Tag Archives: gender

“Blurred Lines”

created by Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell

at The Shed, Monday 27th January 2014

*The show features some mainstream songs which are all questionable in their representations of women. As a kind of counterbalance to this, I’ve popped in a few alternative tracks*

-Also, spoilers-

Blurred Lines begins and ends with a look at the ‘industry’ of which it is a part. At the top of the show, the cast of eight women recite a list of casting breakdowns which all boil down to stereotypes. The tone and repetition is borderline ritualistic, as if this stuff is so ingrained and accepted that the types can be summoned at will, like a seance for female character clichés. In a riotously funny coda at the other end of the show, the world of theatre itself is shown to be just as much a part of the problem as anything else. Continue reading “Blurred Lines”

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“Motherland” by Vincent Dance Theatre

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 20th November 2012

I always feel the need to begin my reviews of dance pieces with a disclaimer that I know very little about the tropes, traditions, history and techniques of dance. It’s true that one can always have a connection with any piece of art regardless of prior knowledge, but then as a cultural commentator your job – to put it into some kind of context and discuss the ways it works etc. – may be made more difficult by ignorance. This is why I went armed toWarwick Arts Centre with a notepad last night (normally I just watch and listen, preferring to take notes afterwards): in an attempt to widen my limited knowledge of the genre.

The thing about Vincent Dance Theatre’s Motherland, however, is that it’s just as much theatre as it is dance. Structured as a series of vignettes, there are just as many mime, music and image-based sections as there are dance ones. Were we on the continent, Motherland may way be placed under the genre of “theatre”. As things stand on our text-obsessed island, however, we seem scared to talk about this as anything but “dance”.

The piece, directed and choreographed by Charlotte Vincent, is an unashamedly feminist show which attempts to blow open gender stereotypes by satirising our current views of gender, thus exposing the ridiculousness of our archaic perceptions. Some (conservative, reactionary, ridiculous) individuals may suggest that this debate is over (they are wrong) whilst others (who are slightly less ignorant) might oppose the rather overt message which this show exerts. My own opinion on the matter is that we cannot stop being clear about changing what remains a grossly sexist society, and that the subtleties and nuances in Motherland add to and extend the debate.

On a simple, bright white set, five women and five men create a series of repeated images throughout the show. The clearest sees performer Aurora Lubos walk to the back of the stage with a bottle of wine, which she then opens and jerks towards the clean white backdrop. A gloop of thick dark red liquid spurts out onto the wall and the bottle is put down. She then hitches up her skirt and sits against the wall with her legs apart, the red liquid visible between her legs. This is repeated five terms throughout the show, each with a slightly different soundtrack which becomes more discordant as the two-hour show progresses.

On the opposite side of the stage, down stage right, soil is dumped at regular intervals (normally after the image described above). Various performers interact with the dirt (standing, writhing, falling), and within the first fifteen minutes of the piece, a fertility ritual is performed on top of it by men and women, imbuing it with the hope of life to a rich folk song. It is not until the last fifteen minutes, however, that we really see life spring out of this dead earth, as mounds of grass begin to be brought onto stage, injecting bright colour into the previously black, brown, red and white palette.

A regular motif is that of falling – fallen women and fallen men spring to mind – and each section contains some kind of struggle (for life, for death, for love). Whilst many of the more theatrical sequences consider an intellectual, emotional struggle, dance is used to embody a physical struggle, which becomes more and more frequent as the piece continues. One of the best moments of dance sees two men attempting to stop the self-expression of another, followed by a dance verging in the sublime between a man and a woman, suggesting, perhaps, that with mutual respect, men and women can live together in harmony (I always feel when saying statements like this that I may be guilty of the sexism I purport to detest so much, so apologies if that is the case; I’m a little ignorant on these matters so please forgive me).

There are two stand-out moments which aren’t repeated at all and stand alone as rather beautiful pieces of theatre. My favourite is a simple song played by three of the female performers (and sung by the gorgeously dry Patrycja Kujawska) in their underwear about the hundreds of choices that women have to make on a daily basis. They have to seem like both “a virgin and a whore”, “easy but not too easy”, “keen but not too keen”. It’s a bleakly comic view of the modern world, and seems to pastiche – consciously or otherwise – Katy Perry’s Hot n Cold. In another, two musicians stand centre stage playing guitars, as the other performers run in circles, placing wooden boxes to form a ring around them. This race between men and women produces a girl, just shy of her teens, finding herself holding a pair of stilettos, which she proceeds to put on. She totters around the circle as the adults overtake her before two men lift her onto the boxes themselves, picking her up at intervals so she floats around the ‘O’. As quickly as the circle appeared, it has vanished.

If there’s any through-line of action it’s that of this girl. She is our window into this world, and her child-like vision allows the absurdity of the struggles we are watching to become clear. She sees older women looking at themselves in mirrors and copies them. She tries to dance like grown ups. She watches in horror as adults do unspeakable things to one another. If there’s one straightforward message in Motherland it’s this: “Look what we’re doing to our children! We’re fucking them up and it needs to stop”.

“Monkey Bars” by Chris Goode

at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 5th October 2012

Ok, I admit it. I’ve hardly started my attempts at New Criticism very well. Granted, the proof of that metaphorical pudding will be in its eating, but I should have probably attempted to turn up to the first show post-epiphany sober, free-thinking and awake. I was none of these things. Following a manic few days and an evening enjoying drinks and chats with new members of the Warwick Drama gang, my mind fizzing and buzzing with fresh energy and exciting ideas (and the remnants of a discussion about the next Artistic Director of the National), I was probably not in the best position to be viewing and critically responding to Chris Goode’s Monkey Bars. Nonetheless, in order to attempt to regain a modicum of professionalism, the piece has been reread this morning and following some note scribbling, I’m now better positioned to get some words typed up.

I guess, in a way, I straddle the line between Goode’s broad suggestions of what it means to be an “adult” and a “child”, in that I am considered old enough to make my own choices and take responsibility, but, by and large, I am not listened to or considered by society. Until we buy into establishment ideals and become self-interested consumers, we are not seen as “fully functioning” and are described variously as “leeches”, “lazy” and “idealistic”. Monkey Bars, therefore (which takes children’s conversations verbatim and puts them in the mouths of adults), speaks to me as both subject and object. The overall effect is one of charm and joy, but beneath the warm exterior there are some darker themes and a bubbling anger.

Of particular interest is Goode’s decision to have the actors speak not in children’s voices but as themselves, which does a few things. First, it makes the words the focus. In a world which throws images and emotions at children constantly, this forces us to listen to what’s being said rather than how. True, we laugh at the content and the multiple uses of the word “like”, but fundamentally the words are of paramount importance. I’d be interested to hear the original recordings to see how much intonation has changed in performance. My guess would be that Goode has allowed actors a bit of freedom to change inflection (or at least more freedom than, say Alecky Blythe would give) so as to elucidate meaning and discover moments of comedy or poignancy. I say this due to the inclusion of a “job interview” scene, which sees a panel of children questioning another about what superhero she’d like to be. Here, the tone of the three interviewers is a little harsh, mimicking that of a panel of managers, including an aggressiveness I doubt was there in the real recording. Some may say this dilutes the impression given and to an extent changes the meaning of what’s being said, but it goes back to the idea that the words are key.

The choice to have the company speak as adults was, I imagine, hardly a difficult one for Goode, for to do that would be nigh-on suicidal. It’s true that, as one child says, adults are louder and so get listened to more. Doing this gives the words a gravitas which they wouldn’t have if the actors mimicked a child’s voice. We as an audience have to interrogate why this happens, and come to the startling conclusion that it is not, as we’d like to believe, about the content, but about all our prejudices which float around this.

Naomi Dawson’s design also straddles the gap between mature and playful. A green mat could be both turf and a playground floor simultaneously, whilst pouffe-sized illuminated white cubes references modern designer living and play dens. They shine throughout, as during the darkened scene changes they look like bright Tetris shapes floating in the dark, rearranging themselves into their next image. At the beginning of the piece, the six actors come onto stage in white shirts and black trousers, and it seems a school-child look has been opted for, but as soon as they don black business jackets, the line is once again blurred. The situations in which they find themselves – a smart bar, a fine restaurant – are therefore not incongruous with the characters they are playing.

Though Goode is not doing anything blatantly political, there’s something extremely subversive about Monkey Bars, essentially suggesting that if we listened to children (and those with childish ideas) more, we may progress more as a nation. At one point, it is suggested that wars should be stopped (“game over”) and at another one boy gives a pretty watertight argument against the monarchy. More than that, however, the production asks why we differentiate between these ideas arbitrarily, and why someone like, say, David Cameron, is given more credence with his pig-headed and regressive ideas than a child who just wants to play. One thing which is often said of artists is that we (they) stay as children forever, never failing to question and inquire, constantly wishing to play and following a determination to explore. It is artists who change things and shift ideas, and if it’s true that they are children, then it follows that children are artists. In our approach to public policy and government, then, there’s an implication in Monkey Bars that we should be more playful. We should be unafraid to make mistakes.

Alongside the political dimension in the very notion of listening to children, there is exploration here of the idea of prejudice. The children are asked to talk about gender and religion, demonstrating in these scenes just how much we condition our offspring to believe what we believe. It suggests a leaning towards nurture in the nature/nurture debate, as it’s clear these characters are just regurgitating the ideas of the adults around them. True, they’re only complaining that girls “kick weak” or that “boys are gross”, but its obvious the gender divide is already strongly entrenched at this young age.

I think it’s worth considering, too, the rise of (popular) verbatim theatre over the past few years, and its relation to Monkey Bars. I’ll try to find time to write about this more at some point, but my brain is currently wondering whether there’s a link between the popularisation of verbatim theatre and Zizek’s discussion of problems with The Real. Zizek argues that “The pursuit of the Real…equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle.” I.e, in attempting as a western capitalist society to become more in touch with an idea of “reality” which has become more and more difficult to attain and understand, we turn to staged events which feel extremely raw in order to regain this basic knowledge. In the case of verbatim theatre, therefore, we fool ourselves into thinking that what we are watching is perhaps more “real” that it actually is. On one hand, this makes the whole concept of this style of performance problematic, as it merely feeds an underlying inability to separate ‘the Real’ from ‘reality’. On the other hand, however, it helps us see that a sensory reality is able to be dissociated from an authentic truth through our awareness that what we are seeing on stage can never be the only way of showing events. I don’t quite know where Monkey Bars fits into all this, except that the dislocation of the children’s words and adult voices represents a similar kind of merging of realities which has been experienced since 9/11. As I say, it’s early days on what I think about this whole problem at the moment, but give me time to mull it over a bit longer and I’ll see what I can come up with.

These blends of reality and the Real, adult and child, playful and serious all give Monkey Bars its charming, semi-Brechtian feel. At every stage, we have to stop ourselves from allowing our minds to run away with ideas as we remember the words currently being spoken were articulated by a child who often feels like they’re not listened to. Goode and his company invite us to think about these experiences after the show, considering them in more depth, but whilst in the theatre we must listen. It’s the least we can do.

“Mies Julie”

after August Strindberg

at Assembly Mound, Tuesday 21st August 2012

To anyone who doesn’t believe classic texts should be modernised: go and see Mies Julie, Yael Farber’s post-apartheid resetting of Strindberg’s 1888 play. By updating the text and placing it in a modern South Africa, Farber and his team extrapolate the tensions in the play, transposing the theme of class for that of race, and in doing so create a gloriously acted, somewhat ethereal rendition of the play which speaks to a supposedly more equal world. This is why we fuck with plays.

Whereas Strindberg’s original cast Miss Julie and John as a white aristocrat’s daughter and poor labourer respectively, Farber’s version sees an Afrikaans woman and black man attempting to hold a discussion and reconcile their differences. They are both powerful in their way; Julie because she is white and John because he is a man, and this eternal power struggle manifests itself in raw, carnal ways.

If there’s anyone who comes out on top in Mies Julie, it is John, though that perhaps shows my own prejudices and beliefs. Even after Mandela’s rule, the natives of South Africa are still subjugated and demeaned by white leaders and wealthy businessmen after the cult of neoliberalism invaded the country, and though John’s actions are hardly excusable, he seems to be far more in touch with why he is angry.

The first half of the play is relatively slow, but as soon as Miss Julie and John realise their feelings for one another, the production picks up pace and features some horrifyingly brutal but raw moments. Bongile Mantsai’s John is a sturdy, grounded man who’s in-tune with how he feels about the world and has a clear sense of right and wrong. As his mother Christine, Thokozile Ntshinga allows some stability, and demonstrates the past generation’s inability to recognise the injustices in the world. Hilda Cronje’s Julie is a tour de force, both beguiling and cold, smart but naïve. Within her performance, she encapsulates both the guilt and righteousness of the white conqueror.

Though Farber’s production says a lot about the unequal, unfair modern South Africa, it also gives pause for thought about the potential sexism in Strindberg’s original; by transporting the play into a contemporary situation, the questionable aspects are exaggerated. Julie suggests that she needs John emotionally while he needs her socially, which though understandable is a little presumptuous and fails to recognise that they both need each other emotionally and socially. To suggest otherwise is to cast women as purely emotional and men purely cognitive, which is hardly a very twenty-first century attitude.

An ever-present soundtrack comes to life during moments of intensity, and a subtle lighting design accentuates the differences between Julie and John, using cold and warm states to suggest where our allegiance should lie. Mies Julie is an incredibly resonant and powerful piece, reminding us that even when we believe equality has been reached, there is always further to go. With a bit of tweaking, Strindberg is shown to be just as important now as 120 years ago, as Farber’s production presents a strong case to all those people who believe plays set in the past should stay in the past.

“Hotel Medea”

at the Hayward Gallery, Friday 3rd August 2012

Last night I dressed up as a woman. I also went to a rave, got treated like a terrorist, signed up to a cult and had very little sleep. Oh, and I died. Shame really, because up until then it was sounding like my average Friday night.* Now I write this, exhausted, drained and sleepy, trying to piece together what actually happened. Before we go on, a word of warning; if you’re planning on seeing Hotel Medea, watch it before reading this review.

One thing’s for sure: this is by no means a revolutionary piece of immersive theatre. The techniques have, on the most part, been pioneered elsewhere and sometimes don’t quite click (though a massive congratulations to the tech team, who do some pretty incredible stuff on this production). Our concentration on completing our allotted tasks often gets in the way of the performance, making it easy to miss crucial bits of information. There are also times (more towards the beginning of the evening) when it’s difficult to know what is required of us, and though I respect the company for asking us to find our own route, it feels like precious moments are wasted working out what to do which could be spent listening and talking.

Also, and here I have to be careful for fear of being misconstrued, the ensemble can often be found lacking. This isn’t to disparage their incredible stamina throughout this six-hour-long, all-night piece, but merely to say that some performances are a little too self aware for us to take them seriously. The show is at its best during the tongue-in-cheek moments, and I feel a little less earnestness wouldn’t take anything away from the overall feel. The cast are at their weakest during the first act, but find a better rhythm and style later in the night, as we start being told directly what to do and work up a rapport with the characters.

Ok, now onto the interesting bit. There are, broadly, three general themes to Hotel Medea, all of which are lifted directly from Euripides’ original and given a postmodern twist; colonialism, public vs private and gender, each of which, broadly, is represented by the three acts thought the night.

We enter a thriving, colourful, loud market in Brazil, and are immediately thrust into the ‘Zero Hour Market’ (compared by the wonderfully dry Jorge Lopes Ramos). One thing is on everyone’s mind: the golden fleece. Suddenly, the peace is broken by the arrival if Jason (James Turpin) and his argonauts, who proceed to demand the coveted artifact. Soon, we are found ensconced in dozens of ritualistic dances and ceremonies, and even if we initially stand stoic and cynical, the rhythms soon pulse through our bodies and without realising our bodies move. There is an almost hypnotic quality to this first act, for just as we feel the rituals are dragging we enter a stage of semi-consciousness. But it is Jason’s treatment of the natives which speaks to us most here, as we feel a taste of what it feels like to be overthrown and pillaged. The rituals are a kind of lifeline to this, allowing us to remember our humanity. And though Jason was painted as a hero in the original myth, where land changed hands regularly, in our post-colonial world it is far more sinister. The act concludes with the loud thumps of westernised music and flashing lights, blinding us to the horrors which are happening right by our side.

The second stage of the evening happens in three parts, each of which feeds into and enriches the others, highlighting how we are only compete when our public and private personas come together. Other than being put to sleep and sung to, we also share some of our thoughts on love with Medea’s nurse (Thelma Sharma) before the heroine discovers her husband’s infidelity and we join Jason on his campaign trail for elections. The reason why this section works so well is because we are allowed simply to soak up what is happening whilst still feeling involved. The satirical take on politics is also done with a wink by Jason’s assistant (Will Dickie); this kind of attention to detail wouldn’t seem out of place in The Thick Of It.

In the final section (which starts at about 4 in the morning after plenty of coffee), the gender questions Euripides raises are brought to the fore, as men and women become segregated (as they have done at times throughout the night). After the questionable presentation of women in the first two halves, the tables are turned as we men are told to put on a wig and lipstick and infiltrate the ladies’ club for signs of witchcraft. Now we are Medea’s chorus, and shortly after we feel how it is to be terrorized for our sex; rather than just argue that men are to blame, this post-feminist interpretation of the myth suggests that a corrupt society is to blame and every single one of us is implicated in this subjugation.

The final moments see a reversion to play and childhood, as we run for our lives away from Medea (in these scenes, Persis-Jade Marvala is wonderful). Chosen as one of her two children, I was then treated to a semi-transcendent episode in which I was told through an earpiece, that I was dying, whilst my body became a shrine. Perhaps the lack of sleep is partly responsible, but these moments take on a particular piquancy after the noise and complexities of the previous six hours, suggesting we need to find ways to revert to childish innocence in order to create a more peaceful society.

I think it’s right to experience Hotel Medea with an ever-present smirk, for to take the piece too seriously would deny it its fictionality and not do justice to the sheer performance of the whole thing. And whilst many would argue that participating in the lives of Jason and Medea as something other than audience members makes our viewpoint more subjective and individual, the beauty of Hotel Medea is that we are forced to step into the shoes of everyone in the story, thus allowing us to have even more of an objective viewpoint that Euripides himself.

*That’s a joke, by the way. I would never go to a rave.