Writing: December ’18 – June ’19

because mum told me to keep them all in one place

July 2019

Francesca Moody interview – The Guardian

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (duo review) – The Guardian

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – Exeunt

June 2019

Crooked Dances – The Guardian

Greenwich and Docklands fest – The Guardian

Citysong – Exeunt

The Last Word fest – The Guardian

Rachel Bloom Live – The Guardian

The Merry Wives of Windsor – The Guardian

May 2019

Operation Mincemeat – The Guardian

Take Me Somewhere festival – The Guardian

Amy Rosa feature – The Guardian

Hotter feature – The Guardian

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself – Exeunt

Henry IV part I, part II and Henry V – The Guardian

Brighton Fringe – The Guardian

The Three Musketeers – The Guardian

Avalanche – The Guardian

April 2019

Keep Watching – The Guardian

The Jungle Book – The Guardian

Sex education around the world – Guardian Weekend

Ridiculusmus interview with Grandma – Exeunt

March 2019

Trixie Mattel – The Guardian

Under the Umbrella – The Guardian

Richard II – The Guardian

Burgess Prize runner-up review of Sorry to Bother You, video game – The Observer

SWIM feature – The Guardian

Goodbye, Norma Jeane – The Guardian

Top Girls dinner party feature – The Guardian

February 2019

Superhoe – The Guardian

Woof – The Guardian

Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist – The Guardian

You Stupid Darkness! – The Guardian

Blue Door – The Guardian

The Trick – The Guardian

And The Rest of Me Floats / Sex Sex Men Men – The Guardian

Jan 2019

In Lipstick – The Guardian

Waltz of the Homelettes – The Guardian

Gods, witches, magic (about Red Lines) – Art Angel

Opal Fruits – The Guardian

December 2018

Over The Top – The Guardian

That Night Follows Day – The Guardian

The Borrowers – The Guardian

Rumpelstiltskin – The Guardian

NOW Fest @ The Yard // Week 1

 

24 Italian Songs and Arias

Brian Lobel with Gweneth-Ann Rand

Failure is often marked in numbers: 1 point off the entry requirements, 2 minors on a driving test, 3 inches too short for a rollercoaster. In 24 Italian Songs and Arias, Brian Lobel reflects on lack of success through the songs that failed to get him into the state choir: 4 points under. With musical accompaniment by Gweneth-Ann Rand and Naomi Felix, 24 Arias is both a celebration of failure and a reminder of the pleasure of doing something you don’t compete in – and how easy that is to love.

Lobel invites several opera singers to perform while their failures and rejections are listed like a recital programme. It’s utterly transformative; by allowing us to laugh with them, it rids the rejections of any shame, instead pinning them up as a mark of pride for having tried. 

It’s a naturally warm and generous atmosphere. Lobel ushers people in when they’re late and beams at the others as they sing. When he gets the piano accompaniment wrong, Rand sighs loudly, her exasperation quickly creeping into a grin. There is a total absence of pity or bitterness. It doesn’t fetishise suffering for your art, but accepts weakness as simply human, acknowledging that what doesn’t kill you often doesn’t make you stronger. 

Naomi Felix sits beside Lobel at the piano, silently turning pages as he plays. Finally she gets her chance to speak. After a hurtful rejection and illness, she steered clear of music, only to be nudged back into it by performing in a scratch of this show a few years ago. When I think of this play in the future, I will think of her.

24 Arias is sweet and affirming. It may be a little twee but the world is tough and gentleness can sooth some wounds. The attempt to be good enough is exhausting, and 24 Arias lets us bask in our glorious mishaps, offering a rare opportunity to experience failure collectively. As Lobel says: in failure, you’re in good company.

 

Diana is Dead

Fk Alexander with Andy Brown

22 years after Princess Diana’s death, the media’s obsession unsatiated. Articles are written about her daily – including several supposedly advised from beyond the grave – and Kensington Palace is currently advertising for the exhibition Diana: Her Fashion Story. It’s too much. In a eulogy pumped with rage, Fk Alexander smashes the consumerist feeding tube and finally puts Princess Diana’s ghost to bed.

All sharp edges and loud noise, this is a twisted fairytale. In Diana’s wedding dress, Fk stares at us with a dead-eyed grin. She munches on an apple open-mouthed, letting the juice dribble down her chin; Snow White sucking out her poison. Behind her, images flash of paparazzi photos and magazine covers. With skin red, eyes blue and screen glitching, Fk as Diana is the nation’s zombie princess.

Honing in on the intensifying media pressure towards the end of Diana’s life, a voiceover of an interview plays over and over. Diana refers to herself in third person, thinking about how others look at her. “Diana is unstable,” she says, “so what do we do with her?” The word “unstable” repeats and hangs there, in the empty space next to Fk’s hammer.

A trail of destruction is left in Fk’s wake. First it’s crockery – tea with the Queen shattered into tiny shards – then video tapes, chucked against the wall (her backhand is stronger), and finally TVs. It’s all thwacked, torn, dropped and thrown; broken and broken again just to be sure. Onscreen, the images mutate and melt into each other, snapping and fracturing, their colours reversing and the life sucked out of them. They become ghoulish, unreal, overwhelming. It’s useless: however much of Diana Fk destroys, more appears. The images keep coming, the words repeat louder. Clones of the princess run at us armed with hammers, their arms raised and ready to fight.

Like Fk’s previous performance, I Could Go On Singing (Over The Rainbow), noise levels are utilised to overwhelm. There, the sound was pumped with warmth – it wasn’t unusual for audience members to cry as the artist held their hands and sang to them – but here, it’s a different kind of intensity. Here, it is fuelled by rage.

Diana is dead. Long live Diana.

Tinyletter // Consent research abroad

I’m heading off to East Africa and India to research how sexual consent is taught. In an effort to pin down my thoughts, keep grandma updated and stave off loneliness, I’m writing a tinyletter. I’ll post once a week and if you fancy having a read, I’ll do my best to bring you a snippet of the place, the people and the projects.

If you’d like to join me, sign up here. I’ll be glad of your company.

Sexual assault on stage // Ed Fringe ’18

I started trying to pin down my views on Ulster American and ended up going a bit apocalyptic. Here are some loosely tied thoughts on shows that tackled sexual assault at the fringe because every time I try to move on from them, I keep getting dragged back.

***

In Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Ellice Stevens plays 15 year old Artemisia Gentileschi. She’s a 17th century baroque painter giving evidence in court against her alleged rapist Agostino Tassi. Winding art history analysis and verbatim transcripts, Breach rebuild the trial.

Even though Tassi is the accused, Gentileschi is being questioned. Made to do a lie-detector test, Stevens places her hands into a contraption that’s beautifully portrayed by director Billy Barrett in a way I won’t spoil. Sophie Steer, playing Tassi, leans in. She is terrifying, electrifying. She and Stevens stand, side on, eyes locked, leant towards each other like the edges of a triangle about to touch at its tip. As Steer questions her, Stevens is defiant. She’s telling the truth, she says. She’s telling the truth. She’s telling the truth and this isn’t fair and she’s telling the truth and it’s true. She repeats it again and again. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.

That moment feels stuck on a loop in my mind and it doesn’t stop for the rest of the fringe.

It’s still going as a video of Samira Elagoz plays slowly on a screen in Cock Cock… Who’s There? Her lips are slightly parted, red and shining wet. Cum drips down her tongue. She takes a seat in front of her own image and looks at it for a while.

It’s still going as two men drink large glasses of wine in the studio theatre of the Traverse in Ulster American. One stares at the other in disbelief. The man on the sofa has just said that if he had to rape anyone, he’d pick Princess Diana. I’m trying very hard not to let anyone notice I’m crying.

It’s still going as, after an hour of trying to keep myself awake in an unutterably boring play I won’t name, the actor who has just bowed and said thank you for listening reveals the play is the true story of their assault, and I end up feeling guilty for the rest of the day.

At this year’s Edinburgh fringe, every second show seemed to be investigating sexual assault and the concept of consent, so much so that a whole section of the programme was classified as responses to the #MeToo movement. Some shows used the topic to make skin crawl. They painted the city in bright gold with letters that read THIS IS REALLY FUCKED UP AND WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS. But others did little to challenge or question, using stories of assault as emotional manipulation or simple shock tactics.

Granted, every story of assault is valid, important and stunningly brave of anyone to talk about, with sometimes brilliantly therapeutic effects for having shared it. But I am quite certain that not every one should be made into a play and a paying audience be made to sit and watch it.

I’ve written about, taught and researched sexual assault and consent for a few years. I’m not easily shocked by talk of it and I’m fascinated by ways of portraying it on stage. But this fringe it began to feel overwhelming. I started to wish for days without another show about toxic masculinity or assault. 

There were two stories in particular that I couldn’t get out of my head after the month was up: Daughter and Ulster American. Both caused a significant amount of controversy throughout August. People disagreed about the ways in which the shows could and should caused offence, in the use of laughter and the control of language. I found myself on the extreme end of both performances, loving one and severely disliking the other.

Daughter is a one-man show by Adam Lazarus. It starts as stand-up and devolves into tense drama. Ulster American is a dark satire, a three-hander by David Ireland. Both, I think, intend to attach the end of your laughter with something bitter, questioning how far you should really be finding it funny.

I thought Daughter astonishing (I reviewed it for The Guardian). Lazarus tells a story about his six year old daughter, his wife and his relationship to women. To what extent it is fictionalised is never clear, which is part of what makes it so shocking. It was one of the first shows I saw and one of the only ones to stick with me through the whole month. When people ask what the best thing I saw at the fringe was, this is often the one I mention first. Lazarus’ storytelling is vivid and profusely uncomfortable. It’s incredibly self-aware, knowing exactly how uneasy it makes people feel. I hugely admired too, that the company offered a chat with any uncertain audience members before or after the show to explain what would be/had been discussed. Not everyone showered it with praise though, and Alice Saville’s cutting piece for Exeunt is worth a read.

In many ways Ulster American sets about doing something similar to Daughter. It tells a story of male violence against women through jokes and gritted teeth, becoming more extreme and eventually ending in farcical levels of destruction. Unravelling multiple political and social issues between a playwright, an actor and a director over the course of one evening, it is brutal in both language and action. They hold many similarities. Why then, did I feel so vastly different in Ulster American?

The first twenty minutes or so of Ulster American centre around director Leigh (Robert Jack) and actor Jay (Darrell D’Silva) getting to know each other before they start on their new play. At one point, Jay raises a hypothetical scenario of who you’d rape if you had a gun held to your head.

It’s worth noting any personal experience affects responses towards stuff like this, of course. But I’ve seen sexual assault discussed and performed so many times on stage over the last few years and it’s rarely got under my skin so unbearably. Something about Ulster American was different.

In a podcast I did with Tim Bano and Lyn Gardner, I tried to defend my reaction – namely that I sort of went into shock and cried a lot and desperately wanted to leave the theatre. I said on the podcast that I didn’t find any of it funny. That was wrong of me – it was an overstatement in an attempt to understand and protect my own disgust, because actually parts of it are funny, and some of it later on did make me laugh or guffaw in that kind of I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this way. But for most of it I just felt sick. I felt so deeply stabbed by the audience laughter at the prolonged rape joke, the detail the script went into and the twisting round of words it did to try and justify its place on the stage. Talking for a prolonged period of time about rape to a background of laughter is distressing, and I wish I’d been warned about that before going into the theatre. The whole play felt like the slightly tipsy and overly smug provocateur at the pub who sees how much what they’re saying upsets you, says “just to play devil’s advocate” and intellectually trumps you to force you to admit they have a point, all the while making you feel infinitesimally small and rendering your viewpoint insignificant. In its uppityness it felt like it was devaluing genuine stories of assault.

The audience reaction matters significantly for this kind of play, and perhaps it changed later in the run, but in Daughter the room felt deeply uncomfortable, laughter hesitant and fading as the story got darker, while in Ulster American the unabashed laughter felt emboldened every time the rape joke was mentioned yet again. It felt it was allowing the laughter rather than criticising it.

I wonder if I’d feel differently had a woman written it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I hadn’t seen the press performance and had read reviews prior to seeing it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I’d known more about David Ireland’s previous work. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had never had to relearn intimacy. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had seen more comedy about sexual assault. I wonder if I’m just being overly sensitive.

But I also wonder if it needed a place on stage. I wonder if a woman would have written it. I wonder if it would get a different reaction if that room was full of an audience of victims of sexual assault. I wonder if that matters. I wonder if we need more comedy about rape. I wonder if we need to embrace the laughter. I wonder if we need to burn it all down. I wonder if my thoughts on this align with anyone else’s. I wonder if the fact that had I been reviewing it for my paper it would have gotten a significantly less positive write up and star rating makes me a better or worse critic than I would hope. I wonder why I still can’t find the right words for this. I wonder if that’s a good or a bad thing.

The loop of Tassi’s trial keeps rolling.

It was going on 400 years ago in that courtroom.

It was still going on as in F**k You, Pay Me, Joana Nastari howled through history

It was still going before the words me too were preceeded by a hashtag.

It was still going as in Chase Scenes, Ming Hon sprinted away from the masculine shadows haunting her.

It was still going while Hollywood blinkered itself.

It was still going as in dressed., Josie Dale-Jones looked to the audience and said, “Men, we couldn’t have made this show without you.”

It was still going while we all read Cat Person and argued over what actual bad behaviour was.

It was still going as in Unconditional, the mother and daughter duo looked at each other and thought how how the world had changed in the two years they’d been making this.

It was still going while incels grew up and grew angry.

It was still going while Elagoz took that video of white liquid oozing from her mouth.

It was still going while Adam Lazarus had his child and it was still going later when he stood blazing in the theatre with lights blinding his audience.

It was still going while David Ireland wrote the scene where they debate whether Princess Diana would have enjoyed it.

It was still going while I slipped into the bathroom and waited to stop shaking.  

This story is not going to get old – not for a long time yet – but the crux of it all is finding ways of talking about it that do it justice. Some shows this fringe really did. Others bored me and felt like a waste of time. And some made me feel sick and want to leave the theatre, saw off my ears and poke out my eyes, chuck pints over the men at the pub who laugh at their friend’s jokes when they’re more harmful than funny, and force every person who has ever sexually assaulted someone to sit in a room and watch each of these shows one after another, over and over again until they get it, until they know each word and movement off by heart, until the sound of the shows starting again makes them want to scratch their own skin off, until they’re sorry, until they say it’s true, until they understand, until they stop.

Allen Wright Award 2018

I’m thrilled to have been awarded the Allen Wright Award for reviews for the second time! It was presented for my pieces on Daughter and Everything Not Saved, both published in The Guardian. The Stage did a lovely write up of the awards here.

The features category was won by the entirely deserving Tim Bano for his articles on the NHS at 70, being an American artist in the age of Trump and child’s play. He’s also been co-hosting The Stage’s fringe podcast with Lyn Gardner, the first episode of which they invited me to join them on.

All my pieces can be read here and my reflection on the month is here.

(It was a pretty great month.)

Notes from Edinburgh Fringe 2018

 

 

Some of my favourite conversations this fringe have been the ones I haven’t quite caught: Sam Ward whispering to a stranger in [Insert Slogan Here] as he dances with them on a stage strewn with candles and cardboard; The things I think I heard in Malaprop’s Everything Not Saved but now, two weeks on, I’m not sure I’ve remembered them right; When they stare at eachother in the low light and the bright noise near the end of No One Is Coming To Save You and they ask eachother – I think they ask each other – if they’re okay; Two debates jumping across each other at a drinks laiden table, new faces trading in shows and ideas; Something whispered in my ear in the dark, turning, tired, what did you say; My friend yelling something to me at 5am, a few of the vowels flying over the music but the rest of it just a blur.

There’s something in the uncertainty of the other half of those conversations, the secrecy or ephemeral nature of them that makes them more exciting than the actual words that fill them could possibly be. That gap, that uncertainty, that darkness, that potential. It feels like the most exciting companies are engaging with that this year – Malaprop, Breach, YESYESNONO, Poltergeist, This Noise, This Egg. The idea of belief and half truths and reality and playfulness on stage. I like the uncertainty of it all.

*

I tell myself I’ll be healthy and organised this fringe. I’ll have days off. I pack tupperware, books, a swimming costume. I join the library.

*

It’s pouring and we don’t have raincoats. She bought a tourist’s poncho and we share. I break a hole along one side for my head before realising the arm hole works too so we walk along, arms wrapped around each other, both of our shoulders getting wet from the unnecessary extra gap we’ve made. The air is cold and fresh and the peaks around Arthur’s seat rise above us.

*

A man gets up during Dice festival to get a pint. The performer draws attention to it, so the guy turns back to apologise. He then scurries to the door and pushes it but it’s a pull door so he falls into it with a bump and by now everyone’s watching him and his face pops with a blush.

*

I think about who you sit in the dark with. I know that I prefer seeing live art with other people, if only to gorge on its strangeness together, but with theatre I often find it distracting waiting on another person’s reaction. As a critic, I’m so used to seeing stuff by myself, and in Edinburgh it feels inevitable. But I’m walking back from Cold Blood, feeling lucky to have seen both it and its predecessor Kiss and Cry, and I’m thinking that one day I’d like to take someone to see a show by Michèle Anne De Mey and Jaco Van Dormael. Someone whose hand I could hold throughout.

*

I feel the lack of Forest Fringe significantly this year. I miss the space, the feel of community, the certainty of surprise. At D&D we talk about whether there is space for live art at the fringe. We decide there is, it just needs another group mad enough to take charge of organising it.

*

There’s a talk at the literature festival that I’ve been looking forward to all month. There are two places in Edinburgh with the venue’s name, half an hour apart, and I go to the wrong one. By the time I realise, I’m too late, and of course it’s raining. The anguish I feel at having missed it is disproportionate to the actual stress of the situation and it’s all a bit much and I think I’ve crashed. I walk home, flop on the sofa with shoes still dripping and don’t move for half an hour.

*

I’m on the bridge trying to push past hundreds of people who seem to mould into one giant fish of a person, gills opening to reveal gaps to slip through, then closing and trapping you in, more tangled than you were a moment ago. I reach the mile where it’s even worse. I squeeze past and go down a quiet street, arriving at a venue where there’s almost no one there. I sit down, out of breath, and let strangers tell me a story for an hour. At the end I cry and then drag myself back out into the cobbled streets. I know I should be used to it by now, but none of it quite feels real.

*

On the last night we go to a friend’s show and I’m expecting it to be good but not quite dance on the tables kind of good, and funny but not proper belly laughs funny. It’s a brilliant surprise and I feel full as we head out into the night.

*

I’m writing on a plane a day after leaving the festival. It’s a tiny plane and we’re up so high so fast, the windows are already spraypainted white. The captain is feeding us instructions. A baby is crying and I wonder what would happen if the captain were to ask it to be quiet. Nothing is crackling and the lights are still on – all in order – but I can’t help feeling the rumble of the plane is an imitaton of Flight’s simulator, rather than the other way around.

*

I cook maybe four times in the month. I don’t take a day off. I have too many meal deals, too much pizza, the exact right amount of falafel wraps. I don’t read a single one of the books I brought and by the end of the month I am getting angry emails from the library about the overdue book I haven’t opened. I don’t go swimming but I do wear my goggles to write my Drip review. I turn up to a few shows at the wrong time or venue, usually soaked in a mix of rain and sweat, and after five days of soggy shoes from the torrential rain a week before, I have to give up and buy new trainers. I’m exhausted. Next year, I tell myself, next year I’ll be on top of it all.

*

I’m walking back across the meadows. The light is dimming but not dark. The grass joins the gravel path. To the right are three boys. They’re sitting on a bench. They look young. My age, I think, maybe younger. Sprawled on the grass in front of them is a middle aged magician. He wears a bright green suit with playing cards stamped all over it. Cards are scattered around his arm too. Perching himself up on his elbow, he says “this is Edinburgh.” I don’t hear the rest.

Edinburgh Fringe 2018 (all writing)

 

To keep track of the month:

 

Reviews

Offstage – Fest 2*

Class – Fest 3*

Chase Scenes – Fest 3*

Beowulf – Fest 3*

Everything Not Saved – The Guardian 4* <——– this is my favourite, read this one

Midsummer – The Guardian 5*

User Not Found – The Guardian 4*

Weird – Fest 3*

Puffin Island – Fest 2*

After The Cuts – The Guardian 4*

Daughter – The Guardian 4*

Hocus Pocus – Fest 3*

Captain Cauliflower and Marvin the Mischievous Moose – Fest 4*

Pussy Riot: Riot Days – Fest 4*

What Girls Are Made Of – The Guardian 4*

Busking It – Fest 3*

La Maladie de la Mort – The Guardian 3*

The Cat’s Mother – Fest 3*

The Squirrel Plays – Fest 2*

Drip – The Guardian 3*

 

Features

Love Songs to Lavender Menace – Fest

Road Trippin’ with Thorpe and Chavkin – Fest

 

Other

Best shows of the Fringe (various) – The Guardian

Live blog of All These Things, Live Art Bistro 5-5

Sexual assault on stage

Notes from the fringe

 

P.s. I won the Allen Wright award again!