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Saturday, June 30, 2012

'100% London' at the Hackney Empire, 29th June 2012

Saturday, June 30, 2012 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

'100% London' is a theatre of demographics and statistics, a theatre of the multitude.  If it does tell a story, then it is one of the city's passions, pain and pride.  This production, by company Rimini Protokoll, features 100 participants chosen in a kind of daisy-chain.  One person asks another, and they ask a friend and so on.  Eventually we end up with a cross-section of the populace, a tumultuous mix of ages, races, religions, genders, sexualities, nationalities and politics.

This blog is called 'London City Nights', but I haven't really had an opportunity before this to talk much about the city as a whole.  I love this city, I love everything about it - even the stuff I hate, if that makes any sense.  If I could choose to live anywhere in the world, I'd live in London.  Someone in this production comments: "London isn't like the rest of England, it's different".  To someone who hasn't been sucked into the whirlpool this sounds like a cliche Londoncentric attitude, a prime example of the viewpoint that life ends at the M25.  But it's true.  London really isn't like the rest of the country: it's more dynamic, more open-minded, more flexible and, somewhat ironically given the cliches, more welcoming. This year, for better or worse, London is in the spotlight. The advertising seems to focus on spectacle - all swooping helicopter shots over the thrusting phallic landmarks and giant bells clanging over it.  Ordinary Londoners are notable by their absence.  So this show seeks to redress the balance - taking the collective psychic subconsciousness of the London public and throwing it onto stage.

Harnessing this sea of opinion and history is necessarily a messy affair.  The show is rough around the edges and there is a distinct lack of glamour.  We open with a lone man on stage who tells us the recent history of the Hackney Empire, and how he used to play bingo here.  He looks a little nervous and talks haltingly.  The stage looks enormous around him, and I feel a pang of sympathy for him, while at the same time hoping that the rest of this performance isn't going to be this awkward.  He tells us of his life, about his emigration from Jamaica in the 60s and his subsequent life in Hackney.  As we get an understanding of the man he introduces another person, who tells us something about themselves, they introduce another friend to us and so on.  We meet 100 people in this manner.  They're not rushed and seem to get as long as they want to speak to us.  Some of them briefly announce their name and move on in moments, some of them tell us fairly long anecdotes about their past.  You might think that 100 people seems like a lot - how can we be expected to meet so many people without it all becoming a bit samey?  But there is always some spark that sets them apart from the crowd, something that makes them stick in our minds.  

After we've been introduced to everyone we move onto the meat of the matter - where they're quizzed about their viewpoints, asked questions as varied as "Do you think the NHS should be privatised?", "Are women and men treated equally?" and "Do you think Mandarin Chinese should be taught in schools?"  The crowd divide themselves according to their answers, forming and reforming into two groups showing their opinion.  There is a camera high above the stage, and the view from above is projected onto a circular screen above the stage.  It neatly transforms the movement of the people on stage into something diagrammatical, allowing us to see the people impersonally, as points of data on a chart.

The split viewpoint is used in a number of interesting ways in the performance, it's frequently visually arresting - particularly when the crowd is asked some personal questions they may prefer to be anonymous for.  The lights go down and they're asked to raise their mobile phone screens up to the camera if they're answering 'yes'.  The result picture looks like a view from a telescope, tiny balls of light shimmering in the darkness.  It's quite beautiful, and if the theme of this show is to highlight the beauty of a person in the crowd then symbolically showing them as stars shining in the night sky is a wonderful way of doing it.

Another wonderful sequence is when they ask the crowd to mime what they're doing at different times of the day.  It's a hilarious way of showing the 24 hour nature of London, a city that never sleeps.  As people drop off to sleep some are still partying away, and as they rise for work others fall asleep.  Once again it divides the crowd  yet still allows us to view them as one organism working in harmony.

As we see more of their opinions we begin to become surprised by some of the participants.  You can't help but form your own picture of their lives and how they think, it's easy to try and fit them into your own stereotypes and then it's strangely uplifting when they defy them.  Who would have thought that this sweet looking old lady spent 4 years in prison for trying to smuggle a bus full of marijuana through Europe?  That the fashionable and slightly self conscious teenage girl with hair over one eye has apparently experienced some kind of military service?  It's an excellent demonstration of the maxim that people are not pre-packaged bundles of opinions and ideas; just because someone believes in x does not mean they will automatically believe in y.

Later in the show more personal questions are asked, and we seem to peer into these people's lives in a more intimate manner.  People come forward who've survived cancer and stand together.  A group who've suffered from depression.  People who've thought about killing themselves.  Never does one person stand alone during any of these, and it's somehow comforting that no matter what you've been through there is someone who can empathise with you.  There is one sequence where they are asked to come forward "If they think they will be dead within 10 years?".  A small group of people stand at the front of the stage, almost aggressively confronting us with the nature of their confessed fragile mortality.  The next question is asked "Who thinks they'll be dead within 30 years?", the crowd grows larger, the question is asked again this time for 70 years, and finally 120.  Everyone stands on stage, even the young children.  It's a weird moment seeing these small children acknowledging their own mortality.

There are some flaws with this performance - they change things up frequently to keep things fresh, but it is hard to get away from the fact that this is essentially a series of questions asked for two hours and occasionally during some of the less illuminating questions it becomes a bit dull.  But usually within a few minutes some odd statistical quirk or funny anecdote will set you thinking again (Wow, a lot of people seem to support Britain becoming a republic.  Hm.).  There's also a bit towards the end of the show where they ask the audience if they can take a minute without nothing happening on stage.  Maybe it's because the night before I watched a similar scene and can already fully appreciate how long a minute can feel. Either way, while admittedly an interesting exercise in time perception, it is also pretty boring.  Fortunately this is a blip, the show generally holds your attention throughout and you're constantly being shown interesting 'data' to evaluate.

At times, nearly everyone finds the sheer size of London intimidating.  They sense themselves being chipped away by the multitude, losing their individuality and becoming just another face in a huge crowd.  When travelling in rush hour on the tube its hard not to feel like a product, something being shuttled around an uncaring system, a rat running madly around a maze with no escape or reward at the end.  This show is an experience that cures that malaise.  It forces you to come to realisation that everyone around you has their own story, personality, or something to set them apart from the crowd, and that you do too.  It'd be very easy for a production like this to take a fiercely anti-individualistic position, and treat this crowd purely as a symbolic representation of the 7.5 million inhabitants of London.  They're not, they're defined strongly as individuals in their own right, and by extension so is the audience.

This year the fear of your personality being dissolved into the masses has another level:  London itself is under attack.  London's individuality is under siege, people having their homes transformed into missile platforms,  bulldozers clearing space for  brushed aluminium Olympic venues and hamburger stands.  If there ever was a time for a production to unambiguously say that the power of London is in its citizens it is now.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

'Democracy' at the Old Vic, 28th June 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Walking into a play like Michael Frayne's ‘Democracy' carries with it its own set of worries.   I know vaguely that it's about  the machinations of politicians in West Germany in the early 70s, this, to be honest, doesn't sound like a whiteknuckle thrillride. My knowledge of postwar West German politics is pretty basic, and creeping around the back of my mind was the fear that I’d signed myself up for an evening of very dry and worthy political drama.  At first, I feel like these fears are all coming true.  The stage is rapidly populated by  a group of middle-aged and elderly men in suits, and without much explanation we’re thrown into a complex world of coalitions and acronyms: SDP, CDU, FDP.  For the first third of the play I’m more preoccupied by trying to work out who is who and how these characters inter-relate to each other.  It’s hard going. I begin to wish I’d done a bit of pre-reading as to who the characters in this play are and what they're doing. 

The play concerns the intertwined lives of two men:  German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and his assistant Gunter Guillaume.  Brandt was a popular and charismatic, Nobel prize winning politician seemingly adored by his public.  Guilluame was one of his closest aides, living and working with Brandt for years.  But Guilluame was also a deep cover spy working for the East German Stasi, feeding them confidential information on Brandt for years.  When Guillaume was exposed, it led to the resignation and disgrace of Brandt, arguably to the detriment of both West and East Germany.

The two men initially seem quite different, Brandt seems like a born leader and orator, a man able to sense public opinion, to make people love and believe in him.  Guillaume on the other hand is ingratiating, eager-to-please and submissive, a character that lurks in the periphery of rooms, trying to become part of the scenery.  The men come from starkly different political backgrounds which inform much of their personalities, Brandt seems to effortlessly swim through the murky waters of parliamentary democracy, while Guillaume comes from the authoritarian and repressive East Germany.  As the two men bond and  discover they have more in common than they initially thought, the emotional stakes are raised. Guillaume begins to desperately worry about what might happen to Brandt if he was uncovered as a spy. 

Willy Brandt (Patrick Drury) and Gunter Guillaume (Aidan McArdle)
The relationship between the two men in terms of spy and subject is somewhat unique.  Guillaume is not under orders to sabotage Brandt, or to try and undermine, rather he is there so the East Germans can try to understand the man, and found out what makes him tick.  The tragedy of this relationship is that in doing this the two men come to implicitly trust each other.  Guillaume eventually begins to love the man he is lying to every day, and develops an appreciation of the thrills of parliamentary politics.  Meanwhile, Brandt comes to rely on Guillaume’s organisational and bureaucratic skills, and his understanding of how to cheer him up. 

Once I understood the nature of this relationship and had gotten to grips with the personalities of these men, the play becomes much easier to digest.  Patrick Drury as Brandt has a fairly complex task in portraying a man who can be marching in front of a crowd giving an inspiring speech one moment, and sitting crumpled in his office in a depressive fugue the next.  Whenever he makes a speech an echoing, booming effect is added to the actor’s voice, making us feel every portentous and inspiring word, as if he is speaking to us clearly through the fog of history.  Even though he’s dynamic and successful, Drury imbues him with a sense of tragic vulnerability.  He is surrounded by venal, backstabbing colleagues, and he alone seems like a true idealist and visionary.   We hear about his womanising and his drinking, but these flaws somehow serve  only to throw into sharp contrast his positive points.  This is helped by scenes where Brandt tells us about his past dodging the Gestapo during World War II, there is a tenderness and emotional nakedness to the performance which is unnerving in a portrayal of a politician, and makes his  eventual discovery of Guillaume’s betrayal that much more tragic.

Aidan McArdle has a dual role to play as Guillaume: character and narrator.  He tells us the story in the past tense, often ‘pausing’ the action to explain what’s going on, or to explain his thoughts at a particular moment.  His East German origins are known to the other characters, and this throws him open to some suspicion, although he manages to deflect it through most of the play, mainly by his sycophancy and harmless, bumbling persona.  In the first half of the play, before he gains Brandt’s respect he is looked down upon by his colleagues, being described as ‘greasy’ and disparaged for only having experience of running a photocopying shop.  McArdle’s body language in these early scenes is great, he’s always hunched over, almost hiding behind the files he’s sorting through.  He’s seemingly succeeding in becoming ‘part of the furniture’, while behaving manically as narrator while the play is on 'pause'.  As the pressure mounts, McArdle does a great job of showing the stress and guilt caused by espionage and undercover work.  His handler is omnipresent throughout the play, perched smoking just outside of the main action, a constant observer of his actions.  We can almost taste Guillaume's sweat as the pincers close in on him.  This is a not altogether likeable character, after all, his very nature is to lie to those the audience is set up to admire, but McArdle manages to make us feel the pain of his betrayal and his growing guilt and paranoia at being exposed as a spy.

 The rest of the cast all perform admirably, especially William Hoyland as Herbert Wehner, who looks and acts like an sinister Tony Benn.  Also excellent is David Cann, who I pretty much could watch in anything.  The roles outside of Brandt and Guillaume aren’t the most compelling though, especially as they tend to appear onstage as a crowd rather than individually, making their personalities somewhat indistinct.  By far the best scenes in the play are those where Brandt and Guillaume bond one on one, and learn about each other.  The tension of the play ratchets up a few notches whenever it’s just the two of them on stage, and slackens when they’re joined by the crowd.  I suppose if you’re going to do a semi-biopic you need to show these other politicians to tell the full historical story, but from a dramatic point of view they seem to distract the audience, turning our attention away from the central relationship that drives the narrative.

Another interesting aspect of the casting is that this is an all-male play.  I can appreciate the argument that this is necessitated by the patriarchal nature of politics at this time, but there are female characters referred to, we just never see them.  Women in this play are generally relegated to either an element that undermines the characters (Guillaume’s wife’s request for divorce or the prostitutes that play a major part in Brandt’s downfall) or some distant element of a crowd looking up at you.  I’m not entirely sure what the play is trying to achieve by this, it is a curiously sexless piece, seemingly more concerned with politics than romance.  I suppose it is possible that any other romantic bond would distract from the central bond between Brandt and Guillaume, but a total lack of women seems like a deliberate and slightly puzzling decision.

This isn't the most immediately accessible play around.  It throws the audience right into the deep end, and even up until the interval I wouldn’t say that I had a total grasp of what was going on.  In fact, once the interval was over, quite a lot of people didn’t bother coming back for the second half.  I can’t really blame them, there’s about an hour and a half before the interval. If you get that far into a play and it’s not doing anything for you then I think you can be forgiven for giving up on it. 

But this is a shame, while the first half can at times seem like a barely disguised information dump, it pays off in the second half when the play deals with more understandable human interactions and emotions.  It’s a far more interesting play once they don’t need to worry about setting things up, and it fascinatingly explores how different personalities can bond, how we ‘each contain a multitude’ and how political beliefs influence our interactions.

I did have a slight issue with the humour though.  The play has farcical elements, but a lot of laughs come from “are things so different in modern British politics?” subtle winks.  This kind of knowing, ironic humour doesn’t really do much for me, relying as it does on political science injokes that serve to make the people that 'get it' feel clever.  Obviously I don’t have a problem in a play using the events of the past as a mirror of the contemporary government, but these events don’t really work as a point of comparison.  Some of the biggest laughs are gotten from the fact that the Social Democratic Party Brandt belongs to is in a shaky political coalition with the 'Free Democratic Party', who are referred to as “The Liberals”.  This play was written in the early 2000s, but now lines about the Liberals being ‘difficult coalition partners’ cause knowing chuckles in the audience.  It’s unearned laughter, especially as the Liberal Democrats are for the most part very compliant coalition partners.  As far as I can see there is no point of comparison between these two coalitions, and the humour seems to be predicated on the fact that the two parties have the same name.  I guess this is maybe more of a problem with the audience than with the production, but if you’re going to even vaguely suggest that this play is somehow allegorical then I think you should follow through with it. 

(the real) Willy Brandt kneels in contrition in Warsaw
Despite these criticisms, this is, for the most part, a powerful and affecting piece of drama.  A scene where Brandt spontaneously kneels in front of a monument to those killed in the Warsaw ghetto is powerfully staged and lit, and manages to capture the gravitas of the moment.  Other outstanding scenes are a relaxed conversation between Guillaume and Brandt on holiday in Norway, where Brandt very subtly raises the tension and probes Guillaume about the nature of spying - you could hear a pin drop in the theatre!  Even though the Old Vic has a fairly expansive stage, this production manages to capture a cramped atmosphere, a time of meetings in poorly lit offices with bundles of paper everywhere.  A nice factor is the smell of cigarette smoke.  Guillaume’s handler smokes through the play, observing events dispassionately.  The smell adds another sensual layer to the performance, sucking you even further into the past and the complex political and personal power games.

This isn’t a play for everyone.  It’s wilfully hard to follow at first, occasionally a little dull and hardly spectacular to look at. But once you’ve digested the motivations, setting and characters, you’ll find a surprisingly personal, touching and quietly humanistic piece of theatre.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

‘Sound Of My Voice’ (2012) directed by Zal Batmanglij, 26th June 2012

Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

‘Sound Of My Voice’ is a modest, smart little film about the dangers of faith and the nature of belief.  It centres around a cult led by a woman who claims to have travelled back in time from the year 2054 in order to save a group of ‘chosen ones’ from danger.  Our protagonists are documentary film-makers who set out to expose her as a fraud, but become more involved than they’d originally planned.  The film is co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, who stars in the film with Christopher Denholm and Nicole Vicius.

It’s a lean film, clocking in at only 85 minutes, but it possesses an admirable confidence in its premise.  The ‘time travel’ genre is riddled with clich├ęs and plot holes, and it’s a credit to the film that it largely avoids these.  It does this not through some rigorous application of logic (as in the incredibly complex ‘Primer), rather, the film chooses not to dwell on the hows and whys and tends to treat events poetically rather than mechanically.  As Maggie tells it, she just woke up in a motel bathtub one day and stumbled around until someone realised she was from the future. 

Our viewpoints into this strange cult are Peter (Christopher Denholm) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), two documentary film-makers.  Peter is motivated by the death of his mother from cancer, she was in a cult and refused any medical treatment.  Lorna is Peter’s girlfriend, an ex-model and party girl who’s cleaned up her life and is trying to do something of worth.  They’re a good pair, and as audience substitutes express just the right amount of incredulity at the cult’s strange behaviour.   During the cult meetings, they’re ‘undercover’, which adds quite a bit of tension to these scenes.  The audience is in a conspiracy with the characters during these scenes, and the actors do a great job in expressive but subtle non-verbal communication.   They manage to say an awful lot with the occasional glance to the other, with a flick of their eyes, or with a suppressed smile.

Christopher Denham as ‘Peter’ has the largest emotional arc in the film, and has the most at stake personally.  It’s apparent to us pretty early on that his documentary is a revenge on the type of system he hold responsible for killing his mother.  He’s a rational character, though somewhat self-centred and begins the film with absolute surety that he’s doing the right thing.  Denham is very good at showing this self-assuredness, and how it begins to crumble as the film progresses.  In an examination of the nature of faith and belief it’s quite refreshing to have our skeptical protagonist be eminently relatable and even when things get a bit weirder than he anticipates, he never completely loses his sense of self awareness.  With such a nice bit of efficient characterisation, it’s a pity that Nicole Vicius’ ‘Lorna’ doesn’t get quite as much development.  Her background as an ex-‘party girl’  seems to put her in the position of someone who would be susceptible to being given purpose by a cult, but the film never really explores this in enough detail.  She is shown as getting into the spirit of things a lot more than Peter though, and has a great, tense scene in the woods with a ‘true believer’ cult member.   In a tightly focused film like this, and without an overt motivation, she tends be used as a sounding board for Peter’s ideas and thoughts, only really gaining agency in the final act.

Brit Marling, as ‘Maggie’, the woman who claims to be from the future, is the magnetic lynchpin of the film around which everything else revolves.  The film doesn’t waste time - it is not long before we meet Maggie, who’s on screen within the first 10 minutes or so.  Even so, her introduction instils in the audience precisely the kind of religious awe that she inspires in her on-screen followers.  We understand pretty quickly why they believe her farfetched story of being sent from the future.  Her pure white robes, controlled body language and long wavy hair make us view her as holy and angelic.  But it’s explicitly calculated religious iconography, within the context of the film it is shown to be designed to make us and her onscreen followers react to her with reverence.  This illusion is consciously stripped back at various points, and we see her more as a relatable person rather than as a messiah.

The question that we puzzle over throughout the film is whether she is telling the truth?  Is she consciously manipulating her followers?  Is she mentally ill and being manipulated herself ? Could she genuinely be from the future?  As usual, pondering the question is far more interesting than knowing the answer, and we’re teased back and forth, sometimes being lead one way, and sometimes another.  As such, our (and our protagonist's) perception of the character swings from awe to suspicion and back again throughout the narrative.  It’s always clear though, that whether she is from the future or not, that there is something special about her.

There are two scenes which stand out as exemplary bits of acting from Marling.  The first is where she breaks down Peter’s emotional barriers and gives him what is later described as ‘an emotional orgasm’.  Marling’s characterisation of Maggie is so strong by this point in the film that we already accept that susceptible people would follow her, but this scene proves that she has ‘something else’ that allows her to see through people’s lies and into their past.  The character of Maggie is consistently tactile, touching and rubbing people, trying to get them to be what she considers honest with themselves.  In this scene she asks questions about Peter’s past, probing him both physically and mentally, trying to get him to admit that he’s emotionally “lame”.  While this is seen as ostensibly therapeutic by the rest of the cult members, we see in close up Maggie’s subtle and sadistic predatory glee.  Breaking someone down into a sobbing, vomiting mess  obviously counts as a ‘win’ for her, but even so this still supports both readings of the character.  If you’re working on the basis that she is from the future and wants to help her followers, then the emotional breakdown she induces must be for the good of Peter.  If you’re assuming that she’s a con artist, then this scene is an exhibition of her talent for turning sceptical resistance into malleability.

Peter (Christopher Denholm) and Maggie (Brit Marling)
The second scene I’d like to highlight reverses the roles.  Again the scene takes place with Maggie holding court among her followers, but this time she is the one being interrogated by them.  She describes music in the post apocalyptic future as not being recorded, being passed around vocally, with people teaching each other songs in a vocal tradition.  Quite reasonably, her curious followers ask her to sing them a song from the future.  Suddenly the spotlight is on her, and it’s fascinating to watch her squirm.  She lamely claims that she doesn’t sing, but it’s quickly clear that this isn’t going to be good enough.  Asking her disciples to close their eyes, the camera unblinkingly focuses on her face.  She looks nervous, cornered, and extremely suspicious.  Nervously she starts singing, first tentatively, then more confidently.  It’s a good song and for a moment she looks relieved like she’s managed to dodge a bullet.  Then one of her followers points out that she just sang ‘Dreams’ by the Cranberries.  “But, that was a song from the 90s, like, the 1990s”.  Immediately she makes a lame excuse that someone called “Bennett” made it famous in the future.  It’s a wonderful bit of acting as she’s cornered, thinks she’s escaped, but then is seemingly found out.  When she was stalling, was she trying to think of a song obscure enough that not many people would automatically recognise it?  Or was she actually trying to think of a song from the future?

It’s interesting that even among the audience there are two ways to view this scene.  I knew the song sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Before it was revealed as a Cranberries song my view of the scene was that the character had miraculously plucked a great song from nowhere.  “Hey, this is good – maybe she is from the future.”  Meanwhile, the friend who accompanied me to the cinema immediately recognised the song and straightaway concluded that the character must be a fraud. Throughout the film Marling’s performance swings subtly between her being a villain or a saviour, and her actions can be interpreted as either. Without the audience being able to interpret her performance in two ways the film would fall flat on its face.  It’s impressive to say the least.

Magnetic and creepy.
The film is minimalist in both structure and in its production design.  Most of the cult action takes place in a calm, empty cream room with very little distractions and with the exception of the finale there is no  obvious location filming.  But, as I said, this is a modest film that recognises its limitations and plays to its strengths.  The script is intelligent, fairly pacy (although it does slightly drag before the conclusion) and does the smart thing of giving us just enough information to come to our own conclusions as to what’s going on.  It’s difficult to pigeonhole this film into a genre, on one hand the time travel elements seem to peg it as science fiction, but the film goes out of its way never to explore the mechanics or rules of its time travel, so it strays into the realm of magic realism.  So if you’re the kind of viewer that wants everything tied up neatly and explained, then this film is likely to frustrate you with its opacity.  

Fairly uniquely, the ‘chapter’ numbers pop up throughout the film as intertitles.  It’s an interestingly overt structural device, one which constantly reminds us that we’re watching a fiction. The use of this device demonstrates that whilst the director and writers are concerned with philosophical issues, they also recognise the importance of the narrative.  The film is occasionally a little too coy plotwise, and we are generally invited to deduce connections rather than rely on direct exposition.  In one sense this means the film is ultimately slightly frustrating - the final scenes definitely raise more questions than they answer.  In fact, the events of the film could easily be condensed into the first act of another, more epic and action-packed film.   Having said that, the climax is undeniably powerful and is only improved by the ambiguity surrounding it.

Batmanglij is admirably focused for a first time director.  He recognises the limitations of his budget he’s got to work with and doesn’t over-reach, but at the same time it’s clear that he knows how to accentuate what does work, namely three great central performances (one of them outstanding) and a smart, well-paced, literate script.  I hope he doesn’t abandon his restraint when he’s given a bigger budget, as he’s proved here that less can very often be much much more.

'Sound Of My Voice' is on general release from 3rd August 2012

Sunday, June 24, 2012

'66 Minutes in Damascus' at Shoreditch Town Hall, 23rd June 2012

Sunday, June 24, 2012 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

(promo picture for the play, the rest of the pictures on this page are news photos from Syria)
'66 Minutes in Damascus', written and directed by Lucien Bourjeily, is probably the most intense and terrifying theatrical experience I've ever been through in my life.  I'm writing this on the last day of performance, so I feel somewhat comfortable spoiling things, this is a production that works so much better when you don't know exactly what's going to happen going in.

I had only read a very vague description of what was to come, but I'd gathered that it was an interactive theatre experience that would try and show me a little of what life is like in contemporary Damascus as the Assad regime cracks down on the populace with the might of the Syrian Armed Forces while the Free Syrian Army retaliates.  I was a little concerned that this would be a kind of vicarious warzone tourism for Westerners.  I didn't want  something that was just going to shake me up with a series of loud bangs and flashes to give me some sensory overload, a kind of a theme park, rollercoaster view of the conflict.  I needn't have worried, as while this did leave  me in a kind of wired, adrenaline overload, it did it while presenting a frighteningly plausible simulation of an experience in an Assad  regime detention centre.

The premise is that myself and seven other participants are Western tourists that have come to Damascus to sightsee.  As we arrive at Shoreditch Town Hall we're led into a hotel lobby.  There's posters advertising the sights of the city, and small cups of tea to drink.  A very pleasant receptionist takes our details and as people fill into the room she tells us about the sights we'll be seeing in the city, how we'll have to take off our shoes in order to enter the Umayyad Mosque and to be careful at the market and so on.  Eventually our friendly bus driver arrives, and we follow him through the building as he teaches us a few basic Arabic phrases.  As he jokes with us we are led down some stairs, and then out of the corner of our eyes we see a man with an AK47 assault rifle by the stairs.

Before we have time to process what's going on everyone starts screaming in Arabic, and we're shoved against the wall with our hands above our heads over our heads.  All around us men are shouting orders in Arabic, and one by one we have black bags placed over our heads, blocking out all light.  It's astonishing how terrifying and disconcerting this is.   Even with the mental safety net of knowing I'm in Shoreditch at a theatrical performance, I still find my legs and hands shaking involuntarily.  We're roughly led outside and into a van, where our hands are buckled down between our legs and people beat the outside of the menacingly.  We're driven around while Syrian music is blared at us, and the van rocks over rough terrain.  It's difficult to tell where we are going, and the van drives for a sufficiently long time as to completely disorientate us.  It stops, and still blind and hooded we're marched, hands on each other's shoulders into a room where the hoods are pulled off.

We seem to be in some Syrian Army commander's office.  He sits behind a desk as we line up in front of him, an ominous picture of Assad bearing down from the wall behind him (his picture is omnipresent throughout the performance).  He checks our names against a list, and informs us that one our group is a journalist and has 'illegally' sent a report out of the country.  He's going to find out which one.  He then threateningly lectures us about Western intervention in the Middle East, repeating a popular saying; "before there was one Saddam Hussein, now there are millions of Saddam Husseins'. He quizzes us as to whether our system of government is much better than his.  It's valid political commentary, even though it's being used to justify the murderous Assad regime in Syria.  It's not like we can debate this guy though, we've been too shocked into submission to argue.   When he pointed at me and asked my name, I was surprised by how shaky and nervous my response was.  Again, even though I 'knew' it wasn't real, apparently my body didn't.

Following this lecture we're marched down a corridor and made to stand arms in the air and heads up.  Also lying in the corridor is a beaten and bloody man under a sheet.  He desperately asks us to contact his mother and let her know that he's here.  I find myself somewhat paranoid and avoid talking to him, how do I know he's not some plant put here to get information out of me?  Very quickly you slip into a paranoid and somewhat placid state - I found myself having Stockholm Syndrome-like thoughts of pleasing the people that were ordering me around.  You find yourself doing what they say, marching, running, standing against the wall, without thinking.

We're next led into a darkened room where the door is shut.  A shambling, mumbling presence creeps up behind us and whispers in our ear.  It's another prisoner, who tells us we've been here for 20 years.  He asks where we're from, and when we respond Britain, he says we're 20 years too late.  This moment in the darkened cell with the somewhat deranged prisoner is sort of a moment of downtime for us.  He leads us around his cell and tells us about his life and political opinions, talking to a sock puppet which represents Assad.  The slight slackening of the psychological pressure on us makes this feel a little more expository than what we've seen so far.  There is a rattling at the door as the chains shake, and we scuttle instinctively back to our submissive position against the wall in order to avoid being singled out for abuse.

We're then lead down a corridor to another prison cell, this one much smaller, but better lit.  We're in the cell with two women, who have been renamed Muhammed and Ahmed, so the other prisoners don't realise they're being held captive with women.  They tell us about their lives, one has been arrested for writing an English language blog, and the other has a husband that refused to fire against civilians.  They explain how they pass the time by playing games with each other and arguing.  The subject of armed resistance vs peaceful demonstration is debated, with the girls taking opposite positions.  I'm drawn into the debate, and say that peaceful demonstration can only go so far, and that violent resistance is justified when the state uses indiscriminate lethal force against the populace.  She responds by saying that she fears a civil war will erupt, and I point out that the situation in Syria is already a civil war.  A lot of people are going to die no matter when happens, and they may as well be the authoritarian child-murderers that are the muscle behind Assad.  I consider myself to have a very cursory understanding of the current situation in Syria, so I'm not exactly on comfortable ground debating this.  Before too long though, the guards are back, and we're marched down the corridor into the 'torture' room.

The room features a dentist's chair, and variety of sinister looking tools sit on racks behind it.  Pools of blood lie on the floor around it, as does an ominously sparking car battery.  One person is singled out to be tortured, and as 'luck' would have it, it's me.  I'm strapped to the dentist's chair, and everyone else is led out.  Now it's just me and the torturer, who barks questions at me and accuses me of being a Jew.  He shines a bright light in my eyes, and blows long plumes of cigarettes smoke into the room.  Then he gets called away for a moment, and I'm left on my own in the room.  I decide "to hell with this", and escape.  I slip my hands free of the restraints and peek around the door to see if anyone's watching in the corridor.  No-one is. I quickly work out a plan.  There are two doors opposite the interrogation  room, but I don't know what's behind them, and worry that they might lead to dead ends.  In the end I settle for squeezing myself into the space behind the door to the torture room, and plan to close the door on the interrogator and run off towards the exit.

As I'm hiding behind the door, heart pumping and trying to be as quiet as possible I reflect on whether I'm supposed to be trying to escape or not?  I mean, I wasn't restrained particularly effectively, is this what they want me to be doing?  Is this a psychological test of my submissiveness - to see whether I will do what they tell me to, even though a way out is right in front of me?  It strikes me that this 'escape' attempt isn't really telling me much about the current situation in Syria, it's more allowing me to act out a Hollywood style prison break and fuel some heroic masturbatory fantasy of mine.  If I was really being held in a torture room by the Syrian Army, would I really try and escape?  This is after all, a piece of theatre, and I know there are going to be no real consequences to my escape.  Even so, my heart is thumping like a drum, and I'm holding my breath as I hear the guard coming back down the corridor to my hiding spot.  As he turns the corner into the cell I try and close the door on him and run away.  He chases me, and quickly I find myself cornered in a dead end and surrender.  A hood is placed over my head again, and once more I'm lead down a corridor while being prodded with clubs.  I am asked if I 'love Assad', and still flush with heroic feelings I 'bravely' respond 'No!' repeatedly.  Things go quiet, and after a while I take my hood off and look around.  

I'm back surrounded by the rest of the group, who mostly still have their hoods on. The smiling face of the theatre assistant greets me, it's over, it felt like a lot longer than 66 minutes..  Everyone seems shaken up by their experience.  I'm still jittery, hyped up on adrenaline with my hands and legs shaking a little.  Stepping out into the Shoreditch nightlife feels incredibly bizarre after this, and strange paranoid and excitable thoughts fill my head for hours afterwards.

This is a somewhat difficult piece of theatre to analyse.  It really is intense and terrifying, but ultimately it is also entertaining.  The stated aim is to raise awareness of what is happening in Assad's prisons and detention centres, but even though this feels realistic, deep down I know what is actually happening must be infinitely worse and infinitely more psychologically destructive.  It succeeded in making me think that I could empathise with the experiences of those interrogated, but this must necessarily be an illusion.  How could I look someone in the eye who'd actually been through this sort of treatment and tell them that I'd paid £15 and gone to the centre of trendy London to put myself through a simulation of what they'd been forced through?  This was after all, my choice.

But on the other hand the programme does assure us that the events we've been through are based on testimony from former political detainees, and admits that they can only "modestly portray only a small fraction of the dreadfulness and absurdity of what political detainment in Syria really is under the Assad regime."  Putting audiences through this simulation of very real events to raise awareness about what is going on is a noble aim, the more people outraged at the way the Assad regime is treating its citizenry the better.   But, it seems other than awareness that there is almost nothing that we, the audience members can do about this incredibly complicated situation.  It's a worrying feeling of impotence, one which Adam Curtis has summarised as "Oh Dearism".

It is precisely this kind of impotent feeling that makes this piece of theatre somewhat problematic for me.  Is it worth transforming people's very real traumatic experiences of psychological torture into theatre to inform Western audiences?  It feels a little exploitative for me to get an adrenaline fix by dipping my toe into the horrors of contemporary Syria.  Especially since, at times I felt like I was acting out my personal revolutionary fantasies about resisting torture by an authoritarian regime and attempting escape.  While it was exciting at the time, in retrospect it feels somewhat like using what is horrifying reality for people right now to stroke my own ego.

As a piece of theatre it is stunningly effective, convincing and something that'll stay with me for a very long time.  It's a triumph of disturbingly convincing set design and acting so realistically threatening that you feel a genuine sense of malevolence from the actors playing the soldiers, and very real desperation from the prisoners.  Even so, despite all this acting skill and expert staging my reaction to the situation in Syria is still much along the lines of "Oh dear, this is awful", rather than being given any kind of constructive framework to be able to effect any kind of change in Syria.  I've been made aware of what is going on, but is that enough?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

'LUPA 10' behind James Campbell House, 22nd June 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

LUPA (Lock Up Performance Art) is a tricky thing to pin down in a number of ways.  It's a series of performance art events that take place outside a row of garages at the back of a block of flats in Bethnal Green.  I don't really have the necessary critical framework to be able to tell whether the performance art pieces are succeeding or failing, so I find it quite hard to review and analyse at times.  It's hard to tell at times whether the audience is supposed to be laughing, or if this is annoying the performance artist and ruining the mood of their set. Semi-guerilla abstract art like this runs the constant risk of toppling over into navel-gazing "aren't we clever" reflexive cynicism.  

Satirising East London art 'happenings' has become almost cliche, and I think the organisers recognise the danger of self-parody, so the atmosphere around LUPA is relaxed, informal and quite unpretentious.  There is a bin with ice and beer in it, and a small bar being run from the boot of a car serving drinks.  Everyone's friendly, and it seems at pains to be as inclusive as abstract performance art taking place behind some flats can possibly be.

Kate Mahony (with cool personalised van)
The first performer was Kate Mahony.  Her piece consisted of loading cardboard boxes into a van.  That's pretty much it.  She was wearing a paint-spattered boiler suit, and opened the titular lock-up, which was full of cardboard boxes, some marked with the numbers of different LUPA events.  There were maybe 100 boxes in the garage, and we watched as she loaded every one into the van.  The simple repetition, and the punchline (her driving away in the van with the driver without a word) we could see coming a mile away, and she got quite a bit of laughter from the audience for her sheer audacity in making us sit through this.  I half wondered if this is a sort of audience-mocking "you'll sit through anything" Godard type point.  I also wondered if this was some complicated crowd psychology Zimbardo/Milgram style test.  Would anyone step up from the mass of people to help her with her task - is this a condemnation of the audience that we are standing there taking a certain sadistic pleasure in watching her work.  Is she laughing at us, or are we laughing at her?  A slightly more literal interpretation is that as this is the last LUPA event until September it might be a symbolic packing up for the summer and driving away.  But then in this case surely it'd be the last performance rather than the first?

Colm Clarke
Up next was Colm Clarke with a visual demonstration of Marx's theory of value commodity.  The value of a commodity, according to Marxist theory (and bear in mind this is me flying by the seat of my pants political sciencewise) is the combination of different types of value that it has, labour value, exchange value and use/utility value.  Clarke demonstrated this theory by buying 10 cans of Red Bull from a nearby newsagent, before pouring them into a dirty bucket.  He thus demonstrated how physical cash, which is entirely exchange value can be converted into Red Bull, which has labour value, use value and exchange value and finally how merely changing the container in which the the drink is in strips it of all value and turns it into a noxious substance to be actively avoided.  I think that's the basics of it anyway.  It was an effective demonstration of the theory, but presented in this way it felt a little too much like a classroom demonstration to be totally effective as a piece of performance art.

What was more interesting about it was the effect that the performance had on its surroundings, particular in buying the Red Bull.  One thing that LUPA does very well is transform the area around it into a kind of liminal space, where the boundaries between performer vs audience, audience vs general public and performance space vs public space break down.  One thing I've noticed at the LUPA events I've been to is that you generally get  very confused people watching from the periphery trying to work out what's going on, and why this large group of people are standing around a garage applauding.  In Clarke's piece, the straightforward act of buying the Red Bull sucked the shop, it's employees and the people inside the shop into an art space that I'm pretty sure they weren't expecting.  I suspect most people's reaction is "who are those group of weirdos?!", but some reaction is better than nothing.  Recontextualising humdrum activities as art is something that I generally enjoy anyway.

The end of Clarke's performance was notable in two ways.  Once he'd filled his bucket with Red Bull he began to swing it around his head.  Possibly this was leading to a moment of blinding clarity in a demonstration of Marxist theory but we will never know as the bucket handle broke, sending 10 cans of Red Bull flying through the air towards some poor LUPA attendees.  Fortunately no-one got drenched in the sticky, sugary stuff.  I imagine no matter how chilled out you are, getting soaked in Red Bull might put a bit of a downer on your night. It was certainly a dramatic end though.

In between Clarke and the final act, Jordan McKenzie stood up to make a short announcement and while he was doing so a woman walked furiously up behind him, smashed a wine bottle over his head and walked away.  The crowd was in shock.  I had always assumed that the local residents were tolerant of this sort of thing happening, but apparently they've got more seri.. oh wait, it was just another performance art piece!  The wine bottle was a sugar, stage bottle!  I'm not sure that this had that much artistic meaning behind other than giving the crowd a nice surprise and keeping us on our toes.  It was a good shock though, and nicely set up the final act.

Aaron Williamson
Aaron Williamson's act was the most physically daring.  He was dressed all in black, and climbed over the roofs of the garages while holding a big white sheaf, a hunting knife precariously poised on a long pole, and two planks.  The performance concluded with him 'skiing' (or rather shuffling on home-made skiis) down the roof and jumping off onto a pouffe that broke his fall.  Watching this felt like you were watching a live version of one of those Youtube videos where someone badly hurts themselves.   There were so many possible things that could have gone wrong, the knife could have fallen on his head, he could have fallen backwards off the roof, he could have fallen through the roof, he could have missed the pouffe, or tripped and smashed his face on the concrete.  The very nature of LUPA seems to imply that there aren't going to be that many safety checks done in advance, so watching this  made everyone very nervous and there were a few gasps when, for example, the knife slipped off the pole.  Maybe it was just an illusion of danger rather the real thing, but it was a damn realistic illusion.

Note the large knife held over his head.
Walking along the roofs of the garages was just another way in which LUPA recontextualises its downbeat, concrete pre-fab surroundings into a performance art space, and I think this is a pretty noble goal.  While London can be an astoundingly beautiful city, there are also miles and miles of drab concrete misery, and it's nice to something colourful, imaginative and artistic reclaiming a corner of it, if only for an hour every month.

Friday, June 22, 2012

'Born in the Gardens' at Fairfield Halls, 21st June 2012

Friday, June 22, 2012 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

To say that interesting theatre only happens above Islington pubs or in West End basements is a mistake.  There are lots of interesting things going on all over London, and getting out Zone 1 once in a while is nice for a change of pace.  But even with this thought running through my head, it was with a dark sense of foreboding that I stepped off the train at West Croydon Overground station.  I am familiar with Croydon, and have formed the opinion that it is a featureless, depressing wasteland of the soul.  As I staggered down the wind tunnel of Wellesley Road, corporate concrete monoliths towering over me I began to feel that sucking sense of hope being drained out of your soul that seems to accompany a visit to Croydon.  I reached the theatre – Fairfield Halls, a monument to some deranged sense of 1960s functionality, a place that should have been torn down long ago and the earth salted.  ‘This play had better be damn good’, I thought.

‘Born in the Gardens’ is a Peter Nichols play that premiered and is set in 1979, it’s about a family coming together for the funeral of their father.  The mother, Maud (Katherine Senior) lives in a decaying mock-Tudor house with one of her sons, the somewhat isolated Maurice (Edward Ferrow).  The two other siblings soon arrive for the party, Maurice’s twin sister Queenie (Rachel Howells) and their younger brother, Hedley (Jonathan Parish) a Labour MP.  The plot revolves around Queenie and Hedley trying to get their mother to move into a duplex in London, and to get rid of the somewhat decrepit house she lives in Bristol.

First impressions of the play were not good.  We open with someone dressed as bumbling old lady, it feels immediately sort of Little Britainy – the humour seems to be largely based around comically misunderstood words (‘michael wave’ for microwave for example) and on talking back to the television.  It seems almost impossibly old-fashioned.  The staging is overly naturalistic, the character’s dialogue is generally aimed at the audience rather than at each other and even though there are apparently jokes being told, no-one in the audience seems to be laughing.  A slow tingle of horror begins to grow in my chest, have I come all the way to Croydon to see a bad play?  The programme informs me that this production has arrived here by way of the Budleigh Salterton Public Hall, suddenly all signs are pointing to disaster.

But I bear with it, and try and work out what they’re getting at.  1979 seems like a pretty depressing year in British history, beginning with the winter of discontent, with rubbish piled up in the streets and parks, and corpses going unburied, and by the time the events of the play are taking place, the Labour government has lost a vote of no confidence and a new Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher has taken power.  It is a time of change, although not necessarily a positive and happy sort of change.  The events of the play seem to hint at the social misery going on in the wider world around the characters.  Ledley, the Labour MP is treated as a figure of fun for his socially crusading philosophy.  I suppose in 1979 views like this would be considered ripe for mockery.  The daughter, Queenie, is living in a beach house inMalibu writing acidic but hollow magazine articles, and Maurice seems to be locked into a spiral of masturbatory isolation and talking to his beloved cat.

It slowly becomes apparent that while on the surface the play is a harmless, toothless, neutered kind of comedy, deep within its chest beats a misanthropic and twisted heart.  The characters are stock comedy archetypes, but these are archetypes just one step before their neuroses collapse in on themselves. 

It is interesting to see how they play the ‘hilarious’ dottiness of the mother Maud.  She is constantly seeing ‘mites’ on everything.  This is frequently a punchline and it seems like they want the audience to think ‘this old woman is so whacky!’  Characters spend time angrily debating their existence, but it is clear to us at least that they do not exist.  Maud finds them everywhere, in her shoes, in her bag, in the car, on the serviettes – they’re even eating her hair.  Her children don’t seem to find this behaviour particularly disturbing, they see her delusion as a kind of leverage to get her to move out of the house and into a modern duplex.  When we in the audience think about it for a moment, the humour begins to recede.  It’s pretty apparent that no matter where Maud ends up, either in the Victorian house or the duplex she will continue to see ‘the mites’ on everything.  How long before she sees them under her skin?  And then what?

This is not some wilfully dark interpretation of mine: the play demonstrates a specific awareness of delusional clinical psychology.  It takes pains to use the expression folie a deux, and then to explain what exactly this entails.  It actively wants us to consider this comedic character’s quite disturbing mental illness taken to its logical end.

This sense of things going very wrong just waiting in the wings hangs over the whole play.  While the events on stage are fairly comedic and inconsequential, there are pitch-black hints of the most terrifying activity in the character’s pasts and future.  For example, throughout the first act of the play, the dead father, Victor’s coffin lies in the front room.  Queenie, his ‘favourite’ says that she came over to see his ashes scattered for a sense of closure.  "Closure for what he did to me that night…".  

Wait… what?! 

For a moment the spectre of childhood sexual abuse hangs over the play, and then it vanishes, uncommented on by both audience and cast alike.  You find yourself wondering if you’d imagined it. 

Another instance of this fleeting sense of underlying horror comes during a vaguely incestuous scene between the two twins.  In this instance I can’t tell whether it was something in the script, or maybe a bit of miscommunication between the actors and the audience, but a murmur of shock travelled through the audience.  Later on there is frequently disturbing sexual activity alluded to, and it seems to throw contrast to the light and harmless ‘humorous ‘dialogue on stage.  Once you’ve glimpsed this darkness it seems to pervade even the lightest of scenes.  The ruined late 70s furniture and technology seems to take on a sinister air, and the constantly mentioned decay of the house seems to mirror their mental states.  The fact that the ‘jokes’ the characters make are falling flat does not seem embarrassing to anyone – only the bitterest and most cynical can laugh at these poor bastards.

I find it interesting that this play was in a contemporary setting when it was premiered.  It works so well as a period piece that it is difficult to imagine it ever being regarded as modern, even in 1979.  Nostalgia for the past is a pretty easy crutch for a play to rely on, and it is to the credit of the production company Creative Cow that they do not try to portray 1979 as a fond memory.  It is explicitly a dank, depressing and tasteless era.  Characters are casually racist in a reflexive and unexamined way, their listing of the nationalities of the business owners in their town sounds disturbingly like the kind of bile you’d hear foaming from the mouth of a BNP member.  It all seems suffocating.  Even the drinks seem warped and off-putting, characters frequently enjoy an absolutely vile sounding “bullshot” cocktail which apparently consists of beef bouillon and vodka (I had assumed that something so revolting must be made up, but no, apparently it’s a real cocktail).

I hesitate to say I enjoyed this play.  It was unfunny, at times crushingly dull and the more you think about it, the more depressing the events of the play become.  But maybe this is all the point?  All of the performances are great, and the production values are extremely professional, but they seem in service of a sinister agenda, one designed to instil a sense of creeping horror and unease in the audience.  It is a profoundly nihilistic experience: the final scene of the play is much the same as the first, suggesting an unending ouroboros of misery, pain and death.  God only knows what the audience in Budleigh Salterton made of it.

As I stumbled out into the Croydon night it seemed like the crushingly oppressive world of the play was following me.  I picked my way past pools of steaming vomit outside a chain nightclub, past people groaning (in pleasure or pain?) on benches on the high street, past strange inhuman howls coming from a back alley and eventually onto the train home.  As it pulled out of the station the words of Johnny Rotten popped into my head: "There is no future in England's dreaming."  

I have once again vowed never to return to Croydon.  This time I’m determined to keep my word.

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