Thursday, February 24, 2011

Just in case you didn't know the world is getting warmer.

There's a gaggle of plays out now that take on the issue of climate change. Yes, Prime Minister uses climate change as a political tactic and this past week I saw two productions on the topic: The Heretic at the Royal Court and Water at the Tricycle Theatre.

Richard Bean's new play The Heretic is a funny and provocative take on the issues and science debates regarding climate change. The protagonist Dr Diane Cassell, played with wry wit by Juliet Stevenson, publishes a controversial article on climate change that contradict the beliefs of her colleagues and peers.

This play could have benefited from another workshop or two. The first half is strong as it sets up the characters and the issues at stake. There are great hilarious touches that range from the obvious one-two punch, to the subtle and even the absurd; such as in the hilarious meeting where Dr Cassell brings in a small stuffed polar bear as her union rep when she's getting the sack. The second half (which transforms from Cassell's office to her home) becomes earnest, unfocused, unbelievable and a tad didactic. Thankfully the characters are developed enough with the aid of strong performances to keep you involved in the action of the play.

I found the "this generation is obsessed with doomsday" subplot a bit trite but I also understand the need for a strong juxtaposition to Cassell's cool, collected and skeptical grasp of climate change. Overall, however, I think this play has great potential - I just wish it had a little more time in development before being put out on the stage.

This week I also saw Water a collaboration with Filter and David Farr that first played back in 2007 and is getting a second run now at the Tricycle. The play opens with Dr. Johnson and his lecture on water molecules and how they band together - the tying motif of the play. After his death his two sons (half-brothers, one in Vancouver and one in England) meet for the first time. The second story runs parallel following a workaholic woman determined to facilitate an environmental contract before the G8 summit whilst her personal life with a cave diver falls apart.

In a very Brechtian manner (and I hate it when people throw out the word Brechtian inappropriately so I'm not using it lightly here) the three actors, a live sound mixer and the stage manager and ASM walk around on stage and set things up as the audience settles into the theatre. One of the actors begins by introducing himself and the others on the stage and then start the action. While I appreciate this tactic, I found it unnecessary as it's never used again and they all do a standard curtain call. Because Filter's aesthetic seems to be transparency in showing the mechanics of their work - especially the sound, I think just jumping into the action would have been more affective than the banal introductions.

Once the action starts, however, we see how each sound is created and the actors almost flawlessly transition from character to character and even from character to sound technician back to character. The technological aspect is in and of itself astounding. Going back to Brecht, his theatre made all the technical workings of theatre visible in order give the audience the distance needed to approach the work critically rather than emotionally. I don't think that necessarily works here. Rather it is often the technical showcasing that draws you further into the play. The entire performance is intricately directed by Farr as actors, stage hands, TV screens, computers, sounds, sets, mics, props enter a delicate choreography - with so much happening on the stage it would have been easy to get lost in all the goings. Although the overall production techniques and even the slow storyline need some tightening it really is quite the feat to watch.

There are also some absolutely stunning moments. For instance when the diver is going further and further into the ocean he slowly paces out towards us with a stop torch as sounds of his heartbeat and oxygen tank and the voice of the counter (all done by the actors and mixed by the brilliant Tim Phillips) is absolutely breath-taking. Theatricality at its finest.

With all this visibly machinery I wonder what exactly the purpose is. I'm not criticizing the technique but rather I'm wondering if it plays any vital role to the action of the play. It's as if there are two plays happening on stage - the simple plot line of the characters and the mechanics of sound. Individually they both work but I'm not quite convinced of their full integration.

Although the politics of climate change are inherent in Water the real crux of the story is character driven. Instead of being earnest in its message about climate change and the bureaucracy of academia and science like The Heretic, Water focuses on its characters-in-crises and use the lovely water molecule motif to pull it all together.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Breaking into buildings and stealing things. I did this.

13 Feb 2011

I had heard about this interactive game that takes place in a warehouse where you, along with other participants, go on a mission to acquire a set of hidden and guarded boxes and return them to base camp. It’s like a video game but in real life. My friend and I arrived at the meeting point, a pub, and met the others on the team; about 12 of us in total. After signing the necessary legalities, we were given a map of the site and our mission. The host, Casey, gave us each different coloured ties for us to identify one another, walkie-talkies and then she pulled out the tranquilizer gun (really just a toy dart gun) and asked, “Who wants to be the badass with the tranq gun?” I immediately raise my hand and grin, “Me, me!” I am now 7 years old. And it’s marvellous.

We partnered up:  Fashion Parade, Gryffindor (a guy was wearing a red and gold scarf), G & T, team Stealth, Leonado, and my friend and I were team Fargo. After looking at the map, we came up with a divide and conquer plan to go in and get the codes, cut wires, and steal the 8 boxes inside the warehouse. Of course, being amateur thieves, nothing really went according to plan.

A guard is sitting at the pub. We watch him leave and (not-so-inconspicuously) follow him. My friend grabs a couple of clementines from a fruit vendor and we decide then and there that they are not clementines, but smoke bombs. We follow the guard to a warehouse. One of the participants (who came prepared with a balaclava) tried to jump the wall. So we helped to lift him up and a soon as he reached the top, spotted a guard and then tried to crouch down. I wandered around to the side where the gate was. We unlatched the gate and filed in and hid behind the row of shipping containers. Then we split up to enter the building. My partner and I found the Internet code and radioed it over to the team inside at the computer trying to get the lock codes.

Trying to figure out how to get inside without getting caught, my partner and I ran up the side stairs and found a (nerf) gun. Now with both of us armed we broke into the back door and snuck down the staircase. Out the window I see a girl being escorted off the property. “I’m here doing community service” I hear her say. Brilliant blag, but it doesn’t work. We continue to the ground floor where we find other members of the group. We have more boxes to find. A guard comes into the room and we all hide. Balaclava guy hides in plain view and I crouch behind a ladder and tarp, and pull out my gun. The guard comes in and instead of shooting him I just get up and leave the property. So much for being a badass. My natural proclivity towards passivity took over my instincts to shoot and destroy. Plus the guard was unarmed; it just doesn’t seem right to shoot the guy in the face. This is how I rationalise my timidity. So much for video games, movies, TV, and the news desensitising me to violence.

Once outside, my partner, another girl and I try going through the front door saying we are the cleaning crew. I put on an amazing German accent. They don’t buy it. We leave. Fail. So much for trying to blag my way in, I decide to break in through the back door again. My partner and I get inside and to a small corridor of cells, but a guard comes in. He tries to escort us both out. We use our American charm to talk the guard into circles. I hide myself in a cell while my partner gets the guard outside, “I’m sure she’s outside already,” I hear her say. I turn and look and there is an “off-duty” guard just sitting there. “You really shouldn’t be in here,” he tells me. “Oh, I’m just here to check on you. You all right?” He responds. I listen to make sure my partner and the guard are gone. “Great,” I say, “take it easy.” I leave and slip into another room where I find one of the boxes. Another guy from our group has a box too. We run outside to base camp and turn in the boxes. So far we’ve got five out of the eight boxes. Time is running out so we rush back to the warehouse. I pick up a clementine from earlier and look around for the other boxes. A guard comes out just as I step out from hiding. Crap. “I just wanted to give you this,” as I offer the rotten fruit, “to apologise for earlier.” He takes and thanks me as I begin to leave the property. He goes back inside and I rush to the side and break in. Again. Finally back to the ground floor, I see everyone being escorted out. The game is over but I refuse to give up. I hid behind a door and wait. Just as I’m about to run into the next room, the guards come back so I remain hidden. My heart is racing. Finally, my hiding place is discovered and I’m escorted out of the building.

I meet up with the rest of the team at basecamp. We only got five boxes. But we did rescues someone from jail and found the gun so we get bonus points for that. As we walk back to the pub for our debriefing, we excited talk about our tactics – the ones that worked and the ones that failed. From clementines to balaclavas, community service to German cleaning ladies with a bucket, from breaking in to simply walking through the front door. Although everything about this is clearly fake, my heart still raced. I was on a high when we were done and wanted more.

Although this isn’t theatre, nor would I classify it as a performance, it is definitely performative. There’s something about playing pretend that is appealing to young and old alike. Especially in a ever-increasing digitalised world where connections and communities exist through the tubes and wires on the interweb, there’s something thrilling about the opportunity to through caution to the wind and suspending our disbelief and take the risk of actual interaction through an imaginary premise. I remember when I was a child I wanted to be a spy. I’d run around the neighbourhood, jumping fences, climbing trees, and even entered people’s garages (although I never took anything, I do have morals). I made up the rules as I played, and I played with complete abandon, fully immersed in the imaginary world I created.

As we get older we become conditioned to losing our inner child and are no longer encouraged to play with complete abandon, but rather completely abandon play. It seems that there’s an energy out there trying to rebel against this fact as more interactive theatre, performances, art and even games become more and more popular, pushing the boundaries of what it means to play, of what it means to suspend disbelief, of what it means to create and imagine…and have fun.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Getting lost in The Woods

Thursday my fellow MA-er FA and I traveled to Birmingham to see our friend, another MA-er Sara, in a show she helped devise called The Woods, playing at the Midlands Art Centre (MAC). After a 2-mile walk from the train station, during which we encountered a dead empty park, a lost scarf and a rubbish bin we made it to the tucked-away mac centre where we enjoyed a nice cuppa and a scone.

The Jane Packman Company transforms the art gallery into an installation complete with a bark covered floor with leaves and opaque green sheets hung round the setting, the dank smell of moist earth and bark immediately hits your senses. The actors greet you as you step in (two guys and a girl), taking your coat and offering you a hot drink. We all participate in a few toasts and then it begins. We are encouraged to help cover the female character with leaves and then the elder of the men has us follow him around the perimeter and then enter the woods - a mixture of bark, wooded chairs, a wardrobe, a sink, a bed, a table, a lamp. There are two realities at play here - the elder gentleman tells of the life cycle of the woods, a cycle that relies on death; while the other is of a couple. We see their morning ritual:  he wakes up, makes their tea, washes his face, wakes her up, takes away the duvet, they make a play of animal noises, she gets dressed, kisses him goodbye and leaves. Remnants of this ritual remain and slowly dissipates as the man copes with losing the love of his life.

One scene has the woman wearing layers of clothes, there's a stunning choreography as the ghost of the woman interacts with the grieving man as he slowly takes layer after layer of her clothing, smelling and trying to hold onto her scent. His anguish and grief goes even further as days become indistinguishable and the grief cycle becomes more desperate.

With such a sparse setting, the details are really touching and the carefully crafted slow pace is beautiful -- how the two worlds interact; inviting us to touch the earth on the ground; the man starts using the woman's tea cup -- little details like this do not go unnoticed. The sound design too is nice as it goes back and forth from the woods to the city, allowing our auditory senses to travel in between the two realities with ease.

Here's a trailer of the show:

I think a lot of this resonated with me particularly because of the piece we've been devising at Son of Semele called Wallowa which explores the true story of a 76-year-old woman who was lost in the Wallowa Mountains in eastern Oregon for two weeks and found alive, albeit without a memory. A lot of things we've been exploring was touched upon in The Woods - especially the idea of quantum entanglements where we explored how two people are connected even though they are far a part - something this show plays with beautifully.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

When film and stage collide: The Antonioni Project

After hearing about the legendary 6-hour performance of The Roman Tragedies based on Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra by the Dutch theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam I was eager to see their latest at the Barbican, The Antonioni Project - based on Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse.

I mistakenly went to the performance without reading up or watching anything on Antonioni's films. I found the three converging story lines confusing and at some points trite. Thus, I cannot speak in depth on whether or not their examination on Antonioni's film is successful, for lack of a better word, or not. So here are my initial reactions to the piece.

The enormous Barbican Theatre stage is transformed into a Hollywood studio blue box (used for CGI effects) with a screen on the upper half of the proscenium (complete with subtitles for those of us who don't speak Dutch), cameras set up on stage, a film track for tracking shots, and the "orchestra pit" is set up with tv's and technicians as well as couches where the actors sit. As you can tell from this initial description, a lot is going on.

Although the undertaking is commendable I'm left not entirely satisfied. Perhaps it is the two-dimensional characters, my ADHD (seriously, A LOT is happening on stage all at once), or my recent longing for simplicity. A part of me is wondering where theatre is going as we begin to incorporate and rely on more and more technology. My fear is that use of technology, our post post-modern self-reflexivity and a growing sensation of an existential void are going to try to eradicate good old fashioned story telling.

Putting my nostalgia aside, however, I honestly found the performance fascinating. And there were some stunning moments of longing, connection and vulnerability - but nothing substantial enough to grasp on to. The visual elements are intriguing as we watch the actors in the blue on stage and the filmic close-up on screen. And transitions between cuts are thoughtful act actors flow between each other, mimicking the dissolve editing in film. 

The acting, tinged with a bit of 1960s melodrama, is constant and committed throughout which makes the lack of character depth not as much of an issue, especially because I don't think we're supposed to have any connections to any of the characters, nor are we to identify with them; and if we do identify with them, we should take a seriously look at ourselves. By the middle of the second act everyone is hooking up, one couple brilliantly stumble around the stage tearing at each other. As the characters continue to make what my friends and I call "life mistakes" one can't help be feel a little depressed. And my one, I am obviously referring to myself. I could go into detail, but that's way more information than I'm willing to reveal here.

Here's a clip from the show:

Antonioni Project from Tal Yarden on Vimeo.

Here's an American trailer for L'Avventura:

La Notte:


Having now watched a few clips and documentaries on Antonioni, Toneelgroep definitely captures his characters' materialistic worlds and their inability to connect, however I don't feel the languidness on the stage as I do the films. I don't sense a search for meaning from the creators like I do from Antonioni. What I get is a lot more frenetic and complicated, which is perhaps where my hesitation is in fully embracing this piece.