Mayfest 2014

So I went up to Mayfest on Saturday.

I’ve been meaning to visit my brother for a while now. He’s studying creative writing at Bath Spa and for one reason or another I haven’t had a chance to pop up for a jolly in the past couple of years. A weekend freed up, however, and I decided to book some train tickets. At which point I realised it was at the same time as Mayfest. And, well, Bristol’s only down the road, isn’t it?

So I ditched my brother for the day to see some theatre. I’ve only been to Bristol once before, and that was late one wintery night in the rain. On Saturday, it was also rainy (though a bit warmer), but the city felt alive in that strange way cities in the rain have a tendency to do. A music festival was happening in the park and songs would leap out of every other bar you walked past. If only it was a bit sunnier it would have been one of those perfect city summer days. If you ever need an excuse to see a city, go to an arts festival there; there’s something about wondering round streets between shows which opens your eyes to the world around you. But then I would say that wouldn’t I?

I Wish I Was Lonely by Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker

I first saw this show in a rudimentary form around this time last year when Hannah and Chris were working on it at Warwick Arts Centre, but haven’t seen it since, meaning that when people spoke about it at Edinburgh last year, I’d have some kind of odd connection to the show without actually knowing what the final thing looked and felt like. Originally, the two performers had us sit in a circle throughout the entirety of the piece, and there were moments when we faced away from the centre as business went on in the middle.

Aside from a few details, however, this is still very much the same show. Yes, it’s been honed and crafted and focussed in the past twelve months, but I Wish I Was Lonely is, still, a deceptively simply piece about loneliness, connectivity and late capitalism.

Watching this show for the ‘second’ time, I realised how much the first viewing affected me last year, with one particular line lodging itself in my mind. After the show has begun, and Chris and Hannah have greeted us warmly, asking us searching questions about our relationships with our mobiles, the pair launch into a few searingly angry verses of poetry regarding the way technology cuts us off from the real world around us. Chris – briefly – talks about all the beautiful images we may miss when on the bus because we’re more concerned with texting our mates. As far as I can remember, that line takes a slightly different form in the final show, but it’s an idea which has stuck with me, which pops up every time I’m sat on a bus, forcing me to look up and look around, to drink in the sights from the unique, specific vantage point of the top floor of a double-decker.

The reason for this longevity, for the way in which I Wish I Was Lonely manages to get under your skin, is in no small way down to the skill of its creation. But it’s also down to the basic theme of the piece, which chimes with a very particular aspect of our contemporary experience and manages to make us feel awkward about that “extra limb” which we have allowed to penetrate our daily lives without asking too many questions.

The reason why this is different, however, from the likes of Privacy and Black Mirror (both of which I love, for the record), is that after the critique of the way in which neoliberalism needs us to be constantly connected in order to be Functioning Consumers, and how loneliness is no longer possible even though it is arguably desirable, Chris and Hannah offer us an alternative to this heads-down, switched-off mentality. Rather than allowing us to be consumed and consuming, they ask us – and offer us the opportunity – to reconnect with people in a real, genuine way. Because even though there are some gut-wrenching, evocative moments in this show told by our performers from a highly personal perspective, the moment which somehow knocks you sideways is when you’re looking into a stranger’s eyes for two minutes, searching their soul as you get looked at in return. You find, for a fleeting moment, an emotion and experience which feels alien but which is, really, at the basic of human relationships. It’s just been forgotten. I Wish I Was Lonely teaches us how to reconnect and, in a very real way, changes us.

The Roof

After this connection, then, it was odd to find myself stood outside on Bristol’s Millennium Square, surrounded by people but distanced from them due to the headphones shutting off my ears from the world around me. I wanted to share this mad experience with someone, but found myself alone in a sea of people.

In The Roof, David Rosenberg, Frauke Requardt and Fuel tackle the subject of video games and what they can teach us about the way we live our lives. Stood inside a ring of elevated roof-like structures with headphones pumping directional audio into our eardrums, we watch a video game character – Player 611 – tackle a series of increasingly abstract levels which, broadly, consist of trying to defeat ‘monsters’ in order to extract inflatable rubber ducks from an air vent which can be used to provide upgrades from another player boxed in a room. There is – unsurprisingly – a lot of spectacular running, jumping and fighting in this pseudo-platformer (which, let’s be honest, would get pretty boring were it an actual game), and some beautiful design work by Jon Boasor is augmented with sumptuously surreal choreography, but the intellectual weighting behind decisions often feels a little weak, with arguments and motifs stretched almost to breaking with little reward at the end.

All this, of course, could be a highly intelligent comment on gaming itself; we find ourselves alone rather than together, continue watching despite repetition and find meaning where there is none, just as we often do when sat playing our favourite platformer. But though the central conceit works and there’s lashings of theatricality, its execution can often be infuriating.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘gamer’ as such, but I’m still endlessly fascinated by the form’s pitfalls, potentials and possibilities, not least that of agency and autonomy. Through interaction, games often give us the impression that we can do what we like whilst actually guiding us down a very narrow path, making the tracks invisible even as we are pushed along them (Yes, you can make Mario bump into that Goomba time and time again, but after a while it’s going to get tiresome and you’ll never complete the game if you do).

This, unsurprisingly, is an idea The Roof considers, not least when a line suggests that “Our hero considers his agency” and our earphones (with a sound design by Dave Price) relay a sense that other audience members are chiming in with words of encouragement even though they’re not. More subtly than that, however, there are aspects of the central story itself which consider how we might ‘break’ systems of ‘play’ in order to work together in defiance of structures which pit individuals against one another; a moment repeated half a dozen times somehow takes on a new meaning when the players know how to use it to achieve a greater thing together.

It’s only a shame that a decision was made to make this into a love story. While it’s understandable that this is a piece which emulates and, to an extent, parodies, traditional video games (not least the Mario series, in which the hero saves the distressed Princess Peach), there’s a sense of disappointment that, just when you think this is going to be a piece about collaboration in the face of individualism and acting for moral rather than personal good, an unexpected air of romance is thrown into the mix. It feels like a bit of a cop-out, and leaves a bit of a strange taste in the mouth.

What is impressive about The Roof, however, is the sheer scale and choreography of the thing. Encircled by this ring of roofing and paraphernalia, you find yourself – as in gaming – trying to work out some of the mechanics which make it all tick. A highly disciplined company of performers leap, roll, dance, run, tiptoe, kick and punch with extraordinary gusto, timing every step so it’s in sync with (what sounds like) an un-cued soundtrack. There’s something amazing you discover about how our brain links what our eyes see and our ears hear to make a complete picture, and the team behind this project exploit that to its fullest potential.

But like when playing games, we find ourselves marvelling at the technical skill and visual beauty rather than considering the narrative and its meanings; ethics and audience seem to have been partly left by the wayside as energy is put into dazzling us.

Perhaps, then, what The Roof really suffers from is the fact that, fundamentally, video games aren’t much fun to watch. When you’re controlling that character and immersed in that world, you forget that watching people play games can be as boring as listening to your dad recite his favourite story for the fifteenth time – the initial thrill of direct experience disappeared a long time ago.

My Son & Heir

Lack of expectations can be a glorious thing.

Before seeing My Son & Heir, Search Party were not a company who had appeared on my radar, despite the fact they (from what I can tell) move in similar circles to those whose work I truly admire. Their first show – Growing Old with You – apparently features many similar themes as this show regarding modern parenthood, with a view to creating “a life-long series of performances Search Party are committed to making about ageing together”. After this show, I’m going to make it my mission to see every single one.

Pete and Jodie’s son was born at roughly the same time as Our Royal Baby-ness Prince George Of Fucking Cambridge. His parents are both theatre-artists struggling to make a living whilst navigating what it means to be a parent. George’s parents are two of the most powerful people in the country – don’t you dare suggest they’re not – with dozens of properties, millions of pounds and any number of people to call on for help with the parenting duties. My Son & Heir is the embodiment of the anger and frustration that dichotomy creates. It’s angry, it’s painful, it’s beautiful, and it almost made me wee myself with laughter.

It’s also one of the most damning attacks on the monarchy I’ve seen (arguably more so than King Charles III). And that’s without even mentioning them.

Instead, we get a series of images and allusions. At one end of a long beige carpet sits a throne. At the other end sits a TV, boxes of toys and a cardboard cut-out of Prince William and Kate Middleton, babe-in-arms. A DVD of the royal wedding is played (roughly quadrupling the amount of footage from that day that I had previously witnessed). A DVD of the Peppa Pig episode “The Queen” is played. That famous red jacket and That famous white dress make an appearance.

What makes this lack of direct allusion to the monarchy so terrifying is that it makes you realise just how much you – even as a staunch anti-monarchist – have allowed these signifiers to seep into your psyche, taking up important and valuable brain-space. Why the fuck should they be allowed to wrestle their iconography onto my consciousness? More importantly, why the fuck should we care about their fucking baby?

This final question is at the heart of My Son & Heir. Pete and Jodie take a humorous, faux-oppositional stance towards one another during the sixty-minute running time, starting right from the moment Pete gets angry at Jodie for not using the right swing-ball technique (a brilliant stand-in for childbirth, along with plenty of screaming) and continuing along a number of moments of genuine tension between the pair as they constantly attempt to undermine one another to the gathered audience.

What forms the crux of the show’s argument, however, are two toasts at either end of the show. In the first, as they slurp beer and pink lemonade, they make a toast to each other and their new baby, predicting what sort of a man he’s going to be, getting steadily preposterous as the drink flows. Then, later, after Wotsits and cake, another toast is made, this time a lot less hopeful and more bitter-sweet, especially after it’s been asked “How’s he going to play polo if he can’t even ride a bloody horse?”, thus humorously drawing attention to a deficit of opportunity. This time round, the toasts finish with a piece of almost poetic writing. Leaning down comically towards the tiny microphone, Jodie faces the now cloaked and crowned Pete and reads from a booklet, as if at a ritualised religious service like – say – a king’s coronation. This time, she is Kate talking to George about the people who made That Piece Of Theatre, repeating the mantra “There’s nothing for them” before calmly reminding her son: “It’s all yours”.

When put in those stark terms, you wonder why it’s taken us so long to erect the barricades.

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3 thoughts on “Mayfest 2014”

  1. Did you ever see ‘Love Letters Straight From Your Heart’ by Uninvited Guests (Produced by Fuel)? Your description of ‘I Wish I Was Lonely’s moment of connection reminded me of the stunning intimacy I felt among a group of strangers around the table in 2009, for the performance at Latitude Festival. At first the awkward invitees at an unspecified celebration, making nervous small-talk, we were united gradually through the touching ‘radio requests’ that we had previously submitted, and ended up on the dance floor together as new friends. There was a lot of love in the room. I want to ‘see’ it again now! But will certainly keep an eye out for IWIWL in its absence. 🙂

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