Though I am not the target audience for this, I soon became it, tuned into a youthful frenzied display of the almost indescribable. The Christeene Machine, marketed as ‘a gender-blending booty-pounding perversion of punk dragged through a musical theatre gutter’ is a journey into a liminal space that is abject and transforming. I want to talk about it as art rather than the music gig it might simply be. Here we have a clever assemblage of rap, electro-R&B, a kitsch long-lost love song, rock anthems, political ragings, and a very funny ironic number I Am The New Celebrity. All laced together with a beautiful positioning of the performer with the audience: one that threatens but ultimately loves you and reassures you that everything is okay, apart from if you leave prematurely and noisily in which case you can ‘Fuck off’ because ‘you need to look after your pony better.’ Herein is one fundamental theme – the inner creative flame that burns in each of us and is brightest within us as children. The Christeene Machine is fuel for this flame and an intelligent challenge to those of us who might want to remain too safely inside the box, never wishing to venture back into the deep dark woods of teenage exploration. The Delilah that is Christeene and his/her two cohorts C Baby and T Gravel are terrifically exciting performers of epic proportions. It’s exhilarating to witness their home–made hickster parade.
The Christeene Machine might be read as a play on the notion of the transforming and redemptive power of the sage, shaman, soothsayer, or a kind of positive child-catcher and, dare I say, Christ figure. We are the children or teens who have followed this crazy Pied Piper into the underworld rivers that s/he describes: that place deep down, under there, below where the green man on the exit sign sends you, in the ‘underneath’, both of the body and of the Underbelly. This is powerfully playful rite-of-passage stuff. It is a challenge to technocrats and capitalists, who, as Christeene from Austin Texas rages, have lost touch with themselves. Christeene, in amongst the stories and demonstrations of his/her own galloping pony, berates those up above, chained to their mobile devices and unable to experience the skin of the person next to them. Here we are in what I would call the underworld of folklore with creatures that can see the folly that humans are blind to.
This Dionysian rampant riot is a challenge to consumerism and an overt reclamation of the right of the artist to channel the pathological into creative excessive expression, a theme that has pervaded the festival in the five days I have been writing about work I have seen. Great stuff.
The Christeene Machine is shortlisted for the Total Theatre Awards 2014 for Experimentation & Innovation.
The Pulitzer prize-winning poet Anne Sexton was abused by her father, unloved by her mother and sexually exploited by her therapist, all of which probably contributed to her depression and ultimate suicide in 1974. This we learn through the unsettling work God Is In My Typewriter. Grim stuff. Performer Anna Mari Laulumaa from Finland presents in two main styles in this piece: an entrance-exit motif derived from Butoh movement, bookending a psycho-physical/naturalistic performance for the main body of the work.
A pink-frocked woman makes a slow Kabuki-like entrance rising on tiptoes and descending to the floor, demonstrating great core control, then breaks into a more daily and drugged state flopped over a typewriter. She is desperate. It is her suicide day. She is dead. Then she begins to tell you her life story. We hear about Sexton’s fraught childhood starved of attention and her dawning adolescence which reveals an inexplicably insatiable sexual appetite, a violent marriage fuelled by alcohol and infidelity, and the aversion she has to being controlled by the people closest to her – her parents, her husband, and her children Linda and Joyce, the latter named thus because Anne could then call her ‘Joy’. There was no joy in Sexton’s life. There was frustration, exploitation, abuse, depression, confusion, and a sense of inconsequence. Her first therapist introduces her to poetry because her psychological assessment deems her creative. The poetry becomes a tonic, but ultimately creativity is not her cure. Following divorce from an apparently long-suffering husband, she kills herself leaving behind Linda, a child whom she would speak to from the grave. We don’t know what happens to Joyce. It seems Laulumaa has connected to the daughter Linda through the process of devising the piece.
Otherwise, there is no joy in this show, though there is frequently an expression of the thrill and promise of a potential lover. Ultimately it is a work about depression and Laulumaa, so clearly attached to her material, performs it with sincerity and heartfelt empathy for her subject. There is some strong physicality here and she is able to embody the fragility of the psyche she is investigating. Yet there seemed to be aspects of this life that were missing as material to give air to the personality and to allow other perspectives on characters and story. I wondered about Anne’s friend, Maxine: this was an important character expressed through one or two lines only and this did not seem enough. One subtle touch was the way Laulumaa shunted her chair from left to right as the piece progressed, to indicate her awkward progression through Anne’s painful historical timeline. However other props, such as the cuddly toys she used to represent her children and husband seemed ill-considered from a design perspective, lacking the distinctiveness of Laulumaa’s costume, a well chosen pink dress that was both historically appropriate and evoked both the troubled child and the party going prize-winner. On balance, this was a convincing and strong solo performance demonstrating physical commitment and some skill.
Invisible Walls, performed by Kosovan company Teatri ODA, is an affecting piece of physical theatre resembling an applied form of theatre-in-education that was particularly prevalent in the eighties and early nineties. It is performed outside, and the Soviet-style towering buildings which make up the Summerhall courtyard space act as walls around the audience at the beginning. Here we fill in passports, which double up as programmes containing the stories of the performers’ experiences of entrapment during the Kosovan conflict, and their subsequent frustration and aspirations, as would-be refugees and migrants from that country. The short journey from passport control to the entrance into the performance area brings the audience to a tight circular space surrounded by linked banners. Whilst the overall sense of the piece is absolutely poor theatre – minimal everything – the print work within the programme and the backdrop within the piece are given special attention, resembling commissioned graphic art works.
The piece seems an ideal pop-up performance for touring and public spaces and it is told with simplicity in the language of movement, folk song and dance, together with a simple use of objects and storytelling. Invisible Walls draws you in. The audience are cast as a clutch of disorientated people visiting ‘our country’ (Kosovo) and bewitched by the singing, dancing, and warm welcome from the actors.
All the performances were assured and passionate and one felt a strong sense of authenticity and personal contribution within the material. And Fringe festival participants are willing to play: they enthusiastically join in the harmless rituals of interaction and dancing and are willing to help the performers tell their story. But here the history intimated in the passports and the potential for deeper participation ends. Unfortunately the short duration of the piece, 30 minutes, allows no possibility for a dramatic climax or sense of deeper connection beyond that emoted through repetition and simple insistent refrains. Phrases such as ‘Have you seen my brother?’ and ‘Who cracked the bottle?’ in multiple languages are dovetailed with moving song, but the limitations of language and suggestive storytelling compel us simply to witness these snippets and gestures about social fragmentation and incarceration.
So how might this go further and take you more deeply into what feels like its ambition to empathise with these situations of disenfranchisement? Unless you read the passport stories carefully before the show you may miss much of the detail because of the literal and sketched style of presentation. Designed for public spaces the short and easily portable piece must be a gift for towns and cities seeking a festival piece that concerns itself with the challenges of territory, identity and homeland.
Kiln (formerly Kindle Theatre) are making great strides in experimentation with sound and vocal scores and the vision is potentially terrific. It takes time to ferment the fulfilment of the vision and maybe the Edinburgh run for these two shows is too exposing and too soon. Both shows come with haunting vocal scores. Aspiring music theatre pieces The Furies, a rendering of the story of angry Clytemnestra, and Lady GoGo Goch, an homage to Welsh women both mythical and real, deliver virtuosity of musicianship alongside promising physical imagery. Cleverly KILN have engaged the accomplished services of musicians of some quality that give weight to their skeletal works. Yet, ultimately both pieces compelled me, reluctantly, to ask for a clearer narrative. What are you telling me? What can I do about what you are telling me?
The Furies takes the form of a rock concert and perhaps this is where it might delve deeper. We are invited into the ‘gig’ by a male slave/usher/roadie who gives a brief wink to our processing with a ticket inspection. There is a brief exchange as we enter a room of dry ice and the sound of witch-like voices. There’s a big build up, as you get at a rock concert prior to the entrance of the headlining band. The three performers enter, their howling voices preceding their provocative bodies: one in a blonde wig, one that seems derived from Kabuki theatre and one more shamanic with a black wig and eagle feathers undercut by gaffer tape over her nipples. They all purvey different energies but we don’t get their names, rather, like the Witches in Macbeth, it’s one, two and three. Then ensues a series of numbers punctuated by inaudible text fragments, which pursue the rock concert territory. It’s physical, loud and not quite hitting its mark but its beginning is exciting and enticing and the musical strains are charged. The Kabuki character with the amazing voice has been wronged by her man and her sidekicks want to do something about it. The other two engage in a transient inaudible conversation about comforting her. There is one poignant solo moment when the one in the blonde wig sings a fragile song that seems to portray some kind of brokenness but she has her back to us so the full feeling eludes us and again we don’t quite get the ‘why’.
KILN seem to be playing with the avoidance of narrative, which is clear from the refusal to go there in this piece and, likewise, in Lady GoGo Goch. The Furies ends with the roadie/usher/slave helping the creatures off their perch – the central of the three platforms they have been flitting between throughout.
It will be exciting to see how KILN use their male musicians to further these pieces within the musical form and if they bravely decide to dramatically integrate them within the fabric of the work to do justice to the threads of undeveloped ideas inhabiting both pieces. The work pulsates with promise but the ultimate feeling is a void. How can Lady GoGo Goch coax from her Welsh ladies a reclamation of an identity for Welsh women, especially at this moment and here in Edinburgh in the shadow of a potential Scottish independence? How can The Furies urge action within a world that is fraught with conflict? What are the political outcomes and resolutions of the forked tongue, an affectingly poignant image towards the end of Lady GoGo Goch that has potential to neatly outline the elusive sense of the foreign-speaking Briton? And if we finally share the anger of The Furies what can we do about it?
This piece from Frank Wurzinger, directed by the deft hand of stalwart John Wright, is as much a joy as it is a jesting tragedy. Being drawn into the world of Frank Wurzinger’s passionate and foolhardy attempt to perform his play for us warts and all is a delightful journey into collapse – the collapse of the failing clown and the collapse of the failing body and mind of his fictitious character.
Günther Obermeier is an endearing office worker from Bavaria suffering from a serious illness that General P (Günther’s useless GP) can’t even tell him about properly. Both Frank and Günther love life but this life is slowly petering away – for Günther has only ten days before his brain collapses and he will be dead. So he changes his telephone answer machine message to a garbled collection of euphemisms, including that he has gone away to a better place.
Absolutely not morbid at all, the piece plays within the playing, brimming with trips, turns, and slips-ups in language both physical and verbal. The intelligence of his performance draws the audience into the palm of Wurzinger’s hand. Even though often spoken in gibberish, you know exactly what Günther means. It’s a language in which you can fill in the blanks because of the huge goodwill you have toward the character. At the same time its ambiguity allows Günther to draw us into intimate reflections on bowel movements or to lean inwards to listen to his tiny musical box playing a version of Yesterday.
Günther is a fan of Cliff Richard. It doesn’t make him gay, he roars: ‘Some people happen to like Cliff Richard, in fact you people who use your thingies’ – he gestures a mobile device, something which has obviously passed him by – ‘it all comes from Cliff Richard. Some people like Cliff Richard so why don’t you just get over it!’ These sudden outbursts and chunterings carry on as he, his set, his story, his pet fish Michelle, and the integrity of his technician collapse before our eyes.
The most successful moments come when he follows an idea through, such as spilling his pills only after we have carefully chorused the name of each day on his supposedly idiot-proof pill pack. Here pedantry pays off and is richer than bluster. We are caught up in his hilarious rapturous pacts with every God-head as he faces death. Then you realise it’s where we are all going, along the lonely path to death – in his case a dog-training tunnel with sharp metal bits that hurt. Wurtzinger handles audience interaction gracefully, dealing with a light heckle from a very elderly audience member who claims to be ‘already dead’ by turning the phrase into a useful call-back. The show resonates with current public deliberations on euthanasia and our vain desire for a dignified death. Goodbye Günther and Günther’s death are anything but dignified but they are very, very funny for all that.