Thursday, 10 April 2014

Ban This Filth,Sister, JSA: A Dramaturg Writes

The influence of the cabaret format - a series of sketches moving towards a general analysis of a central theme - has been one of the more dynamic innovations in contemporary theatre. The Behaviour Festival provides plenty of examples (Job Seekers Anonymous, Ban This Filth, even Sister) - and it is ironic that artists from a literary (Alan Bissett) or live art tradition (the Cade sisters) are leading the trend, despite the health of Scottish cabaret.

The advantage is clear. Construction of a performance becomes a matter of stringing together a series of distinct episodes, allowing the creators to focus on their skill set (Bissett's superb parody of a big night out, JSA's sketches set in the dole office) and switching quickly between moods and styles (Sister flickered between the ambience of a lap-dancing club and a familial conversation). It also avoids the danger of presenting a single, dogmatic position. Sister and Ban This Filth both deal with the relationship between sex work and feminism, a topic that does not resolve into an easy conclusion.

Even the ambitious Cain's Book has a whiff of the cabaret. It is clearly an example of post-dramatic theatre (that is, a self-conscious performance that tends towards the cerebral rather than the emotional), but the jumps between the recitation of text, video footage, dancing girls and local rockers The Smack Wizards fit within the vaudeville format.

The other side of this influence is the danger of dilution. JSA is incisive when it comes to comparing the government's claims of a credit crunch against the ten million pound state funeral of Margaret Thatcher, but the patchwork quality of the structure distracted from the harsh political point-scoring. Equally, Sister has some brilliant interludes - in a stomping, sensuous dance, Rosana Cade sums up the conflict between a feminist resistance to sex-work and an acceptance of a woman's right to choose how she earns money - but often gets lost in memories of childhood.

There is a power in the loose format of cabaret, and The Creative Martyrs have been working out a way of
combining vaudeville with a theatrical consistency for years (and currently in Glasgow's Southside). There is also the possibility that these artists could be put together as part of a bill that takes their finest moments as self-contained and sharp routines. At the same time, in themselves, each performance has a habit of wandering and relying heavily on the charisma of the performers.

For all of these productions, the problem becomes one of structure. Rather than holding the attention, and following a clear narrative, they meander: Sister makes enough serious points in the first half an hour that the repeated flashbacks to the sister's childhoods become predictable and Cain's Book captures the ennui of the junkie at the cost of immediacy. Ban This Filth, which traces one man's battle with erotic capitalism, disappears into tales of the protagonist's youth which only tangentially connect to the main story.

On the other hand, this might be a problem of expectation... the episodic structure reflects the way that the internet works, the flicking and clicking between sites and tabs... a cyber-kinetic paddle through the shallows with breadth more important than depth... a set of specimens for further examination... less demanding... more allusive... playful... incomplete... until considered...

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