Friday, 30 June 2017

No excuse at all

It would be silly to announce that 'theatre is dead' (although it is fair to note that it is far from the dominant artistic medium in 2017). I have seen work - David Leddy's Coriolanus Vanishes springs to mind - that affirm the dynamism of theatre, and while I can't say that I enjoy everything at Buzzcut, the festival has an admirable vibrancy as well as some exciting performances.

It would probably be equally silly to say criticism is dead, but after reading the reviews of Jane Eyre, I am not willing to say it is healthy. Produced by the National Theatre, this adaptation was a lazy chronological romp through a well-beloved novel that failed to deal with the problem of a romantic hero locking his wife up in the attic.

I don't want to be joyless about this, but having the abused wife wander about singing Cee Lo Green's Crazy isn't just a breach of taste: it is an abdication of moral responsibility. A love song about mutual dependency lacks the gravitas to accompany a house fire that ends in suicide.

Perhaps because I am in a minority about this, I am raging about the National Theatre's Jane Eyre. It is one of the most tedious experiences that I have had in a theatre, and its version of 'the English Touring style' barely hides the witless dramaturgy that takes a romantic novel and converts it into a three hour long exploration of how thoughtless contemporary theatre can be.

Let's start with the easy targets. Jane Eyre is about a romance between a governess - abused as a child by a vicious aunt and a religious schooling - and an aristocrat who has some dark secrets. One of these secrets is that he has locked his wife in the attic. 

When the wife eventually escapes the attic, burns down the house and jumps off the roof, singing Cee Lo Green's Crazy is not a bold dramatical choice. It's a fucking insult, and an instance of how this adaptation repeatedly fails to think before it acts. For those not paying attention, being exotic and darkly sensual is not an excuse for locking away women.

Second easy target: the ensemble came up with a
neat choreography to represent a ride in a carriage. So they repeat it. Three times. Yes, it was cool the first time, the way they all jogged about, pretending to be both passengers and the horses. But your production is three hours long. Couldn't you have just assumed the journey?

And the length itself... the purpose of adaptation might be to reinterpret. Certainly, with a familiar text like Jayne Eyre, there are certain scenes they could be removed. A teaching scene, for example, doesn't need to followed by a conversation about the experience of teaching. I've got a train to catch, and I don't need a reminder of the protagonist's most recent action.

The desire to round out Jane's character causes problems - having seen her at home, at school, teaching and travelling, her personality's development is fully explicable. Never mind it takes ages for her to meet Rochester (and, yes, the novel is centred around that romance): when he does turn up, his awkwardness and mystery is attractive because there is some dramatic tension about him. What has he been doing? Why is he so odd? Jane, meanwhile, is so clearly a product of all the activity the audience has spent an hour watching that she lacks any interest. 

Oh - and just because a man pretending to be a dog gets a laugh, don't put it in every scene. Yes, we get it. Hilarious. 

But my rage is not directed at the company. It's directed at the critics who can't tell the difference between bog-standard theatricality and an imaginative direction. The show has received four and five star reviews for rolling out an over familiar bunch of tricks (abstract set like a 'climbing frame', characters pretending to be Jane's interior monologue). 

One duff production is no evidence that theatre is dead, but poverty of criticism is a worry: if this kind of performance is accepted without caveats, then what motivation do companies have to think carefully about the reasons for staging a play? 

Or it is possible that I demand certain thongs from a play, and this fails to provide them, making my opinion a valid one, but not quite as important as I am making out...

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Whale Dramaturgy: Hatch It @ Edfringe 2017

Hatch It Theatre presents

Pleasance Courtyard (Cellar) 2nd - 27th August, 1pm
Previews 2nd - 4th August

Hatch It Theatre presents a new piece of experimental theatre that uses puppetry to expose the absurdity of the space we allow for the female body. 

Whalebone will perform at the Pleasance Courtyard at the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, ahead of transferring to the Pleasance London for HeadFirst Productions' Festival of Sex, Love and Death.

Whalebone is about bodies – who takes up space, how much, and why.
Three puppeteers stand awkwardly in corsets.
A woman decides to take control of her body – by deleting it, piece by piece.

"The only way to escape the History of Styles is not to have a body" 

Reimagining Lolita's lesser-known sister, Nabokov's LauraWhalebone collides puppetry and physical theatre in a world where bodies are painted, tucked, tightened and taught, where shadows are embarrassing and silhouettes become stencils. Whalebone is irreverent feminist theatre, narrated by a talking vagina.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Emma BrandThe inspiration for this performance was Nabokov's unfinished novel, "Laura", in which the protagonist mentally erases their body. We saw in this an amazing opportunity to talk about gender/body politics. Our Laura, fed up with the manipulation and objectification of her body, decides to reclaim control over it by deleting it.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Absolutely! Theatre should be a place where the things we think we know are challenged - it should invite us to think, and we should leave the theatre talking about what we have seen. Theatre creates an amazing dialogue between the performers and the audience - their response should guide the show, meaning that no two live experiences are the same.

How did you become interested in making performance?

The three of us met at university, where we were all involved in student drama. Since leaving university, we have explored our individual interests, such as puppetry, clowning, and new writing, and we have realised how rewarding it is to bring these skills together to make really entertaining, stimulating theatre, and we all feel strongly about the role performance can play in shaping ideas about the world. 

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

It's a very democratic process, which is a blessing and a curse. We are constantly testing new ideas against each other, and arriving at a "bit"  through a process that includes a lot of experimentation, and a lot of discussion. It can be frustrating at times, but ultimately we have made a piece of work that has really been pushed to its best conclusion.
Does the show fit with your usual productions?

As a company, we believe in making formally
experimental theatre with a social conscience, so this certainly fits with that agenda. 

We are a very new company , with only one other show under our belt, and that was much more heavily scripted than this one. I'd say we haven't yet settled on a house style, but conceptually we are sticking closely to a particular ethos.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

We hope they will have fun during our show, but also come out thinking about this age-old issue in a new way. It's a constant worry of ours that we may be stating the obvious  - no one wants us to quote the "Are you beach body ready?" advert again! 

We therefore hope that we have provided something inventive, and that will feel spontaneous and personal to a new crowd each time.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

I think a lot of it is just to do with trying to anticipate how different bits might be interpreted, but realistically, audiences are unpredictable, and that's a good thing. 

There are things that some people will find funny and others disturbing, but we're not trying to force them down either route. We've thought about whether or not to use audience participation, as that can really engage people, but we are in a teeny tiny venue, and feel that the show will be intimate and engaging in its own right.

Company member Emma Brand comments In a society that either ignores women or commodifies them, Whalebone's protagonist is a woman who imagines herself into invisibility simply because she can.  Faced with this paradox, I take pride in being part of Hatch It's thoughtful, funny, versatile approach to a problem that has plagued me for over two decades.

2nd - 27th August 2017 (13:00)
50 minutes
Pleasance Courtyard (Cellar), 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh EH8 9TJ

Tickets available from
Previews £6
Early Week £6/£7
Mid Week £7.50/£8.50
Weekend £8.50/£9
Additional Performances
The Bunker, London - Edinburgh Preview - 17th July 2017 (7pm)
Pleasance Theatre, London - Festival of Sex, Love and Death - 31st October 2017 (Time TBC)

Hatch It Theatre was formed by three graduates of the University of Oxford to create socially conscious, formally experimental theatre - theatre which explores social issues through its relationship to its audience. Recent work includes In The Pink (Courtyard Theatre) - a semi-verbatim show pairing the words of nonagenarians with millennial actresses - and Captain Amazing (Albany Theatre).

Dramaturgy Alone: Chen-Wei Lee x ART B&B @ Edfringe 2017

Together Alone by Chen-Wei Lee x ART B&B
Venue 22: Dance Base / Time: 21.45 (45 mins)
August 4-6: £10 (£8) / August 8 & 9, 11-13, 15 & 16, 18-20, 22 & 23, 25-27: £12 (£10)
Box office: 0131 225 5525
Q&A follows: Answers by dancer and choreographer Chen-Wei Lee and Zoltán Vakulya where indicated

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Chen-Wei Lee: Zoltán [Vakulya] and I admire each other’s artistic point of view but had never worked together before. His training is very different to mine, so I thought this could be a very interesting clash between us.
Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

Zoltan: Absolutely!
Chen-Wei: Yes, and with no doubt. Art often reflects our times, and whatever situation our society is in. Artists always bring questions to the stage, within their own performance format, to describe these times and situations. The stage is a platform to speak the artists’ thoughts. 

Viewers might agree or not. They might appreciate or doubt, but that’s how the discussion gets started. It’s a discussion with the public through an act that brings awareness and attention to the people. I think there’s no better place or way to have interaction with the public. 
How did you become interested in making performance?
Zoltan: I really enjoy the process of crafting a performance. It happened to me first when I was 17 and lucky enough to be able to direct a small but full-evening theatre piece in Hungary. It took me very far; I realised how hard but how exciting it is actually. Later l saw several dance or dance-theater performances, and was amazed by how the different layers can come together in one evening. It made me sure about the need for creating more!
Chen-Wei: I started as a dancer, whose role is to interpret the ideas of others but at the same time produce a different way to interpret through my body and my understanding. 

I gained a lot of experiences from working with different people, whom I admire and respect, as well as people about whom I have doubts. That triggered my curiosity about myself – if it were to be me doing this, how would I do it?
I believe that to be an artist you have to be creative, curious, passionate and compassionate, and of course have good taste in many things. I guess I do have those qualities, and that’s why it leads me to create and to speak for myself.
Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
Chen-Wei: We gave ourselves a task: to never let go of each other from the start to the end. We are dancers and like to move freely, so that immediately created huge limitations and narrowed things down. W

e discovered a lot about how we can keep on moving and create a different way of dancing, and how to communicate. You see that in the piece through the physicality. Sometimes we help each other, sometimes we’re against each other, and sometimes we need to negotiate.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?
Chen-Wei: This is the first dance that Zoltan and I have made together. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Chen-Wei: We don’t want to tell people too much because that kills their imagination. It’s important that they find their own explanation. In this duet it’s just the two of us, but what happens and what we experience onstage parallels society: how we deal with people, how we use each other, how we have to collaborate. 

The relationship is always changing. It has difficulties, and moments of being smooth and nice, but just like relationships in real life it’s not going to last forever. 

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Chen-Wei: Our nudity in the duet came about through the creative process. We talked about what we should wear and tried various things. We have this floor-based part we call “Rock.” It’s very slow and difficult, like we’re tangling, wrapped together as tight as possible. You see a lot of muscle tension, how we’re using force to carry each other, but we found that even if we covered ourselves with just thin fabric the dance lost that strength. 

You just didn’t see it. When we tried it nude, everyone said it was so beautiful to reveal yourself in that way. People really appreciated that we were so honest, so open with ourselves. You see what we have, and that’s what we have. Of course if you want to see it as provocative I cannot affect your mind. But now we couldn’t imagine it any other way. It’s absolutely not sexual.

Heart of Dramaturgy: Sun Son @ Edfringe 2017

Heart of Darkness by Sun Son Theatre
Venue 26: Summerhall Cairns Lecture Theatre / Time: 15.15 (40 mins)
August 2, 3: £6 / August 4-6, 11-13, 18-20,25-27: £12 (£10) / August 8-10, 15-17, 22-24: £10 (£8)
Box office: 0131 560 1581

Answers from artistic director Chong-Leong Ng except where indicated
What was the inspiration for this performance?
Heart of Darkness was inspired by the choreographer and dancer Pei-Fen Low’s grandmother – her origins in Fujian, China, her marriage in Penang, Malaysia, and her complex interior life. Onstage we see a woman gnawed by time, and yet time shrinks in her shadow. Long hair is used in the performance to symbolise this woman’s pathway through life; so many aspirations, expectations and fears lay hidden deep inside her. 

Heart of Darkness attempts to understand this woman and her destiny – is it irreversible? – but also the circumstances and fate of other women who are at risk of being slowly forgotten.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
Absolutely.  Although inspired by Pen-Fei Low’s aged grandmother, Heart of Darkness has a potentially wider relevance for some contemporary theatre-goers. In ancient times, in the Eastern world, you would marry off your daughter to a new family. It was all arranged. But we still have these issues in society today. 

Taiwan is a democracy, a modern country, but still we see a lot of women coming from South East Asia who marry Taiwanese men. It’s not arranged in the same way, but often those women don’t have a choice.
How did you become interested in making performance?
Pen-Fei Low: I am a quiet person, I have difficulties in express myself, and I always wished that I could have a different life. Making performance is a process of making a second life for me. 

My observation of the characters that the performers play enables me to gain knowledge about others’ life experiences. Playing different characters seems like living a second life on stage. I am also curious about life stories. 

Making performance is not only done because we want to manifest and share our thoughts, but also to search for the answer to the questions we proposed. Through performance the untold stories unfold. It’s like a rite of passage that helps to bring us closer to what is most true and valuable.
Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
A key prop and image of Heart of Darkness is long hair. We started with this image of hair as the bond between women and the family. But it also symbolises a trap – trapping them in the family – and the path of a person’s life. 

Everything was arranged for Pei-Fen Low’s grandmother; she always walking along this arranged path on her journey. Within this framework we wanted to try to imagine what kind of emotions she experiences. Maybe she feels protected, but maybe – given a choice – she would have taken a different path. Maybe even now she wants to struggle and to break free.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?
Founded in 1998, Sun Son Theatre is a unique musical and physical theatre company based in Zhuwei, a riverside neighbourhood in the north of Taipei. Collectively created by performers who function as actors, dancers and musicians, our productions explore the primal power of both body and sound. 

We use whatever it takes to tell stories that reveal the inner lives of human beings: voice and instruments from around the world; bodies and objects, masks or puppetry; drama and ritual; traditional or folk elements and contemporary theatre techniques. Our work is characterised by an organic performance energy free from racial and cultural boundaries.
The company practices a method of collective devising in the performers are expected to seek out their own ideas and inspiration, and to improvise. What’s important in performance is not to think too much, but to react spontaneously by following one’s emotions and feeling the heartbeat, the space, the air, your partner and the moment.
As is characteristic of all of our productions, Heart of Darkness features live music using instruments from around the world. The first half includes Malaysian noise art and experimentation with Chinese instruments, which together are meant to represent the uncertainties and anxieties before marriage. 

Drumming is added later. After the woman in the piece breaks away from the hair that is her constraint, she needs to find courage to fight against the future. She summons this courage through ritual. And, in this case, ritual is signalled by percussion.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Heart of Darkness is charged with an emotional tension as it explores the possible redemption and unresolved challenges of its female protagonist. We would like the audience, as they experience the performance, to see and feel it as if it is a monologue expressing the power of a woman having a conversation with her life, and with the social structure she finds herself in, and her ambitions, dreams and her future.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Typical of Sun Son Theatre, Heart of Darkness contains references to Asian cultural traditions which are transformed when fused with contemporary theatre. 

Examples are some of the symbols used in the show: hair, which is like life - always growing; the colour red, which has powerful associations and can symbolise good things; and a flag segment that represents a woman’s procreative cycle. But there are also a lot of spaces for the audience to use its own imagination.

Ever Dramaturgy: Co-coism @ Edfringe 2017

Ever Never by Co-coism
Venue 26: Summerhall Cairns Lecture Theatre / Time: 16.25 (60 mins)
August 2: £8 / August 4-6, 8-13, 15-20,22-27: £12 (£10)
Box office: 0131 560 1581

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Although Ever Never draws upon the experiences of all the members of Co-coism, the performance is semi-autobiographical. The show’s seeds were sown in 2014 when Chien-Han Hung set out on a lone journey to London to continue her studies in theatre directing. Apart from simply being a long way from home, and always having had a fear of flying, she was suffering from the death of her beloved father and the end of a personal relationship.
Somehow, however, these anxieties and losses were a motivation to create Ever Never – a performance about a flight with five strangers who embark upon parallel journeys of self-discovery. The aircraft cabin they occupy becomes a vehicle for connecting space and time, a mysterious, magical-realistic space in which fragments of incidents happening in the present reawaken memories of one’s self and others, and bring forth hopes and fears, love and regrets.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
We believe so. Creators always put their interests, whether it is social issues or traumas, in a performance so we can experience contemporary and cultural trends. Especially if you are in different countries or cultural settings, ideas will be exchanged and read in different ways. 

A specific topic will gather a type of audience which has similar interests, or challenge people who are against your thoughts.  Also, as a creator it’s important if your performance can stimulate people to think and have a discussion or not. 
As audience members we really enjoy seeing performances and experiencing every live moment that is in front of us. The black box is an especially magical, silent and vacuumed space, where people become individuals who do nothing expect receiving, thinking and thinking some more. Therefore, after a performance, the discussion and sharing can always happen automatically.

How did you become interested in making performance?
Theatre has always fascinated each of us, as it is about a group of people keep trying to do their best to make a lively piece of work. The most amazing and emotional times during a performance is always because of the liveness. 

A performance becomes a journey in which the creators are trying to build up a brand new world, and one in which audiences are invited to immerse themselves.
Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
Ever Never is a collage of stories, several of which were based on fragmentary encounters with real people whom company members have met while travelling. These characters and personalities, however, have been magnified for theatrical effect. Tonally the play is a roller-coaster, but usually even the rueful or melancholic moments are wrapped in humour. One of us met a middle-aged lady. It was her first time flying. She had no idea about the plane, the airport or what to do. Nervous and travelling alone, she asked for help. To get through the flight she relied on the presence of one of us, and her own emotions. The story sort of grew from there.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?
Founded in 2016 by Chien-Han Hung, Kang-Hua Chang and Ding-Yun Huang, all of us theatre directing graduates of Taipei National University of the Arts, Co-coism functions as a collective. Central to our approach is co-operative creation, including collaborating on the development of productions with other artists from various backgrounds.
Among the many other human experiences embedded within Ever Never, the pre-take-off emergency announcement becomes a practice for facing death. Unexpected turbulence triggers the memory of a family fleeing together from an earthquake. 

Sleepless nights are remembered from Taipei, while lost earrings become a reflection of a father never able to attend his daughter’s wedding. And flight attendants serving meals are seen as nagging mothers. There is, however, a good reason for the production’s multitude of shifting viewpoints and aspects.  All the time we’re trying to change the view and the rhythm of the drama.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Although some things in Ever Never refer specifically to Taiwan, such as the earthquake scene, we hope that audiences will be able to associate with what they see on stage and that it may reawaken their own memories.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Sometimes you deliberately try to forget, but sometimes you don’t know what you have forgotten. We all have many fragments of life that seem normal – playing as a child, weddings, earthquakes – but even simple moments, simple stories, can have special emotions behind them. Weddings , for instance, are not only about being happy; they are about loss too. 

The play’s location has also significantly shaped the performance. On an airplane you’re floating in the clouds. Your mind wanders. You daydream. When you sense something – see something, smell something – the past and future merge. It can spark off a deep, dusty memory about something totally different that suddenly comes to vivid life.
Edinburgh is such a place of pilgrimage for artists. We’re quite proud to have been selected to bring a contemporary theatre production there. Language can be a barrier, and is something that has to be considered, but we will use projected subtitles. But Ever Never is not a drama as such. It’s more about the scenography and the physical things. We have great confidence in this production.