Friday, November 9, 2012

‘Gaggle present Lysistrata’ at the Islington Metal Works, 8th November 2012

Best gig poster in ages.
The solar eclipse is a beautiful phenomenon; a perfect convergence of cosmic bodies creates a spectacle like no other.  ‘Lysistrata’ at the Electrowerkz last night was impressive in the same kind of way, symbolic, musical and political elements fitting together neatly like  thecomponents of a particularly well made pocketwatch.  I last saw Gaggle, a 21 piece all women choir, in early July at the Village Underground and they impressed the hell out of me.  They're the kind of band that makes a solid and powerful statement standing silent and motionless in their costumes, but then they crank up the volume and let loose with jet engine turbine voices and utterly dominate a room.  But last night was no mere gig, it was interactive performance art, political statement and simply, great theatre.

‘Lysistrata’ is a play by Aristophanes first performed in about 411BCE.  It tells the tale of the eponymous Lysistrata who stops a war by gathering together a disparate group of women and engaging in a pacifist revolution.  Women across Greece barricade the banks, starving the army of funds and deny their husbands sex, giving them serious blue balls.  It’s easy to see why this story of weaponised femininity and women working together for a common political aim appeals to Gaggle, as they’re in many regards doing the same thing.

 I think most bands would have settled for merely appropriating some imagery and lyrical quotes from the play, but Gaggle aren’t most bands.  The ambitious project here is to take over a large building for one night, redecorate it and transport us into a theatrical world.  The setting is the atmospheric Islington Metal Works.  Inside it's an aesthetically pleasing labyrinthine scumhole (this is not a criticism I'm a big fan of scumholes).  The history of its industrial past can be seen in the metal fittings poking from walls and ceilings, coupled with weird passages that maybe were once used to shift horses around the place.  There was what looked like bondage equipment scattered around at the back of rooms, which adds a little kinky frisson to the atmosphere.

Ascending the stairs on entry we see that the walls are plastered with sloganeering political posters that set much of the tone for the rest of the evening.  In terms of visual design, a lot of what we’re about to experience is borrowed from the iconography of the Occupy movement or other appropriate campaigns of political resistance from around the world, notably Pussy Riot and the Greek anti-austerity protests.  So we see posters with ‘NO SEX UNTIL YOU CALM DOWN’ plastered on the walls, Gaggleized bank notes and signs imploring us to “BARRICADE THE BANKS”. 

There’s an uneasy feeling as we gather waiting for something happen.  Nobody really seems to know what form this gig is going to take, and the slightly nervous tension is increased by the group of people silently staring at us with blue lipstick smeared in an X over their mouths.   This fear of the unknown is in some regards a fun bit of anticipation but in others I get a minor feeling of dread that this is going to be too interactive.  The stage seems set for confrontation after all; ‘Lysistrata’ is about pitting two sides against each other but which side are we the audience going to be on?  Are we going to be siding with Gaggle or fought against as representations of a patriarchy?

After short wait Gaggle make their way to the main stage.  Even though I’ve seen them before it’s still a remarkable experience listening to them burst into song as one, being rigorously disciplined and impossibly liberated and anarchic at the same time. The music tonight, aside from one song, is all from Gaggle’s debut album “From the Mouth of the Cave”.  The first song they play here is, I think, the introduction song, which serves as both an opening to the album and a way to get us into the spirit of the evening.

Gaggle performing, photo courtesy of Zoran Veselinovic
After a short song they leave the stage and our attention switches to a video being played on the far wall.  Like a dunce I didn’t realise this was happening until I realised everyone was staring in the opposite direction to me.  Spinning around I realised that I’d missed a few minutes of the introduction video - oops!

We’re given a window into the philosophy of the night and Gaggle set out their grievances with a world run by men in power who make bad decisions day in/day out.  A world where things get worse by the day, where those with least are expected to bail out the cruelly wealthy.  We’re reminded that Lysistrata is a Greek play, and invited to consider the parallels between the current economic climate and the historical misery in ancient Greece that preceded the production of Aristophanes’ play.  It primes us for the kinds of political statements and posturing that we’re all looking forward to.  But first some Icelandic pop-punk!

This is Sindri Eldon
It’s difficult to say whether Sindri Eldon was the 'support act' tonight because it just wasn’t that kind of night.  Rather than exist to get us warmed up and nicely lubricated for the main act, he was sandwiched between two parts of the Gaggle act.  Musically the band is high-energy,  poppy punk.  I don’t know what he looks like normally, but he’s made a concession to the theatricality of the night by painting his face blue and white, which looks great. Unfortunately I don’t think his band fit into the musical and visual aesthetic of the night.  I’m not even really sure that the night even needed another band playing.  Everything I’d experienced so far had had the effect of sucking me into a constructed reality of Gaggle based imagery. Gaggle warped the space around them so effectively that Sindri Eldon (or indeed other band) felt a bit out of place. 

After this the meat of the night begins.  As we entered the building audience members were given one of three coloured wristbands.  Based on this colour the audience is split up, I was in the white group and led by a woman waving a white flag we headed to the back part of the central room and the ‘parliament’ section. 

Here we met Lysistrata, as played by Natalie Sharp.  She sat regally in the middle of a group of seven Gaggle members regarding the audience with a superior, disdainful look.  Her face was made up carefully and dramatically, with very heavy eye makeup and a third eye painted in the middle of her forehead.  She wore a high head-dress, with fabric draped down over her body.  The quasi-mystical get up reminded me a lot of some of the outfits in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’ (like this, but um, not like this), and this sense of absurd but powerful ritual permeated much of what she did. She began to hector us on the state of the nation, and of the woes of those who would stand against her.  If Natalie Sharp wasn’t so damn innately authoritative this might come across as a bit silly, but she totally sells it.  It’s a rare talent that she can so quickly command the rapt attention of a room.    Next to me someone starts fiddling with his phone as she’s talking, and I for a moment imagine I see her eyes flash at him in fury, like she's about to decapitate him.

After her speech we hear two songs, 'Happy is the Country' and a cover of ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath.  This exposes a minor problem with the arrangement.  One of the best things about seeing Gaggle is the effect of 21 women all singing angrily and passionately at you.  When they’re cut down to seven, the effect is necessarily diminished.  This doesn’t mean that the portion of Gaggle we’re seeing isn’t giving their all, but the music loses a bit of potency the fewer people there are singing it.

 After this finishes the woman with the white flag returns and leads us to through a winding corridor to the next set piece.  It’s a miniature recreation of the Occupy Camp outside St Pauls.  Behind a few scattered tents is a backdrop of a bank surrounded by placards.  I’ve seen a few things recently that have used imagery from the Occupy movement to varying levels of success.  Some productions merely appropriate the aesthetics of the movement without taking the political aims into serious consideration, which always manages to annoy me.  I’m happy to say that Gaggle don't do this.  Every bit of iconography they use feels earned and authentic. 

The 'Block the Banks room, photo courtesy Zoran Vesilinovic
As we stand watching the tents, members of Gaggle unzip them and crawl out. They sing 'Money', and a projection behind them shows protests around the world.  It’s graphic, powerful footage ranging from the uplifting (Pussy Riot performing their punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and what looks like footage taken at a Slutwalk), to the disturbing (women getting beaten up by riot police, and in one particular brutal clip, a woman’s chest being repeatedly stamped on as she’s held down on the ground).    It's a good reminder that what we are watching is essentially pantomime, a portrait of an ideal world without consequences like violent police beatings and being pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed.

Throughout this performance the tents are illuminated from inside by stage lights, and the performers hold individual electric candles in their hands.  This feels more choreographed than the other Gaggle performances I've seen: it's overtly theatrical rather than a musical performance.  

After this,we move onwards into a red-lit area with a big bed in it.  There was some kind of dance going on between two actors here, with members of Gaggle singing behind them and a harpist, but this room was a bit smaller and filled up fast.  I ended standing near the back and I couldn’t really see what was going on.  It’s a pity, because what I could glimpse seemed pretty interesting.  I tried my best to stand on tip toes and peer between people but although I could hear everything well enough (and they were singing 'Gaslight', one of my favourite songs from the album) it was a bit frustrating.  Oh well.

 This was the final small room to see, and with a ‘party’ song playing we were encouraged to dance back to the main area.   Gaggle reformed into one group on the main stage, and launched into what felt like more of a traditional set for them.  I was a bit disappointed that they repeated many of the songs they'd played earlier in the night.  It’s not like Gaggle don’t have enough songs to fill out a setlist, one of my favourites is ‘Bang on the Drum’ which was used in the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, and I don’t think they played it once!  Nor did they play their stunning and haunting cover of ‘Waterfall’ by the Stone Roses. 

It always seems a little nitpicky to criticise Gaggle too much, because while they were playing music we’d heard once already that night they were knocking it out of the park.  Gaggle leader Deborah Coughlin stands at the front conducting them like she’s landing a plane.  She’s got a fury to her movements that’s a bit scary, but I suppose to get a machine like Gaggle working smoothly you’ve really got to put your back into it.  But I was a little disappointed at the end that we didn’t get a big finale; the members of Gaggle trooped off stage one by one to rapturous applause, but there was no glitter cannon as there was at the Village Underground gig.  Still, as they finished I was feeling perky and swept up in the moment along with everyone else there.

This night was an ambitious (and obviously expensive) undertaking.  Just in technical terms there were essentially four stages to run, as well as audio/video projections and backing music.  On top of this you’ve got to move three large audience groups around the building without them bumping into each other, not to mention making sure the 21 members of the band itself are in the right place at the right time.  It’s giving me a logistical headache just thinking about it.  But as far as I could see everything went off without a hitch, whoever was in charge of fitting all this together should be very pleased with themselves.

I more than think it achieved its artist targets though.  Gaggle fit perfectly into a retelling of Lysistrata, and they added new relevance and immediacy to a millennia old play.  I though it was interesting that the revolutionary anti-establishment actions we saw acted out are entirely pacifist in nature.  Gaggle don't seem reactive and pacifistic at all - at times it feels more like they're raring themselves up to charge the gates of parliament, flaming molotov cocktails in hand.  But this slight philosophical mismatch works in their favour, their aggressive behaviour means that the peaceful nature of the protest we're seeing feels fiercer than it might in other hands.

It was easy to forget last night that that 'Lysistrata' isn’t intended to be a feminist text, and can be argued presents female resistance tactics as intrinsically passive and is a bit sexually regressive. On some level the denial of sex as a punishment to their husbands overlooks the fact that their wives are denying themselves of sex as well.  The fact that only the men feel the negative consequences of enforced chastity can be interpreted as supportive of the Victorian notion that for women, sex is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.   

Even when their actions are obstructive and pacifistic rather than proactively revolutionary, Gaggle cannot help but seem radical and dynamic.  In a ‘regular’ gig they radiate a dangerous power on stage but here, enveloped in an environment of their own design and surrounded by their own iconography they seem almost omniscient.  In some way Gaggle’s individuality feels a little ironic; they define themselves as a separate entity in their dress and makeup, but then surrender their individuality to the Gaggle gestalt.  What this did last night was allow them to seem everywhere and nowhere at once.  In each of the rooms it doesn’t matter which members of Gaggle we’re seeing at any one time, or who is singing which part of each song, we have to consider them as a single entity, a legion; “My name is Gaggle and we are many”.  Here, drenched in their imagery and surrounded by their propaganda we can begin to feel the same thing happening to us in the audience.

So a very enjoyable night out.  It's a shame that this is a one-off show, as I think with a bit of word of mouth they could easily fill a space for a week.  Roll on the next Gaggle event!

Photographs of the gig courtesy of Zoran Veselinovic (

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “‘Gaggle present Lysistrata’ at the Islington Metal Works, 8th November 2012”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights