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. 

Never give up

This one is for you. You with your play sitting in your documents file. The one you wrote 5 years ago and has never seen the light of day. You with your three-quarters completed novel. You with a whole pile of poems you’ve never been able to share.

It’s for you sitting there with your dream of playing Othello. Of being the new Jane Bond. Of opening a theatre. Of singing your own songs. Dreaming whatever is your dream.

And this is the message. Never give up. Never Give Up. Because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. At the moment I am dramaturg on a production of Boi Boi is Dead by Zodwa Nyoni. This is a play that started life in March 2011 – when Zodwa was a young writer on attachment at West Yorkshire Playhouse. She wrote a first draft and then nothing happened for nearly a year. I got back from maternity leave, we talked about it. Zodwa did some re-writes, and then continued to re-write as she did her MA is writing for Performance at Leeds Uni. And the likelihood is that is would remain an unproduced first play. But then at the end of 2013 I submitted the play and Zodwa for the Channel 4 Playwrights in Residence scheme. And the panel is their glorious, infinite wisdom loved the play. Indhu Rubasingham, Artistic Director of Tricycle Theatre in London, offered space if we wanted to do a reading. So in February 2014 that’s what happened, directed by the brilliant Lucian Msamati (then Artistic Director of Tiata Fahodzi), this was the first time these words had been spoken aloud by actors.

The play has changed a lot from then. It is at least a third longer for starters. From that reading Tiata Fahodzi and West Yorkshire Playhouse decided to produce. Watford Palace Theatre (new home of Tiata Fahodzi) came in as a co-producer. There were many, many long and complex discussions about budgets and schedules and co-production agreements. All the things you don’t think about when you’re alone with your computer and these words spinning through your head.

Now it is happening, opening at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 14 February. Four years almost to the day that it started in a cold ‘writers lock-in’ at The Hub in Holbeck, almost exactly one year from its first reading. And let me tell you this is fast. Really. I’ve known plays take eight, fourteen, twenty years to get to the stage. And sometimes the ink isn’t even dry from your printer and it’s on stage. But a longer journey is not necessarily a worse one. It gives you and it time to grow, to mature, to learn about the play you are making and what it has to do in the world.

And your play, your dream isn’t necessarily going to go on the same journey, or arrive in the same place. Sometimes you just don’t get the dream you thought you were going to have. So you think you’re going to be playing Othello at the RSC but it actually is a fringe theatre, or community centre. If the work is good, and true and what you want to make in this world that is what matters. Because the audience that sees you at that community centre wouldn’t ever go to the RSC. And the kid who is inspired to be an actor (or a general, who knows) wouldn’t have had that experience any other way. You have made the work for them. For you. I have seen this happen. But none of it happens if you give up, let the world stop your dream, rather than you reshaping your dream and the world.

Here’s a song by brilliant bunch of artists, musicians, writers, composers, activists. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few of them. They are making their work on TV, radio, in theatres, community centres, museums, working men’s clubs, public spaces. And they’re making it with the same passion, care and integrity that they have always have.

I crawled in the mud. But I never gave up. I never gave up.

I crawled in the mud. But I never gave up.

Because that’s what it can feel like sometimes. Some days, some months, some years you’re crawling through thick, sticky, heavy mud. Because no one else believes in you, because you didn’t get that job, that commission, because you’re ill, tired, poor, uninspired. But don’t give up. Where you get to may not be where you thought you were going. But keep believing in what you do, believe in what you want to make, make it for yourself and the audience that responds to your work – doesn’t matter if that’s one person or millions.

And if you hold on to your dream, let it guide you, change it, adapt it, but still believe in it, it will take you places, give you things you didn’t know were possible.

In the flushed aftermath of Syriza victory in Greece when we’re all feeling like we could be Greek (I am half Greek so I feel that all the time) here is a gift from Greece’s greatest modern poet. This is the best known poem in the Greek language – maybe why it is a nation of dreamers. Now altogether: As we set out for Ithaka…

Ithaka

BY C. P. CAVAFY

TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY AND PHILIP SHERRARD

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Final seasonal thoughts (may contain mild expletives)

So yesterday I popped into my daughter’s school to see a Christmas show performed by Alive and Kicking Theatre Company. Three actors, three flats for scenery, some music, one puppet, a story and a happy ending. A roomful of delighted, transported little children (and grown ups too). I’ve been luck to work with John Mee – one of the core company of Alive and Kicking (though not in this show) – an inspirational drama teacher and practitioner who has been opening up potential in children and students for decades.

Two thoughts: first this is the kind of theatre happening all around the country, and all over the world. And that has happened since the first homo something-or-other told a story somewhere in Africa. It is the first theatre that many experience. I don’t think I’d be doing what I do now if it wasn’t for some formative children’s theatre experiences with Simpson Primary School, Milton Keynes (for the people who made the live action Punch and Judy show in about 1978, thanks I was traumatised for years…) It is the most important theatre we have, the simplest and sometimes the best. We should treasure it.

Second – my daughter’s school is quite mixed. They are doing a project at the moment looking at all the places around the world that the children are connected to – Katarina contributes Serbia and Greece. When one of the actors asked for ideas or volunteers the hands that shot up were of all different hues. In the light of recent kerfuffle about whether theatre is in some sub-set of humanity’s DNA, can I just say that all those children were equally entranced – there wasn’t anyone sitting around going ‘sorry not in my DNA’. Besides which that notion of racial determination by DNA is utter bollocks – and scary bollocks at that (Africa has the greatest genetic diversity on the planet it being the cradle of humanity and all that). However, looking around the theatre (and film and TV) world as it currently stands I know that some of those children have a greater chance of becoming actors or writers or artists than others. That some who would want to go into the arts may not see themselves on stage so never consider it, they may not see the stories that reflect their lives, they may be told it is not for them, they may not have the money. I really want by the time these children are making those decisions in 10-15 years time that this is NOT the case, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background or what you look like, anyone with the ability and commitment can make a career in the arts. But it is up to all of us now to make that happen.

Seasons greetings everyone.

How to survive in theatre part 2

An important addition to the last blog (see How to survive in theatre part 1): when considering what obstacles you have it is important to remember that YOU are never the obstacle. The other commitments you have – be they children, or work, or illness – these are not the things that are the obstacles, they are the things that make you, you. The obstacle is what isn’t currently enabling you to create with those other commitments. So your obstacle isn’t having children, it’s lack of flexible, affordable childcare. However these things can be difficult, painful or even tedious they all become part of us and therefore part of our creative life. Look at how Alex Andreou has written about caring for his mother or how Hillary Frank turned recovery from traumatic birth and many, many sleepless nights into a successful podcast. It is difficult to see now how the HOURS I have spent toilet training my children will come in useful, but it is all useful, somehow.

These things that make us are things to be proud of. As the very brilliant and very much missed Stella Young reminds us disabled bodies are to be proud of. It is not the disability that is the obstacle, it is the way society is set up. So imagine that every funded organisation in the country was given a significant sum of money, £50,000 or something, to be spent on access needs of disabled artists and ONLY on the access needs of disabled artists. If not spent it would have to be given back. Suddenly we would get a lot more disabled actors, writers, directors in our organisations – and a boost to the ones who do it already. Drama schools would look for students to meet the demand, there would be more disabled artists filtering through to TV and film. Hmmmm this actually sounds like a very good idea. How about it ACE National?

How we conceive of our problems, our obstacles, is the first vital, important step in how we learn to work with them or go past them. The inestimable, incomparable Stella Duffy has written about the language of cancer, about for many living with the disease, talking about ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ (particularly ‘losing the fight’) is inaccurate and unhelpful. For some people this might be helpful. For others it is better for the obstacle to be located not in the disease but in the incomprehension of the medical professional, the lack of appropriate drugs, or financial support for sick freelancers. Even if this doesn’t solve the problem at least it doesn’t feel like the problem is you.

Which is not to say there aren’t things that we don’t need to work on in ourselves – whether that is more confidence in selling our work, the art of form filling or making ourselves take some calm creative time. But there are things about ourselves we can change, and there are things we can’t or don’t want to, and all of it, all of it goes into what we make and do.

Play Date 3 – How to survive in theatre (part 1)

Our third and, at least for the moment, final Play Date was at the beginning of the December. ‘How to survive in theatre’ is a topic that could take a lifetime and I’m sure it is one to which we will return again. But here is a first go in exploring some of the questions, and possible answers, around this. As part of a living demonstration I brought one of my children with me and set her the task of explaining herself and the world to some aliens who were going to come at the end of the session…(nb this did not end well – never make promises of aliens you can’t then produce).

First thing to say that this was a discussion shaped and lead by the 8 of us (9 including 5 year old Katarina) in the room. It felt very much like a session where we were all able to help each other. So if someone had a question about filling in an Arts Council form then there were one or two others with experience of that who could help. Even to one brilliant person (Thanks Carolyn) taking Katarina to the loo while I finished off some point or other.

If there is one thing that is worth taking way from this session and this blog, is that we are stronger and better together. Peer support, whether that is meeting up with fellow creative friend, getting together in small groups like this or larger groups like upcoming D&D, is vital for surviving in theatre. Of course, there are some people who do without it – but they’re probably miserable anyway. It is easier as well to do this outside ‘networking’ events which are often uncomfortable pressured environments when your inner voice is screaming ‘make contacts NOW’ while you juggle too warm wine or orange juice. So find people you like and who you find a connection with, get together to share problems and work out solutions. Finding supportive peers can be the tricky part which is why D&D, the wonderful Theatre in the Mill and, um, sessions like these are important.

Second, especially as nobody in this session had been in Play Date 1 we went over some of the same exercises. In particular, working out what it is that you want. This seems to me to be at the heart of surviving in theatre; not least because it is so easy to be seduced by what you are supposed to want – be that ‘a big show’, fame or fortune. These are the things that are impossible to control. The things you can define for yourself are who do u]you want to be, what do you want to make, for whom do you want to make it? Then look at the obstacles that are in your way – both internal and external. So an external obstacle might be funders and promoters not coming to see your work. An internal obstacle might be not feeling you’re good at selling yourself or your work. Identifying these as obstacles means that you can deal with them as obstacles – which will have solutions. It is easy to internalise them as failings, which is when it starts getting dispiriting and demotivating. The solution to the above obstacle might be investing a bit of money in a really good video trailer or promotional DVD of your show (you can get them done for as little as £50 ask me for contacts). Or applying for one of the showcase opportunities in your area. In the North our brilliant regional venues have come together to produce this invaluable guide to their programming policy and opportunities. Of course, you need to know about people who make trailers, and the programming guide to start with. Which is why being connected in person and through social media is so important.

Answering the question of what you want – what you make and for whom – is crucial because it defines what makes you, you. What is unique about your work that no one else can do. It is also about what audiences do you reach. Your audience is your most valuable asset. Everyone, funders, promoters, venues, are all after audiences. If you demonstrate how your work reaches those audiences then you become valuable. If they are not interested in your audience, or the way you engage with them, then find someone else who is. There ALWAYS will be somewhere else that is. Don’t fixate on the larger organisations; they’re great but not the solution to everything. Will your audience be more likely to come to local pub, cafe, park, community centre? Can you go to them? Posit your relationship with funders, venues, producers not as adversarial – you want their resources they want the best work – but collaborative: you are all working to make something, bring people together, create some kind of a difference. And you will meet people who have no interest in collaboration, who are just unpleasant and adversarial. They exist in every walk of life. Leave them to it and get on with what you want to do.

We also talked a bit about trying to find the time and the energy for making work, and finding all the things you need to make work, when you have other commitments. This might be family, it might be other dependents that you care for, it might be because you have illness or condition that takes your time, energy and money, it might be just that you have no money – and that takes all your time and energy. It might be many or all of those things. It is important to say that sometimes this does suck. And it is too hard to do by yourself. Which is why you might need the right kind of space, support, and yes, money to help you. If you can’t see it then ask for it – use the comments here, or email me. I’m gathering ideas and input in order to create an organisation precisely to support people. Sometimes it is also about being clear and then being disciplined, about what you need to do. So if you are expanding all your energy on setting up projects that cost you a lot of time but give you very little financial return, then you need to make yourself carve out time for work that pays better for time/resources put in (this is my note to self!)

Balancing family, work, self, commitments – these are hard things. You will never have enough time. You will probably never have enough money. Decide for yourself what it is that you want, what is driving you, what makes it worth it. Identify what your obstacles are. See if you can find the people and places who can overcome them. And if that doesn’t exist yet- let’s make it together.

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.