptures, bearing each other’s weight. They hang off each other in various rather alarming ways, performing the kind of lifts and balances that make the audience wince and gasp and laugh all at the same time. Many of the routines resemble a kind of human parkour with the performers limbs standing in for the bollards and railings and other urban obstacles. Spectacular as much of this is though, the small touches – the brief smiles that pass between performers, the nods of reassurance – are just as central to the
feel of the piece.

Half way through the performance they strip down to their briefs and the show becomes a celebration of skin. Both Serjeant and Nantano Fa'anana have elaborate tattoos and these become part of the aesthetic of the piece, the ink like armour, their strength only emphasised. Fa'anana slaps at his bare chest and legs, slowly at first but quicker, quicker, a rhythm building, his body his instrument.

Later the eggs make a return, miraculously remaining intact, uncracked; there’s a sequence with wine bottles which is also elegantly, playfully executed, the eggs and bottles making us all too aware of how breakable people can be. They don’t overplay it, but it’s still a potent image.

While it’s true that a couple of the sequences feel superfluous – there’s some classic blockhead business with a hammer and a nail, some tepid hula-hooping – this is an exhilarating hour of contemporary circus that also makes you think a little differently about the body and its capabilities, both theirs and your own.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: The Events

Are there limits to human compassion? Are some acts so awful that they can never be fully understood, never mind, forgiven? These questions sit at the heart of David Greig’s new play for ATC and the Traverse.

The piece, which grew out of conversations which took place after Anders Breivik’s island massacre in Norway in 2011, was created in close collaboration with director Ramin Gray.

Claire – the only named character – is a vicar who has survived a mass shooting incident which has left many people in her community choir dead, only narrowly escaping being shot herself.  Claire is consumed by the need to know how such a thing could happen; she’s desperate to figure out why someone would commit such an act, why someone would take up a gun and kill and kill and kill again. This need to find an answer, to turn the events of that day into something she can process and rationalise, consumes her. Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, she’s not sleeping, and she’s taken to imposing unwelcome spiritual healing rituals on the surviving choir members.

The perpetrator, she discovers, had a fairly troubled childhood, but it wasn’t any more troubled than many people’s – is there a line, a level of damage, which would make his violence more understandable? Would it have made a difference of he were insane? If his rampage was the result of aberrant brain chemistry? Or are there some things which are beyond comprehension, monstrous, evil? Rudi Dharmalingum plays the unnamed perpetrator – as well as several other characters, including Claire’s councillor and her girlfriend – as a flat voiced, detached figure, neither a rage machine nor a frothing monster, but a man who barely seems to understand his own motivations. He talks about tribalism, Vikings, the need to protect his kind, the failure of multiculturalism, but he’s no zealot. At one point he goes on a berserker vision quest and ends up retching like a cat with a hair ball – Grieg doesn’t shy away from humour, in blurring the line between the appalling and the absurd.

The most striking aspect of the production – which plays out on a stage near-naked except for a few benches at the back, a tea urn on a table, a piano and a pile of blue plastic stacking chairs – is the presence of a local choir. In every city to which the production will tour, a different choir will participate. Their voices join together with Claire’s, forming a chorus, but their non-actor status – they read their lines from folders – means that they are somehow both physically present and absent at the same time. It’s an effective device, a potent reminder of those that have been silenced – who are no longer there with Claire – and of those that continue to sing, to live.

What’s most interesting about the production is the way that, with its fragmentary structure and slightly detached quality enhanced by the presence of the choir, it manages to explore a situation which is incredibly horrific and upsetting without being overtly horrific and upsetting itself, maintaining a sense of space around the subject which allows its audience to think, to breathe, without putting them through an emotional wringer. Greig and Gray could rip you apart if they chose to, of that I’m fairly sure, but they pull back, build in barriers, and it’s a stronger piece for this.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, August 05, 2013

Edinburgh 2013: Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is an arresting looking woman: tall, slim, long of limb, with a kiss curl of dark hair – and a filthy mouth. From those pretty lips spills a stained tale of anal sex, menstrual threesomes, pornography of every stripe and shade and lashings of masturbation. Some of what she says draws gasps – the kind of gasps that begin as half-laughs. There’s still, it seems, a little electric tickle when a good-looking woman with a crystalline voice talks dirty – and Fleabag, which Waller-Bridge also wrote, revels in this, probing and stroking the line between empowerment and degradation.

She plays a confident, aggressively sexual young woman who takes pleasure in the power she has over men. The worst thing she can imagine is someone not finding her attractive. But her strutting fuck-me-or-fuck-off attitude is tempered by an absence, a need, a ghosting behind the eyes.

The solo show initially takes the shape of a job interview with Waller-Bridge perched on a stool under the cruel corrugated ceiling of the Underbelly, responding to a man’s disembodied recorded voice. It then segues into a confessional, with her addressing the audience directly. At first the character is played for laughs. She’s good at pushing buttons with her well lubricated fingers, taking delight in our disquiet at her more outrageous tales (“does this mean I have a huge arsehole?” she muses after an impromptu backdoor festival fuck), but gradually cracks start to appear as we find out that her boyfriend has left her (she claims not to be too fussed by this, is adamant that he’ll come crawling back), she’s estranged from both her father and sister, her closest friend recently died and the business she runs is failing.

All this rampant wanking and sexual questing begins to feel like desperation, hole-filling of a more psychological kind. There’s a beautiful extended sequence in which she mimes undressing and taking photos with her phone of her breasts and vagina in a disabled toilet, click-clicking away with her finger, while her head is tilted to one side, her gaze vacant, the antithesis of eroticism.

Waller-Bridge’s performance is riveting: candid, split open, fruit-fleshed. She expertly manages the release of information, the timing, the tonal shifts and slips. But I do wonder whether, from a dramatic perspective, the trajectory of the piece was a bit too obvious – whether it would have been more exciting and interesting to do away with the damage and make the character even harder and more unrepentant, to really push things. As it is, there were times where the piece made me wince, made me uncomfortable – and then made me consider exactly why it made me feel uncomfortable (would me response have been the same if a man was saying the same things, telling the same stories? I doubt it, though I’m not sure).

Fleabag is a confrontational piece of comic writing, a funny, nasty, sharp-edged account of sexual self-sabotage and debasement that leaves its sticky fingerprints all over your skin.

Reviewed for Exeunt