Dido in a rubber catsuit

13 Apr

Queen of Carnage

The Space, 12.04.17


Queen of Carnage is a multi disciplinary event incorporating video, installation and live art, masterminded by the artist Sobriety Twist. It is loosely based on Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, but reimagined in a modern BDSM setting where Dido is a dominatrix who falls for a hooded Aeneas and then mourns when he leaves her. There are a lot of intriguing elements, but taken as a whole, the event is muddled and awkward – neither the plot of the opera nor the elaborate staging provide any sense of coherence.


The space (or rather, the Space, a deconsecrated church on the Isle of Dogs) opens on time, but spectators are invited to spend the first twenty minutes examining the art installation before the performance begins. This includes a series of printed out emails pegged on a washing line addressing very specific requests to a correspondent known only as ‘Mistress.’ Also on display is a set of glass jars containing items including a dildo and a set of heavy handcuffs, what looks like a wicker approximation of the iron throne from Game of Thrones and, inexplicably, a tablet in a bin. On stage, a seven foot headless mannequin faces away from us, wearing a black cape that fans out from her shoulders to cover half the stage; pale hands are visible reaching out from underneath its hem. All this is atmospheric, if baffling.


The show begins, runs for about 25 minutes and then breaks for an interval, then continues for another 40 minutes or so. The interval comes too early for any clear sense of the performance to have emerged – I spent it reading about Purcell’s opera on my phone, but this did not shed much light on what I’d seen, nor on what followed. Sobriety Twist plays the dominatrix; she spends much of the first half on a stepladder with her face to the back wall so that her head appears to belong to the mannequin figure. Later, she reappears in a variety of magnificent costumes – a black rubber catsuit, a slinky red dress, a spectacular crown – to pose and gesture imperiously at her attendant, whom she often leads around the stage by a string of pearls dangling from her mouth. This figure presumably represents Dido’s attendant Belinda, but she doesn’t sing – only Twist actually performs any of Purcell’s music. There is a third character, Aeneas, who appears only as a projected ghost. The video installation maps perfectly onto the back wall of the space with its twin doors; the projection several times shows Aeneas opening and shuffling through one of the doors. In the second half, Twist performs a dance routine with the Aeneas-spectre to an aggressive electronic soundtrack.


The performance uses fragments of opera – both recorded and sung live by Twist – and parts of the show are accompanied live by a cellist. I lack the critical authority and the musical ear to comment in detail on the singing – it frequently sounded beautiful, but was often overpowered by the recorded accompaniment and most of the lyrics were inaudible either for that reason or because they were sung at the back wall rather than projected towards the audience. A few fragments of recorded voiceover were more audible but did little to clarify the relationship between the spectacle on stage and the Dido story.


Sometimes incorporated into stage action, and sometimes played over costume changes, the video art is startling and evocative. A black and white sequence in a spooky forest setting portrays Dido and Belinda hunting Aeneas. A later sequence shows a single eye staring out from behind a red leather doughnut, while a set of immaculately manicured hands claw at the camera. The most effective sequence is the first one – as the overture plays, Twist conducts an invisible orchestra with her riding crop in front of a projection of a pair of buttocks being subjected to leather straps, rulers and gloved hands. It’s a witty juxtaposition to overlay the conductor’s authoritative gestures with those of the dominatrix – this sense of humour rapidly evaporates, however, as the performance goes on.


I gather from my interval googling that Dido and Aeneas has been approached as an allegory for James II (Aeneas) being tricked by the Catholic church (a Sorceress) and abandoning the English people (Dido). Also, that in contemporary dance adaptations, Dido and the Sorceress have often been played by the same dancer, doubling them as two opposing forces of female power over men. This version, though it is often spectacular to look at, lacks the coherence of either interpretation. However, it was worth going just for the sparkly antlers in the final scene.

Gender trouble

30 Mar

The Mutant Man

The Space, 29.03.17


The Mutant Man tells the true story of Harry Leo Crawford, also known as Eugene Falleni, a trans man born in Italy but living mostly in Australia and New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s a fascinating story and not one I was familiar with; writer Christopher Bryant and director Heather Fairbairn find innovative and startling ways of telling it.


Born Eugenia Falleni in 1875, he started going by Eugene early in life and ran away from home to avoid an unwanted betrothal, then became a cabin boy. When his assigned gender was accidentally revealed, he was raped by the ship captain and left behind, pregnant, in Newcastle, Australia. Later, he was going by Harry Leo Crawford and married to a sweetshop owner, when his estranged daughter, Josephine, showed up. Shortly afterwards, his wife confronted him with her suspicions that he was not, as she puts it in the play ‘really a man.’ Their argument leads to a tragic accident – his wife, Annie Burkett, falls backwards and hits her head on a rock. Much later, we witness fragments of Harry’s arrest and trial. At the end of the play he is sentenced to death for Annie’s murder, though apparently the real Harry was imprisoned, later released due to ill health and lived another seven or so years under another name before eventually being killed in an accident, perhaps one he sought out deliberately. All in all, it’s an extraordinary life, and one with great potential for theatrical adaptation.


The Mutant Man tells the story with just two actors (Matthew Coulton and Clementine Mills, both excellent) who cover multiple roles each, and an elaborate audio-visual set up which makes use of microphones, cameras, complex lighting and projection as well as a selection of props which are brought out in plastic evidence bags at the top of the show. The complexity of the staging makes the performance space look a little cluttered, and the lamps are awkward to move around, trailing wires. But there are some great atmospheric effects – the projection in particular is beautifully designed; it combines pre-recorded footage with simultaneous footage from a camera mounted on one of the desks. Scenes take place in front of extreme close-ups of hands, of the painted matryoshka doll given to Eugenia as a child, of blood dripping onto a napkin. The sound design layers rushing water over the ship scenes, and intensifies the difficulty of witness testimony by interrupting with wails of feedback.


The play doesn’t follow its narrative straight through – instead it uses flashbacks to different parts of Harry’s life. Effectively, we jump between three narrative threads: Harry/Eugene’s early life up until the birth of his daughter; his life with Annie up until her tragic death, and his arrest and trial. The effect is complex and confusing but effective – it’s a good structure for a crime story – we know early on that a murder has taken place, but it takes a good while to work out who the victims and suspects are and how they relate to one another. The performance doesn’t pull any punches – the rape and childbirth scenes are graphic despite being mostly conveyed in monologue rather than simulated. It also includes a candid monologue describing Harry and Annie’s sexual relationship – Annie moans in ecstasy while Harry frankly explains to the audience how he constructed – and, in response to his wife’s feedback, augmented – a DIY dildo.


Adding to the confusion is the fact that though both performers take on several roles, the central one is shared. For much of the run time this seems an unhelpful choice – Coulton plays Eugene/Eugenia, but also plays Annie, the woman his elder self will be convicted of murdering. Mills plays Harry, and also plays the sea-captain who raped him as a younger man. While this makes the narrative difficult to piece together, it does eventually become clear and the disorienting effect seems in many ways appropriate: it puts the audience in a position of confusion and suspicion which reflects society’s suspicious responses to Harry throughout his life.



Immolation and empty rooms

16 Mar

Hedda Gabler

NT Live at KCL, 09.03.17


Ivo van Hove and Patrick Marber’s modernised version of Hedda Gabler is driven by an exceptional central performance from Ruth Wilson and some perfect design decisions, but the update is a mixed success.


The play’s portrait of a stifled, charismatic but ultimately destructive personality remains utterly compelling. Hedda is the only character who never leaves the stage, and the set has no visible doors; the other characters enter and exit through the auditorium. At the beginning, Wilson is slumped over the keys of an upright piano – the front panels missing, its innards on display. Her brusque delivery, agitated movements and quick shifts of mood add to the sense that Hedda is an unpredictable character; she adopts different personae depending on who she’s talking to: Kyle Soller’s Tesman, Rafe Spall’s Brack, Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg and Sinéad Matthews’ Thea Elvsted. The production has a steady pace, punctuated with interludes which stage Hedda’s frustration in a more abstract fashion – the repeated use of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and, later, Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ felt like labouring the point, but more effective was the explosion of feeling when Hedda trashes the room, hurling well-wishers’ flowers around and stapling them to the walls, and the tension when she fiddles with the blinds, making shadows like prison bars flicker across the whole space.


The modernisation works fairly well on a conceptual level – there are still women who feel trapped by their domestic circumstances, who are paralysed with horror at the idea of motherhood, whose feeling that they lack control over their lives leads to an obsession with controlling others. But purely on plot detail, it falls down a bit – there’s a video intercom that lights up with ghostly faces every time a visitor arrives, but nobody has a mobile phone and Lovborg’s manuscript is handwritten. Given that the plot hinges on communication failures and a magnum opus that’s not backed up to the Cloud, these details matter. The presence of Berte the maid is jarring, too – at the beginning, when she complains to Juliana about Hedda’s imperious manner, the maid seems to be a character like any other, but later she’s a more ghostly presence – Hedda’s enabler, she fetches the pistol for her to give to Lovborg and watches as she burns the manuscript.


This is related to another problem, which at root is one of elitism. This production sort of assumes you know the plot, and therefore fritters away the play’s enormous capacity for suspense. The pistols are framed in a glass case on the black wall, Chekhov-style. There’s no moment of hesitation to suggest that Hedda might relent and give Lovborg the manuscript instead of the gun. Instead, the production is concerned with making the subtext explicit and visible – sometimes this works well, as with the flowers and the blinds mentioned above, but other sequences are less successful. In the last scene, Spall’s sadistic Judge Brack explains the hold he now has over Hedda while drinking a can of tomato juice which he spits at her as she cowers under him, and pours onto her dress, then onto the stage, only to force her face into it. It’s a strong but unnecessarily literal image – Hedda is stained by her actions and at his mercy.


The cast are generally very strong – Soller’s Tesman is particularly impressive; though a bit too earnest and self-involved, he isn’t so laughable a character as, for instance, Adrian Scarborough’s Tesman in the Old Vic production a few years ago. Iwuji is appropriately intense as Lovborg, particularly when he reappears in a torn, stained shirt to rave about how he abandoned his and Thea’s ‘child.’



Missed connections

16 Mar

The Voiceless

The Space, 15.03.17, with Louise


The Voiceless is a wordless hour-long performance devised by Glasgow-based Skin Deep theatre company, combining physical theatre, circus and dance. It’s staged in traverse, and at least initially there is enough haze in the air that we can barely see the rest of the audience opposite. According to promotional material The Voiceless is about struggling to find connection in real life and seeking solace in fantasy. This comes across fairly clearly – in a recurring sequence between two performers, attempts at contact are shrugged off with increasing violence. Performers climb on top of one another, cling to one another koala-like, wrap one another in invisible ropes. The tumbling is fun to watch but relatively tame compared to many circus-inspired performances. Overall, the performance suffers from a lack of coherence.


There are five performers and four props – little glowing nightlights like tiny moons. The play opens with four of five performers curled around their nightlights, the fifth cross-legged as if meditating. We wondered at first if the nightlights were supposed to be smartphones – the characters turning away from one another to stare fixedly at them, their faces illuminated by a cold glow like the light of a screen. This would be coherent but rather tired social commentary. Later, though, it’s less clear what the nightlights represent – at various points they are switched off, or relinquished and left on a platter like offerings to a moon goddess.


The performance begins with two repeated sequences which dramatize alienation – a couple alternating between embraces and cold shoulders, two characters entranced with their nightlights while the fifth, meditating character makes abortive little movements – walking, apparently picking something up, turning a precise 90° and walking on again. These are repeated at varying paces, and then the five performers come together – this is presumably the fantasy existence that allows for more meaningful connections. A lot is packed in – conflict, betrayal, death and resurrection, wonder, horror, abandonment. At one point, everyone seems to be exclaiming in delight at the antics of some small furry animals. Shifts in tone are marked rather heavy-handedly and sometimes very abruptly by the music, which is mostly electronic droning, occasionally a more ecclesiastical organ sound, a lot of dreamy space music.


There are some lovely visuals on display here – the opening tableau is exquisitely lit, and the lighting is generally very effective, mixing coloured lights at ground level and harsher ones beaming down from on high. The performers are very engaged and have great chemistry with one another. However, the lack of clear narrative or thematic through-lines makes long stretches of the performance dull and directionless.

Seaside fairy-tale

5 Mar

Oyster Boy

Blue Elephant, 02.03.17


The innovative, all-female company Haste Theatre have brought Oyster Boy to the Blue Elephant, a lively adaptation of Tim Burton’s short story ‘The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.’ It’s an engaging piece, and it gets a lot of its strange charm from mixing clowning, puppetry and conventional theatre as well as mixing tones. The narrative has some of the flavour of Celtic folktales – Sam, the boy born with an oyster shell for a head, is a sort of absurdist relation of changelings and selkies, part-supernatural outsiders that eventually have to be given back to the sea. The setting, however, is not a windswept Scottish fishing village but 1950s Coney Island, complete with ice-cream sellers, doo-wop music and, rather improbably, kite surfing.

Pregnancy 2 Oyster Boy smaller

The piece is a great showcase for the talents of its six-strong ensemble. Valeria Compagnoni and Lexie McDougall play Jim and Alice, a couple who meet on the beach when he sells her an ice cream and then rescues her from a shark, but whose marriage is challenged by the birth of Sam, the titular Oyster Boy. The plot is silly, but the characters are so sweet and naïve that their trials and tribulations are genuinely affecting. They are supported by a chorus in bright spotted sundresses, punctuating the story with rhyming narration and cheerful harmonies. They also provide the set – using long swathes of fabric to represent the sea and various other settings – and populate the rest of Brooklyn as Jim and Alice’s neighbours and visiting holidaymakers, and, in two memorable comic scenes, as the snooty French waiters at a fancy seafood restaurant and the arrogant doctors about to embark on ground-breaking but morally questionable surgery to replace Sam’s oyster head. Both these scenes are a lot of fun. The cast are clearly having a great time, and the slightly unreliable false moustaches in the restaurant scene really only add to the hilarity – drooping halfway off the actress’ upper lip throughout the scene. By the later hospital scene, the tone has shifted and the humour is much darker, but the doctors are, nonetheless, a great comic double act.

Chorus Oyster Boy smaller

Sam himself is played by a puppet – a giant oyster shell with eyes, and a ragdoll body – which looks absurd but is also kind of sweet and tragic. The humanity in the puppet comes from careful, witty puppeteering – Sam’s hesitant little movements and interactions with his friends Molly and Polly are cute, and the aforementioned kite-surfing interlude is a chance to show off a more elaborate version of the puppet. We also see a few more basic puppet props – notably the dorsal fin of the shark that nearly eats Alice in the opening sequence.


Oyster Boy is a very odd play – it’s too tender to really work as black comedy, too dark for a seaside story, too cheery and flippant for a moral fable. There is some social commentary in there, particularly in the scenes with Alice’s friends flocking around her in sympathy that she couldn’t have a ‘normal’ baby. The ending flirts with breaking your heart and then resumes a breezy tone, shrugging off the family’s tragedy. But its mix of tones shouldn’t be treated as a weakness – the play and its source material thrive on not fitting into conventional categories.


Lexie McDougall, Elly Beaman-Brinklow, Jesse Dupré, Tamara Saffir and Sophie Taylor in Oyster Boy, Blue Elephant Theatre. Photographs by Heather Ralph. 

Short dramas on ghosts, politics, death and hacktivism

25 Feb

Female Intuition

Blue Elephant, 23.2.17


Female Intuition is a showcase of four very different pieces by female writers and directors, performed by the talented ‘Original Impact’ company.


The first, Knock Knock is the first twenty minutes of a longer piece. As a result it is noticeably all setup and no resolution, but nonetheless the setup has great potential. The play looks at the overlapping territory between theatre and haunting – it is set at a rehearsal for a new play in a creaky fringe theatre, where a series of strange interruptions hint that the theatre’s ghosts might not all be metaphorical. The play under rehearsal appears to be based on a true story about a woman who developed psychosis after giving birth – a psychosis she experienced as a kind of haunted house horror story. Writer Megan Jenkins navigates the various kinds of haunting on display here – impersonating a dead woman, listening to her recorded voice, imagining and repeating her gestures. With so much spookiness in the subject matter, Jenkins and director Katie Turner keep the style naturalistic, and find some humour – the slightly tetchy relationships between the two actors and the director, the director’s imperious manner, the gentle satirising of the female actor’s preparation and her pious description of someone else’s success – all of these are very believable, and they make a realistic baseline so that the inexplicable knocking and lighting changes come across as genuinely spooky rather than kitschy.


The second play, Project Britain, imagines that the voting age has been reduced to 16 and that mandatory politics classes have been introduced to the school curriculum as a result. It’s hard to tell whether the play thinks this is a good idea – it doesn’t seem like a bad one, to me – certainly, however, the class doesn’t seem to go particularly well. The bulk of the play is set in Mr Millstock’s classroom as he broaches the tricky matter of teaching politics. He’s very pompous, almost a stock stage-teacher, but not necessarily an unrealistic character. Scattered across the play – marked by quick lighting changes and sudden changes in the actors’ demeanours – are scenes in which Millstock transforms into a stammering politician and his students become ferocious members of the press, aiming accusatory microphones at him. Some of the students also have little breakout monologues to explain their own politics (or rather, the politics they inherit from their parents) in a bit more detail – one talks wistfully of her absentee father, another details his mother’s strategy for responding to racism, another explains why he agrees with his dad about immigrants in an unusually sympathetic portrait of a young Ukipper.  There’s also a posh kid who jumps in to answer all the teacher’s questions, and a female liberal objecting fiercely to everyone else’s views. The concept here is pretty sound, but the trouble with the execution is that there isn’t enough time for the characters to be much more than stereotypes; as such, the play reproduces rather than challenging established ideas about the categories people fall into. I’m also a little baffled by its ambivalent attitude to current affairs: according to Mr Millstock, the current UK Prime Minister in this play is Labour’s “Claire Fletcher” – but if we’re allowed to indulge in a pleasant alternative universe as far as home politics are concerned, then why, why do we still have to talk about bloody Trump?


Big Girls Don’t Cry is the third piece: a sensitive portrait of two sisters dealing with the death of their neglectful alcoholic mother. The characters are really well drawn, as is their struggle – particularly that of older sister, Claire, on whom the responsibility seems to fall – to satisfy society’s expectations of mourning behaviour while negotiating their own and others’ conflicted feelings about the dead woman.  We gradually learn more about the relationship between the sisters as the play goes on – the revelation that Claire effectively raised Kate throws light on their dynamic earlier in the play. Though writer Laura Burrell finds some humour in the characters’ flouting of social rules and norms by speaking ill of the dead and opening champagne before a funeral, the mood is generally pretty sombre. Elicia Murphy’s turn as their shallow cousin Lou adds some needed humour – although I felt an opportunity was missed to see the sisters bonding over Lou’s absurdities. The last few minutes of the play are a mixed success – Claire’s breakdown is moving, and the final shock of spilling the ashes on the floor is a really nice way to round up the play’s themes, but the monologue addressed to an urn is just a little too stagey, it punctures the understated mood of the rest of the play.


Finally, Hold Still, This Won’t Hurt is the most hard-hitting of the four, but its brilliant build-up of suspense in the first half doesn’t really have a clear direction to go in and it lacks a strong ending. The central character is teenage Kira, who is, unbeknown to her lovely, indulgent mother, involved in hacktivist groups on the Internet and conducting illegal surveillance on the Detention Centre where her stepdad works. The relationship between mother and daughter was believable and touching, and the subsequent shock revelations lead to a perfectly paced dinner scene. The trouble is that once the payoff arrives, the play loses direction a bit; in the last five minutes all three characters’ motivations become confused. And the ending slips into melodrama: Kira puts on a sparkly skull mask (why? her antagonist already knows her identity, and it won’t make her less conspicuous if the police are out looking for a cybercriminal) and storms out with the parting shot ‘I hope one day you can forgive me!’ It’s a shame, because the setup is really beautifully done and the concept has great potential, but it slips into unintended comedy at the end.

A Song about Patriarchy

25 Feb

Two Man Show

Soho Theatre, 21.2.17, with Eve and Thom


Two Man Show immediately defies all reasonable expectations by being, in fact, a three woman show (though admittedly, one of the three spends most of the running time as musical accompaniment and wry observer). The show combines music, dance, little acted vignettes and direct addresses to the audience; it has an awful lot of ideas, and while clarity of message is perhaps not its strong point, the collage of gender politics, anthropology, philosophy and performance certainly leaves us with a lot to think about.


The show opens with a sort of lecture, delivered in tag-team fashion by the two main performers, through microphones which have a distorting effect, making them sound like several people speaking in unison. The gist of it is that patriarchy is a construct, not a natural consequence of evolution: it details the transition, in the Neolithic period, from hunter-gather communities to agriculture, the revelation that men did, after all, have some role in reproduction, and how anxiety about this and about death led to the invention of fidelity and chastity, key tenets of gender-based oppression. I sort of enjoyed this bit (I like lectures, and feminist rants), but it is a bit unsubtle – it takes time to say that men often have redeeming features, but also insists that all of them without exception are fundamentally destructive.


The play then settles into a pattern of acted scenes and danced interludes. The core narrative follows a series of conversations between two brothers whose father is dying. One brother has been the main caregiver for some time, the other has just returned after a long silence, leaving his pregnant wife at home. It contrasts different models of masculinity, and probes into some of the anxieties about death and fatherhood that were signalled in the prologue. This begs the question of how the play evolved, though – is this narrative the core and the starting point, or is it just an illustrative example for the general points the play wants to make? Either way, these scenes introduce some much-needed nuance.


The song and (especially) dance elements of this piece are not just incidental – there’s serious training and choreography behind it, for a start. The dance interludes vary from tender to aggressive. In one striking sequence, one performer stands on top of a podium while the other rearranges her body into stereotypical “masculine” and “feminine” postures, which also chime with the subtlety of other taxonomies, such as the division between art and porn (on which, see this).


The final section offers a kind of commentary on everything that has gone before. There is a confrontation between the two performers, one of whom has reverted to her original, female persona, while the other is still in character. Notably, the brother who becomes the straw man for gender dialogues at the end is the caregiver, not the callous, chauvinist prick. The male character asks scornfully if she’s ‘going to do another little dance now’ – which prompts a discussion about the gender politics of language, and whether it is possible for a woman to express her feelings in a language invented by men to express theirs (to paraphrase, of all unlikely feminist icons, Thomas Hardy).


The costumes provide another meta-commentary on everything else going on. The cast initially enter in elaborate gold robes, looking a bit like a particularly well-dressed ‘three kings’ in a nativity play. Later, they strip to slinky black dresses, then to only pants, and finally naked. When the two brothers’ masculinities are in conflict with one another, they put on boxer shorts and joust with rolling pins held between their legs. There are two final monologues – one about refusing to apologise for being loud and taking up space, given by a topless performer in a black tutu; the other, conversely, is about not actually wanting to take up space, and worrying about being seen as trivial or not feminist enough if you opt for conventionally ‘girly’ clothes and mannerisms – this given by a performer in a pink negligée.

There’s a lot to admire here; too much, perhaps, for any clear sense of what the play is about and what it wants to say, but nonetheless a lot of compelling ideas and presented in an original way.