Perilous Escapade

The Perils of Boris & Sergey: Perilous Escapade at Mimetic 2013

Journeys, quests and sweaty puppets were brought to life by Flabbergast Theatre’s Perilous Escapade about two leathery characters, Boris and Sergey, who enter as the “Dynamic Duo” and sadly part in the end. At Mimetic 2013.

Journeying was very much on my mind as I made my way to Enfield to view Perilous Escapade in the Mimetic Festival at the Dugdale Centre. The challenge of the quest structure is hard to resist dramatically, and the writers of Flabbergast Theatre’s puppet play spectacularly squeezed every metaphor and physical allusion out of the form as they move their two leathery characters, Boris and Sergey, from “Dynamic Duo” type entrance to their sad final parting.

At the same time, the play also discards the form in the style of a satirical meta-movie about two characters on their way to nowhere. I could swear that the Muppet movies had something to do with the shenanigans on stage, but then again it could have been Kill Bill or even The Princess Bride. Allusions come thick and fast in the ninety minute show: BatmanStar Wars, James Bond, the Greek myth of Charon and the River Styx, Dante’s Inferno… well, perhaps not Dante.

They mostly all work in this extravaganza of two brothers, one good & one bad, arriving before us from who-knows-where. In no time at all, and through a moment of childish play, the bad brother Sergey kills the good brother. From then on, the dead brother, who neither knows or acts like he’s dead, is on his way to free his bad brother from, of all places, hell, where he is imprisoned for murdering him. To take this journey, he not only doesn’t believe he’s dead, but he also doesn’t believe his brother has murdered him.

I’ll admit that by this time in the play I became lost myself in the multiplicity of switches between real and fictional places in Boris and Sergey’s journey. Nonetheless, I was enjoying the considerable skill of the four puppeteers who worked the two characters: in fact, the whole sense of stagecraft was a wonder in itself. Steve Spencer and Dylan Tate both displayed a great vocal range in characterising Boris and Sergey, respectively. They have huge presence, though I felt that there’s still room to improve their timing of working with an audience rather than just at them. The two silent “legs” puppeteers, Elaine Hartley and Samantha Arends, were focused and exact. I found remarks to them of “bitches” by Sergey a bit gratuitous: I mean, if there’s to be in-fighting between puppet and puppeteer then it needed to be carried through completely with the “legs” responding in some way to the abuse. The remarks seemed pointless, in the wrong sense.

However, with metatheatrical allusions coming thick and fast, I was swept along by the company’s manipulation of the gritty puppet personae, the stage blocks and the dramatic use of soundtrack and lighting. The show seemed, in so many ways, to be a perfect constructivist’s heaven, with the sole purpose of being an end unto itself. The action scenes were terrific, with every tiny movement choreographed to perfection. I can vouch for the truth in the company’s 2010 manifesto that “Flabbergast was set up to make uncompromising and exciting physical theatre in a belief that all theatre should be engaging and sweaty.”

Yet with all of the technical knowledge on display, I yearned for more understanding of storymaking in particular. It was jarring for me to see such a potentially insightful theme as the journey to hell treated in such a flippant way. I just didn’t believe that it was a perilous escapade at all. The idea of danger, risk – indeed, of losing your soul – was continually sidetracked into a childlike fantasy of “let’s all pretend” and “we all know that this is just a puppet show”. I left the theatre wondering if the energetic puppeteers had really any idea of what they were playing with – for many the journey to hell and back is lived out daily.

Date reviewed: Saturday 27th July 2013

 

Where the White Stops

Know where they’re going: Where the White Stops at Battersea Arts Centre

Where the White Stops by Antler Theatre was a wonder to behold. To say the performance was heroic is literally true as the troupe of four – Daniela Pasquini, Nasi Voutsas and Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart and Daniel Ainsworth – enacted a beautifully imaginative and energetic piece of physical theatre in costumes fit for the North Pole in sauna-like heat conditions! At Battersea Arts Centre.

As the title infers, Where the White Stops is set in a mythical snow-clad land of “The White”, which is not only bitterly cold and wind-swept by icy blizzards, but is also home to the odd savage beast and several mountainous cliff edges. The story revolves around Crab, superbly played by Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart, whose deliberately odd crustacean name is in keeping with the wacky tone of the piece. Crab is determined to see more of the world than “The White” and so her journey, true to form, enables the audiences to live through various tests of courage, wisdom and perseverance.

At all times, the company moved with discipline in the role of storytellers and the many characters involved in the dramatic action. Remarkably, as unbearably as the heat oppressed us, they continued to evoke the quest for survival in their frozen wilderness. Daniela Pasquini’s Princess was dangerously “sweet”; Nasi Voutsas, as Crab’s mute companion, brought to mind the speechless strength of the clown Harpo Marx; and Daniel Ainsworth’s impersonation of Crab’s “you’re-really-too-young-to come-on-an-adventure” character was just hilarious. Yet, it was also his character that shows us the face of death in the play.

Each performer proved why the company are worthy winners of the “IdeasTap Edinburgh Underbelly Award”Overall, they didn’t miss a beat or cue. They worked as a well-seasoned ensemble that generously engaged the audience in a reciprocal exchange of wonder and awe, and, in particular, an understanding of the magic of a well-constructed story.

It would be interesting to see if Antler Theatre has further plans to develop the work after Edinburgh. The “coming of age” quest, which had its ascendency (as live theatre) in nineteenth-century pantomime extravaganzas at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, employing 400 extras, continues to inspire film epics that take audiences through Middle Earth and to Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The four performers of Antler Theatre clearly don’t come anywhere near creating the size of the spectacle in either of those, yet the troupe’s obvious understanding of the form injected surprising moments of sheer visual splendour – for instance, through the use of single directed light beams, rope to depict climbing up a mountain face, and stylised movement to mark the packing  up of the previous night’s camp.

My personal favourite was the physicalising of the effect of the blizzard on the central characters marching through snow: beautifully detailed, intelligent observation of human versus blizzard! This is a young company who know where they’re going.

Something There That’s Missing

A play for our time: Something There That’s Missing at Theatre503

Something There That’s Missing is a play for our time, reflecting personal cultural negotiations with love, and lots of laughter. At Theatre503.

Anh Chu’s Something There Thats Missing was previewed for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Theatre503, staged by We Flew Big Theatre Company. Conceptually strong, it examines the world of “hopes and dreams” intertwined with the practical, often mundane, world of doing the actual work of realising personal ambition.

Joy moves to London to write her first play, a fantastical coming-of-age story about adventure-seeking Mei Li, who enters the supernatural Chinese metaforest. The idea of metaforest is imaginative, particularly when we get to meet an eccentric orange hippo. However, the idea needs more use of stage design and digital technologies, because it is through mixing imagined and real landscapes that Joy realises so much about her hopes to write and produce her play in London.

“Working” and “dreaming” form the central conflict for Joy Lo, Chu’s auto-biographically inspired central character who has come to London in the hope of writing and producing a theatrical success in the UK capital. What makes the character absolutely engaging is the fact that, as a Chinese-Canadian, she is forced to negotiate her plans in the face of irreconcilable cultural and personal differences. This is realised on stage comically through her Skype conversations with her practical and materialist Chinese mother back in Canada.

The play organises the action in short episodic bursts that show Joy in dialogue with her alter ego (a small Chinese doll), her mother and her friends. Alongside these more realistic scenes are the scenes which represent the dream world of the Chinese metaforest, in which a young heroine, Mei Li, is on the hunt for the Elixir of Life and the Pink River. This doubly imagined place has quasi-Chinese painted bowers, a giant panda head and a very non-Chinese orange hippo with the Chinese name of Po. The multiple locations connect the three main locations in the drama of London flat, Canadian home and hospital ward in which Joy is operated on for a brain tumour.

I remained unconvinced throughout the performance on whether the third location of the hospital ward was at all necessary to make sense of the main theme of writing and producing a play in London. I suppose it could work with more careful integration into the narrative and setting. As I saw it, director Lydia Parker does well in giving the narration a coherent shape through identifying how the company’s two other performers, Siu-See Hung and Julie Cheung-Inhin, should be differentiated from Joy’s persona, even though they are clearly her inner voice. All three actors were focused and purposeful. Parker also integrates layers of audio-visual technology, particularly the use of the great soundtrack by sound designer/composer Fisayo Karunwi.

This is a complex piece in which, I suggest, the technology is essential. So much of what I missed in the performance was connected to Anh Chu’s imaged landscapes, like the Chinese Metaforest. If a production ever had a rationale for mixed media use, thematically this production manifestly has it. Placing an image on stage “as if” it was as real as the physically present actors seemed to me to be as crucial as placing bodies in the acting space itself. Similarly, the strength of the music is vitally connected to the transitions between the live performances and the virtual projections.

Despite the gaps in getting the technology to work and, I argue, an overly complicated narrative that was at time very confusing, the intelligence of the basic story is in every sense a story for our times: of how so many of our families have migrated for economic reasons into the English-speaking world of former British colonies but, nonetheless, remain culturally attached to those non-English parts of ourselves. Paradoxically, into that diversity Anh Chu invites us to see how economic reasons are not enough to fully realise “hopes and dreams” in any culture.

Date reviewed: Sunday 21st July 2013

Forget Me Not

Why World War I poets are revered in English Literature while World War II poet Keith Douglas is largely forgotten poses are interesting question about our cultural values. A promising idea, however, left unrealized in Shane Burke’s Forget Me Not. At the Tea House Theatre.

 

The question of who and what we choose to remember, either individually or collectively, can be puzzling to say the very least! However, a visit to the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey commemorating sixteen World War I poets leaves little doubt that we continue to remember them; Wilfred Owen provides the epitaph: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

What remains inexplicable, however, is that while Owen’s Anthem For A Doomed Youth continues to ring out the heroism of young men who died “as cattle”, his poignant representation did not stop the “wailing shells” starting up again, calling young men to war in 1939. As one of those young men, Shane Burke’s character of Keith Douglas complains to his literary agent’s secretary that Owen and others left his generation little more to say about young men in war.

Bete Noire Productions’ current production at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall centres on Douglas’ urgency to say something different that those World War 1 poets. The play is set in 1944, just before leaving for the frontline. Directed by Sasha Roberts, the play is a two-hander, with Tom Worsley depicting Keith Douglas and Annabella Forbes playing the literary agent’s secretary, Betty Jesse. However, while the one-act drama raises expectations about coming to know Douglas and his poetry, it doesn’t come near to realizing that end, and instead falls back on a clichéd presentation of an English officer meeting a respectable women.

Emil Zola advised writers that it was the use of “significant detail” which make a good presentation of naturalism on stage, and Forget Me Not disobeys the rule. Insufficient budgets aside, it is the contradictions in the production that let it down the most: for instance, while Tom Worsley wears an unbelievably beautiful authentic World War 2 uniform, Annabella Forbes is dressed completely out of times. While he is groomed authentically, with the right hairstyle and moustache, she is seen with a casual bobbed hair style held with a couple of small clasps. Ironically, as if to puzzle the audience even more, the image of Betty Jesse in the theatre programme shows a decidedly well groomed woman who took much pride in her coiffure. Furthermore, the character is wearing silky stockings in 1943 at a time notorious for incredible austerity and widespread non-existent hosiery!

The flaws in the depiction of Douglas, Jesse and the 1940, however, went beyond mere appearances into problems of characterization. I thought Tom Worsley did his best to work with the straightjacket he seems to have been contained in as he plays the highly-strung Douglas. He shows energy and determination in carrying some sense of a through line as he battles to secure a contract for his poem’s publication. Annabelle Forbe’s portrayal of Betty Jesse, on the other hand, lacks direction of any kind: she is totally unbelievable as a strongly determined woman who, the dialogue reveals, is deserted by her husband for loving her work more than wanting to be a stay-at-home wife and having babies. What’s more, what is the logic of portraying her a dry, prissy spinster to whom the “four-times engaged” Douglas becomes attracted?

What was the play really trying to show? Was it really about the attraction of a man and woman meeting in wartime, or was it about Douglas’s desperation to have his poetry published before going off on D-Day and dying on a beach in Normandy, aged 24? I left the theatre none the wiser.

Certainly, I was drawn to Bete Noire Productions and playwright Shane Burke’s interesting subject matter of a drama on the life and poetry of Keith Douglas. However, I don’t believe the biographically cluttered dialogue did their subjects any justice. Another treatment is needed to build on the issues with which Douglas grappled, most notably how, in times of war, humans live on and sometime revel through how love and death exist in such close proximity.

I’m not an expert on war poets, but I suspect that it is this vibrancy in Douglas combining sex and death which makes his poetry somehow more shocking to read than the World War I poets. The theatre program hints at this in his writing of the poem in “Vergissmeinnicht”(trans. Forget Me Not) which tells how, coming across a dead German soldier’s body decomposing in a blown up tank which still displays on a metal panel a photograph of his lover “Steffi”, Douglas writes:

 

But she would weep to see today

how on his skin the swart flies move;

the dust upon the paper eye

and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled

who had one body and one heart.

And death who had the soldier singled

has done the lover mortal hurt.

 

Shane Burke and Bete Noire Productions are right, such sensibilities are the stuff of great theatre. The hard truth is that on this occasion they did not fulfill their own high expectations of realising such a drama.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 17th July 2013