Friday, 28 December 2012

Live Art in the Public Realm

Sometime in the early twenty-first century, a woman appeared at Glasgow Central station, standing still in the midst of the morning commuters and wearing a pin-striped burka. Around the corner, The Arches was hosting The National Review of Live Art, and this silent, evocative presence acted both as a challenge to the busy workers racing to work and an advertisement for the more esoteric events commencing in The Arches. Dotted about the city, individual live artists were creating happenings - barely recognisable as performances but at odds with the normal flow of daily life. Performance hadn't just climbed off the stage, it had taken a trip into mundane reality.

At a push, all performance happens in the public realm - theatres are not really private spaces - but the art that happens outside of the established venues has a particular context. The usual rules of interaction between audience and performer are not established, lending them a possible sense of danger. Busking has a long and honorable tradition, and shopping malls are happy to present the occasional event, usually around Christmas, but when Live Art takes a journey into the outside world, its idiosyncrasies are more likely to be abrasive, even when presented in the understated manner described above.

Although In Between Time is centred around the Arnolfini, there are a few events that happen in more public spaces. Like Mischief La Bas' sporadic forays into the high street, they are free at "point of use" and interject the unexpected. Simon Faithful is hoisting a Fake Moon over College Green; Kate McIntosh and Action Hero are getting busy in the docks; Carmine Mauro Daprile is "working with cosplayers, a subculture of people interested in costume and role play... to interrupt the everyday experience in central Bristol."

Daprile's Moon sums up the nature of these works exactly. The sudden appearance of a performance is disruptive, provocative: it need not be aggressive, but it is intrusive.

The purpose of such interventions, which have a rich history including the "happenings" of the 1960s and are often invoked as a version of popular protest - although they are not as evidently political as marches or boycotts - is to set up an exchange between the everyday and the theatrical. Both partners stand to gain.

For the artists, there is the opportunity to reach wider audiences - Live Art has a self-selective crowd, and there is often the danger that a work will only be seen by others within its community. Out on the street, there isn't the same filter. Through careful assessment of responses - Alex Rigg nearly got lifted one time for strolling into the road during a butoh inspired action - the artist can consider what kind of work will reach a broader group, or upset, or excite. It's possibly the most effective form of marketing for Live Art since it dispenses with the filter that media coverage inevitably adds.

For the audience, the Live Art action is a rare example of an event that is not determined by the usual economic exchange of the high street: it juxtaposes imagination and play against what appears to be "reality."

It's also fun to see a bunch of people piling around in strange outfits.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Winter Cycle Redux

Thanks to circumstances beyond my control - mainly to do with having a family and not having been grown in a jar from a mixture of dancer's sweat and playwright's blood as I was told growing up - I am going to miss The Winter Cycle Redux. This makes me sick at heart - at least I get to see Tut Vu Vu tonight, before I get on the train down south - so I am going to encourage everyone in Glasgow to get to the Old Hairdressers on Friday 21st December. It won't be the end of the world if you don't, but...

Two years ago - remember the Christmas with all the ice and the cold and I got stuck in Scotland because the snows surrounded the Vile ancestral mansion - Jer Reid performed The Winter Cycle. Thirty one days of duets, every day at midday. Jer's no slouch on the guitar, but his imagination goes beyond the expected tropes of rocking out with his mates.

Between improvised action with RM Hubbert, Luke Sutherland and members of Tattie Toes, Jer called in dancers and visual artists. Jenny Soep told a charming story of festive cheer using pen and ink and projection, Christine Devaney made me a cup of tea and across the month, The Winter Cycle challenged the limited ideas of what musical improvisation could be. 

I think there's the beauty of Jer Reid, right there. How often does an artist make me realise how limited improvisation can be?

He has pulled together a few old allies to remember the shows - and hopefully sell a few CDs of the original gigs. And apart from Mr Reid himself, he has three absolute heroes of mine on the bill. Not that the other guests aren't great - I have a bias towards dancers and guys who can get hip audiences to join in during the chorus.

I last saw Rosalind Masson mixing it up with Jack Webb in The Arches. Masson is an improvisor and choreographer - she has worked with Reid before, most notably upstairs in Tramway during one of their festivals for Young People. In 2011, she shared a bill with The Ultimate Dancer with a short work castigating the oil companies for their lack of environmental concern. She's lively, enthusiastic and always ready to interpret Reid's guitar into precise movement.

Christine Devaney is the genius behind Curious Seed. She is one of Scotland's most vital choreographers, knows what dance theatre means and can use it to devastate and enchant. She is also big on the improvisations - she recently acted as a mentor to the Scottish companies in Breakin' Conventions' Open Art Surgery. I remember her Winter Cycle duet as being the most playful and warmest.

Wounded Knee: I love his mix of folk and soul. He is another artist, like Reid, who straddles the boundaries of rock'n'roll and performance art. I know that they'll both be asking me what I mean by this, so I'll be rushing on.

And as for Jer Reid himself... well, he's been on the Vile Arts Radio Hour often enough now. I am nominating him for the title of "most eclectic musical knowledge master in Glasgow."

Full Line Up
Jer Reid/ Rosalind Masson/ Monica de Ioanni/ Stevie Jones (Rude Pravo, Alasdair Roberts etc)
Fritz Welch & Rafe Fitzpatrick (Tattie Toes, Alasdair Roberts)
Wounded Knee & Christine Devaney (Curious Seed)
Cheer & Jer Reid

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

More Maids

More details have emerged from the Citizens about their production of Genet's The Maids. Although Martin Crimp has translated it - he emerged at about the same time as the 1990s neo-brutalists in British theatre - I was hoping that it would be in French. Given the amount of role reversal, gender play and mayhem going on, I'd have as much chance as understanding it, and the beauties of a Romance language would add to its dark erotic charm.

Director Stewart Laing, who has done time with Scottish Opera as well as having his own Untitled Projects, has announced that he will be following Genet's instructions and casting men as the maids, and has added a live rock soundtrack. 

Genet has, according to the press release, inspired artists as diverse as Patti Smith and David Bowie (yeah, Jean Genie, we get it, Dave). Back in the days when rock'n'roll was considered dangerous, it made sense for Genet to be an inspiration - he championed not only the outsider, but celebrated an inverted religion that transferred sanctity onto the criminal. Unlike the neo-brutalists, Genet's use of violence wasn't the most shocking aspect in his scripts - for all her brilliance, Sarah Kane still had the violence being committed by nasty people. Rather, it is the way that brutality becomes aspirational. When Lou Reed still had an edge, he'd happily sing about BDSM in a way that didn't titillate but embraced.

On musical direction duties, Laing has enlisted Scott Paterson, out of Sons and Daughters. The long running Australian TV series was a popular choice for slackers who... sorry, wrong Wikipedia entry. The Glasgow band ("conceived while on tour with Arab Strap," says Wikipedia, perhaps not quite getting the sex-toy related joke) had an edge of early Nick Cave to their live sets, with Paterson's guitar drawing a line between the crisp sound of new wave and a rougher, more 1950s rock'n'roll raucousness. They promise versions of songs by Metallic, David Bowie (Ladbrokes let me put a fiver down on it being Jean Genie) and The Velvet Underground (for the accumulator, I went for Venus in Furs). 

The Maids
By Jean Genet
In a translation by Martin Crimp
17 Jan – 2 Feb 2013

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

It's The Vile Top Seven: Number Seven

On The Radio Hour, top DJ and sound engineer at the coolest parties, Josh Hill correctly complained that the annual Hot Lists tend to miss out the personal - as he putting it, "more huffing of poppers outside the Old Hairdressers" and less grand statements about the state of the nation. In this spirit, I wrote a highly personal top ten. Then I realised that "five great text messages" won't end up on anyone's publicity material.

As a compromise, and a sop to my massive ego, I am going to identify the seven top trends in my thinking. This will allow me to mention as many events as I like, and still make it all about me. I challenge the artists mentioned to include my shout out to them in their next application for funding.

Trend no. 7: My Continued Inability to Integrate a Political Consciousness into my Aesthetic Critique.

Fond as I am of banging on about alienation, I still struggle to see the best way for political philosophy to appear within performance. The highly dramatic boycott of Israeli company Batsheva Dance made a passionate appeal on behalf of the Palestinian people, but managed to piss off plenty of liberal critics who found it intrusive (the show was stopped by chanting groups inside the auditorium) and hypocritical (The Russian ballet company up the road didn't get any attention, despite having a state that enjoys oppressing minorities, too).

There are arguments on both sides - mostly focussing on the exact relationship between Batsheva's tour and the amount of funding provided by the Israeli government - but life would easier if the choreographer in question wasn't both brilliant and personally ambivalent about the antics of his government.

While this was the most publicised political action in the arts - it had  similar heavy duty support that would give the weight to the complaints against Creative Scotland - politics has entered the theatre in more interesting ways - Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin had a look at the London riots for their entry at Oran Mor's Play, Pie, Pint programme, Make Better Please saw the previously personal Uninvited Guests strain against the build up of media inspired despair, and Lyn Gardner wrote a blog about political theatre in the Guardian. Alan Bissett, wearer of a very cool leather jacket, made explicit his support for an independent Scotland and David Greig set up a dialogue about national identity in his sequel to Macbeth.

In the time that I began writing criticism, the political was on the back-foot. Perhaps it was the amount of money, or moral support, being thrown at the artists under New Labour. Perhaps it was the emphasis on personal politics - like in the version of Wuthering Heights now being prepped for The Arches' Platform 18 Awards, the study of the self and identity was seen as far more important. Unfortunately, I am about to be left behind, having embraced that path - I am still more interested in art as a mirror of the audience than as a manifesto for a better world. But if Greig, Bissett, Taudevin and Hurley are investigating it, I am willing to believe that political theatre is making a comeback and is now relevant.

Glasgow Girls at the Citizens was also the first agit-prop musical that had a dub 7" handed out at the door - its good humoured mix of local history (it covered the campaign to protect asylum seekers), multi-cultural dance numbers and poignant satire made me reconsider both the musical and the theatre as a direct forum for political opinion.

Of course, I have been told by a dear and old friend that "everything is politics," and my continued insistence on the primacy of aesthetics is, in itself, an immoral conservatism. I am hoping that Arika hurry up with their next weekend of engaged readings and gigs. Their Special Form of Darkness weekender had a mixture of serious Marxist analysis and fun nihilism, which suits my anarchist instincts.

Best of 2012

For an album that takes such care over the details - promiscuously sampling everything from "details of Asian melodies" to snatches of Japan's Ghosts - Maxinquaye has a famously diffident opening line. "You sure you want to be with me? I've nothing to give," sings Martina Topley-Bird, before Tricky demonstrates that he has "some many things I need to tell you, things you need to hear."

Clocking in at over an hour, and visiting more musical styles than the current Top Fifty - Black Steel converts metal into an alienated wistfulness, You Don't resembles reggae, Strugglin' would stand duty on an album of experimental electronica - Maxinquaye never wallows, stumbles or meanders. Held together by a loose narrative - there's a single relationship between two ambiguous characters that moves from discomfort, through erotic dependency into a powerful unity - the album has a similar structure to Tchaikovsky's ballet scores. There are variations, returns to themes, musical quotations and,  after the solos (Brand New, You're Retro, You Don't), a triumphant finale.

Perhaps it's the sinister undertow of the bass - sometimes funky, sometimes brutal. Perhaps it is the contrast between Topley-Bird's jazz inflections and Tricky's gutteral growl. Perhaps it's the honesty of the lyrics - Tricky really is exorcising his mother issues, and the descriptions of sex acts ought to keep Simon Cowell away from appropriating any of the tracks. But the occult magic of the central triptych (Hell is Round the Corner, Pumpkin and Aftermath) remains the most visceral deconstruction of dark sexual desire of the twentieth century. That it is followed by a typical intrusion, the upbeat diss, is typical of Tricky's mercurial humour.

Tricky's roots in hip-hop are not so evident in the textured depths of Suffocated Love or Ponderosa - it's impossible to imagine even the most sensitive rapper vocalising these emotions - but in the sudden lurches of Black Steel. It starts off as a Public Enemy cover version, but drops Chuck D's urgent clarion call to resistance for a more ambiguous repetition. The march of rap into the twenty-first century as the music of drab consumerism or, at best, broad wit or political anger is diverted into a far more English sense of doubt and hope.

Every track becomes a blueprint for a future music, still unheard, still awaiting consummation - You Don't doubles as a statement of confident brilliance and a satire of other musicians who can't even imagine following in his footsteps - and Maxinquaye softens towards the end, Topley-Bird's voice now calling to Tricky across the wastes of crackling percussion breaks and the click of guns. Slow, still, beautiful...


As Simon Reynolds spends most of Bring the Noise trying to explain, the best music is impure. Never mind the clinical precision of that X-Factor cover version: it's the grubbiness, the taints and hints that give a song its meaning. I didn't realise how good Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Power of Love was until someone ruined it by removing the awkwardness for an advert.
This is one reason why I am revisiting Tricky's Maxinquaye this festive season. There aren't that many albums that expose the workings of a sub-dom relationship before launching into what could be a black feminist anthem. And it's why I'll be down the front for Tut Vu Vu's Christmas show. 
Unless Raydale Dower, Matthew Black, Jamie Bolland and Iban Perez roll up on stage wearing santa hats, there is unlikely to be much crass Christmas commercialism at the CCA show. As one of the three bands to evolve from the aftermath of Uncle John and Whitelock, Tut Vu Vu are the most restless band in Scotland - if they changed their name to The Post-Modern Jazz Quartet, they could persuade Creative Scotland to fund them into eternity. When most outfits are struggling to master one genre, Tut Vu Vu have absorbed the spirit of free jazz - they don't just trade riffs, they trade instruments - and slipped in the dissonant edge of musique concrète, tying it together with the black steel of blues bass.
Even the added bonus of a set by The Gummy Stumps is sadly overcome by the promise of Romany Dear's march your legs up and down, this has the potential to become a very political exercise. Apart from being a winner of The Skinny and CCA Award for 2012, Dear is interested in the way that people respond to space, and she has recruited Ashanti Harris, Daniela Corda, Sinead Hargan and Zephyr Liddell to get their groove on. Dear is calling this a "choreographed group performance," which nicely sidesteps the whole dance/physical theatre conundrum. Whatever, it's another example of how Glasgow visual art is not playing lazy with categories.
Although a set by Tut Vu Vu is never predictable - they have enough of that improvisational skill to switch at will from sinister melody to overwhelming rock assaults - it's unlikely that this will be anything less than unforgettable. It might even wash the sound of cash-tills and suspect pop stars preaching goodwill to all men who can afford to shop in the town centre.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Maids at Glasgay: originally published by Across the Arts

With The Citz doing The Maids in the New Year, I'll be banging on about Genet for a while yet... I thought it would be nice to revisit this article I wrote when it was staged as part of Glasgay! It was originally published on Across The Arts.

Forced back to life by copious cups of coffee and too much tablet, I blunder into The Maids. Jean Genet forced his way free from prostitution, poverty and prison by the power of prose poetry, only to plunge back into the horror and bondage and torment and debt and death through his plays and novels, like Saint Sarah Kane before her time. Brutal enough even for YouPorn jaded tastes, Genet’s scripts know well that the melancholic masochism of the mind is purer than physical pain and punishment: the lash his lovers longer to linger beneath is neither literal nor leather.
Put simply, The Maids reveals the power games and sexual lusts beneath murderous impulses: while their mistress is away, they rummage her cupboards and play out fantasies of dominance and submission, plotting her assassination. One maid wears a translucent gown that reminds me of my beloved who now disdains me: the other moans and stretches in thrall to the delicious eroticism of subversion and violence. They switch roles, they nag and fight, scatter the extravagant fabrics of their mistress’ wardrobe across the bed. Translated from French to colloquial Scots, their language is infected by the grandeur of their ambitions and leavened by the dialect of the streets: they hardly pause to breathe, only to strike at one another or tremble at the mistress’ arrival.
It strains and aches upon the ears, this men dressed and rouged in female form, the speed and fire, a single note and mood: angst and hurt and deceit and memories triggered from the swish of fabric across naked flesh. The maid veils her head in embroidered elegance, the cataclysmic collapses of the human heart, the need for love thwarted and twisted into anger. Is this a vision of women bound, femininity reduced to shriek and bellow? Played by men, does this expose Genet’s own understanding of the female psyche? Ripping each other to ribbons of fear and doubt, the fast turn-about of assertion and defeat. They scream and preen. I scream and preen again.

Relaxing with the Snowman...

Although I can't claim any great love for The Snowman - it really doesn't give me a thrill to see dance at the mercy of a trite, cheerful story, when it could be Swan Lake - I am impressed by the Edinburgh Festival Theatre's  "first relaxed performance in Scotland." Relaxed performances aren't an attempt to bring back the cabaret atmosphere of Brecht's cigar smoking observer, but an opportunity for children with complex additional and behavioural needs to enjoy a show.

It's not just about the auditorium: the actual staging of The Snowman was adapted, with special effects and lighting toned down. Seating was removed to allow more wheelchair access, the house lights were kept on and the audience was allowed to go for a stroll whenever they felt like it.

Increased accessibility to theatre is a vital issue: now that community participation is being recognised as crucial, supporting this through making the theatre an easy venue to access is a logical first step. The NTS are getting in on the action:  the first autism-friendly performance in Scotland of A Christmas Carol is happening this Sunday 16 December, at The Old Kirk in Kirkcaldy.

Over to the press release...

Cerin Richardson, Learning & Participation Manager at the Festival Theatre said: “What we hoped to achieve was offering a truly accessible experience of theatre to children who never normally have that opportunity. To provide them with a relaxed environment in which to enjoy what most theatre goers take for granted and enable the children to respond exactly as they wished in a supportive setting. We hope this will be the first of many such performances”.

That's Not The Way To Do It

If I want to think about the development of puppetry in the UK, I am going to have to face him eventually.

In America, they got Stagger Lee. The Germans have Mack the Knife. The British have a hunch-back wielding a literal slapstick.

He still lurks about the seaside, I've heard, like an elderly predator no longer virile enough to bait the devil but scaring the occasional child. Bob Dylan and Nick Cave sing of Stagger Lee but our boy gets mocked in novels by Terry Pratchett. He shares an ancestry back to the commedia dell'arte with the mime, although his voice is distorted by the swazzle. He provided the break-out for that one out of Frisky and Mannish to show his serious acting chops at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012.

Mr Punch is a strangely banal representation of evil: contemporary attempts to rebrand him come and go, but he's still the size of a glove puppet and best known for being a tawdry attraction on the beach. Stagger Lee somehow got mixed up with the fight for racial equality in the States: the best Punch got was Benny Hill using him for some 1980s' political satire. And while it can't be the proudest entry on his CV, he has become the natural metaphor for under-inspired pop stars wanting to make a Grand Statement about domestic violence.

The appearance of Mr Punch in England has been dated back as far as Pepys Diary: between eying up the serving girls in church, he caught "an Italian puppet play... which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants." Not quite being sure what that last word means, I'll assume that back then, it was quite the thing for hipsters to hang out with the mannequins.

Maybe it is merely a question of time breeding familiarity, but both of the British traditions that emerged from the commedia - panto and Punch - have ended up as primarily for kids. But while one seems to have dominated the theatre during December, the other has been quietly relegated to a curio. Mr Punch was always going to be too hardcore.

His basic story is good and rough: he beats up his wife, but lest we are to think that he is merely a misogynist, he has a crack at the beadle, a kind of early version of a copper. The animal kingdom gets it next - the crocodile usually gets a few licks in, though, leaving Punch needing a doctor. 

Inevitably, he kicks shit out of the doctor. And in the best versions, it ends with the devil turning up for an ass-kicking. 

It's the initial domestic violence that is the real problem. While I'm not one for universals, I think that a man with a big nose going toe-to-toe with a crocodile is always funny and when Punch gives the devil some, it's a moment of wonderful human triumph. But he didn't need to kill his wife: she was only annoyed because he'd dropped the baby into a sausage-maker.

I suppose political correctness could be blamed for Punch's demise. Then again, if political correctness is about preventing positive portrayals of wife-beaters, I am going to get all PC. 

What used to be knockabout fun has, instead, become a problematic tradition, exploited to great effect by modern theatre-makers. Most recently, Matthew Jones had a break from being "too cabaret" to star in Steven Bloomer's taut two-hander, Punch. Jones' central performance, and a script that veered between realism and absurdity, brought home the problems of Punch, setting him up both as shock stand up and a symbol of comedy's vicious intentions.

Punch becomes both the eternal bad boy and the defender of freedom of speech. The play does skip over his attitudes to his wife (his claim that she ran off is never contested, although the police are checking under his floorboards), allowing his routine and justifications not to be undermined by his innate savagery. This contemporary Punch had obviously taken advantage of Twitter to offend as many people as necessary and, like Frankie Boyle, he sees his nasty wit as a corrective to the bland, pandering comedy that ends up on BBC3.

His child, who ends up in the toilets at a comedy club, obviously needs to be protected from Punch. The finale does prove that he is bestial. Yet Jones makes him sympathetic and when Punch insists that his dark poetry is necessary, that argument is not wholly destroyed by his subsequent rampage.

In the meantime, shove him in the corner. He's just a nostalgic act for the kiddies. No need to worry about whether there's a serious point there. 

Mill's Mortal Coil

December isn't a happy time for the critic of serious theatre. Of course, sitting next to Jim Davidson at The Pavilion pantomime will always be a fond memory and there are plenty of parties to grace with the critical presence. However, the real hardcore action seems to be, mostly, on holiday.

Fortunately, certain smart artists are using the quiet time to introduce next year's work. Ruth Mills, teacher and choreographer and dancer has announced her latest projects. Most excitingly, there's a lecture demonstration at the start of next month.

This Mortal Coil is a mash-up of performance and lectures. Dr Laura Gonzales, fresh back from Brooklyn, will be talking about the body of the hysteric - a matter of considerable concern to the critic who has one, while Lucy G Weir teams up with Mills to offer a history of contemporary dance from its roots in resistance to ballet through to the latest moves.

Mills is also fresh from working on the NTS' Jump project - an all-male community production. It's interesting to see that she is going to be working on an all-female piece, Girlfriend, for 2013. Mills has taught classes based on pop video moves, and Girlfriend is going to take a closer look at some of the misogynist subtexts behind the perfection of the female body-as-commodity.

She's still teaching all over the place too - and she was a poster woman for The Year of Creative Scotland.

This Mortal Coil
Thursday 3rd January 4:30pm
Sunday 6th January 4pm

FAUSTUS! Come get yer chips!

Okay, I'll admit it. I am excited about the new season at The Citizens. Not only are they putting on Stewart Laing's version of The Maids (see previous posts for how much I love this play), they are producing Doctor Faustus. The announcement that Siobhan Redmond is playing mighty Mephistopheles is a bonus - she knocked me out as Lady Macbeth in Dunsinane and a female devil is exactly what would tempt this critical Faustus. But what really excites me is the revival of a script that isn't Shakespeare but has the same verbal intensity as Old Bill.

Marlowe's script, although I hear that a couple of the acts are going to be updated by Colin Teevan, is one of the few works that excite me even as a mere text. Sure, Pinter's great on stage but takes ten minutes to read - it's a bunch of pauses and non-sequiturs. Marlowe, and this is unlike Shakespeare, isn't afraid to get serious about his theology and Faustus has kept its relevance even in an age where God is often reduced to a metaphor.

It's a classic story - man sells soul to the devil, finds out that he's got a bum deal - and each age has had a crack at retelling it. Becoming a symbol of the dangers of too scientific an approach to life - Marlowe's Faustus rejects the idea of hell in much the same phrase as brilliant biologist Richard Dawkins - it has been recreated at every level, from Callum MacAskill's one man Fringe hit through to the International Festival's epic hosting of Purcarete's remix. Alex Smoke even soundtracked the film version for the Glasgow Film Festival in 2011.

What makes Marlowe's version thrill me is that it refuses to give Faustus a happy ending - his final speech is a belter of absolute despair - and it grapples with the theology of its time in an accessible, poetic manner. Much contemporary atheism is so pleased with itself, as if it is the first generation ever to have worked out that there might not be a good. Marlowe - who got accused of it himself, back when it was less a shorthand for "being clever" than "being treasonous" - portrays a man who maintains a godlessness even in the face of seeing devils pop in for a cup of tea.

Mind you, he gets to sleep with Helen of Troy. That might have distracted him from worrying about his soul.

Citizens Theatre & West Yorkshire Playhouse
DOCTOR FAUSTUS(Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan)
Directed by Dominic Hill
Design by Colin Richmond
Lighting by Tim Mitchell
Music by Dan Jones
Thu 4 April – Sat 27 April, 7.30pm

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Maid in France (Reflections on The Maids, Part 1)

When Genet wrote The Maids, he was already far into his own self-determination as a criminal. Throughout his work, he more than embraces the dark poetry of sin: he posits it as a sanctified state. Jean Paul Sartre may have recognised him as a kindred spirit - although an existentialist makes for a bad character witness, what with their belief that personality is a fiction, in any case - but Genet's identification with the wrong side of the tracks goes further than a Marxist celebration of the socially excluded. Rather than reject the spiritual hierarchy of Christianity, he inverts it and makes the most despised the most elevated.

The sisters at the centre of the action- Claire and Solange - spend most of the play investing in role-play and rituals. They switch roles - Claire gets to be the mistress, Solange becomes Claire - outfits and authorities. Insults, even the brutal slap of the whip, become endearments. Death, suicide, murder, deceit are all glorified and the final, confusing, scene has mistress and slave, fiction and fact dissolve into a single, disorientating farewell.

It can be read as a damning indictment of the way that the oppressing class shapes its victims: the maids are at the bottom of the social heap, and, like Genet did, embrace the image of themselves as worthless. One maid possibly fucked the milkman, like a whore. The other has fantasies of being a cool, erotic murderer, whom even the hangman wants to kiss. Undeniably, the maids are distorted, disconnected with the acceptable values of a society that gives power to the mistress and her husband.

And it's based on a real story of a couple of murdering maids. And the left-wingers came out in their support, too. 

Simple, really. It all makes sense. The Maids is a political allegory. The only reason that it gives the audience a headache is the dizzying pace of the character's swaps. Frankly, that last speech is an incoherent ramble - nice portrait of a mind in meltdown, but it's not Shakespeare.

No, wait. Hold on. 

It's a play. Genet's doing that thing to remind the audience that what they are watching isn't real. Blather about "suspension of disbelief" aside, it is difficult to be completely fooled by the action when Genet insisted that the women be played by men. Sure, that might fit into a contemporary drag queen paradigm - threatening women with a sharp wit, perfect - but it doesn't do much to convince that this is supposed to be a serious representation of reality.

And that final speech. Solange imagines the end of the play. It's been jarring enough as she switches from top to bottom, person to person, but now she's jumping on the fourth wall. It's impossible to forget that this is a performance. 

The simple reading of The Maids was bound to fail - the experience of seeing it is like being caught in an opera company's tumble-dryer, and that never ends up with clarity. And for all the supposed sadomasochistic antics of the maids, they are too far out of control for this to represent any reflection of dominance and submission in a sexual context. 

If Genet is having a BDSM session, he has to be doing it with the audience...

THE MAIDS (Jean Genet)
Translated by Martin Crimp
Directed and designed by Stewart Laing
Citizens Theatre
Thu 17 January – Sat 2 February, 7.30pm

Making Moves on Marionette Morality

I'm fairly convinced that society still gets its kicks like in the old days: when Aristotle came up with the idea of catharsis he invented a tool that can explain the experience of audiences at everything from gladiatorial fights to X-Factor. Always purging the emotions, performance can be an immersive experience that allows the experience of dangerous emotions in a safe context. Most of the thrill offered by a Greek tragedy can be replicated by a few hours watching TV talent contests.

Getting onto my theatre soap-box, it seems obvious that live performance is always going to be a better location for catharsis. Only when the performers are in front of an audience can a meaningful connection be made - the heartlessness of the public attitude towards the losers on X-Factor suggests that the basic emotional recognition of a fellow human being has been by-passed. In the case of puppetry, however, this becomes problematic. Now, the human form is being represented by a marionette, an object devoid of life. Going by the logic of TV's ability to dehumanise the person, a puppet stand-in ought to be worse.

That said, the puppet can be even more emotive than the actor. Often, a puppet can be more vulnerable - in Boris and Sergey's Vaudevillian Adventure, it's the size of the two naughty boys when faced by demons that makes them sympathetic, even after they have spent the entire show trying to dupe the audience. More absurdly, the mask of a gorilla that Jonny Woo uses in his striptease routine adds to the tragedy and the comedy. After tripping on the banana skin, the gorilla's face seems to ask for sympathy, but seems full of joy when it tucks into the next course. Knowing that the face, being made of plastic, has not changed its expression makes the entire routine surreal. Even the cheeky puppet people of Vox Motus' Slick become more sympathetic through their bizarre fusion of human and costume.

Yael Rasooly, who is bringing Paper Cut to Edinburgh in February, has made a musical cabaret that reveals the tale of three sisters trying to escape the Holocaust - using dolls alongside actors. Objects - such as the lamp in Fringe hit The Fantasist -  can become cheeky characters just by virtue of being wobbled about a bit. Usually, anything inanimate, whether mask or doll, that is manipulated by the puppeteer's skill can become even more evocative than a real person.

Notwithstanding the equally long tradition of the sinister puppet - wasn't Chucky a national threat at one point? - this ability of an audience to transfer emotions makes puppetry a uniquely powerful medium. As long as they are kept unthreatening, puppets are able to embody possibly difficult personalities and ideas, and make them acceptable. The use of the puppet in children's educational television - Sesame Street is a better example than Orville - has provided the spoonful of sugar to help the factual medicine go down. And even seriously unpleasant characters, like Hitler, can be softened enough not to be immediately shocking. Leaving aside those children entertainers who could make a cuddly bear creepy, the puppet can become both a personality and a symbol - simultaneously engaging the emotions and the mind. It's a short-cut to audience connection. Even the exaggerated features of Japanese anime imitates the style of the puppet.

Marionettes, like computers in the twentieth century, formed the basis for some philosophical reflection on the nature of being human. Yet in the apparent mordant meditations of Henrich von Kleist, there are clues as to this strange quality in the manipulated object. Asking about the problems of consciousness, Kleist settled on the marionette as the perfect counterpoint to human self-awareness. Seeing how both grace and beauty are undermined in humans by self-consciousness, he contrasted this with the graceful state of the marionette under the control of their master. Suddenly, he discovered a model for the human being who has gone beyond vanity and resistance, towards a greater state of grace.

Whether von Kleist's On The Marionette Theatre was a serious attempt to link the Biblical parable of Genesis with the soon-to-emerge science of psychology, or merely a vaguely provocative dialogue aiming to mock vanity, its descriptions of the marionette theatre explain the peculiar nature of puppet movement.

"He asked me if I hadn't in fact found some of the dance movements of the puppets very graceful.... a group of four peasants dancing the rondo in quick time couldn't have been painted more delicately by Teniers," Henrich admits in conversation with a dancer. "Often shaken in a purely haphazard way, the puppet falls into a kind of rhythmic movement which resembles dance," the dancer replies, noting the connection between even incidental control and the apparently meaningful outcome. Realising that the dancer has found a purity in the marionette's movements that he finds lacking in human dancers, Henrich encourages him to continue. Eventually, the dancer proclaims that the puppet, lacking a soul, becomes a greater being than the human encumbering by 'affectation.'

Conclusions like this perhaps depend on the reader's willingness to accept the universe as a product of a divine being. Over on the TV talent shows, however, an inverse process is happening. Most of the contestants are being caricatured into marionettes, their personalities exaggerated to make them either more sympathetic or pathetic. Possibly, the process of catharsis is easier to experience on figures that are not fully human, which would account both for X-Factor and Oedipus Rex being ideal for a spot of purging. Looking back at Greek theatre, it is possible that the high emotions were indeed stimulated by the tradition of wearing masks. Earliest tragedy is, at least, an ancestor of the modern puppet show. Talent shows, for all their echoes of the gladiatorial arena, use the surrounding media to make masks to hide the reality of their contestants. 


My enthusiasm for Live Art and Performances Beyond Definition does not stop just because it is Christmas. Before I decide to celebrate the end of the world with Red Note, I'll be taking one last glance at Scotland's alternative theatre thanks to Anatomy, who are now offering their third edition.
Anatomy has based itself around similar ideas to the old National Review of Live Art: the vagueness of the genre allows anything to be included. There are films as well as performances, a spot of musical entertainment. There's a few familiar voices from the poetry scene and nearly half of the performers have been on my radio show at some point.
Here's the line-up, with added Vile commentary. 
Walk (Oli Benton)
Benton splits his time between making short, playful films and working on fashion and portrait photography. This one features a familiar journey from club to bar, with added cross country foot pain.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas: A Suicide Note (Victoria Bianchi)
Last seen at Arches Live promising to make a better go of it, Bianchi is worried about the end of the world and has decided to go first. Given that she recently admitted that she can't stick at anything, there's no need to worry that she'll be achieving her aim, but she might leave behind something that veers towards stand-up comedy.

The Snow Queen (Eddy Dreadnought)
Fresh from sharing a writing gig with other red headed artists, Dreadnought will sing a number from his pantomime, The Snow Queen. Expect something like the end of The Pavilion Pantomime, with more death and less Jim Davidson.

The Blood that Binds (Laura Edwards and Calum MacAskill, with Janine Fern)
Loop Theatre's Edwards and Fern team up with Radio Show regular, and sometime Faustus, MacAskill for a three way look at writhing and departure, reconnection and home. Insert gag about my usual Saturday night here.
Both Edwards and Fearn specialise in outreach through physical theatre, while MacAskill likes wearing big masks and horns. 

Scheduling Spontaneity (Rebecca Green)
Stole this from her website: rather like the sound of it. "She maintains a diverse practice, which is intimate and universal... a mixture of improvised surreal intentions, extraterrestrial dreaming pathos, willfully alluring insistent humour and a collision of empathic bewilderment amid a searing focus illuminating the natures of individual human interactions and relationships.  Scheduling Spontaneity seeks to establish connectivity through tokens of love, instinct and sentiment."

Walk the Line The Deadwood Stage (Charlie Murphy and friends)
A whole new breed of pantomime pony – to perform a series of guerilla dressage acts. Responding to formal equestrian disciplines and traditional British pageantry, these eccentric, home-made ponies turn some playful tricks and turns in some unusual places.

The Man in the Dress and The Principal Female Boy(Greg Sinclair)
Sinclair's recent Sonata For A Man and Boy was both charming and a fine example of how experimental music needn't involve boring boffins tweaking computer settings. A song, a laugh and an original take on the gender confusion of the English pantomime (because Scottish pantos don't have as much cross-dressing as I'd like).  Doubtless includes some hot cello rocking action.

(Moreno Solinas)
Oh yes. Click on the link and some math rock kicks in. Solinas has worked with DV8 and promises "love and sex, need and fear, spirit and fluid." Sounds promising, but that title and that photo are not a good juxtaposition.  

Opul (JL Williams and James Iremonger)
Great former guests of the Radio Hour: it's poetry with added electronica. See - electronic music doesn't have to be all about boring old men twiddling with their knobs. Poetry with an edge, electronica with lyricism... sometimes rough and sometimes smooth but always experimental.

To Elucidate(Jamie Wardrop and Rebecca Morris)
They begged me not to give away what they have planned. I won't, but it is spectacular. 

There we have it: an afternoon of research and the best I could come up with is a pun about bums. However, Anatomy will be better than this... 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Lambie's Ladders

Now that The Modern Institute has opened up a new gallery across from the Briggait, there are plenty of opportunities for me to nip across and be inspired by contemporary art - and get annoyed by its exegesis. Currently housing a collection of ladders by Jim Lambie, the new space is a classic, simple white box - suited to the stark minimalism of Lambie's latest.

Shaved Ice is a shift away from Lambie's more famous preoccupations with psychedelic floor patterns (his entry to Glasgow International 2010 covered the floor of GOMA with black and white lines that seemed fresh off a 1960s' album art) towards bright colours and mirrors. The ladders are all painted and contain mirrors between the steps. Deceptively simple, it plays a series of games with the location - the reflections are disorientating - and makes understated claims about the status of the art work itself. Perhaps in response to that cynicism about contemporary art, Lambie has installed a series of objects that literally lead nowhere and despite reaching to the ceiling, ultimately exist in mid-air, always on the point of departure.

A touch of random projection, and each ladder can take on its own personality. Do they represent political ideas, all shiny and new but finally meaningless? Are they reminders of the spiritual ascent - the mirror being a lovely Buddhist image of the consciousness - which allure but fail to do anything more than reflect? Or is it a direct reminder that appearances depend on perspective - at any point in the room, the ladders change the apparent dimensions of the room. 

For such a small space, this is a lively exhibition - if the notes don't add much to the meaning, it leaves more time to wander about the maze. 

cabaret to be added, destroyed

The exact line that connects cabaret back to dance isn’t always clear: since dance itself is so easy to spot yet difficult to define, throwing your hands in the air and everything into a genre marked “physical theatre” seems the best answer. However, there are times when a piece of physical theatre would have done well to employ dancers rather than healthy, fit actors, and the contemporary cabaret revival owes at least something to the aesthetics of dance.

Like physical theatre, cabaret includes a healthy mixture of talents: strippers, magicians like Piff the Magic Dragon, singers like Dusty Limits, rappers like Mr B alongside those indefinable performers like Tricity Vogue, the Blue Lady. The variety format, notably reinvented by Blonde Ambition at Vive Le Cabaret!, welcomes this diversity. Yet aside from wild cards like Scottee’s Eat Your Heart Out, it is rare to see short-formed choreographic dance in this programmes. Circus skills, even aerial acrobatics transfer easily enough – but why a magazine dedicated to dance now includes cabaret is still not clear.

The simple link, at least for The Shimmy, is through the neo-burlesque revival. Dance Base, which houses The Shimmy offices, has offered burlesque classes for years: the pioneering work here of Gypsy Charms and Viva Misadventure could be seen as seeding the current burlesque scene in Scotland. And burlesque, and striptease, are clearly forms of dance. When The Shimmy kicked off in 2009, burlesque was riding high in Edinburgh – both Blonde Ambition and Itsy’s Collective offered regular evenings – and most variety bills were burlesque heavy.

Ironically, just as cabaret was insisting on its own section in 2010, the neo-burlesque revival was waning. Less burlesque was appearing in the clubs – even the Bongo Club, godfather of Fringe cabaret – was booking fewer striptease acts. Confusion is Sex, the nightclub that had always had burlesque was diversifying into pole-dancing and idiosyncratic live art influenced routines.

Finally, an article in The Scotsman attacked burlesque as anti-feminist, leading to Edinburgh’s most glamorous street protest and a dynamic debate about whether the assumptions of feminist intention behind neo-burlesque were valid. Meanwhile, some burlesque acts were heading back to a raunchier tradition, abandoning the knowing wit for a more erotic emphasis. Kitty Cointeau launched the Brahaha, which got back to the comedians and strippers format. Unlike last year, when the superb Wau Wau Sisters rocked the Assembly through stripping and swinging from the ceiling – and aiming a scattershot satire at the heart of modern America, there are no burlesque only shows this year.

It has become fashionable to attack burlesque, either on aesthetic grounds or feminist. Nevertheless, the cabaret revival owes a great deal to neo-burlesque. Despite its controversial association with striptease, burlesque reintroduced parody to cabaret. Variety had been moribund since it had collapsed into a mush of insipid light entertainment and lazy comedy. Burlesque brought back the sex and satire.

Dusty Limits, the “dark prince” is not a dancer, yet his exotic blend of sexuality and mockery owes much to the style of burlesque. The association of burlesque with vintage fashion gave cabaret a style, recalled classic eras of vaudeville and cabaret, such as the Weimar Republic. Even a duo like The Creative Martyrs – Gustav and Jakob are unlikely to be cutting a caper between their mimes and songs of bleak decadence – draw on the influences burlesque rediscovered. The cabaret audiences were built by burlesque nights. 1927 honed their skills at burlesque evenings, adopting the style and format for a theatrical tour de force.

The echoes of burlesque, a dance form, multiply throughout the cabaret scene. Solo shows, like Vogue’s Blue Lady, Meow Meow  frantic bash through egomania and celebrity, Sarah Louise Young’s Cabaret Whore Trilogy pick up on a choreographic approach to subjects, deconstructing them not through a clear lineal approach but returning to them from different angles. Definitions of dance slip either into the vague or the prescriptive: cabaret performance frequently shares a creative process and structure with choreography, if not a movement vocabulary.
Inevitably, there is an agenda behind The Shimmy’s inclusion of cabaret. Last year, Bryony Kimmings, an eclectic performer who admits she is from the Live Art tradition, appeared in many variety shows. She rocked the house. Aerial is already a regular visitor to the vaudeville. Stronger links between the scenes might lead to short dance works being billed alongside Des O’Connor, expanding the audience base. If a dance publication can find space for cabaret, perhaps comperes can find slots for dancers.

Beyond this, if the burlesque scene has become moribund, a reinjection of dance might be the cure. There is still a thriving amateur scene in the central belt of Scotland: often, its stars have never bothered to learn new skills or develop their choreography beyond stylised gestures. Charms and Misadventure have always had a show-girl edge to their routines, and the best international stars have basic dance discipline – or, like Kiki Kaboom, a fierce intelligence. Blurring boundaries is little help for the poor critic, desperately trying to decipher the codes of genre. But for performers and audiences, it offers potential for great new entertainments. 

Vile Fifty

The arrival of The List's Hot 100 ought to be my excuse to start moaning about the choices and their positioning - frankly, having spent a week laying out Clingfilm for Tramway Young Critics, I'm disappointed that there aren't more Hot designers in the top ten - but that seems as easy as poking fun at Creative Scotland. I'm more interested in the diversity of talent that the 100 reveals. Then again, Ewan Morrison would probably be excluded on my list, because he tried to steal my drink last night.

The cultural profile of Scotland is stunning. It's what keeps me chained to the computer, trying to cover it on the blog and for The Skinny.  Whether I would place David Greig below Cora Bisset - both are included, pretty much on the back of the same two productions, Glasgow Girls and Whatever Gets You Through The Night - is irrelevant. What matters is that they are both making internationally acclaimed theatre while still being based in Caledonia.

Although I have no idea about the politics of independence, the Hot 100 is a stark reminder that Scotland does have its own distinctive identity: it is jarring when certain names appear who are either no longer based in Scotland - and who have perhaps made their impact in a broader context - or the occasional artist who is generally not seen as Scottish. David Byrne may have been born in Scotland, but his work has always featured an American voice. It's not so much that the nation can't claim him, but that the rest of list emphasises that it doesn't need him.

Of course, what the Hot 100 really needs is a few talking heads - minor comedians or DJs perhaps - to comment on the individual's moments of glory. That'll make it more like those TV nostalgia shows, and give legitimacy to the whole enterprise. Either that, or it must finally acknowledge the hard work of critics - without them, none of this creativity would reach an audience in the first place. Since there are plenty of awards knocking about at this time of year, I am instituting the Vile Fifty 2012. There's no hierarchy - everyone on it is number one - and it goes out to the editors and critics writing for The List, The Skinny, The Herald, The Scotsman, to the on-line bloggers and the press departments and freelance PRs who keep the wheels of culture turning.

Secret Codes Beneath the Nutcracker's Cover

Nutcrackers are Christmas ballet fare, and Scottish Ballet has had one in its repertoire for decades. Ashley Page's version, which replaced an earlier, more sentimental version, has become one of the triumphs from his time as artistic director: as in his Sleeping Beauty, the contemporary ballet skills of the company are used without losing touch with the original ballet's classicism.

This year's revival comes on the back of Page's replacement as artistic director by Christopher Hampson, and the lively energy of the corps de ballet is, delightfully complemented by a more precise geometry. Although many of the previous Christmas shows have been undermined by some ragged group work, there is a new sense of line and order in the corps.

Lev Ivanov's original choreography to Tchaikovsky's magical score ensured, however, that the centre-piece of the performance will always be the grand pas de deux. If Page allows the narrative to slide into an almost Freudian journey through the heroine's subconscious - and there is a sense that this Nutcracker teeters on the edge of adolescent maturity - the final dance between the Prince and Marie blends the sensual and spectacular. Even the nervous, excited energy of Marie's earlier dances with Drosselmyer - mad professor and designer of the titular toy - gives way to a passionate bonding with her Prince.

Much of the power of Page's choreography comes from his willingness to both refer to earlier, classical versions and integrate a wry, post-modern wit. Yet his Nutcracker plays less with the possible meanings of the story than follows the lead of Tchaikovsky's score. Shifting the scene from the family Christmas party into the fantastic world of the Nutcracker Prince and his mortal enemies, the movement captures the sudden new depth of the orchestration. Leaving behind the chaotic world of her parents - the party has undertows of infidelity and drunken misadventures - Maria is cast into the vigorous war between the Prince's hussars and the Mice. Using Tchaikovsky's darker passages to colour the conflict, Page makes this brief battle brutal enough to off-set the potential sentimentality of the subsequent Snowflakes scene. This balance makes the second act, which emphasises the charming over the dramatic, a welcome relief.

If Page's Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are Christmas shows with more bite - in the latter, the Ugly Sisters end up properly punished - The Nutcracker is the one where Page manages most effectively the expectations of a Christmas audience. Lightly alluding to Marie's burgeoning maturity, Page avoids being too obvious. Only the appearance of Tchaikovsky's face at the window, and the surreal appearance of Drosselmeyer in a watch, are blunt suggestions of a subtext. Very subtly, Marie is transformed from awkward, lonely child to elegant young woman. Even the Prince's journey, from wooden mannequin to romantic lead, is nuanced.

Yet The Nutcracker is, above all, a celebration of pure dance. Only through the renewed precision of the corps de ballet and the strength of the leads - Sophie Martin embodies Marie's journey, and Adam Blythe is a solid partner as her Prince - can the lightweight variations of the second act be successful. Unless the company radically changes in the next years, this Nutcracker is a strong showcase for their talents, a fine mesh of ability and choreographic intention, and will hopefully remain in the repetoire.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Bad Words

"I'm not writing it."

"It's the question that everybody wants answered."

"I've been there before. I did it three years ago."

"Well, I'll be in the front room, waiting. I hear they've got The Muppet Christmas Carol on this afternoon."

"There! Exactly... adults enjoy that."

"Only if they are really immature or on a nostalgia kick."

"Actually, the Muppets radically deconstruct stereotypes about theatrical values..."

"And the contemporary assumption that animals can't talk. It's rather premodern in its post-modernism, an Aesop Fable for the twenty-first century."

"Yes, very good. I'm busy here. I'm listening to the Buzzcut bosses define Live Art."

"Listening to your own radio show? Never mind, I've got a Wallace and Gromit box-set for your Christmas present."

"I won't like it. It is fundamentally conservative in its values, and seems to excuse its lack of wit through technical deliberation."

"It's an all-ages show, though..."

"I don't know why you need stuff that is made for TV, anyway. We've got YouTube now."

"Yes... I have just found a Punch and Judy show, filmed at some seaside town. The little ones are loving it. The parents are looking a bit concerned, though."

"It's not surprising. Mr Punch is a violent chap. In my essay, I examined how he represents a very British take on the bad-ass villain. It's fascinating to see how he evolved..."

"So, there's more to him than, say, Sooty and Sweep?"

"Yes - he would even face down the devil."

"A bit more complex than Basil Brush? Dealing with themes of good and evil, mortality?"

"And domestic abuse. He has one hell of an ancestry, too. Shares it with mime. It's only because of television that he is seen so infrequently on the beach these days."

"He does have a stupid voice, though. Seems a bit childish. He's another glove puppet. Bet he'll be saying 'boom boom" in five minutes. The story's a bit obvious, too. It's like a pantomime, with a bonus crocodile fight."

"I think you'll find a symbolic resonance there..."

"Check out this channel... it's got Pipkins. That hare terrified me when I was eight. He was all tatty. Then it's Ivor the Engine, bit of Bagpuss. You know what they have in common, don't you?"

"Talking heads on nostalgia shows pretending they remember them?"

"Their demographic."


"The plots are very simple."


"There are bits where you can join in."

"I won't."

"They are all on before the watershed. You know, I think these are aimed at..."


"That didn't hurt, didn't it? Now you've said it, you can get on with being all smart and critical."