Tuesday, 2 September 2014

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.

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