Crave by Sarah Kane

Cast: Rakie Ayola (M), Christopher Fulford (A), Tom Motherdale (B), and Pearl Chanda (C)

Director Charlotte Gwinner

Designer Signe Beckmann

Associate designer Emma Bailey

Lighting designer Hartley TA Kemp

Sound designer Christopher Shutt

Part of the Sarah Kane Season, Sheffield Theatres

There are four people in a room.

There are four people standing in a room that is not really a room. A large square blue carpeted space, rising sharply at the back to form a blunt, square bench. It looks uncomfortable.

There are four people standing in the space and about one hundred or so people looking back at them. They look a bit like us; we look a bit like them. They are an older man in a badly fitting brownish suit, a buttoned up woman in skirt and proper shoes, a younger man in sports clothes and a young woman in baggy shirt, trousers and boots. They might be a bit 90s, they could be now. If I look in the programme I would find they are A, M, B and C.

There are four people standing in the space and they start to speak. Words pour out of them, words twist and bounce and reverberate off each other. They speak together, separately, occasionally over each other. Words whip past your ears, you try to latch on to them the way you really do when you’re listening to people talk. This is language as music, language as sound. Language as meaning not just in what the words say but in the spaces between them, their pace and pitch. This isn’t overt characterisation, with each person their own distinct voice. Sometimes they sounds exactly the same, sometimes they ARE exactly the same. I think they are four people, I think I can piece together two distinct ‘stories’ an abusive relationship of an older man and young woman, an unhappy encounter between an older woman and a younger man. But maybe that is just my brain making twisting together unconnected strands. In this spare, exact space the slightest gesture is character, is meaning. These people, not characters, people, one stares over our heads, the other off to space to her right, another resolutely to the blue carpeted ground. One of them looks directly at us, ‘you’ he says and I think he means me. The tight pinch of M’s fingers as she holds them together, the hopeless sag of A’s shoulders. I have time to look at them, to take in these details as it is only them, on the plain blue carpet, their bodies and their language.  Their bodies are taut with the tension that is holding them upright, their fatigue and focus. A few times they push themselves back to sit on the bench but are then propelled back into the space.

Language as quotation. The phrases whiz past, that’s from the Bible, that’s TS Eliot. Jebem radosznale, I am fucking the curious. The most plain, cynical, colloquial Serbian response to ‘How are you?’ And it doesn’t seem in the least strange that these phrases, or Spanish or German come from an English mouth. These are not carefully constructed, cohesive dramatic creations. They feel like real people, with pain and longing, memories, bits and lines that don’t fit and yet make perfect sense. They could all be one person, they could be any of us and dipping into literature, languages is part of the knowledge we collectively hold. The language, the form is precise, beautiful, but the meaning is slippery and multiple. This I think is what is meant by ‘poetic’.

There is laughter too, though looking back I can’t really remember any particularly funny jokes or situations. But there is humour in a turn of phrase or use of contradiction. The woman next to me is wiping her face and she could be crying or just tired.

And I’m thinking of the young woman who wrote this. I am thinking that I heard that this was the first piece she wrote, before Blasted even thought it was produced later. And if that is true or not this was still a work by someone in her early/mid 20s. Who took all the so called rules of writing, of character, narrative, dialogue, story, rolled them up in a ball and smashed them to pieces. Who created something that had all of those elements but none of them in the way we expect them. That this piece contains in its 40 tightly focused minutes all the major themes of her writing: the empathetic abuser, the tough fragile young woman, loneliness, longing, the extremes of human action from great evil to grace, in one person, in one moment. The unbearable pain of being alive.

The four, extraordinary, exhausted, people in the room are Rakie Ayola (M), Christopher Fulford (A), Tom Motherdale (B), and Pearl Chanda (C). They make 40 minutes seem both like nothing and as though we have always known them, together with director Charlotte Gwinner, designer Signe Beckmann, associate designer Emma Bailey, lighting designer Hartley TA Kemp and, by no means least, sound designer Christopher Shutt, creator of an atmospheric, susurrating soundscape.

I am in awe all over again with the skill, the complexity, the humanity of Sarah Kane’s writing. It still hurts like a bastard, for all sorts of reasons, that these few are the only plays of hers that we have. But we do have them and thanks again to Sheffield Theatres for the season that enables us to see and appreciate them all.

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Blasted by Sarah Kane

Blasted by Sarah Kane

Director Richard Wilson

Designer James Cotterill

Cast

Martin Marquez

Jessica Barden

Mark Stanley

Part of the Sarah Kane Season

As you enter the Sheffield Crucible Studio you find a large, very expensive looking hotel room. ‘Blasted’ is set in Leeds, and the hotel is commonly thought to be the Queens Hotel – which I had just passed on my way here. Having been into the Queens, in fact to see a student production of ‘Blasted’ which was performed there, I can say that they have the look of the room just about perfect. The set is naturalistic in every detail, as the door opens you see the rest of the corridor disappearing off into back stage.

This is the first full professional production of ‘Blasted’ I’ve seen. As well as the Queens Hotel production (by Felix Mortimer who has gone on to be RIFT Productions) I saw a reading at a Sphinx conference in about 1996 or 97 – not long after the original production. Then I saw a reading in Amsterdam in 1998. It was after that reading that I felt like I really ‘got’ the play. The Sphinx reading was very much ‘in-yer-face’ (I didn’t unfortunately see the original production which may not have been so at all.) The Dutch one gave more space; there was a sense of a distance between the words, the performer and you. This distance allowed you to hear the words, and have them impact you, without a definitive meaning coming from the performance. Perhaps helped by fact they were acting in their second, or even third or fourth, language. Paul Slangen, an extremely brilliant Dutch dramaturg, once explained to me the difference between the British and the Dutch/German acting style. He hugely admired British actors’ ability to completely emotionally and psychologically commit to a role. In the Netherlands, he said, you always have both the performer and the character on stage, the performer can both present and comment upon the character; both be and do. We had this conversation in 1998 just after having seen Crave – and there is something in Sarah Kane’s plays that lends itself to this less naturalistic, more conscious style of performance;  something in their precise, metaphysical language and construction. They are very, very real worlds, real emotions and people, but not naturalistic ones. They both reach across and hold a distance from the reality we the audience sit within. It is precisely this tension that makes them so enthralling.

Ok I’m not really saying very much about this production. So to get back to it. On to this very realistic reproduction of the Queens Hotel comes Martin Marquez and Jessica Barden as Ian and Cate. The acting style here I would describe as restrained British. It is absolutely not overplayed in the small and intense space of the Studio; it felt very naturalistic performance, almost as if you could be watching it close up on television. The performances may have been more subdued than normal as, rather meanly, I was watching it the night after press night, which is usually the worst performance to judge once all the adrenaline has left. We were probably not the best audience either as about a third to a half of a full auditorium were rather giggly, whispery students.

It is not stipulated in the text that Cate has learning difficulties. She has a stutter and fits and Ian taunts her with never being able to get a job. It is a valid, and interesting, reading of the part that she has some form of unspecified mild learning difficulties. It seemed to me that Jessica Barden was doing a slight learning disabled voice and mannerisms, where she is very clearly not learning disabled herself. This for me got in the way of her performance. I am aware that this has to do with my own particular sensitivity to ‘cripping up’, the practice of non-disabled actor playing a disabled role. Just to be clear, pace the bit above about non-naturalism and the performer and role being visible, of course any actor can play any role. However, they always bring on stage who they are. So in Selma Dimitrijevic’s ‘The Gods Have Fallen and All Safety Gone’, mothers and daughters are played by two men, observed by a real mother and daughter. The choice to gender swap is clear, and you can like it or dislike as you choose. Here, I wasn’t clear if this was a choice we were supposed to be conscious of or simply that we were supposed to read Cate as a learning disabled character. This is absolutely not me having a pop at Sheffield Theatres, who I know have a very active commitment in diversity of this and other kinds. And in the previous production I saw here directed by Richard Wilson, ‘Love Your Soldiers’, there was a disabled performer playing a disabled role, something I know that he insisted on. So it may well be that the choice came from not finding a suitable actor with learning difficulties, or not thinking that appropriate for this production. However, all I can say for me, in this show on this evening, it got in the way. I kept seeing a non-disabled actor, I’m sure a very talented one, playing disabled rather than playing the role. I will also say I would go a long way to see a learning disabled actor play Cate. It would be dynamite to see that sexual, abusive, loving and co-dependent relationship played out between a learning disabled and a non-disabled actor.

On a similar note, Mark Stanley brought intensity and menace to the role of Soldier. His speech of the rape and murder of a whole family was the first moment when this production really hit me in the gut. But. He is white. In Ian, Kane gives us a protagonist who is a racist and abusive. There was a palpable gasp in the room as he dropped the N-word just before opening the door to the Soldier. ‘Blasted’ constantly plays with the notion of who is I, who is us, who is the Other. Who has power, and who doesn’t. For Ian, the Other is the foreigner, the blacks, the Lesbos. To bring the Soldier on who is Black and British, in and yet not of the same world as Ian, confronts and subverts that view in a way that is slippery and ambiguous. It confronts us with our own views of who constitutes us and who is Other in our society. Having an entirely white cast, however talented and good, somehow loses the danger of that. I guess I’m saying this would be a more interesting production with a more diverse cast, even if you changed nothing else. Again this is not a go at Sheffield (the home of Eclipse theatre and much else besides) but maybe a gentle challenge to us all, me included, to consider how diversity can make better art.

That’s a lot of words talking about the production it isn’t. What about the production it is. It is a good, faithful, well-acted, naturalistic (dare I say very British?) production of one of the greatest plays of the 20th or any other century. It is beautifully realised, with one of the most convincing prop babies I have ever seen on stage – well done whoever made that. It isn’t the production that is going to float my boat but that’s me. It is strong, clear production of just the most brilliant play. I still came away in awe of the complexity, the humanity and beauty of this writing. And very, very grateful to Sheffield Theatres for putting on the season so Sarah Kane’s work can be seen, be appreciated and inspire us again.

** The review is edited version from the Exeunt original in which I incorrectly stated that the original Soldier, Dermot Kerrigan, was black. He isn’t. I was muddling him up with another version I had seen. Apologies to all concerned. 

Compass Live Art Festival review – now with added cute kid pics

Compass – a Live Art Odyssey in Leeds

Compass – a Live Art Festival in Leeds has been running for a few years now. Lead by Annie Lloyd it in some way goes to plugging the gap left by the loss of the much loved, much missed Leeds Met Studio. This year it ran over 11 days with around 20 different performances and events (if I’ve counted correctly). Unfortunately, there was no way I could get to all of it so to get something of a feel for what’s going on I and my intrepid co-critic (Katarina aged 5 minus 5 days) set off to see as much as we could on Saturday 22nd November.

Co-critics commence their odyssey.

Co-critics commence their odyssey.

The adventure started at home. Forced Entertainment, long term friends and collaborators with Annie, were performing and live streaming Quizoola from Sheffield that day. So I had it on the tablet as we went about normal Saturday morning chaos. If you’ve not watched a Forced Ents show in the company of small children I thoroughly recommend it – it’s even more entertaining than twitter. This brought out to me just how much of my normal home life resembles Quizoola (all quotes taken from my imperfect memory)

Scene: the bathroom. Me attempting to get dressed. Toma (aged 3yrs 8 months) wanders in.

Tim Etchells: What did Goldilocks do in the bear’s house?

Toma: When Goldilocks went into the house what did her blue do?

Jovan (also 3yrs 8 months) through the door: What does DNA do?

You see?

Leaving home and Quizoola behind, Katarina and I caught the bus into town. Our first appointment was with Quarantine’s ‘Between Us We Know Everything’ which was in residence in the outdoor section of Leeds Market. As well as a Live Art tour our odyssey was also a tour of the different shopping experiences of Leeds. The Market, if you’ve not experienced is literally and metaphorically the heart of Leeds. Bounded about now by high end developments, ‘the largest covered market in Europe’ is an oasis of cheap fruit and veg, hairdressers, white goods and every culture and cuisine known to Leeds. The outdoors part, known as the ‘Tatters Market’ is where we found Quarantine’s black van and three slightly chilly knowledge gatherers. It is a very simple deal – they record you saying something that you know. The recording then goes on the website www.betweenusweknoweverything.com if you want to look for Katarina and me – she talked about Saturn and I did how to say hello in 5 different languages. This is a very similar concept to Slung Low’s Emporium of Knowledge but without the boiled sweets and natty waistcoats (though we did get free chocolate fingers). It is a lovely idea and Quarantine are a very welcoming and engaging crowd. Maybe one day they should get together with Slung Low and create an uber library of everything. Or cancel each other out in a Leeds-Manchester matter/anti-matter clash.

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On then to Munro House and Helen Cole’s We See Fireworks – a sound and light installation in the part of the building that houses the very hip Cafe 164 and Colours May Vary art and bookshop. This felt like the most consciously ‘arty’ of the experiences – in the most consciously arty of the environments. You enter into a completely blacked off space with only different patterns of dimly lit bulbs against total dark. In this you hear recordings of people recalling performances, or performative experiences. Definitely one I enjoyed more than Katarina (she’s not so keen on the dark but liked the flicker light bulb). We stayed in long enough to hear the title story of a couple watching New Year’s Eve fireworks across the city. As the voice described being surrounded by a free display of neighbourhood fireworks there was a shared snort of recognition from myself and another couple in there (having just come out of firework season): A nice communal moment in an otherwise very individual experience.

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From there we walked the short distance over to Selina Thompson’s ‘Pat it and Prick It and Mark it with B’ at the Corn Exchange. When I arrived in Leeds the Corn Exchange was filled with independent shops selling goth clothes, Nirvana hoodies and skull jewellery. Every Saturday the goth kids gathered on the steps and just hung out. Then the independent shops (and kids) got cleared out and the whole thing taken up market. Since when it has seen the coming and going of various posh shops and restaurants. This Saturday it was filled up with a crafty, arty fair and stuffed to the gunnels with a pre-pre- Xmas shopping crowd, including a woman posing with a very sleepy owl. We wove our way through the shopping hordes looking for the live art which we found tucked away in a little vault on the bottom floor. I was looking forward to this:  Thompson’s ‘It Burns It All Clean’, based on job centre experience, was my favourite piece of Transform 14. In ‘Pat It and Prick It and Mark it with B’ Thompson and her able assistants make a dress out of cake, constructing it around her. Entering the little, floodlit vault, the air is thick with icing sugar dust – you breath in sweet. Co-critic Katarina has never seen quite so much cake – and thoroughly approved of being given a taste of the dress material. We were invited, as is everyone, to help build the dress, placing cake ‘bricks’ mortared together with jam on a wire frame. This is a great, and very sticky, sensual experience as everything, feet, hands, clothes, nostrils, tongues become coated in layers of sugar and jam.

Thompson, her body and her relationship to it and food are very much part of her art. She is big and beautiful, with full round glorious curves. Surrounding this gorgeous physicality with layers of fat and sugar and colour and curls suggests all the joy and pleasure of consuming. Placed within the confection of the Corn Exchange in the midst of heightened shopping frenzy, it asks us to consider the point when celebration of consuming becomes self-harm. The title traces the relation of sweet, cake, bodies and love back to childhood. When does pinching a baby’s adorable chubby cheeks become anxiety about eating too much? When and how do we pass on that anxiety? ‘Pat It and Prick It and Mark it with B’ is a brilliant, thoughtful, intelligent piece about the pleasures and pains of consuming. And besides it is dress made of cake.  How can you not love it.

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Cake made us late for our next appointment so we dashed across town to Merrion Centre to Sylvia Reimat’s Imagine Us. Unfortunately we managed to miss most of this and arrived only at the end where a lady in bright red jacket and shoes and a bear’s head waltzed in the natural courtyard between Morrisons and the old cinema. The Merrion centre is one of the oldest and least glitzy of Leeds shopping centres. The shops (with several empty spaces) are at the cheaper end, there were far fewer people and less money around. What was joyous was that in this far less arty crowd several people happily and spontaneously joined in the dance. So did we – Katarina because she’ll dance anytime, anywhere (you can when you’re 5) me because I enjoy it too. There was a text too playing on a screen above our heads but I’m afraid I missed most of that. Still it was a special moment- several of us, no connection to each other, dancing with a bear in the Merrion Centre. For the record Katarina said afterwards dancing with the bear was her favourite piece despite then falling over and having to be revived with a sandwich from Morrisons.

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Lastly, we went over to the Trinity Centre to have a go at Invisible Flock’s If You Go Away – Chapter One. This is a work in progress of an interactive experience using your phone or tablet. The Trinity Centre is (currently) the newest and shiniest of Leeds’ shopping ‘destinations’. I have to say in the couple of years it’s been open this is the third time I’ve been in, and the second time for a performance. The other time I went to find the Apple Store and spent 5 minutes cursing I couldn’t find it before realising I was standing right in front of it…

You start ‘If You Go Away’ in the very swanky Everyman cinema. You get given a device and headphones (if like me you are too antediluvian to have adequate version of either). The tiny text (maybe have a larger text format as well?) leads you outside to a tiny booth. On your device a vinyl record spins. Inside the booth there is a record player which doesn’t spin. This bothered co-critic Katarina a lot. It then shows you a faint map and little glowing point which takes you through the (unbelievably crowded) shopping centre to some quiet benches outside Trinity church. Text comes up about characters sitting on the bench, who they are and what they see. My problem was that there is so much you have to do to access this – swipe, tap, twist and turn that I entirely lost what I was being told – it is also a very distracting environment which means any story has to work harder to latch onto your attention. I think if it had been goal orientated ie if there was a mystery to solve or a treasure to find we would have been more motivated to navigate our way through. As it was the story was hard to engage with – too many tiny snippets of information – and not really connecting you with or enclosing you from your surroundings. This is fairly new use of the technology and an early draft of the concept with very interesting potential. As it was I’m afraid we gave up (co-critic Katarina was quite tired with all the walking) after a couple of stops on the journey but would probably go back for more if I have a device that worked!

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As we were going around, I was struck by how much performance there was going on in Leeds. There were buskers, young music students, aging rockers and Roma accordionists; there was a hula hooping lady in white who had Katarina captivated for ages, a Brazilian style drum and dance troop, a rock choir. That was in addition to the performance of market traders, students in fundraising duck outfits and the usual performative display of Leeds citizens out for a good shop. (Alan Read has a very good, if dense, book on Theatre and Everyday Life). Compass doesn’t so much bring performance to the shopping experience as bring a different, valuable, layer to that which is already there. All these layers are complementary not antithetical. In other words, there’s room for arts and shopping.

Though that was the end of the odyssey it wasn’t quite the end of the festival. On the Sunday I came back for Forced Entertainment’s ‘That Night Follows Day’ at Howard Assembly Rooms, performed by 16 children and young people aged 8 to 14. I really wanted to bring my co-critic to this too but it said suitable for ages 16 plus so I didn’t, though actually she would have loved it.

Written by Tim Etchells, this was a rehearsed reading of a text already produced with and by Flemish theatre company Victoria. The text is Etchell’s created after workshops with the original young performers. It is not a surprise to see in the influence of the Flemish company which is very honest and direct in its engagement with young performers and audiences, and challenging for adults and young people alike. Like so much of Etchell’s work it uses a repeated trope as formal and structural device to examine and engage with a topic – in this case the relationship and language between adults and children.  The children address us, the adult audience, each line starting with the word ‘You…’ listing the actions, instructions, lies, hypocrisies, half-truths and manipulations that go from adult to child.

‘You feed us. You wash us. You dress us. You sing to us. You watch us when we are sleeping. You explain to us the different causes of illness and the different causes of war. You whisper when you think we can’t hear. You explain to us that night follows day.’

Like all of Forced Entertainment shows, listening is a personal experience as you relate what you are seeing/hearing to your own life. In my case this meant checking off the statements against what I do: ‘You teach us words like…prestidigitation and somnambulism’ yup, done that. The cast start out speaking as a chorus, then split into smaller groups, pairs and individuals. The young people are brilliant performers in the way children are as a natural part of their communication. There was a great eye roll and flounce from one young man – I recognised that move. They mimic and mock the intonation of parents and teachers. It is powerful and moving because this is us adults watching the children’s perception and imitation of us. Their most angry moment comes in an extended section of ‘You say no not now. You say no, maybe later. You say no, when you’re older. You say no. You say no. You say no.’ Yes I do that and that and that. There was palpable shock on our row at the use of ‘fucking’ admittedly by older company member. And I have to say I loved the gleeful use of ‘arsehole’ and ‘motherfucker’ by one boy – remind me of this when I’m correctly my kids’ language.  In its simplicity it is the deepest, most profound and purest piece you’ll ever encounter on the relationship between adults and children. And all power to the fabulous 16 young performers who clearly owned their words and performance. It ended on a note of hope and love: ’You tell us it is all going to be alright.’ Grown-ups trying their best to be good enough, create a world safe enough for their kids. And the kids appreciating the effort. We have all been there.

Just a final thought. This was very much a ‘text based’ piece – the text, with the choice of statements, choice of words, is at the heart of the performance. Yes, who is performing and their choices made a big difference but the import of the performance is in the text. Yet if I was to say ‘text based’ performance Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment are not what would first spring to mind. Maybe a reminder to rethink those labels.

‘Reckless abandon in the room’- interview with Rash Dash

Here is the interview with Rash Dash that I did for Exeunt. With a few additions in italics! Keen Play Nerders will spot that know what work you want to do and how you want to do it is becoming a bit of a theme.

If you have seen Rash Dash in performance – say in their most recent piece Oh I Can’t Be Bothered – you will know Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalan as big, bold, fierce and fantastical performers. Their work is characterised by physicality that is skilful but not slick. They press their bodies against each other, throw themselves into a frenzy of dance, hold, pull, push and tumble through their performances. They sprang into many people’s consciousness with ‘The Ugly Sisters’ – the ‘punk princesses of late night theatre’ according to Maddy Costa in The Guardian.  Somewhere on the continuum between Frantic’s elegant choreography and Kneehigh’s have a go anarchy, they have a physical language that is wholly their own, raucous, sexy, aggressive and strong.

When I meet them on a chilly early Thursday morning in West Yorkshire Playhouse foyer, along with Rash Dash producer Charlotte Bennett, they look nothing like the feral creatures of the stage, but smaller, colder, pale and tired. This is the result of an overnight trip up from London where they are in the middle of their Soho run, coming up to Leeds to honour long standing commitment to perform the show as part of Furnace Festival, run a workshop next day and back down. A bit of a nuts schedule but indicative of their lives at the moment when it seems just about everyone wants a piece of Rash Dash. However exhausting, they were determined to bring the show back to the Playhouse where they are Associate Company and to the city which, despite now living in London, they still call home.

Abbi: ‘We met at the University of Hull but when everyone graduated we knew we were going to start this company together but we didn’t want to stay in the city when all of our friends had left because all you feel is bereft! So we decided to move across to Leeds and this is where we began. Before we were based at the Playhouse we spent a lot of time at the Hub, we were really inspired by Slung Low and the really amazing community they’ve built around themselves.’

Leeds really needs another space and more support for development and production of new and small scale work. I’m planning to do something about this…

We share the common Leeds gripe about lack of spaces in the city for small scale work, with the noble exception of the Hub. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered is the first show that Rash Dash have made with just Abbi and Helen since leaving University, no director, no live music, just them in a room making stuff up.

Helen: ‘With this show we had no idea what it was going to be about until we started in a rehearsal room together, writing streams of consciousness and finding themes that were connecting.’

What it became about was two best friends, Bea and Dee, who are trying to work out what they want to do with their lives in terms of their relationships.

Helen again: ‘One of them has a boyfriend and thinks she’s going to get married and the other is single, and very happy being single, and she suggests that maybe they should be together, not in a sexual way, but as best friends living together. So it’s questioning monogamy and why we choose that as the only route.’

Abbi: ‘It’s been something we’ve been talking about on and off over a few years because we did live together for while and that was really lovely and now we don’t live together and that’s also fine… we are both 27 and everyone starts to pair off and talk about getting married and about when they’re going to have kids…and it kind of took me by surprise when all of these conversations started happening…I haven’t grown up thinking that [you get married and have kids] but I’ve started asking more questions about monogamy since.’

Really?! Is this a thing currently? I can’t remember me or my contemporaries really worrying about who we were going to settle down with at 27 – that didn’t kick in for a good 5 – 10 years later. Not sure whether that’s because the culture has moved on or we were particularly unthinking/irresponsible. Having said that there is a load of us now exhausted with small children in our early 40s so maybe current 27 year olds have the right idea?? 

‘All our shows are quite personal in that way. They start off with us wondering about something in our own lives and it feels like that’s the real kick starter for how we care enough to do all of the hard, difficult work it takes to make a show.’

Though in no way should Abbi and Helen be confused with their stage counterparts of Bea and Dee, yet in some way talking to them is a bit like talking to a long term couple. In our encounter Abbi does most of the talking but they constantly look to each other, nodding and laughing, as if the answers come shared between them. It would be simplistic to identify them with their work, yet their work is entwined with them. Up to this point, their shows such as the Fringe First winning ‘Another Someone’ and the aptly named ‘Scary Gorgeous’ centre on themselves, their passions, fears and confusions as 20-something women.  As they say, their work has to come from a very personal and deeply felt place.

Abbi: ‘Making work really costs you…it should be difficult and you should have to think a lot and very deeply about your own life. If you’re making something that is really going to affect the people in the audience then it is going to affect you too’

Helen: ‘It’s such a hard process to make a piece of theatre you have to be really invested in the ideas’

Abbi: ‘When you watch a Rash Dash show you are watching the people who are performing and the people who are making so there is a huge amount of responsibility and accountability for the things we are saying. The words are coming out of our mouths and we have made them and we mean them.’

Listening to them, it strikes me how clear they are about their practice; however visceral and immediate the work, it is based on thorough and reflective understanding of their process. With the larger projects they are embarking on, both co-authored with Alice Birch, they talk about the specific skills and attitudes they need from fellow performers and collaborators. They don’t choreograph but set up improvisations to find material that is then refined and refined. The material is made with and for the specific body and voice of that performer. For both of these larger scale works, one on women and war, the other on pornography, they will be working with directors, as yet unconfirmed. They talk about the need for someone to ‘hold the room’, the need to scale up the cast and images they work with in order to match the size of the ideas.

Their current popularity with audiences, critics and producers comes with its own pressures and pitfalls, temptations to compromise their work and their process in order to fit other agendas. Reflecting on their current position as ‘being on the edge of where it’s happening’ Abbi quotes Bill Drummond’s advice to artists: Don’t stand on the outside looking in, stand on the outside looking out because that’s your job.

Abbi: [We want to] really make sure we are imagining everything we are capable of imagining and not just make a show on big stages…We don’t want to constrain our imaginations to what’s already possible, the models that already exist, but actually try to imagine new ways of making work and let them evolve out of the process.’

Helen: ‘Although Alice is writing the words, Rash Dash as much a part of the authorship as she is…that feels like an important thing that we keep pushing at that, not just settle into the traditional model of commissioning a playwright because that’s the way everyone else does it.’ (YES!)

Absolutely endorse this! I am very much NOT against writers, or writers’ rights. Quite the opposite. I think it is only to the advantage of writers and all artists if many different models of working are available. And those are properly reflected in commissioning agreements and development processes. 

Along with this admirable clarity about who they are and sticking to their metaphorical guns there is a palpable passion and hunger for the work, even at 10.30am on a wet Thursday morning when they’ve been up all night. Oh I Can’t Be Bothered came about because they saw that the two large projects they were working on were not going to happen this year, mired as large projects often are in tedious logistics of money, venues and scheduling. As Abbi pithily put it ‘I was desperate to make something and I’m going to go mad if I don’t’.

And this show seems to have come as a welcome relief from some of the constraints of being a sensible, grown up company; made fast in small pockets of time snatched between other work, with licence to be as spontaneous as they want. If it’s not working, they say, we just go off and write a song.

Abbi: ‘We did a lot of talking about what our process is. Once we found the groove for making this show, I had a really good time making it, going back it being like we were in Uni’

Helen: ‘I think the honesty has been really good. It’s not useful to be really honest when you’re in a room with lots of people because you’ve just got to get on with it.’

Abbi ‘I can’t think of things I am uncomfortable doing in front of you…it doesn’t feel like taking a risk any more… there is a kind of reckless abandon in the room with just the two of us…It’s felt really wild this process and I feel I can just throw myself at stuff and people might think that was weird but they wouldn’t judge me for it. It’s an unjudgmental beautiful process.

Reckless abandon feels like the right Rash Dash phrase. Reckless but not unthinking. Formidable in their conviction but still vulnerable in their openness and honesty. Having the power that comes from knowing the ideas they’re aiming for, their own way of saying them and the guts to stick at it.

In addition we had a great discussion about taking Oh I Can’t Be Bothered to a festival in Finland; how open and accepting the Finns were (by our British standards) and swapped stories about conducting meetings, Finnish style, in a sauna. Sadly not enough room for those stories here. 

Antigone review

Here’s my review of Pilot’s Antigone written for Exeunt. (With most of original embarrassing typos removed)

Watching Antigone, any version not just this one, is a bit like launching into a box set somewhere into series 3. An awful lot has already happened, histories and relationships are complicated (her mother was also her grandmother), and bloody (her mother killed herself, her father blinded himself, her brothers killed each other). Roy Williams’ version for Pilot Theatre is transposed from ancient Thebes to a contemporary gangland, also called Thebes, where Creo (a powerful, vulpine Mark Monero) rules over a gang of thieves warring against rival gang, the Argives, who were lead by Antigone’s brother, Orrin. Antigone (Savannah Gordon-Liburd) and her sister Esme (Frieda Thiel) work in Creo’s nightclub. The play (sort of) starts with Orrin’s murder by Creo’s soldiers thus pitching Antigone/Tig against Creo, as she tries to bury her brother.

The trouble with retaining some of the history, but not the mythic quality, is that it doesn’t quite add up. Much is made that Antigone and her family are ‘inbreds’ yet there is no sense of how and why her father ended up getting married to his mother; the mention of it raised a laugh on the night I was there. There’s no reason why you can’t play Oedipus for laughs but I don’t think it was the intention here. The gods are referenced throughout the play yet their function and significance were unclear. There was an interesting idea in director Marcus Romer’s notes that the gods are ‘camera observers’, seeing the action through CCTV and social media, who ‘capture and comment’. There is another interesting idea suggest by the soldier chorus at the end that ‘god (singular) is in us’. Neither of these ideas I felt were fully worked through in the production. In some scenes grainy, indistinct live feed video is projected onto the set. This was most effective, and visible, in the scene with Antigone in the celler, capturing and projecting large the image of her in a cage. But who were the observers and what was their moral force or power within the world of the play?

The result is a little bit Game of Thrones (murder! incest! gods! prophecy!) crossed with The Wire, all dark grey urban environment, gang warfare and complex back story. Don’t get me wrong; nothing is more deadly than a traditional, ‘faithful’ version of classical Greek drama. I’ve yawned my way through many a ‘toga and sandals’ production. This version above everything else is not boring. I actually wish Williams’ and Romer had been able to jettison more of the original and make it more their own. So there were points in the dialogue, particularly in an early scene between Tig and Esme where I could still hear the echo of the stichomythia, a form of argument in symmetrical, alternate lines. This sat a bit awkwardly with the naturalism of the language and performance. It’s not there in the beautifully tender and natural scene between Tig and Creo’s son, Eamon (Gamba Cole), which is Williams’ own invention.

This Antigone belongs to Creo much more than to Tig. The framing device, which I have to confess I didn’t really get till I read the script, begins and ends with him. Monero gives a phenomenal performance, arrogant, humorous, desperate, and by the end, broken. He is matched in stature by Doreene Blackstock as Creo’s wife Eunice, a part thankfully expanded by Williams. Antigone herself seems more of a foil for Creo; without the mythic structure, she is thrown back onto psychological realism. This meant Gordon-Liburd playing her at a heightened emotional pitch for most of the piece, which she did with full passion and conviction. It was a relief, however, to get to the quieter, playful scenes with Eamon.  Joanna Scotcher’s design also offers a nod to classical Greek with its unfinished pillars and motorway arch but is essentially a functional and flexible naturalistic space.

Despite these quibbles there is a lot that is good in the production. In particular, towards the end, there is an extraordinary scene between Creo and Eunice, real edge of the seat, hairs on back of the neck stuff, as they tear into each other with the ferocity of grief, the pent up fury and bitterness of long years of marriage.  The soldier chorus, Sean Sagar, Lloyd Thomas and Oliver Wilson, provide quick fire humour, though the business with the riddling picture message (presumably a message from ‘the gods’) was a little lost on me. When I saw it, the cast were occasionally still reaching for those huge turning points between rage and grief, love and despair. But they are fine performances that I am sure will grow and deepen over the course of the run.

The White Whale Review

Originally for the excellent Exeunt.

Rumours of The White Whale of Leeds abounded before the show itself hove into view (sorry for the nautical style…it’s infectious). Hints of the idea in development appeared on social media, then photos and videos, showing people diving balletically, or at least energetically, into the water. Billboards and posters began to appear around town, featuring two oil dark hands gripped a straining rope. More like an action movie than indie play. Hmmm…in-ter-est-ing.

Even if you’re a not a social media type, Slung Low in their beautiful silver Airstream caravan appeared in supermarket car parks and free summer festivals around Leeds to tell people about the show and give away tickets for free. Yes for free, as were all tickets for all performances.

Then opening night comes and immediately social media is awash (sorry) with reactions (mostly summarised by ‘OMG OMG this is the best, best, best thing I ever seen. Go see it NOW) and indistinct photos of tiny little glowing figures, against a mass of dark water. One friend of mine uploaded 40 photos of the show. Considering the whole thing is only 80 minutes long that was impressive.

All of which means by the time it is my turn to find my way down to Leeds Dock, for the very last performance of the run, I already have a relationship with it. I have a mass of images and impressions in my head. None of which tell me what the show is but all of which draws me into pleasurable anticipation of finding out how they all fit together.

Leeds Dock is a strange little sleeve of the Leeds – Liverpool canal running beside the Royal Armouries and surrounded by what the developers undoubtedly called ‘desirable waterside living’ but the rest of Leeds calls ‘that empty bit next to the casino’. It is, however, a natural thrust stage made of water. As we arrive, friendly and confident (and all rather beautiful) people in Slung Low t-shirts and fluorescent jackets hand out the headphones and receivers and explain how to use them. Ah yes, it is a ‘headphone’ show, where the live voices of the actors are mixed with recorded soundtrack and fed direct in to your ears as you watch the action. Smiling and welcoming volunteers show you were to stand and where you can sit if you need to and at the given moment indicate silently it is time to don the headphones and start the show.

The White Whale is a free interpretation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, which was based on Melville’s own experience on a whaler. The story of Captain Ahab and his relentless pursuit of Moby-Dick, the great white sperm whale, is known of by a great deal more people than have ever read the doorstep sized novel with its extended descriptions of different species of whales and slightly homoerotic accounts of blubber squeezing. James Philips’ text updates the story to a near future when whale oil is a vital source of power, electronic and explosive harpoons are no longer used and men hunt whales the old fashioned way with small boats, sharp blades and brute strength. Having set this up, the script then leaves it there, which is a relief. Nothing is worse in alternative reality pieces than endless exposition about how we got here and why things are different. They are, now move on.

A lone figure in a boat weaves his way from the far distance, an explosive spout of water marks a whale and the Pequod, the whaling ship herself, surges from below the dark water, breaking through the surface like a half remembered dream come fully back to mind (an impressive feat of engineering, I assume from Pete Gunson). What is excellent about Alan Lane’s production, in the simple but beautifully effective design by David Farley, is that none of these things are pretending to be the actual things. We are not pretending that Leeds Dock is the wide ocean, that these water spouts are whales, that a smallish metal box is a whaling ship. But each of these things gives a sense and emotion of the thing it stands for. It seems an obvious point but one that is missed by quite a lot of theatre. The water, fire, smoke and explosions of White Whale are thrilling both for the things that they are, and for the things that they are being in the story.

We are introduced to the crew members, their voices speak intimately into our ears as our eyes take in the epic spectacle. Philips holds back on the introduction of Melville’s central character, and the most famous line ‘Call me Ishmael’. In a clever twist on the original, Ishmael has become a young radicalised man of British Pakistani origin, played with engaging and charismatic intensity by Nima Taleghani. Melville was intensely interested by the symbiotic relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, notably in ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ and ‘Benito Cereno’. In White Whale it is the drinking, whoring Anglo Saxon crew, particularly the ‘painted savage’ Q (played with swagger and touching humanity by Christopher Brand) that is the ‘other’ to an abstemious Ishmael. I did miss something in re-imagining the originally black cabin boy, Pip, as European: The original Pequod was a multiracial microcosm of the world at the time and Pip’s fate, cast adrift in the ocean until he is sent mad, recalls the many thousands lost on the sea voyage from Africa to Europe. Angus Imrie’s performance as Pip, though, was not to be faulted; a heartbreaking figure of young energy and vulnerability.

Good concept is nothing without great execution, and The White Whale is truly a team effort. For me what held the whole thing together was Heather Fenoughty’s sobbing, soaring music, which underscored the action with emotion. Studded through the play were gorgeously sung shanties and hymns which pulled us into the play just as they pulled the characters together. The sound was, as ever in a Slung Low show, subtly and ingeniously designed by Matt Angove. Ric Mountjoy’s lighting captures both mood and action and managed to blend seamlessly with the civic lit surroundings. Phillips’ script fillets Melville’s baggy narrative for the bare bones of an action adventure with metaphorical edge. And unlike Melville, it wears its poetry and allusion quite lightly: the water filled with whale blood is ‘incarnadine’, they sail on a Homeric ‘wine-dark’ sea. And mention also has to be made of Oliver Senton’s powerfully understated Ahab. If ever there was part made to chew the scenery it was that and he wisely kept it mostly low key, with moments of sudden, explosive violence. Like the others mentioned, Senton is a Slung Low regular. This is a team that has worked together a lot and it shows. Each part works together, responding and adding to the director’s vision. Kudos as well for the enlightened and engaged people and policies at Leeds City Council, which made this production possible through a Leeds Inspired Commission.

The White Whale is a story of obsession:  the mad obsession of one man to take revenge on a whale, obsession with money, with power, with religious grace. It is also the story of one theatre company’s obsession with making the extraordinary happen for everyone in an unloved corner of Leeds.