The best and worst of experimental theatre

Ring – Fuel @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 11 October 2014

Karaoke – Sleepwalk Collective @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 18 October 2014

It is presumably with a sense of playful creativity that Battersea Arts Centre has paired Ring and Karaoke as an unofficial double-bill, meaning the adventurous theatre-goer can head straight from Fuel’s Ring in the Council Chamber in time to catch the start of Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke in the Staff Recreation Room.Ring_NEWWEB

Even the anodyne room names, a hangover from the BAC’s municipal past and a world away from the bright lights of the West End, are appropriate for two shows that, in very different ways, explore the nature of theatre as performance. For Spanish-English company, Sleepwalk Collective, this exploration is at the very heart of its show but for Fuel it is a by-product of their production.

David Rosenberg and Glen Neath worked with neuroscientists at the UCL Ear Institute in order to grasp how the human brain manages to map the location of sound and have put their learning to good effect in Ring. Set in complete darkness and told to the audience through a pre-recorded audio track via headphones, there is no live performance but we are a long way from the world of the Radio 4 afternoon play. The sound design is very impressive and, in the darkness, through the headphones, you get a fully-rounded 360 degree performance that could easily be mistaken for live action.

KARAOKE-Sleepwalk-Collective-600x350The darkness is integral to the plot and so there is not a disconnect with the fact you are sitting in a room with the lights off. The functional surroundings are also important because for the concept to work people need to forget they are an audience member and believe that they could be part of the story. Dwelling on this would spoil the experience but the play hinges on ideas about group therapy and what people may share in the anonymity that darkness provides.

There is a creeping menace within the action that plays on the best type of horror – not one of shocks but a genuine psychological unease. It is that moment of quiet realisation that can be terrifying; the end of The Vanishing or the rich seam of Japanese psychological horrors through the late 90’s. You become, it seems, a central player in the story; it revolves around you and the room itself becomes alive with an action that you know can’t be there but that becomes real through the connections the brain will force you to make.

Ultimately Ring will work to the degree that the individual invests in the concept, any feeling of unease will only come from your own mind. The words and sounds are played directly into your head, and whilst everyone is listening to the same story they are listening to it within their own world. As the narrative unfolds, and scenes are played out, it is still only a sketch, it is the responsibility of the audience to colour the picture in. The success with which you do so will determine how successful you find the show.

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The war poets find their voice with The Tiger Lillies

Micro-review: A Dream Turned Sour – The Tiger Lillies @ Battersea Arts Centre

It remains questionable whether A Dream Turned Sour can be considered as theatre but since it acts as one of the closing shows of the 2014 LIFT Festival, and has otherwise been ignored by the massed ranks of music critics who are clearly more enamoured by the potential for a dream collaboration between Dolly and Metallica at Glastonbury than in writing about this warped, reimagining of the celebrated poetry of the first world war, it is up to Civilian Theatre to share its thoughts.

Tiger LilliesTo those not experienced in The Tiger Lillies it is a forbidding opening – ‘Death’ repeated over and over in a gravelly, atonal voice that oppressively (and impressively) fills the great space of the Battersea Arts Centre main hall. It is the start of a performance (and with The Tiger Lillies it most certainly is a performance) by a band at complete ease with what they do – and so they should be having successfully mined the furrow of alternative cabaret for over two decades.

Their strange mix of Kurt Weill-esque cabaret, gypsy, gothic humour, and operating in a register that veers between the rasp of Tom Waits and a startling falsetto underpinned by a ferocious operatic power is quite unlike anyone else. It is certainly hard to imagine another band undercutting the reflexive conservative styling that we tend to put on the work of the war poets with quite such vigour and zeal.

The Tiger Lillies have reclaimed the bitterness and the hatred, the terror and the contempt for the generals back home, that often gets lost amongst the plaudits and the GCSE-syllabus analysis. There is a black humour in their renderings of ‘Rendezvous With Death’ and ‘God How I Hate You’ that forces you to go back to the original readings to realise the horror that the lines contain.

Others, like Wilfred Owen’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’, sound so at ease in their new home it is hard to imagine them in any other way. However the disgust never goes away and the venom builds to such a furious, glorious crescendo of disgust at those most famous lines ‘Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori’ that the audience must nearly cower at the assault.

Despite the most curious style of delivery, there is great articulacy in the delivery by frontman, Martyn Jacques. Each poem has been carefully thought through to maximise the impact through presentation and the words are never lost despite the cacophony of noise coming from the three piece.

Fans of The Tiger Lillies can be assured they have not dampened their natural tendencies as a sop to the serious subject matter, and fans of the war poets can be assured that the poems have been treated with the care and intelligence the power of the writing deserves.

Listen to Dulce et Decorum Est by The Tiger Lillies

More about The Tiger Lillies

More about Lift Festival 2014

Orpheus Returns

It’s always welcome to hear of a small scale show that returns due to popular demand. A Little Bulb Theatre’s highly original take on the Orpheus myth was one of those charming, quirky surprises that most unexpectedly Flyer for Orpheussweeps you off away on a wave of inventive playfulness and understated talent. An excellent cast made light work of a high-concept, high-risk approach of using the BAC’s gorgeous period interiors to recreate the feel of 1930’s Paris – pastiching both the music of that genre, early cinema and classical scores to great effect.

In light of its return then click here for the review of last year’s production, which gives a feel for the evening.

More on the Battersea Art Centre’s website.

Orpheus is on at the Battersea Art Centre until 17 May 2014.

Life is a cabaret, old chum

Ballad of the Burning Star – Theatre Ad Infinitum @ the Battersea Arts Centre then touring (details)

Or, in homage to the style of the evening, how do you solve a problem like the occupied territories?

There is no doubt that Theatre Ad Infinitum’s new production, first seen at Edinburgh and subsequently taking the old-fashioned route of touring the country before pitching up for an extended stay at the Battersea Arts Centre, takes on contentious subject matter.

That the story is told through a drag queen and her cabaret troupe is a fun but rather unsurprising mechanism. Once a radical device, these days it does serve as a useful alienation device and, in the case of Ballad ofThe Starlets in Ballad of the Burning Starthe Burning Star, the issues remain so sensitive that it is critical for depoliticising the very act of storytelling.

The events we hear are shocking but if told as straight narrative then perspectives of the characters would be caught in the surrounding context and events discarded as being irrevocably biased. Or alternatively the play would try so hard to capture both positions that the value of the final product is fundamentally undermined.

We are told this story by MC Star and her Starlets, and through this prism the story is seen to unfold in a Brechtian manner. At no point is there any expectation that what is being seen are to be understood as real Israelis or Palestinians, the audience is reminded throughout that they are being shown representations of a family, and representations of real events.

Theatre-Ad-Infinitum-Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star-∏-Alex-Brenner-please-credit-_DSC82911-1024x763This allows certain latitude to extract humour from the story, characters are able to step outside of their roles and comment on proceedings and it allows the development of a duality and tension between the increasingly autocratic Star and the actions of Israel in the occupied lands.

That Star is played by writer and director Nir Paldi hints of a biographical nature to the story, and throughout this feels like a passion project that has developed a life of its own. It is also embeds a sense of truth that often only comes from a person with first-hand experience and, in this case, has been at the sharp-end of the consequences of forty years of regional foreign policy.

Any story must be understood within the context of its creation. The story of Israel, the lead character in the show, like so many narratives around the state of Israel, must be understood within the context and implication of the wider story of Jewish history.

Israel, the character, and Israel, the state, are separate individuals but share such a common history that the two must constantly struggle to be separated. The state and the individual share the collective memory of the Holocaust and the legacy of the historical persecution of the Jews through Europe and the Middle East is reinforced to create a state of mind of defensiveness. Both individual and state cannot be understood without understanding this context.

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Charming production that wears its art on its sleeve

Flyer for OrpheusOrpheus – Little Bulb Theatre @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 11 May

It is always a joy to spend an evening at the Battersea Arts Centre as, no matter the quality of the production, it provides an opportunity to spend an evening inside one of London’s great Victorian buildings. Many companies have looked to make the space an integral part of the performance; Punchdrunk exploded into the public consciousness with the Masque of the Red Death, a production that exposed the development of their unique style to a wider audience. They turned the BAC on its head – celebrating its beautiful interiors whilst building pocket worlds within it and ending with a strange blend of gothic classicism.

The BAC has a strong history of supporting new companies and providing spaces for those whose work doesn’t fit into more obvious spaces. The roll-call of success stories show a keen eye for understanding what works and what has audience appeal; providing a London-base for Kneehigh and partnering with Ridiculusmus, Complicite and Told by an Idiot demonstrates an important ability to spot the difference between the threadbare and the deliberately ramshackle.

WP_000121It remains to be seen where the emerging company, Little Bulb Theatre, slots into this picture but if awards were given for fitting productions to locations then their charming and quirky take on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice would be walking away with a basketful of silverware. The BAC proves a lovely backdrop to an evening that strives valiantly to give a flavour of the 1930’s Parisian scene but knows enough of its flaws to have its tongue placed firmly in cheek throughout.

The problem, encountered in dreamthinkspeak’s latest production, with site-specific work is often they try to shoehorn a concept into a space that does not fit, or that the budget cannot do justice to. What remains is often a po-faced production that hopes you won’t notice that more time was spent dressing the set then developing characters.

Little Bulb’s Orpheus has similarly paper-thin characters – Orpheus is apparently Django Reinhardt but, other than explaining his ability with the guitar, that fact has no bearing on the play and is not developed with any real sense of purpose – but it spends a great deal of energy winning over its audience with an exuberance that is in keeping with the vaudeville staging.

The cast perform and the BAC is transformedThe silent movie backdrop is another way of avoiding explicit character development in favour of style without undermining the production. It allows for big, expressive gestures and emotion demonstrated through action rather than internalised – another reminder to the world of the music hall. This creates a deliberate undercurrent of comedy that runs through the production; to the modern audience this style of acting seems so alien – a strange hybrid of Victorian stage-acting, mime and early 20th century cinema – that it is difficult not to warm to despite it undermining the tragedy within the Eurydice story.

Little Bulb are well supported in their endeavours by beguiling central performances; Eugenie Pastor as Eurydice and Dominic Conway as Orpheus look as if they have just stepped of the set of the latest Dietrich film. Pastor’s doe-eyes deserve a special mention of their own, as they retain a now almost-lost Clara Bow-like ability to portray a moving tableaux of longing to tragedy to absurdity in one fluid movement, whilst Conway’s profile is every-inch the slightly louche heartthrob – never the matinee idol but the one that parents would warn their daughters about.

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