Myth, masculinity and modernity

Song of Riots – Awake Projects @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 17 October 2015 (tickets – limited availability)

It may act as a sad indictment of the limited attention span of the modern news cycle but the 2011 London Riots feel like they belong to a different era. People talk about the Poll Tax Riots but we seem to collectively forget that just four years ago large parts of London were filled with anger, frustration and nameless faces howling their protest against the body politic. Deprivation and opportunity came together in a furious explosion of pent-up energy. London burned. Not metaphorically but actually. Shops, homes and even our cultural treasures turned to ash (Back catalogues from Rough Trade, Warp and Ninja Tunes, alongside Nick Park original figures, can be countered among those lost to the destruction).

The story has been told, but not well and not often. Song of Riots gives us a version that is relevant and theatrical without feeling didactic. It is not here to preach, it is not here to understand. It tells stories unrelated to the riots but intrinsically understands the root causes. It is of life now but it tells a timeless tale.

It hones in on the idea of frustrated masculinity. In the more deprived areas of inner-London we have a generation of young men growing up without the job opportunities afforded to their parents. In London there are always hundreds of jobs, but they are not for the unskilled and under-educated. Young men live in a consumerist society in one of the wealthiest cities in the world and yet their existence goes unnoticed and unspoken.

Lucy Maycock has focused on the link between folk myth and modern life, and weaves the relatively unknown Grimm Brothers tale of Iron Hans into an exploration of what it is to become a man in London. It is co-directed with Chrisopher Sivertsen (Song of the Goat – and responsible for the remarkable Songs of Lear), and between them having created a wonderfully dynamic work that fuses dance, live music and storytelling.

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A House Repeated Landscape promo

Turn to page 235. You encounter an angry goblin. Do you…

A House Repeated – Battersea Arts Centre, until 24 0ctober 2015 (tickets)

The first thing to note about A House Repeated is that it really shouldn’t be considered as theatre. Rather than this being intended as a criticism, it is something that should be taken as fact. The description on the Battersea Arts Centre website is of a performance-game, and for many this will be the reality.

Depending on your childhood reference points, it may remind you of choose-you-own adventures, point+click computer games, or even Dungeon and Dragons. Each of these is a kind of game, but they are also interactive experiences based around the idea that the player can create their own story (even if it is within prescribed limits).

Telling stories predates almost all other art-forms. It strips human imagination back to its most primitive level, and creates an intimate bond between teller and listener. The experience is quite unlike the standard theatrical experience. It encourages a less passive engagement. There are no visual stimuli to rely on, and we are constantly forced to respond to the text to keep the story alive in our minds.

Split into two groups and following similar, but slightly divergent, narratives, it creates a sense of camaraderie within your team and friendly competition against the other. The normal rules of theatre do not apply. Talking as a team is encouraged, and as the evening continues it is easy to find yourself in conversation with a stranger entirely outside of even these the loose boundaries. It becomes a social event that normal staging conventions could never hope to achieve.

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Staring into the abyss…

This is how we die Battersea Arts Centre, until 14 November 2014 (Tickets)Christopher Brett Bailey_THIS IS HOW WE DIE_Credit Jemima Yong

The extent to which I was totally blown away by Christopher Brett Bailey’s performance of This is how we die last autumn can be seen in his appearance alongside Mark Strong and Tim Piggott-Smith in Civilian Theatre’s annual end-of-year awards bonanza. Indeed his blistering quick, laceratingly acerbic but impressively managed style was enough to edge out Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear for a place on the Best Actor shortlist. It also holds the distinction – along with Trevor Nunn’s glorious production of Anything Goes, Kneehigh’s Cymbeline and an amateur production of Dürrenmatt The Visit – of being one of only a very small number of productions I have seen twice.

The following review is taken from the Autumn 2014 performance at the Battersea Arts Centre. On reflection my opinion remains the same. It is a highly impressive work. The writing feels like it has been tightened slightly and the performance style has gained a little more subtlety (although I do feel it suffers from such an intense, fast, loud beginning that it does struggle at times to provide enough variation in tone). Bailey has the measure of the text and has peppered the text with language that provokes seeming incongruities. There is a delightful play on mouse and mouth that suckers the audience into thinking that Bailey has slipped on his material but in fact is an entirely knowing absurdist thread to a poem. Seeing it a second time does provide an opportunity to allow some of the imagery to wash over you rather than frantically trying to keep up with the rapid fire delivery. I would highly recommend that fans of the show think about a return trip.


At the end of Christopher Brett Bailey’s performance of This is how we die the audience are subjected to – and it is a case of being subjected to rather than being passive observers of – a sonic assault that is best imagined as the sound of an imploding, decaying universe and the tentative hope that something new and beautiful can rise from the fading flickering light. The stage lights turn their impassive bulbs on the audience, bathing the observers in a harsh, unforgiving light whilst ear-shattering, fuzzy rhythms rise and fall, roll and repeat, looping and overlaying motifs amongst discordant sounds. It is the white-noise of paranoia and of an overwhelmingly claustrophobic hopelessness. And then suddenly, within this kaleidoscope of fear, emerges the purity of higher-pitched strings, cutting through the chaos and providing the possibility of escape.

Video Doc Still 2014-07-09 at 17.27.44This antagonistic ending, this attritional warfare waged between performer and observer is only eight minutes long but it could easily have been eighty. It is a wonderfully considered reflection and response to the sixty minutes that come before, and adds to the impression that Christopher Brett Bailey has talents and intelligence far beyond being a highly articulate performer blessed with startling verbal dexterity.

Having not previously heard of Bailey, and without looking at the show’s synopsis, I hadn’t really considered what to expect. Whatever I might have expected wouldn’t have come close to the reality. This is a performance that is felt rather than seen. The audience are almost immaterial; nothing has been created for our benefit. The stagecraft is defiantly un-staged. It is a man at a desk, talking, talking and continuing to talk, from notes, for sixty minutes, without stopping, almost without breathing, he continues to talk, to himself, to the walls, to the room, whether the audience is in the room or not, it feels as if he would continue to talk, possibly until all words had become exhausted.

It leaves you in a state of mental and physical exhaustion. Listening to the dialogue, focusing on the words is mentally draining, but there is also palpable tension, as a result of a deliberately abrasive delivery style, that creates an adrenalin rush so intense that by the end of performance you leave the auditorium woozy, unsteady and in need of air.

Bailey arrives as an unassuming, almost diffident presence – perhaps the only hint of what is to come is the resemblance to a young David Lynch – but as soon as he begins he exerts a magnetism that pulls in whatever direction the flight of fancy will take him. He is a remarkably assured performer and is blessed with a lyrical nimbleness that allows what, are assumed to be, tightly crafted pieces the air of stream-of-consciousness dialogue.

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Some mothers do ‘ave ’em

Like Mother, Like Daughter – Complicite Creative Learning and Why Not Theatre @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 06 June 2015 (Returns only)

Occasionally the hectic nature of theatre booking throws up some delightfully apposite pairings. A fallow period has meant that, by chance rather by design, Everyman at the National has been wpid-wp-1432982917946.jpgfollowed by Like Mother, Like Daughter at the Battersea Arts Centre. It would be difficult to find two plays that better juxtapose the potential of theatre. Everyman was theatre as spectacle. Vast and impressive; the video and sound design had a forceful muscularity that carried through the choreography and into Chiwetel Ejiofor’s powerful central performance. Like Mother, Like Daughter was theatre as communal activity. All theatre is staged and performed but here there is no interest in bombast or special effects. It has confidence in the minimalism of its approach, and in the power of the stories it has to tell.

For all of Everyman’s impressive showmanship, Like Mother, Like Daughter is the more radical. It asks question of the form that a theatrical experience should take, and of the functional purpose of the medium. It opens with an informal gallery containing a series of mood boards identifying the performers, their shared lives and the rehearsal process. The audience are encouraged to browse the profiles and to learn more about the background to the relationships between the mother/daughter pairings. It is theatre that puts the viewer in control. We choose how much information we want to hold about those taking part rather than having their stories hidden behind the paywall of a programme, or delivered directly to us during the performance process.

We then watch the non-actors, real-life mother/daughter pairings, answer randomly assigned questions. Is this theatre or just voyeurism? Is it therapy or is it drama? Watching it, the answer is both. The reactions to hearing the question, the revealing nature of the answers – for the audience this is pure theatre, for the performer it must surely be a form of therapy.

The setting is minimal. During the show, the participants sit round a dining table and the audience around them. It feels intrusive – like an ad executive watching a focus group – but it does not faze those taking part, who react with good humour and a complete openness to questions thrown at them. The age dynamics, and how they shape responses and how they interact with the audience are fascinating. It covers teenagers through to those old enough to remember wartime Britain – some are used to sharing their lives on social media whilst others come from more a more closed era

It ends with a communal meal. Audience members join with participants. It is an opportunity for reflection and to ask further questions of those taking part. The understated simplicity, the lack of pretence and the emotional honesty that comes from non-actors sharing their real lives helps lower the barriers between viewer and performer, creates a discussion and makes it a genuinely participatory experience.

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Life: Lost and found

Missing – Gecko @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 21 March 2015 (tickets)

There are few elements of the theatrical world that Civilian Theatre feels less qualified to talk about than cutting edge contemporary dance. Any reviewer who fits shows into their free time will Bar and admirers. Credit Robert Goldeneventually reach a point when you accept there is only so much they can actually watch and, as a result, an element of self-selection may creep into what press shows are attended.

So it is entirely possible that –  had I read the programme notes for Gecko’s Missing more  closely rather than be seduced by the intriguing image that accompanies it –the words ‘critically acclaimed physical dance company’ may have registered and I wouldn’t have crossed London to make it to the Battersea Arts Centre to watch their show.

And what a fool I would have been.

Missing is an intelligent, beautiful show that speaks volumes even to the choreographically illiterate. It may not have transformed my overall impressions about contemporary dance but it has shown that the form can be used to tell a story just as clearly as through the use of words.

The difference between Gecko and other shows I have seen is that the performance lacks the abstraction that can leave the inexperienced scratching their heads. Previously I have been unable to translate a plot synopsis to what I have been watching but here the narrative progression was entirely clear and the company seemed focussed on not losing its audience. Scenes took place within established settings and the movements between performers seemed structured to reflect traditional conversations but with the added advantage that dance allows of allowing the text and subtext of character motivations to interweave in their actions.

There was also little of the po-faced seriousness that has been a marked feature of my previous encounters with contemporary dance. Whilst the topic itself was treated seriously, they also found the humour that can be mined out of the awkwardness of relationships. The fracture lines that marked Lily’s marriage were played to great comic effect in a simple scene showing how they were unable to sit comfortably together watching a film, whilst the meeting of her parents became a slapstick encounter made more poignant with the knowledge of how it would eventually disintegrate.

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Bedtime Stories

Fiction – Battersea Arts Centre, until 21 March 2015 (Tickets)

The Battersea Arts Centre welcomes David Rosenberg and Glen Neath back to the Council Chamber following the hugely successful production of Ring – an audio-hallucinatory adventure that married a highly technical sound design with an engagingly simple premise to create an extremely enjoyable, if difficult to classify hybrid of funfair chills, performance and radio play.

Clearly an advocate of the ‘if it’s not broken’ school, their latest production revisits much of the same ground. Again the audience are plunged into total darkness and listen through headsets. Again it is a brilliant opening that works better than you can imagine, even though you know precisely what is about to happen.

Very little beats the instant breath-catching horror of being unexpectedly plunged into complete darkness. It is the sort of oppressive darkness that is rarely experienced in urban areas – absolute, total black, where you begin to forget whether your eyes are open or closed.

And then, just as you are adjusting, the voices begin. And even awareness of what is to come can’t stop it from being a spine-chilling moment, your brain fooling you into thinking that you can feel warm breath on your neck as they whisper in your ear.

However to say much more about the plot would be to spoil the experience. It is enough to say that the programme notes refer to Rosenberg and Neath’s interest in dreams, the production attempts to create a collective experience of the shared dream space and the story itself twists and turns on dream logic.

Technically the show is more complex than Ring. The sound feels more layered and the effects more complex. Multiple voices work together more effectively and it is much easier to get a sense of distance as sounds move further away.

However as the science becomes increasingly apparent it is hard not to feel that they have lost something of Ring’s charm. It is a strange thing to say about an evening spent in pitch darkness listening to headphones but it felt that Fiction was a more solitary experience. The premise of Ring, the circular aspect and the actor moving around the room created a sense of inclusivity. Here, seated auditorium style, facing a giant screen – even if in darkness – felt very isolating and oddly impersonal.

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