Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Don Juan, Relevance Nil

Gareth K Vile like Don but struggles to understand what it has to say to him


Apart from an unsatisfying introduction, which attempts to act as an expressionist overture but ends up as vulgar mime with a burst of unnecessary nudity, this up-dating of Don Juan is sharply directed, well acted and concisely staged. Mark Springer’s sprightly Juan is sympathetic and dashing, the set is balanced between detail and suggestiveness, and the original play’s tight plotting paces the action and humour. It is a fun-packed romp that showcases pair of skilful directors and an imaginative modern translation of Goldoni’s classic.

At the same time, it feels purposeless. The central tension at the heart of Don Juan’s drama – the battle between desire and society, spiritual warfare and sensual pleasure – is barely relevant to a society that has fixated on celebrity and abandoned church because it interrupts the hangover. Bringing it up to date only heightens the irrelevance: Juan’s modern counterpart is not a lover but a businessman swine, and the late appearance of two (probably trafficked) European prostitutes casts a depressing shadow over Juan’s seductions.

Against the harsh modern commerce of sex, Don Juan makes no sense. The object of his devotion, Anna, comes across as strident, not pious. Her relationship with her father looks incestuous, not dutiful: while this might echo the filial attitudes of some women, it is a matter for psychological evaluation, not admiration. And Juan’s romps aren’t funny when they are repositioned as rape. The speeches to the audience are half-hearted justifications, and only serve to emphasise how little this play has to say any more.

But it is well-crafted. It has handsome performances, for the most part. It provides spectacle, imaginative stage-craft and doesn’t out-stay its welcome. Stripped of the rather silly hospital scene, it is a rapid-fire pleasure. Sadly, it doesn’t add anything to any modern debate, ending up rather as the live equivalent of a soap opera.

Arches Live! 2008

Gareth K Vile descends beneath the earth and enjoys the variety he finds there


The only fair way to consider Arches Live! is as a block of events. The pricing structure makes it far more economical to see multiple shows and even the most jaded critic finds it hard to determine which performances will be the first shout of an emerging talent or an underdeveloped shambles. Allowing for my own taste - which tends towards awkward physical theatre and away from anything that starts with a script - the first weekend was a mixed bag of treats and boredom.

Cria is based on a film, and despite the hard work of three female cast members, never manages to discover anything trenchant within a bland narrative of family dysfunction. With the women jumping between roles and ages, it becomes confusing, and in the specificity of its historical time and geographical location it lacks universality and relevance. 

Vague musings on the home front of a general’s war, the dangers of infidelity and thwarted ambitions are smothered by a clumsy script that has both poetic aspirations and the awkwardness of technical prose. Towards the end, the children parody the tortured romances of the adults in a scene that suggests the team of Barker and Doherty are capable of far more angular and interesting approaches.

Violent Night, on the other hand, is angular and interesting, picking up on those live art reliables of repetition, anger and parody. It also has plenty to say - about violence, demeaning sex, intensity and horror. But it doesn’t really get beyond the first foundations - modern life is shit and brutal - and isn’t quite offensive enough. The performances are generally strong: Brian O’Sullivan does a nice turn as a manic ringmaster, Murray Wason plays his smiling self, and Sarah Henderson’s virulent speeches cover the essential angst. Like Cria, there are possibilities hidden in the work, but where Cria lacks a purpose, Violent Night is overwhelmed by its intentions.

Both of these pieces are too long, whereas The Chronicles of Iranian gains by its brevity. Maryam Hamidi’s solo performance runs from orientalised creation myths to fragments of a contemporary honour assault without ever really settling. Hamidi’s energy and passion are awesome - the manic, distorted story-telling and her eagerness to please ensures a firm connection with a laughing audience. It hints at the problems of trying to explain one culture to another, nods to the breadth of her fictional Iranian - which is tailored after preconceptions of Islamic exoticism, but it is Hamidi who charms and entertains, rather than the content.

Another solo work, Little Vikings are Never Lost struggles to fill out the hour with focused narrative: while the conclusion resolves the confusion and fragmentation, the tragedy and horror are never convincing. Once again, this is a solid work in progress, an opportunity for an artist to offer sketches to an informed audience, yet it doesn’t cohere and the sincerity is suspect. Jenna Watt has a charming stage presence, which is why her performance as a damaged young woman doesn’t really convince.

Lost Property takes its audience of four into the caverns beneath the Arches, an unforgotten and wryly sentimental journey into childhood and memory. With a cast of thousands, Lost Property is properly charming, drawing on old-fashioned children’s animation, slightly surreal characterisation, games and tea-parties. It converts the lower Arches into a jumble of memories, guiding the traveller through suggestive and unthreatening interludes. It is wonderful to see radical use of space and theatrical techniques used to an end that isn’t terrifying or aggressive.

The nature of Arches Live! is wonderfully inclusive - if all of the works don’t work, that is hardly the point. The chance to see so many artists testing their boundaries, the cheap price, the fun atmosphere in the bar (helped by the ghastly whisky vouchers, I guess): these are ultimately more important than any individual show. It becomes a bit of a game for the critic - how fair is it to apply the same rigour to works like this as to the fully fledged productions of, say, The Tron or Traverse? Like the National Review of Live Art, Arches Live! is best enjoyed as a whole.

Six Acts of Love @ Tron, 2008

Andy Arnold continues to move and care at the Tron.

Six Acts of Love has a strong script, searching characterisation and a simple, yet effective staging. Andy Arnold’s direction is swift and terse, while Ioanna Anderson’s script features a sharp eye for realism and bursts of banter. Entertaining and precise, the plot is slightly forced towards to end – no doubt to ensure appropriate dramatic closure and allow the correct number of resonant scenes – it studies the challenges of aging from different angles, ultimately offering the sort of hope that only ever happens in fiction.

Katherine (Barbara Wilshere), a newly separated middle-aged woman, finds herself caring for her senile mother, and reflects on the ravages of time and trauma. In a plot that lurches from staged incident to quiet reflections, Katherine gradually comes to a deeper understanding of herself, discovers hope and finally love.

All of the performances are strong and capable - Una McLean captures something of the despair and humour of dementia, and Benny Young somehow brings a dignity to the role of the abandoning husband. The compassion that Anderson’s script offers to each character is moving and brave. There are no villains, only individuals trying to deal with circumstance. It is unfortunate that the narrative feels so forced that it undermines the passionate reunion of the final act of love.

Well acted, engaging ideas, a steady pace: Six Acts of Love is enjoyable and edges towards profound, relevant meditations on love, age and survival. Where it draws conclusions, it is predictable, and there is a sense that the characters are deliberately being given turns in the spot-light, rather than developing together. Not sensational but kind, Six Acts of Love has a tentative hope that would be more credible if the plot was not so jerky.

Feminist Theatre in The Glasgow School XXIII (part 2: a case study part 2))

Like McMillan and Truemann, Lyn Gardner begins her review by explaining what a siren is. And, like the other critiques, Gardner discusses the power of the episodes and their message (confused and jumbled, perhaps deliberately, and acting as a mosaic rather than a polemic). However, her conclusion, which would later be used on the show's posters, is problematic.

Big, bold, brazen, and not a hussy in sight. Only real women asking what it means to be a feminist.

Again, I might demur at the word 'feminist' here, preferring 'a woman in a patriarchal society': but this, like my comments on McMillan and Truemann's use of the word, is a point of emphasis. Indeed, as I write this, the less convinced I become that my nuance is important.

My problem is with the dualism between 'hussy' and 'real women.' It seems to imply that the hussy is not a real woman - I am not quite sure what a hussy is, these days, despite the excellent book by Jane Graham reclaiming another old fashioned word, Floozie. I imagine this refers to the number of women who have made theatre that revolves around sexually charged content (Naked in Alaska, Sister). 

I am certainly not calling those artists hussies, or anything less than real women. But using the word 'real' in this context bothers me. It's theatre, first of all, and reality is up for grabs. But does 'real' imply a CIS woman? In the context of this sentence, it seems to suggest that a real woman is, simply, not a hussy.

To finally get to my own critique of Sirens, I would argue that it is a strong, evocative and passionate description of diverse experiences of women. It ranges from responses to pornography - the humorous 'masturbation contest' - to a horrific moment that appears to represent a sexual assault. It wanders between condemnations of the hold of beauty products and female competitiveness, and, unforgettably, shifts between sexual terror and fantasy for an unsettling trip around human sexuality. The multiple voices on stage - only worked in concert when they howl like a Fluxus composition - offer different perspectives and the lack of direct argument deceives. It appears as a single rhetorical presentation, when diverse voices are speaking.

Truemann does attempt to challenge the theatricality, sensing a deception, a mismatch between  message and construction. Yet we are all agreed that it is a remarkable piece of performance, that challenges the audience. 

To deny a feminist intent is petty - like me - but if it is feminist, what is the message? It's clear that women have a tough time, and are oppressed. Beyond that, it says nothing, only laying out examples in a creative, provocative manner. 

It is up to the audience decide what this all means. 

Monday, 1 September 2014

Feminist Theatre in The Glasgow School XXIII (part 2: a case study part 1))

It ought to be easy to define feminist theatre. Unfortunately, it consists of two words whose meanings evaporate under scrutiny. Theatre seems obvious - it's that thing with actors, isn't it? But Song of The Goat presented Return to the Voice during the Fringe, and critics said it wasn't theatre but a musical concert. A Band Called Quinn reworked Biding Time and it was half gig, half scripted drama (with plenty of video footage). The borders are porous, and much of my time as a critic is spent wondering whether I can claim Klanghaus as Live Art. 

Leaving theatre out of it, let's get to feminism. In Feminism Amplified , Kim France struggles with the paradox that PJ Harvey, rock diva who writes songs like Dress which nails the tyranny of female fashion, can deny feminism, while a Miss World contestant espouses it. The arguments around sex work - exemplified in Sister - often clash over whether feminism is about destroying exploitation or supporting self-determination. My insistence that Betty Grumble is a feminist dancer who shatters gender polarisation is mocked because she uses nudity in her routines. Feminism has been a broad church since the 1990s, when Camille Paglia claimed her feminism to defend pornography and Andrea Dworkin wrote feminist diatribes against it.

Ontroerend Goed - usually good for a scandal - presented Sirens at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. On the surface, it seems obviously feminist. The cast is all female, the subject matter ranges from beauty products through to fear of the lone male following a woman, via fantasias on pornography, fantasy and scientific exploitation. 

But Matt Truemann has a question.

So what is Sirens? Is it a feminist action, designed to effect change in its audience and beyond? Or is it a portrait of a feminist movement: a kind of theatrical readymade testifying to the ideas and concerns of those onstage? I suspect, both at once.

Apart from the rhetorical flourish, Truemann's point is simple: is this performance merely a passive litany of complaints, or is it trying to goad the patriarchy to change? Truemann continues, questioning the company's right to make such statements.

There’s still a problem of process here though: Ontroerend Goed, a male-dominated company, determine how we should see these young women and Sirens doesn’t admit or unpick the power structures that have, however indirectly or inadvertently, shaped it as a piece. At some level, we need to know who decided how these six women should be costumed, for example, and how that decision was reached?

By moving into a deeper level of construction, Truemann makes a valuable point (although if he read the programme, he might have known that the words, at least, were those of the women on stage). The content of a performance does not necessarily make the performance political. Like a good Marxist, he is concerned about the superstructure. It's like Simon Frith says about Bruce Springsteen (The Real Thing - Bruce Springsteen): he might sing about being an ordinary guy, but he is, in fact, a multimillionaire wearing old jeans.

There is less doubt in Joyce McMillan's review for The Scotsman.

Six young female performers, dressed in gorgeous ball gowns and standing at music-stands, examine their own attitudes to feminism, more than 40 years on from Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch.

This is where I start to doubt. There is no mention of The Female Eunuch, or feminist writing. There is a list of female celebrities (mostly called skanks, or something equally insulting) and, as McMillan continues:

There are glimpses of male sexuality at its most gross (with accompanying porn video), of the kind of everyday sexism and brutal misogynistic “humour” women still endure, and of the struggle of this generation of young women to square their sexual needs and fantasies – which may include graphic Fifty Shades-style fantasies of submission and abuse – with their sense of themselves as the absolute equals of men.

All of these are matters of concern to feminism, but in themselves do not have an intrinsic feminist message. Fifty Shades, The Musical Parody addresses the relationship of women to dirty fantasy, but it isn't being called a feminist musical. 

It is in the sequence of 'brutal misogynistic humour' that the feminism is most evident. Told in a deadpan, a series of jokes highlight how laughter can be a tool of oppression. (Interestingly, this exact technique was used in two other shows at the Fringe: Milk Presents Self-Service and Polska at Dance Base. Mocking sexist jokes is pretty easy). 

Although I agree with McMillan's analysis, I'd argue that the women are not talking about their attitude towards feminism, but their attitude towards the patriarchy. It is a subtle difference, but feminism is not put under scrutiny - as Matt Truemann suggests the superstructure ought to be examined.  

Feminist Theatre in The Glasgow School XXIII (part1)

Pam Gems: 'I think the term 'feminist playwright is absolutely meaningless, because it implies polemic, and polemic is about changing things in a direct political way.'

Quoted in Goodman, Contemporary Feminist Theatres

The rise of 'feminist theatre' in Glasgow could be dated back to the first successes of Nic Green's Trilogy: a graduate of the RSC (then the RSAMD), Green developed the three hour long version over several years, incorporating community engagement, an idiosyncratic critique of Bloody Town Hall (a film in which a variety of feminist thinkers confront an increasingly defeated Norman Mailer) and an appeal to audiences to discover Herstory not History

Subsequent years have seen an influx of performers who explicitly identify as feminists, and make work that covers ground familiar from feminist writing ( Leyla Coll O'Reilly's What A Fanny, Jetson and Janssen's celebration of International Women's Day at Tramway and Nick Anderson's graduating piece which explored masculinity through a feminist lens). That many artists graduating from the RCS display an interest in feminism is unsurprising - Green has been a mentor on the course - and its emphasis on an individual creativity encourages engagement with a ideology that sees the personal as political.

Throw in various other apparently feminist productions - such as Dominic Hill's double bill of plays by Caryl Churchill (her very writing style has been described as a challenge to the patriarchal modes of theatre) and performers (Kate E, Deeming's current project is inspired by Virginia Woolf's dictum that an artist must have their own space) - and it seems easy to spot a feminist tradition in contemporary Glasgow performance.

Yet the picture is not that simple. Although Trilogy's impact is hard to overestimate, thanks to its incredible success and longevity, and Green's mentorship of  a subsequent generation of students, explicitly feminist theatre was being made in Glasgow before this year zero. Diane Torr, sometime member of live art supergroup Disband - other members included Barbara Kruger, Ingrid Sischy and Martha Wilson - has been furthering her work as a drag king since the turn of the millennium. The Edinburgh company Stella Quines had supported female writers, directors and performers from the 1990s, Alison Pebbles played Elizabeth in Communicado's Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987), which Joyce MacMillan in The Scotsman described as having 'something more important to say... about womanhood and the nation': nearly twenty years later, she would team up with Deb Jones for a work-in-progress Cuff.

'Feminist theatre' has been in the Glasgow consciousness for a long time. The deeper challenge is whether lumping these diverse practitioners together does anything more than dilute the meaning of their individual works.

Gappad and Oceanallover

Two companies fly the flag for the physical - in radically different ways
Both Gappad and Oceanallover are billed as physical theatre, although their processes, intentions and products are radically different. Gappad’s As You Always Do is harsh, politically engaged and immediate, while Skin Piel is diffident and detailed. Where Gappad clarify and elucidate, Oceanallover retreat into an obscure, abstract universe.

As You Always Do is well performed, but takes physical theatre as an excuse to abandon traditional theatrical virtues. Plot is dropped for the recitation, in English and Polish, of various cases of abduction. The programme announces that their intention is to humanise the victims behind the headlines, and the series of sketches that make up the hour gradually move from the general to the specific. A rape is re-enacted, the performers rush into the audience and beseech them, multiple characters give evidence. 

Unfortunately, the narrative drags and the structure is very uneven. The promising introduction in darkness cedes to numbing repetition, the court scenes are unsubtle. The victim never emerges to tell their own story- the indignities that she suffers do evoke sympathy but not recognition.

Skin Piel seems to avoid a definitive, easily comprehensible meaning: it aims for an ecstatic mayhem, beginning in the street outside The Arches and dragging bystanders into its Butoh inspired vignettes. Main man Alex Rigg’s attention to detail- in costume, in movement, even in the sounds made as he strikes the floor- offers an intricate vision of an utterly alien world.

After a near arrest in the introduction - a local police van was not amused by the sudden appearance of a white-faced performer waving in the middle of the road - Rigg uses the bleak tunnels of The Arches to entomb his awkward movements and unusual music. A cellist wonders around, as if playing from a score inscribed on the walls: one woman crawls free from a mollusc shell-like dress and proceeds along a thin corridor of light.

Skin Piel does not say anything directly: it exposes the characters to extremes, and simply allows them to unwind. Evocative rather than explicit, it shifts moods and emotions, gradually fading to a disconcerting darkness. It is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing: almost the exact opposite of Gappad.