Holiday. The Honourable Society of Faster Craftswomen

Written for Exeunt Magazine

Laura Eades’ body has taken a holiday from her brain. Or perhaps it’s more of an estrangement; neither is ideal seeing as she’s just ended up – due to adverse weather conditions – on the moon. That’ll teach her to take a budget airline. To make life stranger (if such things were possible) she’s completely naked and seven and a half months pregnant.

Holiday is a wonderfully surreal piece, full of the folksy, entertaining style of The Honourable Society of Faster Craftswomen. It’s smart and funny if perhaps a touch too cerebral to be really joyous. Last year Eades and her husband had a holiday booked. Blue seas and cloudless skies awaited them, but first they had to get through one of the largest snow storms in modern history- and so from one unplanned event came another as their baby was conceived in a complimentary airline hotel room and Eades’ body became its own entity.

The piece is at its best when the visceral is celebrated without the need for verbal analysis.  As cocktails are made and naked volleyball played (with two volunteers in the audience, who – impressively – also get naked) the sheer exuberance of a body without any mental constraint is experienced. I wonder if Eades has felt, as a lot of women do, that through her pregnancy her body has been over-taken, got out of control, and followed these discombobulating experiences through to their logical conclusion. To this end she has created a naked theatrical jamboree which confines the brain to a tinny voice in a box whilst the body wears sombreros and jiggles about on stage.

This is a clever idea but it doesn’t quite work. Firstly the sequences where brain and body converse feel clunky because there are pauses where pauses shouldn’t be. Eades is totally comfortable being naked on stage, pulling some blush-inducing poses. But as a consummate poet she is not so at home with the concept of unpolished prose or even possibly, silence. As such this exploration of self, body and identity is too textual to be the work of anything other than a very wordy brain. Eades may be physically exposed but she wears her words like a shield. She may have finally fulfilled an ambition to be nude on stage but she is still hiding herself from the audience.

As such her confessionals about intimate bohemian moments at university and about knowing that she’s an exhibitionist lack punch and, whilst she does open herself up on stage, nothing dangerous or truly revealing happens. All spoken word performances runs this risk: the words become a sophisticated verbal safety net. But in Holiday Eades shows us that she has a physical side raring to break free, an instinct to do something without thought and eloquence, to show us something raw and unfinished – to be truly naked. I think it is possible; she just has to trust that sometimes the mind should take a back seat.

Robert Sheehan: when the big names are calling we’re all only human right?

I seem to be ok questioning the commercial pretensions of Punchdrunk. But I’ve just turned the page of the Evening Standard and seen that Robert Sheehan is playing in The Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic; in what I assume is the loose shirted lead. Quite frankly, I’m weak at the knees. I’ve just emailed my editor to beg for a ticket. I can’t deny it, in a commercial world, I am a commercial girl. I am a name slave.

Let’s just be clear, I love Sheehan for good reason. In Misfits, Channel 4’s insanely knowing sci-fi drama, Sheehan plays Nathan, the fast talking smooth chancer; Irish and arrogant, he is the twisted love interest to the sarky mouthed BAFTA winning Lauren Socha. I think he’s quite brilliant, funny and louche. I guess it helps that he’s also good looking. Would it be too much to say that he nearly fills in all the 21st century postmodern comedy gaps left by an overweight Oscar Wilde? Maybe it’s just me then.

So why is it ok, in my head, for a show to be sold as a commercial if it involves Mr Sheehan and not the great Doctor? I forgive this advert all its blatant fan manipulation in a way I wouldn’t do with Crash of the Elysium. Maybe it’s because of the idea of seeing Mr Sheehan in the flesh, a one off chance to experience my heartthrob right there. After all who is Doctor Who? Whether he’s ‘experienced’ at Olympia or Media City, or in a 3D Playbox experience, who’s really to tell the difference? But Robert, well as far as I’m aware there’s only one (legal) way to get this close to my fantasy buzz.

The Old Vic are masters of this name banging buck. With Kevin Spacey at the helm how could they not be. But for all my previous postulations, is there something in theatre giving us this immediate thrill (as well as a myriad of other vagabond things)? It’s always been the ephemeral art; the chance to experience something in a space for ‘just one night only’ and if it’s with a celebrity, surely so much the better?

I’ve been accused of being too cynical and maybe I should be a little kinder to Punchdrunk and all their corporate collaboration. I mean when the big names are calling we’re all only human right?

The Crash of the Elysium, Punchdrunk and the BBC

Written for Exeunt Magazine

Here’s the question that’s been bothering me since I saw Punchdrunk’s The Crash of the Elysium at the Manchester International Festival: was this a brilliant piece of immersive theatre or just essentially a 3D version of an episode of Doctor Who?

Don’t get me wrong; I loved this production, loved it. As a Doctor Who fan I was bound to; like many fans I’ve always wanted to be part of one of the Doctor’s adventures and The Crash allowed that happen – for that it won my heart. And yet I kept wondering if it all wasn’t one big advert for a BBC TV show? Was it Punchdrunk’s innovation I was responding to or a more basic, childlike excitement about getting to enter the Doctor’s world?

I still get a warm glow from looking at the crumpled letter from the Doctor that was addressed just to me and remembering the wonderful feeling of companionship that was created in our group of audience members, previously strangers to one another. I’m grinning now as I think about our shrieks and gasps as we fought one of the scariest Doctor Who villains, of seeing the Tardis up close, of being part of an army patrol led by a valiant captain. I’m trying to equate my own delight as a 30 year old adult to that of an even more (though not much more, to be honest) excitable 13 year old or even a brave one of six. As thrilling as I found the whole experience, it must have been incredible to be a child and be part of this.

The one sticking point for me is that this was an adventure that anyone could have given us. There’s a Doctor Who Experience raking it in at Olympia in London; is The Crash of the Elysium really very different? I don’t think it is. It’s designed with the fans in mind, and for young fans at that, but perhaps this limits rather than liberates the potential for originality and imagination.

Though I love everything Who-related, I wanted more in the way of Punchdrunk’s vision. I wanted them to deviate from the path a bit, to break away from the creation of a real life TV experience and into something more theatrical and unexpected; I suppose I really wanted something more of the Punchdrunk aesthetic to merge with this Doctor Whouniverse. In all honesty I’m not sure how they could have done that, but on the evidence of the genre-bending Adam Curtis-collaboration, It Felt Like A Kiss at the last Manchester International Festival – another syncing of TV and theatre – I feel that Felix Barrett and co might have been capable of pulling it off.

The production has so much going for it. The cast are masters of making each team mate feel important at all times and the thrills are undeniably there – for adults and children alike. But I do wonder if there was a degree of complacency at work here, a little bit of laziness – or maybe it’s simpler than that, maybe Doctor Who is just too big and well known, the brand ultimately constrictive to  a company of proven imagination.

Dr Dee – Manchester International Festival

Written for Exeunt Magazine.

Welcome Ladies and Gentleman to the world of Dr Dee. Images are presented for your delectation: an astral monarch is festooned with gold cloth, projected algebraic algorithms and magical incantations stain the stage like tattoos across skin, the planets dance for your pleasure and the spirits are conjured while Damon Albarn gives voice to English folk ballads with exquisite orchestrations.

Albarn’s opera charts the life of Dr John Dee – the 16th century astronomer, mathematician and occultist – from his days as am eager student, devouring reams of literature, to his time in the court of Queen Elizabeth; from young lover to tormented husband. Dee is said to have inspired both Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Rufus Norris and Albarn’s production is visually dazzling, a true feast for the eyes, and it’s not too harsh on the ears either. But their Dr Dee rarely transcends spectacle; the storytelling throughout remains fairly basic, a children’s picture book with glorious illustrations. Perhaps it is John Dee’s silence that makes this a weirdly 2D affair. Bertie Carvel feels underused as this Renaissance monolith because for the most part he is mute, a silent figure at the centre of a storm. Surely in the opera that bears his name, John Dee should be allowed to speak? What this production lacks is the confidence and guidance of a writer, someone capable of shaping Dee as a character and not just staging the happenings of his life.

What it does do is live up to Albarn’s subtitle: this is a very English opera. The lyrics and gentle melodies are pierced by an occasionally edgy discordant note and Albarn is brave enough to leave things incomplete, whilst his orchestrations, composed with Andre de Ridder, are sometimes breathtakingly complex and always highly polished. In his composition Albarn manages to recreate both an epic and intimate sense of England. He is also a compelling performer, completely absorbed in his playing.

Paul Atkinson’s versatile set of white harpsichord bookshelves and Katrina Lindsay’s wickedly punkish Elizabethan costumes are full of wit and ingenuity. Let it not be understated how truly beautiful this production is, with Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett working as movement directors and giving Norris’ production a balletic fluidity.

In a scene of distressing betrayal you get a glimpse of what this production could have been. As John Dee shares his wife with his grotesquely salacious medium the movement and music combine to give the scene real emotional gravitas; it’s a skin-crawling  depiction of an act  tantamount to rape. It scenes like these that demonstrate just how powerful this collision of artistic imaginations can be when used in the service of both storytelling and spectacle.

Review: A Doll’s House @ The Arcola Theatre

Written for Exeunt Magazine

Porcelain tea pots, china cups and a collection of small white spoons hang from the ceiling while a fluffy Christmas tree compliments a clutch of pink presents and Torvald’s pale blue desk perfectly; two cream bell-shaped lampshades cast a benign light over Nora’s toy paradise – Irina Borisova’s set is a pastel-coloured cage that wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Homes and Gardens.

This is a sugar cube of a production, but one only loosely connected to Ibsen. Creative producer and dramaturg Mari Rettedal-Westlake has bent and shaped the play to suit a feminist agenda, as though this play needed any more help in this area: Torvald drops his misogynistic clangers like the Duke of Edinburgh on a particularly bad day and when Nora eventually leaves at the end she’s two seconds away from finger snapping her way out of there in an exit that the Sex In The City girls would be proud of.

This is a heavy-handed over simplification of Ibsen’s text, one confused further by the rather puzzling presence of a chorus of norns, creatures of Norse myth, “female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men”. These norns have taken on the roles of the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future; they swoon around, mournfully manipulating Nora. Their movements, all wide eyes and long sighs, serve only to diffuse the loneliness of Nora’s gilded existence. They appear to externalise Nora’s inner anguish, which seems unnecessary as Gina Abolins does a pretty good job of this herself, giving the only engaging performance of the evening.

While she seems to relish playing Nora as a coquettish nubile plaything, she also convinces the audience of Nora’s transition from tantrum-throwing princess to independent-minded adult. Ironically it feels as though the other actors are the dolls here, although Emma Deegan and Alexander Gatehouse, as Kristine and Nils respectively, bring a moment of real passion to otherwise presentational proceedings. Director Alex Crampton seems hobbled by Rettedal-Westlake’s version of the text and apart from the incongruous addition of the norns, this is a fairly bland staging.

The oppressive heat in the Arcola’s second studio didn’t help matters (it’s telling when the biggest reaction you get from an audience is in response to a reference to the hot weather). Perhaps this is one of the reasons why my tolerance for this production was slim. But ultimately I think my irritation stems from the feeling that this sugary version of Ibsen’s play managed to strip it of its power and replace it with something altogether more prosaic. By bludgeoning its audience with modern viewpoints, simplifying the male characters and adding extra female ones to no apparent benefit, Space Productions have robbed Ibsen’s play of much of its potency. In doing so they have done both the text and their audience a disservice.

Runs until 30th July

The Only Way Is Essex & Alecky Blythe, where will scripted reality take us next?

When The Only Way Is Essex won the YouTube Audience Award at the BAFTAs earlier this year there were snobby grumblings from the artistic establishment. But there’s more to TOWIE, and shows like it, than people first think. On closer inspection it’s clear they are forging into the same ground as one of the current darlings of the theatrical elite verbatim theatre director/writer Alecky Blythe.

Arguments about the rights and wrongs of verbatim theatre have often been bandied around.  Should we be making art out of the traumatic, exceptional or even downright ordinary incidences of people’s lives? Surely the whole idea is defunct anyway because anything that’s edited has been tampered with in some way and therefore isn’t real. And isn’t ‘bending the truth’ a necessary evil, as straight up delivery real life dialogue is un-dramatic and ‘dry’ (David Hare I’m looking straight at you here).

But we remain obsessed with the idea of truth on stage, of drama made from real people. And now we’re taking it one step further. Blythe’s method of recorded delivery has begun to properly blur the lines between reality and fiction. Here you have actors not only representing us folks at home but acting as vessels to recreate exactly what we say.  These performers listen to a line through headphones and then repeat it, literally verbatim on stage. With this method Blythe is probably closer to Edward Gordon Craig’s uber-marionette ideal than anyone before her; she has created walking and talking machines.

Blythe’s work has come under more fire than most from those who criticise verbatim theatre; people wrongly see her work as unedited reality, when in actuality it is immensely manipulated. Whilst this marriage of truth and fiction causes consternation, irritation and sometimes fury in some, most theatre audiences are lapping it up as the success of London Road attests, people love seeing themselves centre stage.

In fact scripted reality seems to be taking over the world. TOWIE and Made In Chelsea make grotesque but insanely compelling viewing.  Every week millions of people watch a group of young sexy something’s experiencing the highs and lows that any friendship group will recognise (perhaps a little more frequently than they occur in off-screen life) with a wry grin.

Of course these ‘reality’ shows have a little bit of help from their friendly, but undeniably pushy, producers on whether that person really needs to be chucked into a swimming pool or who gets invited to lunch by whom in Cannes, but it’s all real right? To this there is no correct response, because scripted reality does exactly what it says on the tin; it is both real and false at the same time.

In this as an audience we are being taught to accept a type of doublethink of which George Orwell would be proud. The strangeness of this was brought home to me when I encountered someone who could not compute that the two opposing concepts could be true at the same time.  He was unable to marry white and black together whilst I, as an, albeit wary, fan of Blythe’s realised I was sat in some grey area that if dismantled, made no sense at all.

Scripted reality is moving entertainment into a genuinely new, uncharted direction. For years with the growth of audience led artistic experiences and call in shows we’ve been taking more of a role in our own entertainment. We have wanted to place ourselves at the centre of the story. Now that we, Joe Public, are firmly in the spotlight where are we going to go next in terms of creating our own reality? And will it matter that in the end we may not know who’s real and who’s fictional?