Site-specific Theatre at Brighton Festival

Feature in Issue 19-3 | Autumn 2007

Brighton Festival has over the past few years dedicated itself to presenting site specific work as a key element of the festival, often very successfully – but I do wish they would stop bandying the term ‘site specific’ around with such gay abandon!

Example: Neil Bartlett’s new translation of Genet’s The Maids is sold as ‘a site specific staging’. This is palpable nonsense. It is staged in an attic room in the Old Ship Hotel, but if setting something in a space not usually a theatre makes something site specific, then 90% of the shows in the Edinburgh Fringe could be classified thus. It’s a good translation, the staging is attractive (I like the way the audience is placed in traverse, either side of the stage area, so that we stare into the eyes of our opposite numbers), Jonathan Swain’s faded-glamour design of strewn flower petals, bare light bulbs and metal beds is beautiful. But it is, when it comes down to it, just a competent version of a well-known play. My main gripe with the production is the gimmicky decision to have the three performers (Kathryn Hunter, Hayley Carmichael and Geraldine Alexander) swap roles each night. Why? Unlike Genet’s original staging instruction (which was to have the three female characters played by men to emphasise the meta-theatricality of the piece, the playing of the plays within the play), Bartlett’s wheeze is a conceptual idea never really experienced by the audience as anything other than a programme note –unless I suppose you see it nine times in order to witness all the possible permutations. On the night I was there, Hunter was a magnificent Madame, Carmichael an engaging Claire, and Alexander a somewhat hesitant Solange, with a number of noticeable line fluffs that put me in that horribly nervous state as an audience member, where you are worrying for a performer like an anxious mother at a school play.

Two different productions used the notion of audience as attendees at a conference. First up, Suspect Culture’s Futurology: A Global Revue, produced in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland. What can I say? Years of experience, loads of dosh, nine (nine!) associate directors, lots of highly competent performers. But politically naïve, an awful script, a very passé idea of characters bursting into cringe-worthy musical numbers (Nigel Charnock ten years ago, and everyone else since) or doing variety acts instead of conference speeches (Shunt did this so much better in Dance Bear Dance). And the ‘audience taking part in a conference’ idea? An unfulfilled promise: once the audience get in, clutching a ‘delegate’s pack’ which is nothing more than a show programme, the premise is dropped and we sit through a couple of hours of fourth-wall-intact theatre that fails to inspire.

Hydrocracker’s The New World Order was a great deal better. Based on a fused quartet of short plays by Harold Pinter, it was set in Brighton Town Hall, the space used to maximum effect. We are led through marbled halls and up majestic staircases into the gilded glory that is the council Chambers, where we are seated, then greeted by a seductive and engaging speaker. There’s a moment of genuine theatrical surprise as the session reveals that some of us in the audience are not all that we appear to be. We are led into a boardroom, where we discover that the charismatic ‘leader’ is a 1984 O’Brien type character – as his victim is led into the room, to sit with us at a long mahogany table, we see that the smile curling his lips is that of a wolf. The fifteen minutes that follow are a brilliant enactment of intimidation and mental torture. It is a tribute to the skills of both actors, and the power of the setting (invited in as guests, sharing this table, we are placed as complicit witnesses), that I did actually feel an almost irrepressible urge to intervene, and thus end it all here and now. There follows a series of scenes set throughout the building that become ever more harrowing in their stark depiction of the horrors of oppression and torture. It’s a brilliant piece of political polemic – a kind of living advertisement for Amnesty. But as a piece of theatre? Well, I suppose that depends on what you think theatre should be. It’s hard to fault it on the terms and conditions it sets itself: to be politically hard-hitting and to use the Town Hall effectively to this purpose (‘this happens here, now, is sanctioned by our political leaders’, is the unspoken message). The acting is superb, every detail of the production – including the use of the ushers/security guards and the manoeuvring of people around the space – well thought through. But to play Devil’s Advocate: is this enough? If there is nothing that happens in a theatre production that couldn’t be predicted from the first twenty minutes, is that OK? And is there any point in preaching to the converted? The jury’s out.

So finally to PlayRec. Commissioned by Zap Art, this is a vast outdoor installation-performance created by French company KompleX KapharnauM who describe themselves (fairly enough it seems) as ‘archaeologists of the 21st-century’. It occupies the whole length of a narrow high-walled street that backs on to Brighton Station, a space that provides a wonderful location for a work which includes still and moving image projections, animated sculptures, graffiti writers and stencillers creating instant street art, live music and sound art, and even a trampolinist whose body casts magnificent shadows on the walls. The ‘text’ of the piece is the history of the very space that we are occupying, once the site for the Isetta Bubble Car factory (at one point an original bubble car appears from one of the railway arches and drives slowly through the space!). The company take their time with this two hour piece: the first twenty minutes is very low key, basically a few projections which are ‘talking head’ verbatim accounts of life in the factory, and other site-related stories (its previous use as a locomotive works; battles of local residents against a new hypermarket). The show builds and builds as layer upon layer of visual and aural effects and physical actions emerge, merge and mulch into a city symphony of sound and light. It is a feast for the senses but never merely sensational. There are marvellous things to discover as you wander up and down the street. An automated junk sculpture with a dismembered umbrella at its heart becomes a ‘screen’ for projection, the film catching itself on the umbrella spokes, turning the image of a talking man into a ghost in the air; a film at one end of the street showing the construction of a miniature paper car turns out to be really happening at the other end, a camera relaying the action to screen with live feed video. I stand admiring the carefully constructed soundscape as I watch giant human silhouettes bound along the wall, then as I progress further down the street realise that what I had taken to be a pre-recorded soundtrack is in fact being made by laptop musicians working with the street sounds and the clanking trains and blowing whistles from the neighbouring station, the sounds then merging with the saxophones and guitars of the ‘real instrument’ musicians. Meanwhile, figures in white overalls haul ladders along the length of the street, continuing with their mission to cover every available space with screen-printed posters and stencilled and spray-painted statements.

So it is a theatre of effects and images, but it is also a political theatre, yet devoid of the polemic of New World Order: we reach our own conclusions – on the loss of community, capitalism versus socialism, the oppression of heavy labour, the power of positive action, the need to reclaim public space – by absorbing the many reflections and evocations of these thoughts. Perhaps, as one audience member said afterwards, it is a shame that we have to rely on a French company to show us our own history. But maybe that’s how it often is: the eye of the outsider, the archaeologist who unearths the hidden treasures. To me, it feels like a beautiful tribute to Brighton, and a marvellous artistic exploration of a site that holds an enormous repository of memories. Site specific indeed.

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Issue 19-3
p. 30 - 31