Psychoanalytical Birdhouse at Jacksons Lane

Birdhouse

Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director. At Jacksons Lane.

Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense, and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director.

I have to admit, to my shame, that my memories of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds are rather hazy, but it’s not essential to know all the intricacies of the film’s plot to appreciate this piece of physical theatre. What you need to know is that there is a quiet, small California town, and suddenly there are birds appearing from nowhere and they attack people seemingly at random. Oh, and maybe that the central character is a woman who gets involved with a man and struggles with his overbearing mother. Hitchcock’s horror is almost always psychological and Jammy Voo capitalises on that.

Birdhouse is, if you will, a kind of postmodern sequel, that uses the story universe and minor characters to paint an absurd picture of the life after the attacks portrayed in the film. In Jammy Voo’s narrative the survivors of the horror seem to have formed a strange, symbiotic relationship with the attacking birds. The four women that take centre stage wear feathered head-dresses and talk about their personal, rather domestic horrors – be it about supporting a family or cleverly illustrating issues about female fulfilment through giving birth with the help of eggs. It might sound a bit pretentious and abstract, but the concept is put into action very demonstratively, and so the birds in this piece serve as an intriguing metaphor for oppression. It’s not just a one-sided preachy piece about all that though; in a fascinating moment in which a woman gets seduced by bird puppet, the room for all kinds of ambivalent readings is opened up.

It has to be said that Jammy Voo’s is a very intellectual approach that might leave some people cold. There are moments of deliberate ennui, which (in a Hitchcockian manner) skilfully coax the viewer into the next visual or acoustic climax. Audiences aware of psychoanalyst theories might recognise nods to the cheeky and convoluted pop culture analysis of academia’s enfant terrible Slavoj Zîzek, but even if you’re not in the slightest interested in psychoanalyst musings about female oppression and womanhood, you will find a lot to enjoy in this piece.

The most striking quality of this piece is definitely its stylistic vigour and its nearly cinematic scope. Visually sophisticated and nuanced, the performers include convincing bird puppets and a model of a house to bring up traumata connected to issues of motherhood or society judging women by their ability to bear children. Masterfully treading the fine line between clownery and expressive physical theatre movements, the created characters, although definitely distinguishable, remain deliberately abstract. They don’t have names or a distinct back-story, and they don’t talk a lot anyway – or at least not to each other. In a somewhat alienating way, the company manage to create little moments of truth without relying heavily on an overarching story.

The live music written and performed by Greg Hall is nothing short of revelatory. The arrangements are tender and soothing harmonies, which achieve so much more than merely illustrating the performance; it becomes part of the seductive suspense. The show, incidentally, had one of the best sound performances I have heard on stage in a long time. It was crisp and clear and let the music and actor’s voices seem like a perfectly mixed film soundtrack. That is especially remarkable, seeing as touring shows like this are in a constant provisory state of having to adapt to local premises.

After seeing this intelligent reworking of the source material I will definitely watch The Birds again. If, like me, you feel the need to brush up on your knowledge on Britain’s cult filmmaker, the BFI Southbank runs an extensive retrospective of Hitchcock’s work until October. But more than that, I cannot wait to see what Jammy Voo’s next “eggsperiment” is going to be. With their distinct visual concept, this company is definitely one to look out for.

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A Life in the Theatre

Camden Fringe, A Life in the Theatre

David Mamet’s play A Life in the Theatre is a well-observed study of mannerisms and quirks some actors develop over years of working on stage. This production is funny, but unfortunately slightly unremarkable. At Upstairs at the Gatehouse.

David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre is a quirky little play. A well-observed study of mannerisms and ticks some actors develop over years of working on stage, it is a sweet little gem, especially for people working in the industry. This production is funny, but unfortunately slightly unremarkable.

The set-up is simple. We meet two male actors backstage in a theatre: an experienced thespian and his young, promising colleague. While the first epitomises all of the cliches about actors’ idiosyncrasies, the latter is a more down-to-earth sort of man for whom acting is a profession like any other and who approaches it with the according nonchalance. A massive table dominates the stage, and is used to good effect in the play-within-a-play sequences. A plane, a flask, a globe and other seemingly random objects are suspended from the ceiling on strings, and allude to the fact that, in a theatre, the players are not simply on their own, but are always surrounded by all of the stories they are telling and that have been told there before.

John Fleming plays Robert, an experienced and somewhat conceited know-it-all with a strong propensity for pretentiousness as a constantly sweating, insecure wreck. To compensate, grand gestures and big speeches come easily to him, and he seems to be in constant state of reminiscence. He seeks to educate his colleague, the struggling young actor, and sees his own fading youth in him. Unfortunately, there is not enough charm in Robert to rehabilitate the demanding and annoying personality of the character completely. So when, after a couple of more anecdotal scenes, the stakes do eventually rise for the stage veteran, it didn’t evoke any real pity.

Duncan Wilkins gives the character of John a genuinely lovable quality, and we feel for him when his colleague dares to give him a somewhat vague directing note or indulges in overly-dramatic monologues about actors’ souls or the human condition in general. Wilkins’ performance is captivating and he is incredibly good at acting as if he was acting badly.

There are enjoyable Abbott & Castello-like exchanges that had the audience in stitches. In some respects it reminded me of Noises Off, which played successfully at the Novello earlier this year, but it has the emotional depth Michael Frayn’s piece lacked by nature of its genre.
But although some of its humour is farcical, in rare occasions even slapstick, A Life in the Theatre is not a farce. All of the funny bits are handled very well by the two actors but, on top of that, Mamet’s play is full of honest rumination about what drives people to work in theatre and how it usually turns out to be so much more than just a job. Becoming someone else every day on stage will change an artist’s personality, and the playwright has a good eye for subtle details. But it is not just another piece of meta-theatre, these are real characters with real struggles.

It’s a shame then that what sets the play apart, its insights into the artists’ emotional roller-coasters, fall slightly flat. There is something very touching about the play, something that rings true, and it’s not just the hysterical cries of “I think I’ve missed my cue!” which are not far off from what sometimes really happens backstage. Robert makes some valid points in his speeches, but they are almost always met with a playful or hidden sneer by the young actor. Although it’s an easy thing to do, I think that turning Robert’s struggles and his existential angst into the constant laughing-stock is playing it a bit safe.

Hiraeth Productions and Ovation have worked together to put this on at the Camden Fringe and, with the solid direction concept and good performances, it shouldn’t be too hard to take this production further. One merely would have wished for a more audacious approach to the characters and an end that’s more of a bang rather than a fizzle.

 

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Not Awesome: The Awesome Show

The Awesome Show

I know that sometimes experiments simply can go wrong and that audiences may remain unresponsive. I am more than ready to see past those weaknesses if there is a brave idea at the heart of the performance. But Wish Experience’s The Awesome Show, however, had a disconcertingly lewd and witless vacuum in the place where its heart should have been. At the Tristan Bates Theatre.

I would like to acknowledge a couple of things before I start in on sharing my thoughts about what was undoubtedly the most uninspired and, for that matter, uninspiring thing I have ever seen performed on a stage. I know that sometimes experiments simply can go wrong, I am aware that performers have bad days from time to time, audiences may remain unresponsive… so what starts out as a piece of theatrical exploration can fall flat. I acknowledge all that and am more than ready to see past those weaknesses if there is a brave idea at the heart of the performance.

The version of Wish Experience’s The Awesome Show I saw, however, had a disconcertingly lewd and witless vacuum in the place where its heart should have been.

There is no real set, only a laundry line spread across the room, and the little paper pendants with mysterious words on them make me hope for an existential-explorative evening. Immersive and participatory theatre is always a risky venture with performers making themselves vulnerable and subjecting themselves to the mercy of the audience. On entering the space, the audience gets handed old pots, pans and spatulas. From the little explanation I get, it might be to cook an egg should I start getting hungry. After some time, everyone seems to settle on banging them together loudly because that’s what you do with kitchen utensils when you’re in a theatre. It’s not because I feel like doing it, but I kind of don’t want to keep the performers hanging and they tell me to make some noise, so I bang my spatula. I get a coloured pen to fill in a pop quiz which consists of random pictures of kittens, human sex organs and atom bombs being projected on a white sheet. I circle numbers on a little sheet of paper, circles which never will be returned to and, in a way, already represent the futility of life. I am being informed that the purpose of all this is to find out what “awesome” means for different people, because apparently “awesomeness” is a fluid concept. Already I am awed by the audaciousness of the experiment and wonder where the promised champagne is.

Admittedly, I had quite a few preconceptions about a show that chooses a name like this and features sparsely clad people presenting cupcakes on their advertising material. The only thing that made me dismiss these preconceived ideas about the show was the fact that this has been initially developed in cooperation with BAC and has been worked on for nine months now. I can only assume that the workshop phase consisted of producer and performers reading every available book on theatre games to each other and patting each other on the back when they managed to sneak in a reference to sex or rainbows.

Basically it’s a succession of trivialities, pointless sketches and little games like throwing cupcakes in baskets or making rainbows with spray bottles. For lack of a better comparison, it was like children’s entertainment on a cruise ship. Surprisingly, there was nothing childlike or wonderlike about The Awesome Show, which from this point onwards I shall refuse calling it that. This show has not grown beyond its scratch performance beginnings and I did not see a glimpse of anything that indicates it ever will.

So, no, I did not feel challenged to question my idea of “awesomeness” nor was I moved to even care about the concept. I shouldn’t be so hard on the show though, because in a way it succeeded in demonstrating to me what my “awesome” is, namely, exactly the opposite of The Awesome Show. Even as a Wednesday evening diversion, the show failed because after twenty minutes I became slightly aggravated by the infantilising tone some of the performers had towards the audience. So the reason this project fails is a combination of both: weak concept and fatigued performers.

But here is the beauty about scratch performances and workshop phases – they constitute a space that should allow for enough room for artists to develop material, to be outrageous, to recognise when an idea has run out of steam, to tweak and sometimes even to fail. It’s part of the artist’s job who goes out to explore: to recognise and acknowledge artistic failure and stagnation. That’s the awesome thing about art that even failure allows for everyone involved to grow and hopefully Wish Experience will find new, more coherent and relevant projects in the future.

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Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is, like many of his late works, an odd play. Written in 1978 it defies not only conventions of genre but offers a poetic richness of characterisation that is rarely to be found in a theatre these days. In a dilapidated New Orleans house surrounding an old court yard the confused land lady of a guest house, controls the comings and goings of her tenants with a sharp eye. At the King’s Head.

Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is, like many of his late works, an odd play. Written in 1978 it defies not only conventions of genre but offers a poetic richness of characterisation that is rarely to be found in a theatre these days. In a dilapidated New Orleans house surrounding an old court yard the confused land lady of a guest house, controls the comings and goings of her tenants with a sharp eye. Among them is a young writer (Tom Ross-Williams) who struggles with his sexuality and ghosts from the present and past.

In its style Vieux Carré is very reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with it’s accumulation of little stories and motives rather than focusing on strong narratives. Set in the infamous French Quarter of New Orleans, establishing a certain tone takes precedent over conflict and motivations. It’s a melancholic social study that doesn’t fall back on a social realism devoid of any poetic beauty. Set designer Nicolai Hart Hansen and the prop department have done a wonderful job giving it a colour and effectively using the intimate space of the King’s Head. Three bedbug-ridden cots and a piano dominate the stage and represent the rooms of the residents of this madhouse in 722 Toulouse Street. Capturing the decay of moral and society, the set is wistful but unobtrusive so that the Williams’ text can shine.

Set in the Great Depression and at its heart a play about sickness, the light-heartedness of the beginning is probably one of the most surprising things about this piece. David Whitworth as the ageing artist Nightingale, who tries to seduce the nameless writer, has great comedy timing especially in the first half. But then of course Williams doesn’t really do light-hearted, and as time passes it all transforms into a horrible cesspool of human failure and disease. Everyone is this play is plagued with some sort of ailment: lungs, brains and eyes are failing them. However, there are so many beautifully crafted facets to all these characters that it is a twisted joy to bathe in their misery.

Standing out is Paul Standell’s over-sexualised Tye, a rather simple-minded being who initially doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. As the only character who is not physically lacking (actually very far from it, I might add) and aided by Standell’s convincing performance, the production is forcefully anchored outside of a mere dream sphere. When it’s his time to let his guard down and we discover his depths it’s horrifyingly violent and heart-breaking at the same time. There is a great bit of casting with Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil as the two starving old ladies who are malnurtured and yet still obsessed with food. Sadly their story isn’t taken to any sort of conclusion, but that’s also part of the morbid magic of Tennessee Williams’ writing – he knows how to pick at the scabs of humanity and leaves the audience itching.

It’s a bit of a theatrical sleight of hand by both writer and director to create a melancholy the audience is drawn into and repulsed by at the same time. There are one or two strange stylistic decisions that are a bit jarring, but they don’t really deter from the fact this is a bold revival.

I could never quite understand why Williams had fallen into disrepute in the late stages of his writing life, but then again I wasn’t even born when he died. His experimental style, his outlandish ideas and his twisted, dancing language deserve to be heard and seen – not because of unquestioning reverence for the man himself, but because issues like self-worth in the face of sickness and decay of society are relevant now as they were when this was written. Williams might have been ahead of his time in 1978 and with this production director Robert Chevara has done much more than simply staging a stylistically daring play; he has proven that a Tennessee Williams renaissance is truly in order. There is still much more joy to be had and more pain to be suffered.

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