FCKSYSTMS

fcksystms

Eins. Within the system I am a white, non-British, heterosexual cis-female, writing about the potential of naked bodies to transgress discourse and ideology through queer performance. Before the show starts the projection of puzzle video games sets up a challenge. It’s a cocky ’riddle me this’.

They are preparing for something, stretching their limbs. Their clothes, no, everyone’s clothes are strewn across the floor. In the dark the young men dress and undress, themselves, each other, over and over again. They’re constantly moving, like charged-up Duracell Bunnies, but instead of a constant repetition of the same, their rhythm is uneven, craving to scoop something new from the flux. Nothing is of consequence. They wrestle with one another, fall to the floor, scraping their knees. Run into concrete walls at full speed with no apparent purpose. They’re naked and touching themselves, touching each other, and it’s a bit violent and tender at the same time. It’s also funny in an awkward way when they perform a boldness their bodies don’t possess yet.

Zwei. Within the system I am bamboozled by the visual politics of Ponyboy Curtis’ new performance piece #fcksystms. I’m ricocheting spectacularly between judging the bodies as ‘pretty to look at’ and being utterly conflicted about the act of looking itself. Within the system I eroticise this string of images and sounds and I definitely ask ‘is this pornographic?’

They’re forcing their bodies to imitate awkward moves from YouTube videos flashing in the background. Constant flickers mark the performers’ bodies as not entirely their own. Possessed by projected images perhaps, and projection is not only a technical process involving a source of light but also a continuous process between people. Projecting wishes, demands and expectations onto the Other. They take photos of themselves. Masculinity, too, is performed and like other images, is projected back but of course in only some of its incarnations. Some bodies look alike in their strong and sinewy athleticism. Some are more angular but never curvy or even damaged, always young, beautiful and potent.

Drei. Within the system and, this one’s not news, I consume. When I watch anything I consume. Images on television, in adverts, people around – I file or discard them according to their projected usefulness for the future. The moments I don’t appropriate the world around me as consumable are rare. I don’t like to think of myself as a predominantly consuming being. Yet, I know I am and watching has everything to do with it. Anyone who has ever stared into the eyes of a supposed loved one after a row, or a shag, or a good curry wondering if your time investment in this person is worth it knows it deep down: life throws us (and we are merely digesting) slabs of meat.

They meet, not just pass by each other but really meet. A hundred times over they negotiate with eyes and limbs how they are going to cross the concrete playing ground. The control is in their own hands. Again, it seems as if nothing is of consequence but it still leaves marks on their bodies. Perhaps they tattoo themselves. They strut and pose. It looks a lot like work when they rope-skip. Perhaps they talk and the music, this pulsing, never-ending noise drowns out whatever they have to say. They recite poetry and incite an uprising. A war against representation they refuse to leave un-fought. They gift a precious dance always teetering on the brink of failing.

Vier. Within the system I wonder how much Chris Goode really risks by putting an experimental, queer performance/dance piece in front of a self-selected audience at this particular East London performance venue. And I really truly wonder how relatable a piece of art needs to be to fulfil its objective, and do I not need to be informed of what it is trying to do? What if its ways of being radical about how calcified representations should be challenged, excludes uninitiated audiences? What about narrative and distinguishable speech? I wonder if that makes me a bad audience member. I wonder who makes these rules.

And then, Fuck.The.System. With a proposal. “Being alive is so unlikely. I want to dance. Do you wanna dance?”

Then, we just give into the joys of watching. We welcome the erotic not as taboo but as constitutive of the human animal. Then, we’re kissing goodbye to the whiff of voyeuristic guilt as best we can. With fleshy tongues.

Then, we know that images hold no universal truth. We know that they’re charged up artefacts, sticky with the traces of power and meaning they have soaked up through time.

Then, we know that wherever we go our bodies are topped up with market value and that a naked body can refuse to be meat. Then, we have the ethical responsibility to encounter the other. Encounters that can be sexual, but do not have to be solely about sex.

Then, we just want to keep chipping away at established and encrusted forms of creating relatable experiences. Then, we all live more dangerously as we join in the uncanny retrieval of buried and encrusted social boundaries. And won’t get offended when we’re getting lost on the way because we’ve entered the risk together.

‘Then’ is not temporal, ‘then’ is always already there as an opportunity. As we build a tribe.

Stan, Paul, Griffyn, Samuel, Andre, Craig, Zack, Nick, Sarah, Chris, Simon and us. We.

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Lyric Dream

Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream with its self-punishing nobility making non-sensical and unmotivated cruel decisions towards their own children; its sickly sweet world-building of the fairy kingdom and the inevitable dishing up of the umpteenth clever clever twist on the play-in-the-play-in-the-play is a hard text to like, if pure entertainment is not necessarily the reason why you visit the theatre.

Filter Theatre’s version of the Dream is a big panto complete with audience interaction, musical interludes and slosh scenes – but luckily fewer fairies than expected. Revived from it 2011 production, the charm of a rough and ready improvised community production and popular-culture-fuelled sophistication come together in a likeable and knowing custard pie of a show. And knob jokes, of course, there are plenty of knob jokes.

The company gets away with the ‘meta-theatrical’ thrust, as Ed Gaughan’s rambly Peter Quince announces at least three times in one of his run-on stand-up monologues, simply because of the utter joy and silliness that drives the production. Starting out fairly straight with the lover’s spat between the Athenians it is of course in fairy land that the production really comes into its own. Food fights, blue aphrodisiac squirt colour and a whole array of visual running gags manage to expose all the ridiculous traits of the play as well as unmasking characters as what they are: self-involved pompous people that have no real concept of love.

At the expense of the broad humour most of the scenes between Titania and Bottom have fallen victim to the red marker, but that would be the least of your worries if you were to go into the show as a text completist. What’s really astonishing though is that it’s somehow still all there in the cracks of Hyemi Shin’s derelict community hall set and wisecracks of the Mechanicals.

The women, for example, are still at the mercy of men, often subjected to icky display’s of male sexual prowess. Under the influence, John Lightbody as Lysander gets out his best Mick Jagger impression, writhing and dry-humping Clare Dunne’s surprisingly feisty Helena. Jonathan Broadbent, with his hitherto unknown slapstick skills, crashes through the floor of the stage (twice) and prances around in a blue unitard sing-song-ing that he’s “king of the fairies”. His tightly clad and haze-machine befogged genitals and the way he laboriously swishes his silver cape over his head leave no doubt that this Oberon is a superman-manqué.

We know they’re all being idiots and Ferdy Robert’s gruff stage technician Puck (wearing a sizeable “hammer” between his legs) with his eye-rolling nonchalance is all we need to confirm that. This is a giddy, joyful and truly funny Shakespeare for today.

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The Encounter

This is just a quick note after reading some of the reviews for The Encounter. There are at least two pieces and quite a bit of social media buzz accusing Simon McBurney’s piece which he loosely adapted from Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming of white blindness for colonial issues. One is Michael Billington who in passing throws in a reference to Rousseau which one can only assume is an allusion to the idea of the ‘noble savage’. And the other one is the infinitely more carefully considered review by Stewart Pringle in this Exeunt piece which somewhat bafflingly concludes that McBurney “has failed to interrogate his own place within that narrative.”

First, it appears the first mention of ‘noble savage’ has been falsely attributed to Rousseau for hundreds of years and likely first occurred in a play by John Dryden called The Conquest of Granada from 1672. And although Rousseau might haven written some weird things about the innate goodness of indigenous people, recent researchers aren’t even sure whether European enlightenment philosophers ever really thought that the term was more than a working hypothesis.

Now, I read Stewart Pringle’s argument in the way that the show is somehow a problematic spectacle of white man’s colonial phantasy played out and bombastically hidden under ‘state-of-the-art’ technology. But I’m actually convinced that the argument goes exactly the other way round. The Encounter is about a colonial narrative BUT this is then filtered through narrative deformations and this incredibly sophisticated technological setup. It’s not simply trying to redeem itself or haze our perception of something problematic at its core through technology; it’s making a deliberate point of it. Basically what’s being flung at the show here is the accusation of stereotyping as practice for our own self-assurance, a.k.a. Othering. From a position of mismatched power and as a fantasy fulfilment the other culture is fetishised as an object so that our yearning to reach beginnings can be told. Let Stuart Hall explain this a bit better: “Stereotyping as a signifying practice is central to the representation of racial difference. […] Stereotyping reduces people to a few, simple, essential characteristics, which are represented as fixed by Nature.”

And boy, it’s good to be wary of these things yes, especially since we’re moving in such a white critical scene, there’s always a bit of insecurity when discussing narratives about non-white indigenous people. Hell, even writing that sentence I went back three times to make sure I wasn’t being offensive. And that’s a good thing. Checking privilege, being wary of theatre that threatens to fall back into colonial narratives, that’s exactly what criticism should be doing.

Only The Encounter is really not that kind of show and it’s not as problematic as it is made out to be. There are fleshed out characters which communicate with each other (however difficult it might be to characterise that communication) and they go through stuff together and it’s tense and weird and then an artist comes and feeds the whole thing through a meta-theatrical grinder. And it’s stunning and exhausting and baffling but it’s most definitely not unexamined privilege or racist (if well-meant) stereotyping.

I think it’s so fitting that in one discussion on social media Simon McBurney’s torso came up because that’s the moment that rattled me. At one point, the performer takes off his cap, shoes and T-shirt and puts himself symbolically closer to this construct of Nature that we have. And what happens is that I get thrown out of the whole experience. My head starts whirring “ Is he allowed to do that in that context, is he allowed to do the druggy indigenous dance on stage?” That’s quite literally the embodiment of self-awareness, this white man’s torso, his body in the space has become the spectacle. What’s fetishised is the technology not the cultural setting or the people. The technical mediation deliberately moves the problematic Kurtzian journey of the photographer McIntyre into the Amazonian river delta away from the dangerous reduction of indigenous people to noble, impenetrable, ‘at one with nature’ creatures.

This is not one narrator in control of the unfolding of the story, it’s an array of decentred bodies (a photographer who told the story to a journalist which is then picked up years later by an artist who transforms the work and injects two further time levels) carefully unmoored from a fixed identity and power position and then on top they’re strewn across time which on top of that are then technologically mediated. That’s an alienation to at least the 5th degree, don’t tell me it’s the Mayoruna people that are being Othered here.

Look, all I’m saying is that I am convinced that you actually can tell stories about indigenous people from this perspective. For sure, there is a softly whispered apology for the Western impact on the Mayoruna people’s land but are the indigenous people merely ‘used’ as a vehicle to tell a white man’s story of colonial guilt? I don’t think so. The place of the creating artist is very well considered in this piece.

I’m not saying that I loved it, in fact it overwhelmed me fairly quickly, and yes I found it too long but I also don’t have to love a piece of theatre if it does the thing it wants to do in such a considered way.

Oh and I’m sure I missed out all the whacky things about time and communication but there’s no way I’ll be able to say anything coherent about that without being able to look into some form of script/recording of it.

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Oog

A figure on a chair. The right hand belongs to the right knee. We’ll get there in stages. First place the elbow but then it slips off the knee. Try again. Elbow onto the knee. Wait. Will it hold? No. Again. Again. Again. This is ugly and disturbing to watch in a way that means you can’t quite look away. And fitting too, because the effect of war Glaswegian performer Al Seed concerns himself with in Oog is also ugly. It’s not just the troubling reiteration of movement at the beginning of the piece, it’s the look too that’s holds the same appeal of disgust. An overgrown fireman coat hides a shell-shocked man who is caught in a jittering and spluttering loop of having to reintroduce his limbs to their intended positions. When the twitching creature finally emerges from his muddy cocoon after several minutes, a messy Mohican marks him as a warrior. But this war machine is kaputt. He’s a man in overdrive, a taut grin stretching far into nightmare-land. The ragged look and fragmented moves are horrific but well-known tropes of apocalyptic storytelling and they have inscribed themselves onto the performer’s body.

The bare feet are a physical manifestation of the vulnerable and unhinged mind of a soldier suffering from PTSD, restless hands and limbs degenerated into murder weapons. These guns and knifes instead of hands – they’re a metamorphosis almost impossible to revert. Seed’s companion piece to his acclaimed war-critical piece The Factory spits out the human after the promise of glorious war. Pride and laddy evenings of comradeship remain hollow memories which can’t heal this broken man.

With his smeared and grungy makeup Seed might look like Heath Ledger’s Joker gone even more bad, but there’s little mischief or revelling in misery. He’s alone on stage so this abandoned bouffon has no other clowns at his side who can mock the system which squashes human soldiers like little insects. There’s no power left in him for mockery. And so the show remains incredibly drab and bleak throughout with little nuance. If Alberto Santos Bellido’s lighting hadn’t drowned the body into a fatiguing haze, the nuances of Seed’s physical performance would have been crisper and, despite their inherently repulsive mode, potentially more relatable.

An apocalyptic tale needs hope at its end, the audience needs it and so does the performer who walks through living hell for us. But here’s a paradox: the promise of a path out of this underground hell is more naive and simplistic than expected and so the suffering before becomes almost incoherent. When it’s pulled off with the astounding skills that Seed possesses, physical theatre does not have to rely on metaphors and offer a resolution. It’s the unique chance offered by mime performances to be in the same room as a disturbed body. A body which reveals the cogs which might fail at any time.

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