Some Tiny Plays About How Fucked We All Are

grumpy cat

In response to Middle Child and Luke Barnes’ Some Tiny Plays About How Fucked We All Are I have composed a poem (maybe poem should be in inverted commas…). This one off show at the Roundabout in Summerhall used the internet as source material – taking verbatim text (arguments about the numbers of days in the week, instructions on selling knickers online, for example) and performing it. The following poem is composed using words and phrases from the comments on The Guardian’s Edinburgh Fringe 2016 coverage.

along to Summerhall
during the brief interludes between showers
Art, huh.
intimate, poignant stories one minute and raccous, filthy anecdotes
passion, a sting wit and foul-mouthed-ness only adds to the comedy value
This is not some sinister class conspiracy.
something intolerant that somebody may take offence to.
always bring welcome glamour and unpredictability
maybe the most common reaction was shock and confusion; sometimes curiosity; occasionally
the doubling up in laughter
Singing ability would be a plus, of course; but not necessary.

the audience were actively involved and not just observing like a flock of mindless believers
power to the people!
it’s the most fun incarnation of Russian roulette there is.
MUCH NEEDED in 2016.

I am an aesthete, you understand. My taste is, if I say so myself, exquisite.
the very best shows will be from middle class progressive left feminists
I’m glad someone is screaming into the void on my behalf.

modern, selfish world.
refreshingly clear and unpretentious
a more creative response to the dire political reality that we are all facing
And it’s much punchier than Chilcott.

That’s a win.
The end.

Roundabout at Summerhall

(Most of) A Day at Forest Fringe

dan canham

(I skipped the first two shows because I needed to sleep and eat some fruit. Sorry for this slightly incomplete round up, but let’s all remember self care is important during the stressful Fringe time. Although I have seen Break Yourself before and can vouch that it is good.)

First up, I watched Mish Grigor’s The Talk and it offended every single ounce of Britishness I carry. Which is to say, it’s brilliant. It’s about the sex life of your immediate family, and so deeply uncomfortable. As audience members step up to play family members, we learn that Mish’s mum likes it hard and her brother had a threeway one time. It sounds like it should be creepy as fuck but it’s actually full of warmth and love. Of course, I wanted to crawl out of my own skin and flee throughout – but that’s the point, isn’t it? Maybe the things that are uncomfortable to talk about are actually the most vital conversations we can have. Also: free cava *thumbs up*

(Course, I’m papering over the fact that I had to read one character – one with only one line – and I spent the ENTIRE SHOW fretting that I might be called on to read again, and therefore largely wishing I was dead and trying to sneak as much of the free cava as physically possible. Sometimes that thing where audience members join in works so well (here, for example), but my god I quietly hope that trend dies. I spent the hour between this and the next show recovering.)

The NDN Way looks AMAZING, but I do not have a single solitary clue what the fuck was going on. There was a voiceover track that I drifted in and out of (I got distracted from listening because the dude in it started playing the spoons like an absolute legend), so maybe’s that why I remain so utterly lost as to what it was all about. Ritual, I think, and ceremony, but that’s all I’ve got to stab at. But it looks so beautiful, full of colours and disco ball style lights and really, really great dancing.

(Here, I started flagging. I ate a Tunnocks tea cake and that helped.)

I spent quite a lot of Search Party’s Growing Old With You feeling a little bit… bored, really. Originally performed in 2011, a lot of the style and objects this piece employs have since become a bit common, I think: salt, marking out the space, repetition, cameras. It feels a bit ‘default live art’ to me. When I saw Herons at the Lyric in January, it felt really dated – like all the theatre I’d seen hadn’t been around to influence anything else. Growing Old With You, being a revival, feels like that; like I have seen the ripples of this work take effect, seen this practice embed in other artists, to such an extent that now the earlier work is the one that seems run of the mill.

(There’s barely a second to breathe before Paper Cinema kicks off.)

Paper Cinema’s The Night Flyer is technically impressive rather than dramatically gripping. The story is simple, the stuff of a children’s book, and it is lovely. It’s the sort of thing I would’ve gone mad for a few years back, but I’ve reached a cynical point where I can no longer be won with loveliness alone. It is remarkable, though, and I was a bit entranced by Irina and Nick sitting behind the camera, as they swooped and flourished the puppets with delicacy and dexterity – I just never found the pleasure in their story that I found in their movements to tell it.

(big up for the lightning fast turnaround between these two bits, because by this point I realised this was too many shows in one day and was ready to go home and cook dinner)

Dan Canham closes the day with 30 Cecil Street. It might be the perfect 10 year show for Forest. It was the last show performed in their old home on Bristo Place, and it is about a decaying, closed theatre and the memories it contains. It is gorgeous; a dance full of power, nostalgia and sorrow. It somehow manages to be both warm and haunting at the same time – like a ghost giving you a hug, and not dissimilar to his show about Fenland a few years back. There is a moment where Canham dances toward the front of the stage, and behind him are 3 or 4 of his shadow, each a towering stature, and it is so, so beautiful. Canham’s dancing is sculptural and abstract and so perfectly evokes emptiness, the sadness of a once bustling place now left desolate.

(On the bus back to central Edinburgh, I think on the day. Previously at Forest Fringe, there has been work that completely floored me – in 2013 it was I Wish I Was Lonely, in 2014 Hug stole my heart. This year, there’s nothing that really set me on fire, and maybe’s that why I gave some time to thinking about Forest itself. And because Forest is 10, a lot about it is to do with memory and history, and so legacy too, I think. There is a feeling that Forest are a bit bullet proof, PR wise – sitting on the fringe of the Fringe and offering up exciting work for free – and there is no doubt that should be celebreated.

But I have a few issues that I can’t escape. I should say that I have spent time at Forest only while it was at OOTB, in 2013, 2014 and again in 2016. In 2015 I skipped Fringe, but in a session of pining for Edinburgh noticed their 2015 website ‘About‘ section. It doesn’t make it easy to decipher what Forest is or does. Which is fine, but doesn’t necessarily align with what I perceive to be a key part of Forest’s ethos.

This year, ‘Accessibilty’ sits at the top of Forest’s website. It also features prominently in this interview about Forest, from last year. This year’s website has no ‘About’ page (their main site does have a better one, but their URL redirects to the 2016 site currently). I am in no way denying that Forest’s commitment to accessibility because it is of course amazing and brilliant that they offer BSL interpreted shows, are wheelchair accessible and support people who are visually impaired. But, accessibility is more than that. If the way you talk about yourself and your work is obtuse, you shut out those who cannot interpret it or do not already know it. I’ve never seen posters or brochures for Forest outside of Forest (could be wrong, willing to be corrected), and they don’t list in the Fringe guide – unless you already know about Forest, you’ll probably not hear about Forest.  If you offer minimal explanation of yourself at your primary source of info (ie your website), then you don’t offer outsiders a path in.You might read about it, mind – Forest pull fair press coverage. But it’s a a shame if you live in Leith and don’t see theatre and then a load of awesome free stuff turns up on your doorstep and you don’t even know.

But Forest is potentially also shutting our people who want to be involved – who know about it, but can’t join in in certain ways. FF runs using volunteer FOH and technical staff. They do not receive regular funding, nor do they keep any of the donations following their shows, and so obviously it is a challenge to pay people. But, this is still an access issue. If you cannot afford to work for free for a few weeks then you cannot join the team at Forest for the ‘great opportunity’ on offer. As Fringe Whistleblower has taught us, working for free is common practice in August in Edinburgh – but if Forest aims to challenge the Fringe model, can it do so while also relying on unpaid labour like so many other venues?

Right now, in terms of its artistic output, Forest Fringe is thrilling. Its a game changer. But I can’t feel that their way of working entirely aligns with their ethos – there is nothing radical about unpaid labour, not much that encourages risk taking without talking about those risks. So when I see shows about the conversations we should be having, I feel like we might not be having one about the venue I’m sitting in as I watch, and I think we should. So, that’s why I was thinking this on the bus home.)

Out of the Blue Drill Hall 

 

Pond Wife

blue glitter.jpg

Pond Wife is a feminist version of The Little Mermaid. With a set based around a bathtub, Holly & Ted spend an hour dancing and hurling glitter around the place as they retell the tale of a mermaid who comes to the land not to find an eligible prince, but to dance, discover her own voice and put a crack in the glass ceiling.

It’s a bit rough around the edges and that is entirely perfect. What this really feels like is a celebration; a loveletter to a 90s childhood. This is a front-room style tribute act; this is friends on the dancefloor at someone’s ninth birthday falling into a heap of laughter during the macarena; this is fans really indulging in the music that shadowed their earliest experiences. It’s great.

But it’s also better than that, because it  critiques the culture we were fed. The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 and, thanks to a couple of absolute belters in that film (honestly, who doesn’t still want to spin around their room to Part of Your World?), it became key in the 90s kid film roster despite it’s questionable morals. That film, in which Ariel sacrifices her voice for some sexy human lady legs, taught a whole generation of girls that if you change yourself and if you’re hot enough you can shack up with a prince, before abandoning your family and entire way of life to be with him forever. Holly & Ted  do away with the prince, and focus on the mermaid. Our mermaid is curious and clever, and she wants to hear music up beyond the surface. She wants to smash the glass ceiling, not reinforce it. They create the story that I, as a grown up 90s kid staring up at the glass ceiling (largely made of theatres who have no female executive staff btw), needed, rather than the sacharin one I got.

It also draws beautiful, quiet attention to the tension between the message in a song and the creation of an icon. Lucky, the play’s primary pop star, is a construct made by producers to make young girls worship her. She is a tool of capitalism, a character intended to make money. Team captains of 90s pop were The Spice Girls, the ultimate girl power group. But actually, they were put together by a group of men through auditions, and none of them got their own name and was instead assigned an adjective – which isn’t exactly tip top feminisn. Pond Wife seizes the messages from those 90s pop songs and puts them into practiceto make a feminist work, while encouraging you to interrogate the culture you received as well as the people who made it.

On the surface, though, it’s mostly about just enjoying the glitter, bubbles and most perfect use of jelly sandles in costumes ever.

Underbelly

Us / Them

usthem

When I started writing this, I started by reading through the wikipedia article about the Beslan school siege. I knew nothing about it, really. But I was 12 when it happened. When I was 10, the twin towers came down and from that point I suppose I had some awareness that the world was big, and sometimes big things happen. But Beslan, 3 years later, drifted by me.

Children’s theatre in the UK, on the whole, is pretty gentle. It’s mostly made with schools in mind, as they provide such large chunks of ticket income, and so it’s reinterpretations of old stories or adaptations of classic books like 90% of the time. Generally, theatre for children is used to reinforce nice messages, like friendship or the importance of being yourself and other lessons from Saved by the Bell. It seems unlikely that Us / Them, which recaps the events of the Beslan school siege from the perspective of two children, would be made in the UK for an audience of nine and up.

There were no children or young people in the audience when I saw Us / Them at Summerhall, so it’s impossible for me to figure out how the piece might actually work for that age range, but I kinda see it. Instead of going over the full context, the children present their blinkered view of the world: where to see ducks, the size of supermarkets, a received impression that all Chechen men are paedophiles. It sets up the piece as playful, actually quite funny in places, and rooted in feeling more than historical accuracy. As a piece for children, it explores the events as possibility – the sort of thing that could happen, does happen – rather than as an abstract occurrence somewhere far off in a different place.

It is amazing. Constructed like a game in the playground, the two characters compete in their storytelling, sometimes racing ahead of each other or making their own version of what happened particularly spectacular. They chalk our their school, spin bomb wires from balloon tails and turn the effects of dehydration into dance. It looks BEAUTIFUL throughout, creating just the right amount of tangled mess. In being created to seem like it has come from the mind of children, it is haunting and affecting, capturing the horror and confusion of the situation without becoming tragedy porn.

There’s some issues, maybe, with presenting this work for financial gain given the subject at hand – and that’s worth flagging and reading a bit about in Andrew Haydon’s review – but there’s also a glimpse into what children’s theatre has the potential for. It is a way of helping young people make sense of the world. There’s a lightness to Us / Them that means it is a gentle nudge into the big wide world, asking difficult questions about otherness and conflict, without trying to fill in the gaps and over-explain a political situation. Children’s theatre can often exist in an idealised world – one of bright colours and happy endings – and there’s a joy in so much of that work, but maybe it could sit alongside some things that encourage children to interrogate and explore the darker side of the world they inhabit. Maybe my 12 year-old-self could’ve gone some way to understanding this, to even knowing it, if the UK could venture towards treating children like they deserve to understand the world.

This is difficult because so much is income driven, and so much is dictated about what is right for children to see by schools and parents – who have far more right to dictate that than I do – so I am aware I’m being a bit ideological here, but, fuck, imagine if we were churning out this sort of challenging, complex and stunning work for young audiences more often.

Of course, as the room of adults watching it and the slew of great reviews suggest, this is a show that is amazing to watch as a grown up – not least because it looks amazing, but because knowing that we live in a world where killing children can be used as political tools, means that the funniness and warmth of the two central characters is shattering.

Summerhall

Minefield

minefield

Minefield felt oddly close to my heart, and yet very distant for me. Like the events it talks about are something I remember from a dream. I’ve sort of bashed this out, and I don’t think I’ve done the show justice, because I don’t have the adjectives to do so. But I tried anyway.

The dominating thought I had throughout Minefield was of my granddad, who was stationed in the Falklands following the war to ‘keep the peace’. I occasionally think, too, of my uncle Phillip, a veteran of the same war. As I was watching it, I wished my dad was sitting and watching it with me. It’s a rare thought for me in a theatre, but my dad served in the army when he was younger and the military runs in the blood of his family, and it certainly felt like this show was for him. And for my Grandad and uncle, too.

Minefield is stunning. It completely shatters you by being just so very, very human. It is performed by six veterans of the Falklands War; 3 Argentinians, 2 Englishmen and a Gurkha who fought for the British Army. Each have brought their own memories, artifacts and scars to the show, which have been shaped by Lola Arias into a seering half-Spanish-half-English slice to the soul.

It is sort-of-documentary theatre, but self-aware about its representation and mis-remembering of the past. The six veterans operate cameras and present models. They blow into mics and paddle in shallow bowls to create the soundscape. Everything in this show is from them, because to use effects created by other people would mean that other people’s influence would creep into their stories. Other people cannot tell this story, because only those who have lived through it seem to have the right to decide how to share it.

What is most glorious is that it is so honest, and in being so doesn’t shamelessly tug on your heartstrings. There’s that moment in some movies where the sad piano music swells and you feel conscious that you should feel sad now. Not so, with Minefield. These are just people who have a shared history of something unimaginable, and the heartbreak is born from learning about them, laughing with them, seeing just how something horrible both breaks and recreates someone. The sadness is so much more than sadness, too – it is visceral in its rage at times, but there is confusion as to where to direct the anger, and between the veterans there is a sense of affection; a language of unspoken shared history.

When the guitars come out, that’s when I most want my dad with me. Music is for him what theatre is for me, I think. Music unites him with the people around him, is how he explores the world. He sees the high seas through the music of Alestorm, while I learn about the navy in the Royal Court. He took up guitar recently. When Lou Armour screams into a mic, backed by his band of 50-something-year-old veterans – the same age as my dad – I want my dad to feel this group pulsate with absolute shuddering power.

I didn’t learn about the Falklands War at school, bar a brief mention in my A Level History. A footnote to Thatcher’s victory. Watching Minefield, I felt this deep wave of guilt. I regularly pay £15 to hear other people’s stories and see how they view the world, but I ignore the same history when it sits on my doorstep.

My grandad has one eye and one ear. Once, my dad pushed his brother in the River Severn, and when questioned about it, my dad told his dad his brother was ‘being a twat’ – my grandad subsequently congratulated my dad on his triumph. Another time, a load of kids were in my dad’s house’s front garden and my grandad felt like they were watching his family eat, so the following day he marched his five children to the house of the other kids and he had them stare into the window while the other family had tea.

He served in the army for his whole working life. But he is an anecdote in the stories I tell, a cantankerous figure in the comedy caricature I construct of my family. I have never spoken to him about his experience in the Falklands, or much else of his time in the military. This is a man to whom I in part owe my existence, and I, like our cultural zeitgeist, have shown little to no interest in his history.

I wonder what he would have thought about the show. I wonder if he ever crossed paths with any of these six men. I wonder if he still speaks to anyone he served with. I wonder if he found any items on the Islands that once belonged to these men.

I stand pretty firmly against war – and Minefield seems to support that stance, to an extent – but that doesn’t mean I am not actually pretty honoured to have had the stories of these six veterans shared with me so beautifully, too. Whatever side you fight on, you fight, sometimes for reasons you don’t even know. You fight, and you protect those around you and you try to survive, and you do that on top of all the things that go into being a normal human being, and I want to stand up and respect that. I can hope that no other person ever has to fight, but I will respect those that have and do.*

I want Minefield to go out and play in theatres and pubs and schools all around the UK. I want it to reach more people than it can at the Royal Court. I want it to shake our institutions down. I want it to fight back, to remind us all and teach us all about the wars we have forgotten. I want my dad to see it and to hear the music.I want him to tell his brother about it so he can know we remember. I want everyone to see it, because it is magnificent in its power.

Royal Court Theatre (part of LIFT 2016)

*This is really hard for me to write, because the EU Referendum is around the corner and I flinch at the mention of anything even vaguely nationalistic right now, and I don’t know how to convey honour or pride properly without feeling like I am venturing into nationalistic territory. I hope this didn’t. The Falklands War was deeply flawed on both sides, and my sense of ‘honour’ is not nationalistic pride. It is a honour to to see and support such strength from these men. The military runs through the blood of my dad’s family, and so it flows through my veins, too – and so I will always find space to respect soldiers on any side. They are not sending us to war, but fighting in it. I still don’t think I’ve got this right – but I hope you know what I mean. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

midsummer

Something being old is not an excuse to present a now unsettling subtext. Not everything can be played only for laughs. You can’t say anything just because it’s Shakespeare.

There’s a lot to be said for Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe. It is full of joy, a vibrant and invigorating start for her time as Artistic Director. There’s a lion costume made of rubber gloves that is BRILLIANT, and it uses a diverse cast and switches set character gender without making it a big deal. I don’t really get on with Shakespeare, and so seeing someone at the helm willing to let the text fly a bit free from all the reverence poured over it is really, really great.

There’s a lot to be said for The Globe, too. I’ve lived in London for two and a half years and been twice, for this and for Titus Andronicus. Both times, I’ve seen what we as a nation consistently talk about as the greatest playwright of all effing time for a fiver. The audience is diverse in all visible aspects – and though much of this is down to the tourist trade, I wonder how many venues could get a roomful of tourists to audibly gasp or cheer. There are people here who, I would guess, are not regular theatre goers. The Globe should be applauded for managing to keep tickets at £5, rather than hiking them up to meet demand or whatever bullshit reason West End producers cite for charging hundreds of pounds for tickets.

But, there’s a dark undertone to this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I want to talk about.*

You know when you watch Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, and there’s that bit where the Beast *hurls* Belle’s dad into the back of a moving cart? Then there’s the bits where he’s full on roaring in her face? That’s still a good film and you can still see the skill and warmth in its creation, but there’s this sense of discomfort in knowing that this is one of the narratives forming the ways in which young people view their place in the world. Men are violent, women are timid, and even if a man is violent you should still marry him at the end.

Part of my issue with Shakespeare is that it is all 400 odd years old, and I can’t really see the relevance in presenting most of it now. I saw As You Like It in January at the National, and everyone gets married at the end. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everyone gets married at the end. In a Shakespearean comedy, women can be as intelligent, witty and erudite as possible but they still exist to be married off. I want to see theatre that says something about the world we live in now, and I just really want to feel like we’ve moved on in the last 400 fucking years. I want the young girls in this audience to feel like they can be more than someone’s wife.

There were young girls in the audience on the day I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because The Globe is a popular destination for school trips. There were at least three groups from different schools at the performance I went to. Ages 11 – 15, I’d wager.

There’s the weddings. These are tricky, because the text is altered enough in Rice’s production that they could’ve just like, started going steady or something. They didn’t need to get married. But it’s in the text, so I guess is at least a bit forgiveable (barf), and my desire to see something actually relevant to 2016 is maybe just a taste thing.

But there’s more than that. The lovers – Hermia, Lysander, Helenus and Demetrius – all get criss crossed in a big love cube. There’s a lovely thing here, in that this is a rare depiction of bisexuality in theatre. But there’s a less lovely thing, in that there are physical fights between the lovers. Lysander hits his former-love Hermia, Hermia kicks him in the nads, Lysander fights back, Demetrius and Helenus tussle too. For this to work – for you to feel the scorn of the rejected lovers – the fights need to seem a bit real, it needs to seem like those hits hurt and the vitriol in those words is meant. It’s a bit funny, but it’s also part of that damaging dialogue we offer to young people that the important thing is marriage, not self-care or safety. Hermia and Lysander still marry at the end, and no one ever brings up the fact that Lysander has been verbally and physically aggressive to Hermia. The lovers wear modern dress, too, so this can’t be done away with as ‘the way things were’, because it is being presented like this is now. You can’t say they’re all off their tits on fairy induced highs either, because if someone in a relationship hits someone while they’re wankered that is still not ok. This production breaks the rules enough that Hermia could tell Lysander to do one. But she marries him, and as she marries him in their little hipster wedding I despair for the children in the audience.

But this is not the worst. We’ve been marrying our characters off to abusive cunts for comedy for centuries, and at least the fighting does find a little humour. But I find rape really, really difficult to watch played for laughs, especially when it’s a throwaway gag. For a chunk of the show, Titania lies unconscious in the centre of the stage. At one point, Oberon straddles her and gently thrusts into her a few times. He climbs off, and then shakes his leg a little, presumably to get the cum to drip off. Now maybe fairies have some mad mind powers that allowed Titania to communicate her consent to Oberon while she was asleep, but to a muggle audience he rapes her. THEN HE MARRIES HER AT THE END, his raping of her but a distant memory to characterise him as a scumbag and get a cheap laugh for a cum joke. Titania – otherwise played by Meow Meow as a sexually assertive, confident woman – marries her rapist and no one bats an eyelid or brings it up ever. There is a school group that just got told rape is no big deal.

Maybe I’m being over dramatic and over sensitive, and I’m sorry if that seems the case. But I’m just really sick of tradition being used as an excuse to trot out miserable, misogynistic messages to impressionable audiences. This is still a good show and you can still see the skill and warmth in its creation, but it is uncomfortable at times. If this was a show only for adults – if there was an age guideline, for instance, and not just a cheeky warning for ‘naughtiness of a sexual nature’ – I’d maybe forgive it. I’d forgive it for being set in a magical land of hipsters and fairies wearing nipple tassles, a world away from our own. I’d say that Emma Rice’s production breaks enough rules set out for Shakespeare that the wave of excitement it lets you ride is enough to wash over the bad bits. But this is as much a rant about responsible marketing as it is about artistic decisions. If your show has a rape in it that is then never addressed, you should turn the school group away. I can only hope that somewhere there is a school resource pack being circulated that encourages teaches to talk about this and to use this show as a springboard for hard conversations. If there is, then I can’t find it up for download, but I hope it’s out there. I hope that The Globe have something that tells the school groups that walk through their doors to interrogate what they see, that stops it being part of the worldwide conversation that treats sexual and physical abuse like it’s no big deal. Because you can present rape and abuse on stage, as long as you interrogate it, as long as it means more than delivering a quick giggle.

Globe Theatre

*I do have a tendency to overthink gender and the portrayal of how we treat women. But when we came out of the show my friend brought up this issue before I did and so I feel justified in this rant.