Sunday, 9 October 2011

Dark Dancing Times

Since this year’s Big Lie is Financial Meltdown – notice how no-one can afford to pay their rent these days – it is unsurprising to see a revival of miserable theatre. Both Occasional Cabaret and David Hughes Dance are touring some bleak visions around Scotland – although only the OC are promising a free Apocalypse with every ticket.

Catching Hughes’ Last Orders at The Arches, following a grand fuss at The Fringe and a reworking that emphasises the Dance, was a surprisingly warm and witty pleasure. Of course, cannibalism and disco debauchery is not everyone’s delight, but the critical response to their Traverse run was hysterical. Somewhere between the calls for a funding cut – the National Theatre of Scotland had got behind this – and statements that made Last Orders sound like an updated version of The Rite of Spring, Al Seed’s retelling of the Sawney Bean legend tours BDSM, live art and disco duets with a sly irony.

There’s no grand narrative, more a series of vignettes of Bean, captured in his mundane monstrosity by Alex Rigg, and his family seducing and punishing each other. After an opening that shackles the glitch-physicality of  Seed’s distinctive insect contortions, the show follows Bean down the club and back to his dungeon, alluding to domestic violence and the horrible claustrophobia of the family that kills together, stays together.  

The shocks are gradual: Bean’s final rant, before he is led away either to justice or some more bondage play, is surreal and stoned; the erotic flirtations of the dance floor give way to more sinister choreography and the company revels in their diverse skills. BBoying, ballet and a splash of dry, precise technique that hints at Cunningham are seamlessly meshed, and Seed’s can of Beans suggests a horror that is hidden inside everyone’s carnal desires.

Apocalypse, meanwhile, is a cabaret that goes for the political throat. As the cabaret revival gets its own Scottish Festival, Occasional Cabaret recall leftist agit-prop theatre through turns that concentrate on moral evils rather than spiritual possibilities. There is a strong sense of good and evil throughout the evening, giving a secular reading of various religious virtues and, most directly, mocking the arrogance of a ruling class that wants to punish the ruled for their own profligacy.

If the Apocalypse never quite materialises, the two female performers sing and skit their way through all Four Horsemen easily, drawing loose connections between Third World poverty and First World Greed, racism and sin, middle-class guilt and millennial paranoia. The cabaret format is ideal for this kind of satire: ironically, the structure of song, on-stage banter and monologue could have done with a little more variety.

It is a sign, not of the end times but our latest turn of the economic cycle that there is a space for clearly political theatre like this. There’s a confidence in its targeting of military, economic and social evil that flows oddly within the fluid uncertainty of much neo-cabaret: recalling the 1980s, it struggles to connect with more contemporary understandings that implicate us all.

Nevertheless, these works are a quick snapshot of theatre in 2011: dark, anxious and immediate. DHD has a more modern sensibility – we are all Sawney Bean – but as long as the government keeps reminding us how poor we are going to be, the nights will be drawing in earlier.

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