Review: ROT, Josh Coates

This is my punk EP. As it were.

Josh Coates

 

ROT – Manchester Oxford Road Station – 22/01/15

/arrive/

i meet josh before the show/ hes enlisted me to give him a hand/ he gives me a hi vis jacket/ im to lead the audience/ but for all other purposes im in the audience too/ hes told me as little as possible about the show/ still feel in a position to write a review/ this review//

the audience arrive at oxford road station/ in drabs/ in coats/ its bloody cold/ some noshows/ nevermind/ before the show Josh emailed us all a playlist/ we plug ourselves in now/ we start it playing/ Josh walks off/ we follow//

 

/walk/

we walk down oxford road/ a line of us/ after josh/ me at the front/ emma geraghty at the back/ also in hi vis/ we are all listening to joshs playlist/ joshs phone runs out of battery/ he stops a couple times/ checks my headphones for where were at/ the playlist is a punk mixtape/ i recognise touch me im sick/ no others/ not big on punk//

this is like group meditation/ or something/ crowd of us serenely walking after this man/ all hearing the same thing/ this is a shared experience/ were like theatre pilgrims/ bracketed with hi vis/ i much prefer this to waddling down aisles to a seat/ i think/ despite the cold/ im excited/ thats what this feeling is//

 

/watch/

we arrive at the car park/ outside contact/ josh rushes ahead/ he sets his stage in the corner/ led lights around a music stand with his script/ his bag on the floor next to him/ we cross the car park/ approaching/ weve done as we were told/ weve followed him/ his instructions/ were ready for some theatre//

rot is storytelling/ i knew this already/ but if josh hadnt told me i couldve guessed/ this feels communal/ after the walk/ we are all in a communal state of expectation/ so being told a story feels apt/ josh has been experimenting a lot with storytelling/ hes good at it//

the story is about two characters/ josh performs it from the music stand/ it is a reading/ an experiment/ but it is more than these/ testament to joshs skill as performer/ at creating an atmosphere of theatre/ at drawing us in/ not just listening to josh tell the story/ but experiencing it/ lots of communal themes/ in the plot and form/ josh brings in theatrical elements/ he makes us dance/ at times places the voice of attackers in the mouth of the audience/ these things force elements home/ things happen and people stand by/ josh smashes a watermelon/ which is a skull/ and we stand by/ things happen and people react/ things happen and people watch/ things happen and people move on/ more than once people walk through or past the car park/ pass by//

theres something simultaneously small and large about joshs tale of two outcasts/ mundane and dramatic/ read text and theatrical/ this has been an experiment/ a tale about personal problems/ about public cults/ unseen deaths/ passed by traumas//

 

/reflect/

we go to the pub after/ audience disperses/ joshs spell is broken/ we leave the car park/ this has been an experiment/ micro theatre/ a brief communal space/ a colonised corner of a car park/ by theatre/ i am filled with thoughts/ as much from the piece as the act of putting it there/ how unexpected/ how fitting/ how radical it is to occupy a space//

Workshop: Babbling Vagabonds, Puppetry

Last Saturday I infiltrated one of 1623 theatre company‘s trainee actors workshops, run by Mark, of Babbling Vagabonds, a theatre company whose practice incorporates puppetry in all manner of ways. Mark was here to impart some of these manners to the trainees. And I managed to sneak in and get stuck in and have a play with some puppetry.

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Mark, with friend

 

I had an absolute blast. Through the workshop Mark lead us through exploring different aspects of puppetry, and the relationship between puppet, puppeteer, and performance. We experimented with making our own abstract puppets from newspaper, more figurative puppets (like the one Mark is pictured holding), and with shadow puppetry. Most eye-opening of these was newspaper puppetry – we had a few minutes to each take a piece of newspaper and fashion it into some sort of shape we could give life to. It struck me how immediately attached I felt to the awkward, four-legged, floating crawling creature I ended up with.

By the end of the day, we split into groups and combined all the styles we had into short scenes from Shakespeare. Shadow and hand puppets interacted with projected backgrounds and live actors. Puppetry is ever versatile, and a useful vehicle for magic, dreams and internal monologues. There was something very organic, playful and easy about the overlapping of all these techniques.

There’s this human aspect that you can’t escape with puppets, it seems. Regardless which style of puppetry it is, shadows, felt, socks, bits of newspaper, they become inseparable from the people in control of them. There’s a fluid relationship between them just as if they were another actor. Puppets aren’t just props, they’re characters too. And I suppose that’s what I learned at school today.

Thank you 1623, and thank you Mark and Babbling Vagabonds.

 

The excuse for me being at all this was to prepare for the workshop I will be running for the 1623 trainees in April, on adaptation. Watch this space.

Review: Selina Thompson, Chewing the Fat

Last night, I saw Selina Thompson‘s Chewing the Fat, in Derby Theatre’s Studio space. Unfortunately, it was the last night of a pretty wide ranging tour, so I can’t urge you to go see it. Hopefully, it will re-emerge somewhere in the future, and if it does, I urge you to go see it.

EDIT: I’ve been informed that Chewing the Fat will be at Warwick Arts Centre; The Albany, Deptford; and Birmingham Rep in 2015, so there you go, you know what to do.

I’m calling Chewing the Fat a portrait. At the start, or rather before the pre-show segues into the start, ‘This isn’t the show, I’m much more professional in the show’, Thompson lists the things her show is not. ‘Categorically’, Thompson announces, this show is not about us, or how we feel about our bodies. This show is Thompson’s, about her and hers.

Thompson commits herself fully and bodily to her performance. The most grotesque moment saw Thompson crouched on the floor, deboning, and then eating, a whole chicken, forcing the pieces into her mouth, gagging through it and carrying on. The ordeal of this borders on endurance art, going on in silence long enough for any humour to die. It is a spectacle like much of the show is spectacular: the portrait is filled with images, smaller portraits making up the whole: Selina Thompson, smeared with cottage cheese; dripping with rice pudding; cavorting with biscuit crumbs.

Selina Thompson . Source

As Thompson relates her complicated relationship with food, fatness and body image, the performance navigates comedy, compulsion and the grotesque. Simultaneously entertaining and devastating, this is a portrait of a subject who is no single thing, and the show reflects that. There were plenty of moments where the audience were experiencing conflicting responses. Gasps of revulsion came in chorus with giggles.

By far the most affecting moments were those where, like the beginning of the show, the performance acknowledged itself. The spectacle of the show lifts, and the reality of it comes forward. The theatrical confessionals of the show suddenly find themselves tied to the truth of the woman in front of us. This is a self-portrait, and in these moments, the self becomes real. Selina Thompson is no longer a character, but a woman who plays one, she does these things herself, transforms herself into the spectacle, whilst sharing with us what she has done, and what of her self she has transformed into this performance. There was power in realising that.

It’s remarkable that a show containing such confrontational, disturbing images felt at the same time totally non-threatening, because this show wasn’t a confrontation, but a sharing. As we were promised, this show wasn’t about us, it was about the woman in front of us. As vulnerable as Thompson made herself, we were never made to experience the same vulnerability, and we were never held to account, never called out to be in any way implicit in the mechanisms that created her vulnerability. As a result, we worry more for her than for ourselves.

And in the end, leaving, I don’t feel as if there’s been any attempt to steer me in any direction. I’ve not been told how to feel, just shown how the woman in front of us has felt. That was refreshing. I was a little lost on what to think initially, because there was nothing I’d been told to think to react to. I enjoyed seeing a piece of theatre that doesn’t make me a part of it, that doesn’t push a message. Just presents a portrait. And we are totally free to make up our own minds about what that portrait says to us.

Something which as I write it I realise is rare: I didn’t want any more from this show. Usually I’ll leave the theatre thinking ‘if only they’d done this, explored that’, but Chewing the Fat last night felt entirely complete as a piece of performance. Nothing felt overdone or excessive, and at the same time nothing felt underexplored. I left feeling satiated.

A fantastic piece of personal, visually rich storytelling theatre. Regardless of whether this particular show tours near you again, I’d highly recommend you keep an eye out for whatever she’s up to next.

As a footnote, I feel I should acknowledge how I came to find out about Selina Thompson, which was in the wake of the (successful) Exhibit B protests at the Barbican. I read Thompson’s account of her experience of the ‘Exhibit’, and had to find out more about what she did. You can find her account here.

Review: 1623, Hover through the Fog

The room is dark, and filled with fog as I shuffle in to find a seat. With the rest of the audience, I sit in wait, as more fog belches from a steel bin centre stage. The effect is only increased by it being October 31st, and Hallowe’en – I have walked here this evening through Derby city centre and past countless ghouls and gallons of (fake) blood. The doors shut, the fog swirls and a fell voice calls from behind us:

                                                  Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty!

Much as I would like to quote the whole of that speech, lifted from that of Lady Macbeth, I’ll not. But here comes Hecat, Goddess of Witchcraft, to recruit us to her dread purpose. Amid her arcane recitations, she tells us of Will Shakespeare’s sinful additions to his plays, and summons ‘Sisters’ from the audience, to don long, off-white, hooded robes and circle the cauldron, which continues issuing fog. The rest of the audience she incites to chant lines from Macbeth, before finally summoning the man himself, powerfully played by Nathan Masterson. The wretched bunch then reenact IV. i. of Macbeth, complete with ‘Double double, toil and trouble’, chanted by the audience. The digital animations of Darius Powell are projected on the fog and wall above the cauldron, reproducing some of Shakespeare’s most disturbing images, perhaps most potent that of ‘a bloodied child’.

The ‘Sisters’ © 1623

All great fun, only barely marred by a fire alarm caused by errant fog not doing what it outta, which put a couple of commas in the show, but both actors took it in their stride, and carried the show excellently well, getting right back to business, and never breaking character. We were in good hands.

I am a great fan of what 1623 do in their approach to Shakespeare, and this show is no exception. In the discussion post-performance, Ben Spiller (Hecat, and Artistic Director of 1623) tells us how Shakespeare belongs to everyone and I think one of the best ways of proving this is what they’re doing here: chopping it up, mixing it about and showing to us how captivating it can be. I can’t speak for my fellow audience members, but after this show, I’m raring to see a full-length Shakespeare production. And on Hallowe’en there was hardly a better time for this performance to take place. There are images in Macbeth (and all of Shakespeare) which remain reproduced, retain their power to disturb to this day.

The discussion post-show could have benefited from being a little more structured, but what was imparted was interesting, engaging, and gave brilliant context to the performance we had just seen. In addition, each audience member received a program, containing a wealth of information about Hecat, Macbeth, and witches and witchcraft, which was a very nice touch.

With the low ticket price (three quid – bargain), the intimacy of the setting, the combination of theatre, digital art and participation, and the (unfortunate) technical hiccups, the evening had the sense of a big experiment. And in my opinion, it was a very successful experiment. The combination of theatre, media and discussion worked wonderfully and I would love to see more of this.

Uncle James and the Book-It-Yourself Show

If it’s your baby, then I feel like I’m it’s uncle.

This is my friend Josh:

More specifically, it is my friend Josh performing his one-man show, Particles, which I’m going to tell you a little more about.

Particles is a show Josh has been working on for well over a year now and I’ve been sporadically associated with since last September. In my increasingly long term involvement with the piece, my role can be variously described as audience, dramaturg, director and uncle. I like Uncle the best. So I write it with a capital letter so I can feel like an important family man.

Particles has been around the place a bit, having been performed in Lancaster, Manchester, Cardiff, and Oslo, and I’ve seen most of the incarnations in between. And the show’s gone from strength to strength. It’s been a unique process for me in that I’ve seen the show grow over so much longer a period of time than I normally would when I’ve been involved with amateur and student theatre. And it’s been incredibly rewarding, and warming, and yes, I do feel like a proud Uncle, and I’m sure Josh feels like a proud parent.

One of the most important things about this piece in performance is how welcoming and friendly it is and how much it obviously cares about the audience. Josh writes in his spiel that the piece takes elements from stand-up comedy, and I’d agree, but I think there’s a great debt in there too to light entertainment – which the piece’s centering on Blackpool doesn’t discourage. And it’s a great aspect of the show that it’s so principally entertaining, it wants you to have a nice time. And I, for one, in all the show’s incarnations, have had exactly that. This is certainly Josh’s fault, for being a lovely man, which gives you ever more incentive to engage (if you can) with this next paragraph:

Click for more details

The blunt end of all this text that I’m to whack you round the head with is that Josh is now taking Particles to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and it needs YOU! Less in a Kitchener sense and more in a sense that a show that’s so good to its audience certainly deserves one. Josh wants to bring his show to you, into your living room, flat, garden, roof, wherever you’ve got room for a (admittedly quite tall) man and his laptop. He’s doing it on a donations bucket basis, to cover travel and beer (prop beer, but you get to drink it), and I promise you’ll have a lovely time. Have a look at this link for more details, and don’t be afraid to contact him with questions on his email: joshuajcoates@gmail.com

Until next time.

Continued Exploitation

I’m beginning to worry that I’m coming close to exploitation in the writing of this piece. Last I mentioned it was in this post, where I talked about ‘Fame and death, and the point at which they intersect’. Largely, the piece remains about the same things. Since then, it’s changed to a degree, my thinking has changed, if not in direction, then in focus.

I was in London last week. More specifically, more significant pertaining to this, I was outside Southwark crown court on Monday last week. As chance would have it I was with Josh Coates but that’s a little beside the point. The point is, we were passing and noticed there were some cameras, film crews stood outside the doors, evidently waiting for something. Josh said something like “Looks like some shit’s going down.” Words to that effect. He took a photo, we watched for a moment, nothing happened and we carried on.

Next day, I’m on the tube and I see the Metro, ‘Pretence of a sex predator’. Rolf Harris has been convicted, and me and Josh were outside the court presumably while the whole process was happening.

I proceeded over my next few days in London to grab copies of the Metro and London Evening Standard like it was going out of fashion:

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Research

Rolf Harris’s conviction, and his subsequent and immediate dismissal from the realms of acceptable popular culture, seemed to fit right in to the thoughts I was already having. Here was Rolf Harris’s symbolic death, happening right in front of me. This is a death that has taken much longer than that of Peaches Geldof, or Rik Mayall, ever did. It has taken place entirely in the public eye, even relied on public observation and outrage in order to happen. And I think it reveals a lot about how we use death as a way of putting a full stop on a life. Rolf Harris may die in jail, we are told by all outlets. But his life, his visible, observable, acceptable life as celebrity, is very much over. This sentence is as much a full stop as his death would have been.

I feel uneasy adding to the visibility of this man. I make the excuse that I’m only responding to a fascination that already exists. Never mind that by responding to it I’m obviously also validating it and feeding into it. I do not want to elevate Harris. I do not want to draw attention to him, and I certainly do not want to exploit his actions, his victims, any further. What I want to bring attention to is the process of his symbolic death: how we deconstruct him, demote him from visible and celebrated, into obscured and disgraced. Looking at this process, this death, I believe we may be able to understand how we construct celebrities, and how we construct ourselves, around death.

And talking of ourselves, there is another phenomenon I am interesting myself with. Every day, multiple stories appear of previously unknown people, who have suddenly become significant enough to warrant photos, newspaper columns, interviews with friends, relatives, teachers. They are suddenly, briefly celebrities (or at least, celebrated). Given the themes of this post, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when I say they gain this status by virtue of having died in interesting, or notable ways.

In pursuit of avoiding exploitation, I am removing names from this piece. Rolf Harris will not be named. Peaches Geldof will not be named. I’m not looking at the people, not really. I’m looking at how we see them described, created and destroyed.

The following text/obituaries/definitions is ripped from the results of this anonymising:

*

was found by a passer-by
was found on a cycle path near an underpass 100 yards from the town’s railway station
was ambushed by a stranger in the late-night horror
stood “no chance”
died in frenzied attack
was not known to Police and there is no apparent motive for the attack
was repeatedly knifed all over his body as he cycled home from work
was heading home to nearby Walcot
lived alone

*

had a lot of other complex things going on in her life
was popular student
found dead in woods
posted “Someone kill me before I **** up my English exam for the second time in a row.”
had been scared of failing her exams
was found in woodland

*

vanished
vanished from the Ocean Club in 2007
was seen leaving a children’s play club
was sleeping
was killed during a botched break-in and her body removed and buried
is alive

 This is the form I am imagining at least the final section of this piece I am working on to take. As of now, I’m giving this, second part of the wider piece beginning with ‘No Real Syria‘, the title ‘In Plain Sight’. It seems right, for now. I’m going to have to sort out tags and things at some point.

As ever, I remain very aware of my capacity for exploitation. I hope to continue to recognise and avoid it. I want to be aware that the people whose lives in the news I am handling are (were) real. I don’t want to play with them. I don’t want to play with that. I want to take apart what we make of lives and deaths, not the lives and deaths themselves.

For now, I’ve filled you in, I need to keep working on this. Expect updates in future.

Review: LUTG, Sh*pping and F*cking

So here’s my first review for a while, let’s hope I haven’t lost what knack I might ever have held a tentative grasp on and can say something cogent. Particularly as I’m reviewing another show I’m seeing on Saturday. More on that one later. First, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, care of Lancaster University Theatre Group.

First impressions are afforded by the set. Nothing flash, a sofa, coffee table, wooden table and chairs. The lot is engulfed in a mound of scattered junk, rubbish, pizza boxes, microwave dinner packets, empties. I’m going to go ahead and run with the idea of ’empties’, gutted containers, tossed aside and lingering. I think it’s a useful way to look at this play, and its characters’ casting aside of morality.

Of course, there are characters in this play and, like the junk surrounding them, they are largely empty, superficial and stripped of any of their worth. Inhabiting a set that mirrored their existence, the characters particularly of Lulu, Mark and Robbie (Katie Gledhill, Tom Morris, Tom Fox) exist on a knife edge. Each of them is constantly in some way fraught over something. There is often something at stake.

What is at stake however, is often of little consequence, namely, their shitty little lives. So not very much. It certainly came across in performance the insignificance of their individual positions in the immoral, capitalistic, nihilistic bigger picture. Through the course of the play, the characters find themselves drawn further into depravity, ending up morally destitute in the pursuit of capital. In general, however, I felt like this production wasn’t pushing this rising depravity enough; despite onstage rimjobs, bleeding anuses, and sexual abuse, I never found myself totally shocked by what was happening in front of me. Ill-at-ease, definitely, but I would have enjoyed if this production had slapped me in the face a little more.

The character of Brian (Callum Berridge), the polarised, now-paternal, then-aggressive druglord, commands the most power in the play, in the end becoming some sort of guru for cut-throat capitalist individualism. Despite his obvious power over Lulu and Robbie in particular, he never seemed quite threatening enough, there wasn’t, I feel, enough of a jump between his exploitation of his subordinates and his sharing of stories about his son. When Lulu and Robbie are frantically trying to gather money to pay him off, their rushing felt more anxious than fearful for their lives, again, I think things needed to be pushed further. The dynamics, the emotions were there, but not in an extreme enough way.

The standout performance for me came from Gary, played by Alex Marlow. Every time Marlow was onstage, the stakes felt that little bit higher. The dynamics between him and Tom Morris’s Mark functioned very satisfyingly, each throwing light on the other’s position in the play of power between them. I was disappointed, though, by the brevity of the moment where Gary revealed his age (14) to the adult Mark whom he has been having sex with. This, and other scene endings, often felt rushed, as if the curtains were rushing in and the final line had to be delivered as soon as possible. I think there were a handful of moments that would have benefited from a little more time given for them to sink in.

I do think this production suffered a little from a crisis of identity; the whole situation of the play feels very contemporary to its 1996 release, and the presence of occasional contemporary ‘updates’ felt jarring. These included use of an iPad, reference to Kate Middleton, and scene changes accompanied by an instrumental version of One Direction’s best song ever. I’m not averse to the updating of the script to a contemporary setting, but in this instance it felt as if the updating hadn’t gone far enough, was too occasional.This tentative re-periodising would have benefited, I think, from perhaps a bolder updating, or being left as it was.

One particular scene, for instance, involves Lulu and Robbie working simultaneously on separate erotic chatlines. They each had a mobile phone and had a landline between them, which is all well and good but if this a contemporary setting I would have expected a laptop, some camboy/girl aspect. I feel like this was a bit of an opportunity missed.

This was definitely an enjoyable production, and there were some genuinely unsettling moments. I was particularly struck by the close of the play, where Mark, Lulu and Robbie sat on the sofa, feeding each other from microwaved ready meals, looking rather like chimps at the zoo. It was certainly a competent, well-held production, with a good cast and a good set, but in certain aspects I feel it could have been more satisfying.

This Saturday I’ll be watching Andy Ainscough’s Broken Philosophies, also an LUTG production. Book tickets here.

Expect to hear from me about that in about a week’s time. Until then, stay depraved.