Abi.gifJóhann Jóhannsson – Forces Of Attraction

Portraits in Motion is a theatrical version of Humans of New York. Volker Gerling goes on long walks in Germany and gets by via the kindness of strangers. He photographs these people he meets and then makes the photographs into flipbooks, which he develops by hand. In his play, which is actually more of an explanation than a performance, he shows us his travelling exhibition, telling us stories of the strangers he meets on his travels. I saw it as part of Mayfest, the theatre festival that takes over Bristol for a snippet of Spring.

A week after seeing Portraits in Motion I learnt about the suicide of a girl from my school. I didn’t know her well but it still seems incomprehensible. She was a person I just assumed in the back of my mind would go on having a life- in the periphery of my own as we were never close- but at the centre of hers. It is awful to think what she suffered, and it is bizarre how the world just goes on when something so devastating has happened.

Gerling shows us each flipbook three times. He does it slowly, the brushing of the pages having the tingle effect of an ASMR video, or that feeling when someone would trace the alphabet down your spine in assembly. As you watch the face in the flipbook, thrown onto the projected screen, and see it break open into a smile you catch yourself, noticing how much you judged the severe face at first, not expecting such a stern person to exude such joy. I guess we never really know what’s going on inside someone.

I don’t mean to trivialise this tragedy by comparing the emotions it causes to those of a play, but in my mind it was a logical link and a way to think about what death actually means. Portraits in Motion makes you realise how much we can miss everyday, how much can be seen of a person in their laugh, and how much we should value those around us. Death, I think, makes us realise similar things. It makes us value our time with those we love more. It almost shocks you into telling someone how you feel about them, how special they are. Seeing this show and hearing this news made me want more memories to keep, more ways to remember people as we part this summer.

It made me want more of a grasp on my friends, I suppose.

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Chicken

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I’m very lucky to have them. I love seeing them laugh.

 

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Note: I know next to nothing about the army. I get the technical details in this from my plus one.

pink

‘We didn’t know it but we were already history.

And history’s what we’ve become.

Not the kind that’s recorded or sung, perhaps,

but history still. Our own, histories of one.’

Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist is a punch in your chest, a stab in your heart, a whisper in your ear telling you that someone is still there even when they’re gone.

On the thrust stage of the Bristol Old Vic are Hads, Taff and Arthur, our three boys, ‘We might have thought ourselves men/ but we weren’t, not yet, not then.’ It’s Arthur, the one with the cheeky smile, who pushes the others to sign up to go to war, so it’s Arthur who takes responsibility for what happens. As we see the three jump from their small life in Bristol to the wide world of war in Afghanistan, it’s hard to compare who they were with who they are after a few months away. It’s painful to think how much healthier they’d all be if they hadn’t left, but impossible to forget how much they grow in ways they wouldn’t if they had stayed.

It feels like you’re watching hearts and minds break. Almost every word is attached to a movement, making the moments of stillness shine. Noting the repetitions of movements for different meanings contrasts innocence and violence, a firework becoming a bomb just as a playground game of war becomes the real thing. Though dealing with such an aggressive subject, there is a layer of gentleness that runs throughout. As Arthur cradles a bird egg he stole before he went to war, the tenderness in his actions makes him seem like a young boy again.

Every moment tingles. The annunciation, the movements that are so precise. The way Phil Dunster’s body ripples as he leads us through these young men’s lives. The way they all look at each other. The lyrical beauty of Sheer’s words have the ability to either spike or flow, merging an incredible clarity of storytelling with youthful cheekiness and military terminology. It never leaves you behind, regardless of your understanding- or lack thereof- of tanks or training bases, of sangar, bluey or Brize.

Based on interviews with soldiers and their families, the thorough research behind the play is obvious. The green is the exact colour of night vision, the sounds are just what it’s like when a bullet whizzes past you, the helmets are the same as the one lying on the bedroom floor I left this morning. Pink Mist gets the sense of camaraderie that draws so many people to the army. Forget Queen and country, it’s about the men standing next to you. There are no limits to the lengths these men would go to for their friends on the field.

It’s not cheery, obviously. But it’s almost more painful when they’re talking about the good bits. The dark humour that they use to get through it all twists your emotions in seconds. I used to think that crying was this unexplainable thing your body occasionally did, but now I think it’s like there’s too much inside you that some of it has to spill out from your eyes. In a book review of Sheer’s poem is written, ‘there is no forced sentiment’ and this is completely true of the stage version. It is honest, open and funny. It is also terribly, terribly sad.

I imagine that Pink Mist has an extra layer of magic performed in its hometown here in Bristol, that it must lack elsewhere. There’s something special about being able to hear about Thekla in the play after walking past it on your way to the theatre.

This story makes you realise that sometimes it takes something awful to happen to make you see just how lucky you are. Count the blessings, not the curse.

Regardless of personal views or personal ties to the military, Pink Mist is a thing of beauty. But if you see it with someone whose future could be being played out in front of you, the play is a two-hour long explosion in your heart, and you might need your hand held for a while after the lights come up.

Bristol Old Vic, 23/02/2016

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Our washing machine sounds like it’s having a heart attack. It’s rumbling around so violently it has actually managed to dislocate itself from the wall and twist to the side, like it’s running away.

***

Two years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe I abandoned my friends to go and see Men In The Cities alone. I got a bit lost on my way to the Traverse Theatre but eventually made it and sat down in my seat. There was a point, when he does this four page poem, this ferocious yell that I remember perfectly, with the music playing and the lights glittering and the fans blowing around him. By the end I thought differently about theatre. My world had just been splintered and I’d sat there as Chris Goode stuck each little piece back into my skin with his words. I didn’t care about the rest of the audience, he was speaking to me. I just sat there and wept. I tweeted afterwards that I felt it should really be appropriate theatre etiquette for an audience member to go up and hug a performer instead of clapping. He tweeted back saying he thought that was perfectly acceptable. I remember using the phrase ‘earth-shattering’.

***

We had only been seeing each other for like a week and a half. I asked him, in a very roundabout way, not wanting to sound too keen in any way at all, if *hypothetically* he fancied going to see this play with me in a few weeks that I’d seen two years ago and was probably in my top 3 of all time. Emphasis very strongly on hypothetical- if we were still a thing, if he was free, if he wanted to go (but mainly the first thing because I’m not planning ahead I promise okay please don’t run away).

Men In The Cities was the hypothetical play.

***

I have seventeen tabs open on an early modern essay I should be writing as well as one that’s ten minutes into The Apprentice but I can’t stop thinking about the feature I want to write, the interviews I haven’t transcribed and am terrified I’m going to lose because I don’t quite understand Audacity yet, this piece that I’m not exactly sure I’m going to publish and the fact that I’m meeting his family in a fortnight. There are thirteen books in scattered piles by my bedside that I want to read. There’s the half-marathon I keep saying I’m going to run. There are the unwritten scraps that are going to make up a monologue, the notes on a play I want to direct, the to-do list that just keeps getting longer.

***

We get a bit lost on our way to the Tobacco Factory but eventually make it and sit down in our seats. Second row but there is no one in the front row. So front row. I assure him there is no audience participation.

That point comes, the poem. It has the same words, the same theatrical elements, but I don’t cry and I get a bit annoyed with myself for not feeling more strongly. For not feeling the same.

I don’t feel shattered. It’s a bit like when I went to see Constellations– the play I had idolised for years, had obsessed over and directed a slice of- and was thoroughly disappointed when I finally saw the professional production. Except that can be written off like a film not living up to a book- you imagine the characters differently, the way they speak, walk, dress, yell at eachother. I had read Constellations before but not seen it. Men In The Cities doesn’t have that excuse. This was my brain escalating what I’d seen so that it could never be as good as I remembered.

When you go see a play with someone who doesn’t watch or make much theatre, its like there’s a pretension radar constantly buzzing. When I first saw Men In The Cities I just felt an overwhelming sense of raw honesty, beauty, something I’d never felt before. When I saw it again I felt uncomfortable at the theatricality of it, the fakeness, the awareness of a pause for effect. I think I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t want him to think that I thought that this was what theatre was about, or my kind of theatre anyway. Which feels like the most horrible thing to say because I admire Chris Goode hugely and am enormously grateful for the way Men In The Cities changed the way I felt and thought about theatre when I first saw it.

I think I needed it at the time. Maybe I’ve changed and the play hasn’t.

***

I’ve found myself craving the London aftermath of theatre. The response to a show in Bristol and in London is worlds apart. I haven’t come across a review or essay on a play in Bristol that has made me want to a) cry, b) run and book a ticket, c) lie down and die because nothing can ever be better than those words so I may as well end it on a high. I feel so jealous when I read such different, outrageous, well written views on shows in London. This by Meg Vaughan is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. I miss the abundance of original criticism that London has, where people use demolition gifs to make a point. I love the argument, the anger, the passion. I haven’t found that yet here. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. (If you know of any, please, please send them my way. I will buy you ice cream.)

***

I went to a workshop with a playwright last week who said one of the best pieces of advice he’s been given was that it’s all about ‘unchoosing’. It’s about making the choice of what not to do, and then the other things will kind of come clearer.

***

The washing machine has calmed down.

***

Men In The Cities second time round was not quite what I was expecting.

But we made it to the hypothetical play.

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The language of loss is sprayed over us like disinfectant in Bea Robert’s play And Then Come The Nightjars. It’s about loss of love, loss of land, loss of livestock, loss of dignity, loss of every little thing that makes us human- and then whatever makes us up when that’s all gone.

‘Nothing makes any sense anymore. No one listens to me.’

My grandma says that when you get old- like properly old- people don’t touch you anymore. Your skin is seen as slightly repulsive as it gets looser and thinner. Your levels of intimacy decrease. You words don’t have so much gravity to them in other people’s minds. It’s as if your opinion counts for less.

‘Don’t hurt my girls.’

When 60- something year old farm owner Michael, played with such kindness and fury by David Fielder, is told that all his livestock have to be killed because of the spreading foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the English countryside, he rages as if he’s been told to kill his own children. These words matter. He matters. Michael has as many wrinkles on his face as years in his life. He grumbles and stumbles around the small stage but has complete ownership of the space and authority over his farm. This is his space. He was born in the house upstairs. ‘I went to Coventry once. It was shit’. In his strong Devon accent, half his words are gristle.

‘You’re a waste of space.’

40- something year old Jeffrey begins as a bit of a loveable posh twat. Played by Nigel Hastings, he has just the right levels of cockiness and sadness. He’s Michael’s vet, the only one he trusts. But when Jeffrey is drunk, emotionally damaged from his work and personal life- words spitting out of his mouth with a slur as if he’s just had a tooth out, blood dripping from his forehead- he’s a little bit vile.

‘It’s bad luck is Nightjars. It’s a bird o’death.’

Roberts’ play sings like the nightjars, only with a little more hope than their death call. We follow Michael and Jeffrey through broken homes, break ups and break downs. When the shots ring out on the farm they sting us. The light of the fire glowing through the back door of the shed. In the front row the steam rolls over us and the ash falls just in front of our feet.

Time passes in this play in the most beautiful way. Lighting designer Sally Ferguson has choreographed a sequence where the sun rises and streams through the wooden slats then runs across the room and gets warmer then colder, bouncing off the metal farm tools and curling round the piles of ropes. It streams in and out and jumps round and round slowly. It’s bewitching.

Paul Robinson’s production makes it an incredibly intimate piece of theatre. It’s just these two guys, talking about cows in a crumbling wooden shed with time passing and the world changing around them. It almost feels intrusive for us to be there, sitting in on their conversations- both mundane and fiery. The cobwebs and the details of Max Dorey’s set make it feel so real. The broken flickering lights. The rusty trowel propped against the side. The dusty hay strewn floor. My friend who lives on a farm leans in and whispers, ‘it literally looks like my shed’.

After the tragedy there’s a bit of hope for the future before we dip into depression again. Despite all this it’s an incredibly funny play, but the kind of funny where you’re laughing through your tears. Roberts catches the humour in everyday conversation and allows the characters to make fun of themselves and eachother even in the most desperate or depressing of situations. There are few things that make your heart swell as much as an old man talking about the woman he loved, even if he talks as much about her arse as about her heart. Nostalgia has a way of piercing your skin and digging into you.

And then come the sound of the nightjars. The lights begin to fade and you know it’s the end and you want it to hold on for just a bit longer. A little bit longer before it, they and this rural lifestyle all fade away into the dark.

Bristol Old Vic, Studio Theatre, 13/10/2015

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I have rarely felt so full of love walking out of a theatre. I want to go and make a playlist of all the songs. I want to tell everyone I love that I love them. I want to go and eat ice cream and watch Jumanji and buy a record player so I can buy records and then read the sleevenotes.

I want to send everyone I know to see it. The ones who are having a really tough time at the moment. The ones who say plays aren’t their thing. The ones who need a break from work. The ones I haven’t spoken to in too long. The ones I want to share laughter and stories and embarrassing moments with.

In Every Brilliant Thing there is a list of all of the best things about life. The list is made to stop someone from killing themselves. It doesn’t work. But it is a brilliant list.

In the play the list gets to 1 million. I’d like to add a few, if that’s okay.

  1. Being embarrassed in front of your friend as you’re made to take off a single shoe and sock to make a sock dog, being asked to name it and somehow only being able to think of ‘Mr Socky’.
  2. How every single person who was involved in that piece was made to feel welcomed and loved and laughed at in the best way possible.
  3. Being able to go through the list at the end and see people’s additions: 414. Earlobes.
  4. How on it that Stage Manager was.
  5. How much my grandma would love Jonny Donahoe.
  6. Walking back from The Tobacco Factory, seeing a cyclist come towards you, stopping to let the cyclist go by, feeling confused as the cyclist slows down next to you and awkwardly realising you’ve stopped right in front of their house.
  7. Not looking where you’re going and almost being attacked by a bush.
  8. Eating strawberry laces as you discuss the warmth and openness in that room.
  9. Singing the Indiana Jones theme tune when you’re walking up Bristolian hills.
  10. Walking the rest of the way home in silence not because you don’t have anything to say, but because you’re too full of strawberry laces and every brilliant thing.

Tobacco Factory Theatre, 10/09/2015

P.s. I wrote more about Duncan Macmillan and Every Brilliant Thing here

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Dear Charlotte Bronte,

I would like to apologise for saying Jane Eyre was:

  1. Boring
  2. Dull
  3. Wimpy

And:

  1. Nothing happens for ages
  2. Do people who label things ‘classics’ actually read them?
  3. I wouldn’t want to be her friend

Please accept my forgiveness. You see Charlotte, when I was thirteen I tried reading Jane Eyre. It’s known as a grown up book, a classic, a right of passage. I’m afraid thirteen year old me also decided it was really, really boring. After a month of staggering through it and only getting to Lowood I eventually gave up. I was so reluctant to read it that it stopped me reading altogether. I picked it up a year later and battled through to the end. I’d done it. I was a woman. (It was okay.)

So my feelings hadn’t really warmed to your creation yet. But last night I went to the National Theatre (hasn’t been built yet, dw about it there’s a lot to explain) to see a devised production of Jane Eyre, and my heart is now aglow with praise. It was a preview and there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about reviewing previews- I would explain but if you’re only present in our time for the length of this letter then Benedict Cumberbatch probably isn’t where I’d start in explaining modern life- so this is more of an appreciation of them dragging me out of my hatred and into something a lot warmer.

The production definitely takes inspiration from Kneehigh, and there are particular similarities to their production of Rebecca earlier this year. Having the ensemble create the story with revealed stage craft and falling into harmonies with the onstage band feels very familiar. There are also similarities with Bristol Old Vic’s Swallows and Amazons, which again had a Kneehigh-esque feel. There was a lovely moment in Swallows and Amazons when someone lay at the tip of a boat with a glass of water and flicked it at the passengers, and that was the sea. There’s a similarly playful feel here, as one of the cast holds up a lamp and twists his hand like flames, and suddenly the lamp is an enormous comforting fire. This production has a great sense of humour.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane has as good a worry face as Nadiya from Bake Off (if we’re explaining life today The Great British Bake Off is crucial). Her defiance makes me want to hug her. “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.” As she hitches up her layers of skirts to climb up the scaffolding I wonder if the plasters on her legs are part of her character.

Some of the company move between acting and playing music. The score is like a mix of Nils Frahm, Lo Fang, Mumford and Sons and a jazzy lightning storm. I tried to look on Spotify but the decades section only goes back to the ‘60s so I’m afraid those references might be a bit lost on you. I never knew a bow scraping a cymbal could create such a cuttingly sharp sound.

Like in your book, we see Jane grow. The actors transform from children to adults very naturally, not parodying the children at all. It all feels very honest. A corset is added as Jane grows up to give her a woman’s body rather than that of a child.

 “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.”

When Mr Rochester asks Jane to marry him it is the angriest proposal I’ve ever heard, so full of love and impatience, before giving her a very beardy kiss.

While some bits flow others move too fast. They feel disconnected and lose their sense of place that so much of this show secures well. I’m not entirely sure about the conscience bits either. But nothing lasts too long, even though the two shows at Bristol Old Vic have been put together for one epic three and a half hour show.

I don’t want to spoil a surprise in the play so I won’t explain completely. But there’s a singer in this production who wears a red dress and exudes enormous strength in her voice. She lifts the production to another level. Listening to her singing Mad About The Boy is utterly dazzling.

The other best bit is the dog. Craig Edwards as Mr Rochester’s dog (alongside the other hundred parts they each play) has the audience under his control as he pants and drops to the floor as a footstall for his master.

You know when Mr Rochester is blind and injured and tired and Jane comes back to him? She doesn’t say anything, she just walks up to him slowly and touches his hands. At first he flinches but then he seems to recognise them and holds them so tight it looks like he never wants to let go. Can you really know someone so well that you can recognise them simply from the feel of their hands? If so that’s a lovely thing to look forward to.

So apologies Charlotte. This girl has guts. I would totally be her friend.

All the best,

Kate Wyver


National Theatre, Lyttelton 10/09/15

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Some thoughts on the Almeida’s Oresteia from someone who knows nothing about Greek tragedy, who has only seen two before and who severely disliked one and fell asleep in the other.

***

I persuade my brother to come with me to this, only telling him how long it is after he agrees. After 3 hours and 40 minutes, bums numb and bodies tired from being nervous, we stand up. There’s a moment of silence. ‘I think we should read a synopsis’.

***

The first half an hour of Robert Icke’s production is glorious to watch. It’s so busy. The movement (not physical theatre but doing so many things at once with such speed) builds these complex lives.  In a scene where only two people are present on paper, seven are on stage.

A long white table with benches either side sit in front of a step up to a glass wall, the kind of glass wall you wouldn’t be surprised to see James Bond appear from behind. It slides across and is transparent and then opaque and occasionally flashes like a memory lapse or a camera flash.

The cutting up of the text allows it to reveal bits of the story like a murder mystery, letting us piece together the relationships and passing of time. The intervals are laced in as breaks from a courtroom. The illusion built isn’t broken by the intervals. Some actors remain onstage in character. Agamemnon’s body is stretchered off rather than having him simply stand and walk off. The tension is kept by the countdown at every break, projected on screens around us. It’s a great crowd control, as well as adding to the sense of our impending doom. As soon as it gets to 5 seconds the room is silent.

The score is on the edge of being so subtle that you don’t notice there’s a string being played high up in the register, but then choral music swells and takes your attention. It’s delicately done. Having the little girl singing the song that I’ve always connected with that joyful scene in Love Actually is eerie. Her voice stands out and swim around your head. They have some great dums and whooshes that coincide with lighting changes, like the sound of a profound thought being thrown against the glass. I jump at one blackout (with a particularly good ‘dum’, more like a ‘DUMMM’) and again when he screams ‘I was wrong’ and the door swings open and light bursts through and papers fly everywhere.

The black and white colour palette makes the red cloak and sticky blood  (spoiler alert, people die) and red wine stand out more. It’s a bit like in Schindler’s List, using the bright red against the monochrome as a sign to say ‘THIS IS IMPORTANT, LOOK AT THIS’.

“This was always going to happen”

The sense of impending doom is perhaps overdone. Yes it’s a tragedy. We know everyone’s going to die. But still. The innocence of Iphigenia’s teddy is lovely but it does feel a bit like an incredibly obvious example of Chekhov’s gun- I was just waiting for it to be ripped up and decimated and be symbolic.

***

I find the religion bit hard to grasp. In the modern Western world (in which this seems to be roughly set, maybe a bit timeless and spaceless), most people are not so religiously inclined as to believe in signs from gods in dreams. The religiosity and modernity don’t quite blend together, particularly in the final scene where judgement is all about God rather than morality.

***

Agamemnon has massive hands. Clytemnestra is pretty tiny but his hands are literally enormous. They are quite distracting.

***

This is more than just a fractured family. This is a-normal-amount-of-troubled-family turned shattered psychopaths.

Moments stand out. Orestes’ description of people as shells. The children’s shoes left in the corner. The speed with which Agamemnon goes from bath to deadness. The ritual of shaking the bell, bringing out the tablecloth, laying it out with the glasses and the pouring of the blood red wine. The moment where the reflection in the glass is used to give depth, reflecting the characters in front of the glass so they look as if they’re sharing the space behind. It’s a lovely way to put together the dead and the living.

There’s a speech by Orestes where he says a situation will seem different to everyone depending on what happened to them that day, what they had for lunch, what their last thought was before this one. “It all floods in”, he says. It changes how we see things. It changes the stories of our lives, just as it changes every single audience member’s opinion of the same play.

***

But there’s still something about it that doesn’t make the time fly by. And I’m still not certain what that is. I’ll think about it.

***

At the curtain call the little boy playing young Orestes looks so proud, he’s beaming. 3 hours and 40 minutes are almost worth it for that alone.

Trafalgar Studios 09/09/15

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Most of the reviews I’ve read of Song From Far Away feel as though they should be whispered rather than spoken aloud. They have given the impression that the play contains such delicacy and tenderness, the sense of leaving the Young Vic feeling absolutely shattered. There are few productions I have loved as much as Ivo Van Hove’s A View From The Bridge and Stephens’ voice is always so clear and beautifully angry in his writing.

I have high expectations.

Eelco Smits plays Willem, a 34 year old man who has written six letters to his dead brother. We follow him through bars, beds and breakdowns. It is a beautifully written story and a carefully directed piece. So I’m not entirely sure what my problem with it is. Eelco is Dutch. Maybe my issue is that the words don’t feel naturally his. The self-deprecation, dark humour and slipped in swear words feel very English and so very Simon Stephens. Or maybe my problem is that I have a crap seat so it actually does feel very Far Away indeed.

But then something changes. Willem sits on the window sill and speaks with such sincerity about his family that I get goose bumps. Suddenly he takes control of the words and I believe in him.

“I don’t know how to hug anyone anymore.”

If this were real and Willem were to suddenly have a heart attack I wouldn’t know who to call. His family? He’s been shut out by them. His ex? It seems like he’s clinging onto something long lost there. The extent to which he is very much alone is affecting.

“Come home” he sings, his hand on the imaginary cheek of his boyfriend from years ago. From the awkward angle at which I’m sitting way at the back of the theatre, I can see through the doorway, where his jumper is strewn out. It just happens to be laid out at exactly the same angle as his arm is now, so it seems as though there could be another couple behind the frame, in exactly the same position. He sings with this accidental echo behind him and I’m suddenly very pleased with where I’m sitting.

The set is Stephens’ natural territory; a lonely hotel room, reminiscent of Birdland and Wastwater. There is nothing comfortable about it, it’s all sharp edges. It doesn’t say please stay here. It says you’re staying here because you have to. It is like a flat pack Ikea room with super cool lighting and that fake snow that you buy at the German market on the Southbank every year even though you never really need or want it. The windowed room is empty apart from a chair which rests in a section of the room separated by a wall with a doorframe, an air conditioning unit that hums occasionally and a lamp. The solid structure of the lamp reminds me of the outline in a Patrick Caulfield painting. As I search for the image I come across something he said, ‘I’ve only the friendship of hotel rooms’. He and Stephens would get on.

Eelco gets naked. At first the lack of clothing doesn’t seem to add anything, but gradually the decision begins to make sense. His nakedness allows him to be an innocent child being told off. It allows him to be a beastly figure, trapped in himself, his muscles heaving with his internal struggle. It allows him to be a vulnerable man just wanting to be loved.

But part of me still wants to give him a blanket to cover him up and make him a bit cosier.

There is a beautiful moment where we see this dull hotel room turn from night to day with the shadow of Eelco’s body and the big fat lamp jittering across the bare walls. It gives a similar effect to those old flick books or a zoetrope, or a piece by Julian Opie. It doesn’t quite feel real.

“Do you only ever realise you’re living in a golden age after it’s gone?”

The sense of loss is carried throughout the whole piece. Mark Eitzel’s music subtly reappears throughout as a half remembered song, with Willem sometimes gliding into it, sometimes humming or strumming it. Sometimes it is played from behind a closed door, distancing Willem even more from the outside world.

Eelco is in silhouette. The stage behind him is various shades of orange melting into shadows. His carved form is outlined, his fingers twisting up high as he describes a little girl spelling out his dead brother’s name with a sparkler. I almost expect the sparks to magically appear. This is a real moment of beauty. I can still see it.

I’m still not entirely sure what I think of Song From Far Away. It hasn’t left me shattered or grieving. But I do find myself trying to hum that song, trying to catch that melody that I can’t quite grasp.

Young Vic 07/09/15

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It is hard to look at anyone else when Denise Gough is on stage. I’ve never seen her perform before but I now very much want to again. She just seems so normal, you could bump into her in the street. She is a real human being. She is a seriously good actor.

People, Places and Things is very Headlong. In both Gough’s character’s drug-induced state, and later in her withdrawal phase, things warp and scrunch and flash and clones appear and disappear. They’re good at messing with our heads to show how messed up hers is.

“I was talking about theatre”

It’s about acting and stage directions and the complexity of being a human being and drug abuse and lies and the importance of having someone you can rely on and how everything is easier with alcohol to knock down your inhibitions and numb you that little bit but then it’s also about the numbness of being unable to react to something in the way we feel we’re meant to, like death. It’s about the pretence of acting and how maybe that’s easier than real life. In a wonderful, powerful rant she lists everything that is wrong in the world and says it in a way that makes you think, yes, this is all true. It’s a Men In The Cities-type rage at the world.

I’m not sure I believe in spoilers unless it’s about the end of Rebecca (grandma, I’m looking at you). But if you haven’t seen it maybe skip the next two paragraphs.

She- Sarah, is an actress. (“No, I’m a seagull”). She’s a drug addict. She goes to rehab. She takes a long time to co-operate with them. She goes through withdrawal. In rehab she hallucinates. More versions of her appear from the bed, they climb out like in a horror movie and crumple around the room. She does that really well- she feels all crumpled, like it would take the whole world to get her to stand up straight.

Quotes are dropped in from The Seagull (which Headlong did very well a few years ago. I sort of despise Chekhov after studying The Cherry Orchard but I very much enjoyed their The Seagull), A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet. My History teacher died when I was in year 13 and at our memorial assembly an English teacher read out the same R&J quote they use here.

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night”

For a play about grief, this feels rather fitting. As she says it, giving it as an example of the wonderful language actors have the privilege of speaking, I can see him sitting on the edge of the wobbly plastic chair in Room B, chewing gum and telling us that we can do anything.

I think that’s why I like theatre. It connects you to moments of life. It reflects bits of it at us in a different way as in those distorted mirrors at funfairs or the grubby reflection of the glass on tube doors. It makes you feel things and think things and want to do things. It makes you want to change the world, and it makes you believe that that might be possible.

There’s a word that means the feeling of understanding that everyone else has individual lives and has their own set of thoughts and worries and fears- sonder. This is the kind of play that makes you realise that. This the kind of play that makes you look at the person sitting next to you and wonder if they’re okay, if you’re okay, if any of us are actually okay.

Maybe we should go for a drink and talk about it.

Maybe not.

National Theatre, Dorfman 01/09/15

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2

I sit down in a dark room and I am handed a blindfold.

***

First time round I miss Barrel Organ’s play, Some People Talk About Violence.

I saw the company’s debut show Nothing last year. I had enjoyed it but felt guilty at seeing it after a night out that turned into an expedition to climb Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and then powering through to the next day. So in part I felt I had to see Some People Talk About Violence while fully awake to make up for last year. But I manage to miss it by completely forgetting I had booked a ticket and end up double booking with Manwatching at Summerhall.

So we’re standing outside the Roundabout at Summerhall, oblivious to the fact that I’m wasting eight valuable pounds on the production I’m missing. Then I see him. My favourite playwright. The man I have watched every interview of and read every word of. Nick Payne. My Beyoncé of theatre. I do that kind of excited whisper where everyone around you can hear what you’re saying and explain to my friends how much I love this man. They tell me to talk to him and I’m debating it but he’s turning away so I start to run.

I should have said I’m really sorry to bother you but I just wanted to let you know how much I adore your writing.

I should have said I just directed a section of Constellations at University where we used three couples on stage at once with three AV screens and occasionally the actors would cross over from one to the other a bit like characters in a Harry Potter painting.

I should have said ‘If you give me a balloon I will fucking garrotte you’ is my favourite line in the English language.

I should have said that I really want to direct one of your plays fully but have been told the rights were not available and why is that and please could you make an exception?

I should have said would he feel like making a trip up to Bristol and writing a play for us and we would repay him by feeding him with BTP scones and taking him on scenic tours of the harbourside and buying him fish and chips to eat on the Clifton Suspension Bridge at sunset.

Instead I ramble and say the word ‘love’ about fifty gazillion times and don’t explain anything properly and when I say I’m seeing the same show as him the thought probably crosses his mind to abandon his ticket altogether. (He doesn’t. He laughs a lot. I totally don’t watch him more than the actor on stage, shut up).

I have another fangirl moment as I see Andrew Haydon walk past at Forest Fringe, where Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola is taking place. ‘He’s the Beyoncé of theatre criticism’.

My friends won’t let me have two Beyoncé’s.

***

I’m not with a show and I’m not reviewing. Being in such a productive place for more than a week without being productive has left me feeling incredibly restless. When I go home am I actually going to have achieved or learnt anything from my time in Edinburgh? Yeah I’ve got some good shows to talk about, but other than that? I don’t feel a particular sense of revolution or the desire to be braver. So many shows have left me cold, bored, even asleep. I haven’t seen my life-changer, my this year’s version of Men In The Cities.

And then, just as you stop waiting for a bus to arrive, or the kettle to boil, or the perfect partner to come along, *BAM*, I see three shows in one day that are simply brilliant.

  1. Some People Talk About Violence, Barrel Organ

I rebook, my guilt of almost nodding off in Nothing due to lack of sleep still playing on my conscience. Barrel Organ tell a story of a girl who breaks into a stranger’s house. They tell it through the viewpoints of different people involved in the story. The casting is chosen by the audience at random (not entirely at random, they stay within the same genders). Every so often the story is broken up with games or challenges, a bit like Secret Theatre’s A Series of Impossible Acts. These are violence portrayed as fun. We laugh as they say ‘yesterday’s show was…’ and add on the most gruesome thing they can think of.

‘…when I chopped all your balls off’

‘…when I set fire to the bus going to Forest Fringe’

‘…when I pulled all your fingernails off one by one and ate them’

When one is too tame they are made to sit down. There is the wonderful feeling in this show that there is so much more than just the text and what we see. You can feel the ideas and discussions bubbling beneath the surface.

  1. 887, Robert Lepage (International Festival) and
  2. The Encounter, Simon McBurney/Complicite (International Festival)

Before I go to these I don’t really have a clue who either of the men are. Turns out they’re pretty important.

Both shows are part of the International Festival and both have the ability to turn everything inside my brain to jelly. Seeing these two shows back to back is a bit like having dessert and then being given free ice cream with sprinkles. And a flake.

In 887 I was definitely inside Lepage’s memory palace and then outside it and then in his dad’s taxi. That definitely all happened. Just as I was definitely in the jungle seeing that monkey holding the camera and being whispered to telepathically by the tribesmen in The Encounter. I can see it all and feel it all just as well as I can smell the macaroni cheese from downstairs or feel the breeze on my foot as I’m still too tired to get out of bed and close the window. I went to the jungle, no doubt about it.

887 is as spectacular in set design as The Encounter is in sound. Together they are like a fuck you to anyone who thinks theatre is easy or dull, or that theatre technicians are not important. It felt like genuine magic when I closed my eyes and listened to hundreds of people in the jungle right in front of me, then opened them to see Simon McBurney standing alone on a littered grey stage.

1

We walked forever to a comedy that almost seemed further than Arthur’s seat. We walked in to stand at the back as all the seats were full. We snuck out of the fire escape after the first sketch consisted of the audience roaring with laughter at the suggestion of cheese induced flatulence. It seemed as though that was as risky as the night was going to get.

***

‘I can’t be rude about that play because it’s about rape.’

***

After a run of ‘meh’ plays that deflating feeling creeps back in. But then you go to see a play that reminds you that actually everyone is great and friendly and lonely and feels things too, so everything’s going to be okay in the end. Here are ten of those plays.

  • Blind Cinema (The Filmhouse)

The concept of Blind Cinema is that you go to the cinema, are blindfolded and have the movie audio-described to you by a child. Everyone comes out of the cinema having very different understandings of the story of the film. I had been told at one point there was a gorilla with red eyes, which another friend had been told was a girl (there was a discussion about whether our misunderstanding came through our lack of knowledge of the Scottish accent. If you try whispering ‘girl’ and ‘gorilla’ in a Scottish accent they do sound remarkably similar.) But it wasn’t about the story. I’m not entirely sure what it was about, but it was great.

The feeling was one of such intimacy with this child sat behind me and the stranger sharing the listening funnel. No one else would have been told exactly the same story, although we could hear sections of other whispers copied when our child was searching for the right words. The surrounding whisperings created a buzzing atmosphere and you could feel the excitement of the children and their rush to get through the words to the next description to keep up with the film. I don’t know if the film is an existing film already or of it has been made especially for this, but there’s a new one for each performance, I think, so it’s new for the children too. At first I thought it might be something famous like Pulp Fiction. Then I realised, what the hell was I thinking? Who in their right mind would get children to describe Pulp Fiction? Edinburgh has actually made me mad.

  • The Beanfield, Breach Theatre (theSpace on the Mile)

Breach Theatre’s on stage documentary is about their path to staging a re-enactment of the police attacks on visitors to Stone Henge at Summer Solstice in 1985. It’s interwoven with the cast reliving their experiences of going to Summer Solstice. What makes it different from everything I’ve ever seen is that they show the process behind the formation of the play, from writing letters to historical re-enactment societies to learning how to stage fight to being turned away from the field they wanted to film in and saying screw them, let’s do it anyway.

This company seems to have a genuine eagerness to discover. It’s infectious.

There is one moment I can’t get out of my head. One girl describes the sweaty, maddening, out of your head dancing while a boy dressed as a police officer mimes bludgeoning someone. To strobe lights and thumping music, this moment booms. Everything fades after the heady climax and leaves the sound of panting, of exhaustion, of horror at the realisation of violence committed. In the context of the Warwick Uni riots last year it is incredibly moving.

  • Manwatching (Summerhall Roundabout)

An anonymous woman writes about her sexual fantasties and for every performance a different male actor/comedian reads it, for the first time, to an audience. I wasn’t entirely impressed by the particular actor we had, but I liked the awkwardness that was inflicted upon him by the author’s deliberate absence. In the text she brings up the point that men have more command in their voices. If a man says something you’re more likely to believe them than if a woman was to say exactly the same thing. I think about this for the rest of the festival.

  • Brush (Assembly Roxy)

This is storytelling without words where Korean compny ‘Brush’ paint the set in front of you. It shows children the importance of physical creation in front of them rather than on a screen. The joy of the rustle of the paper or a light held to illuminate a window in a house. They interact with the paper as if it’s a living thing. The experience is enhanced if you have a very cute baby sitting next to you.

  • Swallow (Traverse Theatre)

This play has a joyous absurdity to it but is also incredibly dark. Three interwoven stories switch from monologues to dialogue as we are swept into their world of pain. Reality mixes with madness to create a Peter Pan-esque sense of wonder. In the moment that the feathers fell I felt like crying.

Also that swively light box is super cool.

  • The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Jack Thorne (Pleasance, Queen Dome)

This play doesn’t just acknowledge the awkwardness of sex, it shouts about it. It destroys Hollywood ideas of sex and uses such gross, squelchy language that everyone is squirming uncomfortably in their seats. It’s wonderful. As it’s by the company Graeae, it also embraces disability. She is deaf (‘I think he liked the deaf thing a bit too much’). He has an arm that ends at his elbow. We couldn’t care less. We are too busy being grossed out by their words. Jack Thorne beautifully interweaves descriptions of orgasm and stillbirth. I can still hear (spoiler alert) the sound of child’s laughter at the very end.

  • Pippin, Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society (C)

When Pippin says he wants to find something bigger and better and meaningful in his life, I understand him completely. I think Pippin struck a chord with me because I can see my brothers in him, particularly the oldest one who has been switching between jobs and internships in an attempt to find something that satisfies, challenges and enchants him. Pippin makes you question what you actually want and how to know if it’s the right thing.

(Also my friend directed it so I was very proud of him).

  • Butt Kapinski (Liquid Room Annexe)

Deyanna Fleysher ushers us in and shifts our seats as far apart as possible so we are not protected by the closeness of our friends. Annoying Americans who don’t quite get the sense of humour nearly ruin the show but she holds it together and takes control of the narrative.

This play, relying so heavily on audience participation, dances along the fine line of ease and discomfort. Fleysher, dressed as detective Butt Kapinski, makes a film noir with us as the characters, the blood and the sound effects. It is at first ridiculous but has darker undertones. Everyone laughs when the men in the audience are cast as prostitutes and have to give lap dances, while all the women are paying customers and have to sit and wank off, but the feeling of discomfort rises swiftly. This play questions gender stereotypes and expectations but is presented in a way that could easily just be taken as idiotic fun.

At the end she strips out of her Butt Kapinski outfit and puts herself in the role of a damsel in distress. Her saviour, a member of the audience now dressed as Butt Kapinksi, stands with her in the sound effect of rain. They stand huddled in the lamplight. She says something about him saving her, kisses him on the cheek and smiles up at him. He hesitates then kisses her on the lips. I don’t know if it was because he felt it was required of his character, or because he felt he was allowed to, or just because he wanted to.

How much is improvisation and acting up when you’re picked on, and how much is taking advantage?

  • Roaring Accordion (Sweet Grassmarket)

A wonderfully mental show where he gives us whisky and teaches us that we should get a standing ovation even if we go wrong because it’s important to know that people still love you when you fail.

  • Traces (Assembly Hall)

This circus act shows us just how incredible humans are. How are so many of us wasting our bodies?

4

As I’m on the train back to London I make a list of all the shows I’ve seen. I am disappointed by how little nudity I’ve seen onstage this year. My trip to Edinburgh last year began with Stripped Down’s Productions’ The Curing Room, but this year almost everyone has kept their clothes on.

Then I start counting. I realise that out of the approximately 217 actors (excluding Blind Cinema because I didn’t see them for very long) I reckon onstage, 8 of them were non-white (6 Asian, 1 mixed race, 1 black). (*I will do more exact count of this, but this is very close to being right*)

So I put my headphones in and try to ignore it.

Then I realise that ignoring it isn’t going to change anything. So I decide I’m going to make a change in what I see. But I’m seeing a wide range of things in Edinburgh and it all seems to be the same people doing it. If I can’t find see diversity in the biggest cultural festival in the world, there isn’t much hope for when I go back to my very un-diverse University city of Bristol. Edinburgh should be the most inclusive place in the world. It doesn’t reject anything. There was literally someone walking round the city with a bush on their head. How is that commonplace but non-white skin seems a rarity?

Only two of the actors I saw were disabled, and all but one of the one-person shows I saw were men (and I didn’t particularly like the one-woman one).

I’m going to actively try and see a more diverse range of people onstage because what an unfair world it would be if the only people on stage were white men with all their arms and legs. Edinburgh has such a rich diversity of themes but diversity as a theme doesn’t get enough coverage.

***

My brief time in Edinburgh has taught me a lot. I’ve realised I need to make a conscious effort to alter what I see to see more BAME- inclusive theatre. It has taught me that obsession is a great thing, that finishing projects matters and that persistence is key. So I am going to go home. I am going to finish Infinite Jest, I am going to run a half marathon, I am going to learn how to do a handstand and I am going to read and see and make more stories. And I am going to properly learn about the Labour leadership to the point where I can have a conversation about it and genuinely understand what I’m saying. So thanks Edinburgh.

***

The children sit behind us in the cinema and hand us the blindfolds. My boy beams proudly, looking so smart in his pristine school uniform and tie that is nearly as big as he is. Just before I put it on, my friend leans over to me and whispers, ‘I’m so glad you do theatre’.

Me too.

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