Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.

Spielpalast Cabaret ¦ Photo: Michael Heeney

Spielpalast Cabaret: Spielpalast Cabaret

Spielpalast Cabaret ¦ Photo: Michael Heeney

The Spielpalast Cabaret, who hail from Burlington, Vermont in the USA, are a troupe dedicated to restoring cabaret to its feisty, transgressive, gender-bending, political origins – referencing the bathtub gin of the Roaring 20s, the artistic rebellion of Dada, and the transgressive decadence of the Weimar Republic.

And how does this manifest? In a rip-roaring extravaganza of songs (Mack the Knife! And less predictably, Lilly the Pink!); dances – luscious ladies of all shapes and sizes in a lovely white-feathered fan dance, and a sexy-but-funny version of Tom Lehrer’s ‘Masochism Tango’; clown routines – a shoe puppetry piece kicks off proceedings; and live music from an excellent band made up of drums, double bass, violin and accordion. The band’s drummer (who, it must be admitted, I was predisposed to like as he had lent me a tenner when I arrived outside the venue in a cab, three minutes before the show’s start, with no cash on me. Having stepped outside for a quick fag break, he saw a damsel in distress and offered help unequivocally – and yes, dear reader, I did repay him!) was also an excellent clown, emerging from behind his kit to join the action on numerous occasions.

There’s saucy satire aplenty, particularly when it comes to sexual politics, with a storyline about a born-again Christian showgirl; and one about robot-women featuring a lovely automaton girl, described as the ‘perfect woman, hardly moves or speaks’; and an outrageous skit called ‘My Girl’s Pussy’ which features ladies with tails and whiskers emerging from other ladies’ – well, I’ll leave you to work it out.

On the animal costume front, there is also a very marvellous small person who is the White Rabbit: he doesn’t appear pulled from a top hat, but rather has a top hat pulled from him.

A word of praise also to the company for the thought that has gone into the whole aesthetic and presentation, with, for example, ‘cigarette girls’ prowling the bar pre-show selling very lovely mock-vintage postcards of voluptuous ladies (and gentlemen!), and I hear a special pre-show cocktail hour (although being in that late-running cab I missed that).

Despite being in the very lovely Hill Street Theatre, supported by Remarkable Arts, and at a perfect time slot for cabaret (at 10.45pm) the show didn’t have the audience numbers it deserved, although it was very well received. Perhaps they need to be in a more traditional cabaret rather than theatre setting? A Spiegeltent of course would be perfect for them!

And the show was only in Edinburgh for a short run, closing the day after I saw it. I worry that the company didn’t really get the exposure they so definitely deserve for one of the wittiest and prettiest cabaret shows I’ve seen in a long while.

I do hope – and saying this, I’m aware it is a long way to come, and they are a very large troupe – that they take the risk and return for a future Fringe!

Immerse Yourself

Leaving Edinburgh mid-fest is always a weird one. It doesn’t seem right somehow, and hard to imagine that it all carries on without you. But it does! It does! Just take a look at the reviews section and you’ll see what a busy bunch of bees the TT reviewers have been, swarming all over Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying a short blast of summer back in Brighton for a weekend of family birthdays – not to mention the Gay Pride celebrations, which are a reminder that theatre is everywhere, planned and unplanned. A favourite moment for me was witnessing a small line of people, stony-faced and resolute, standing in the middle of the cans-and-glitter strewed London Road bearing placards that said ‘You too can be born again,’ and ‘Jesus loves you and forgives you your sins’. They are surrounded by a ridiculously large number of policemen who are ‘protecting’ them, and then in an outer circle around the policemen are scores of singing and dancing men in pink tutus and tiaras. It’s Rio Carnival all over again!

But now it’s back to autumn in Edinburgh, with what the weatherman might call ‘squally rain showers’, a nippy wind, dark evenings, and the local kids back at school. Bye bye raw food Brighton and hello all-day-breakfast Edinburgh. Haggis, black pudding – bring it on!

Overheard in a café in the North Laine, Brighton:
Hippy in flip-flops: Did you hear the riots came to Brighton? Yeah – they took all the hummus…
Overheard in a café in Tollcross, Edinburgh:
Tourist: ‘Is there green tea?’
Waitress: ‘You want green tea? Are you kiddin’ me on?’

So – Edinburgh. Where was I? Ah yes, the wonderful Dance Marathon  (see previous blog and review), one of many interactive / immersive shows here at the Fringe. With a longterm interest in this sort of work (as both artist and critic), I usually hunt out what there is on offer here every August.

I’ll say first of all that it is, I know, an issue for many theatre companies making the sort of larger immersive/site responsive pieces that take over a whole building, that Edinburgh Fringe is just not considered ‘d0-able’. Punchdrunk, for example, have said that they can’t consider ever coming to the Edinburgh Fringe. All respect therefore to Zecora Ura for getting Hotel Medea off the ground, an all-night throughout-the-site immersive show at new venue Summerhall. But talking to them, I know that it hasn’t been easy. One company member told me that the first week of rehearsals had to be put aside for cleaning the place! But what seemed like an impossible task at first has paid dividends.

Dreamthinkspeak managed the almost-impossible a few years back with their wonderful Total Theatre Award-winning Don’t Look Back, set in the Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, Quite a feat as it was a working building, not an empty shell. 30 Bird Productions created a lovely piece, Plastic, in abandoned spaces underneath the Pleasance. And of course Edinburgh’s own Grid Iron have, for fifteen years now, been the leaders of the pack for Fringe site responsive / immersive works, with shows that I’ve seen including Those Eyes, That Mouth, set in a beautiful empty old house in the centre of New Town, and The Devil’s Larder, which took us on a performative tour of Debenhams on Princes Street. This year, Grid Iron are presenting What Remains? at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Anatomy, a sound-and-site led piece that is a showcase for the talents of composer David Paul Jones (see review).

Elsewhere, there is immersive and/or interactive work of a rather different sort. Il Pixel Rosso take the audience on a scary drive (all done with goggles and headphones) in And the Birds Fell From the Sky; and Me & the Machine bring two of their one-on-one filmic immersive pieces to Summerhall (including their TT Award shortlisted piece, When We Meet Again Introduced As Friends (pictured above). Also at Summerhall is the lovely Rotating in a Room of Images, by Lundahl and Seitl, in which the lone audience member is guided through a labyrinth of curtains by a disembodied voice, with interesting encounters along the way.

It’s a piece I saw previously at the BAC one-on-one festival, which also played host to the wonderful Adrian Howells, with The Pleasure of Being: Feeding, Washing, Holding – in which the audience member / participant is invited into a beautiful and sensuous environment of candles and rose petals, then lovingly washed, cradled and fed chocolate by Adrian. This piece is being presented in Edinburgh as part of the British Council Showcase, as is his new work, May I Have the Pleasure…? in which we are invited to join Adrian at a wedding reception for the last dance… I’m going tonight, and I can’t wait!

The thing I love most about Adrian Howells’ work is the loving care he takes of his audience. Other artists take a different approach. Ontroerend Goed, in new show Audience, prefer to provoke. My review – in which I expressed the view that although I have strongly supported earlier work by them, I feel that they have crossed a line into something morally unacceptable in Audience – seems to have provoked the company in turn. Well, it wouldn’t be Edinburgh without those controversies about morality and boundaries, I suppose. Last year it was Tim Crouch’s The Author (a show I whole-heartedly support as I feel the boundaries are in fact clear), the year before that it was also Ontroerend Goed with Internal (which I thought was the weakest part of the trilogy of small-scale interactive pieces they created, but nevertheless felt OK with), and the year before that was Badac subjecting its audience to a mock-Nazi-death-camp experience, with all sorts of artist/critic fisticuffs ensuing.

For those with an interest in immersive/interactive theatre, and the questions it raises about the artist/audience relationship, there’s a discussion at Forest Fringe thus Thursday, 18 August, ‘Interactivity in the age of the audience’ with panel speakers from Blast Theory, Hide & Seek, Lundahl and Seitl, New Media Scotland and guardian critic Lyn Gardner. The question on the table is: How can meaningful interaction with audiences truly respond to the choices and actions of its participants? It’s at the Forest Café, 3-4.30pm.

Other ongoing questions that might arise, and aren’t going to be answered easily: What is reasonable and acceptable in theatre? How far can an artist push the reality/fiction boundary? Do artists have a moral responsibility to care for and look after their audience? As audience, do we get a better understanding of something if our face is pushed into it, so that we come close to experience the emotion or experience portrayed, or is a bit of Brechtian alienation helpful in allowing us the space to reflect and make our own mind up?

Answers not on a postcard…  Your comments welcomed!

MetaMorpho: Devil in the Detail

MetaMorpho: Devil in the Detail

MetaMorpho: Devil in the Detail

MetaMorpho is the new company formed by writer and director Toby Wilsher, the co-founder and former director of what, for many years, was England’s leading mask theatre company, Trestle. MetaMorpho’s first production, Devil in the Detail, is a full-mask farce loosely based on a Victorian one-act play, Box and Cox which is itself based on a French ‘vaudeville’, Frisette.

You can understand why they’ve chosen it: it’s a classic farce with a storyline perfect for physical theatre. A wily landlady decides to make a fast buck by renting out a room with ‘double tenantry’: to a sharp-witted foxy guy who is out during the day and sleeps by night (‘the swindling accountant’) and a rather dreamy and moonish night-watchman, who returns to what he believes to be his room to sleep during the day. The buxom landlady and her floozy daughter therefore have to race around twice a day rearranging furniture and houseplants and knick-knacks, and changing over the sheets. Of course, things go terribly wrong, resulting in a whole Brian Rix-style banging of doors, fumbling under beds, mixing-up of drinks, and hiding in cupboards. Add into the mix a snake under the bed, a yapping dog, a family of mice, a wine bottle filled with poison, and a drug baroness looking for the accountant’s hidden loot, and you have a merry romp that (despite a few contemporary details) could easily have been created at any point over the past half-century.

This isn’t a criticism: I am not one for innovation for its own sake, and MetaMorpho are masters of the art of full-mask physical theatre. It’s a well-written piece, performed with great skill by a cast of five, which includes Trestle stalwarts Alan Riley, Sarah Thom, and James Greaves, plus puppet dog and snake. It’s a word-free piece, the action driven by the physical performance and by a feisty recorded soundtrack of Balkan beats, Marvin Gaye classics, and jazz piano (much of which is heard as if from the bedroom’s transistor radio, and which becomes symptomatic of the battle for the space).

The mask work is of course impeccable, and the puppetry is good too: the drugging of the puppet dog a lovely moment, as is the whole fandango around the mice in the vents, caught and fed to the snake…

There are a few things I feel a little uncomfortable with: I don’t understand why the white actors are (masked) playing characters of other ethnicities that seem a little stereotypical. We’ve moved on from actors blacking up to play Othello, so not sure what the justification was here in the mask character of a black drugs baroness? It seemed a little odd.

That aside, good to see Toby Wilsher up and running again in the UK after a long sojourn elsewhere. Devil in the Detail is perhaps not a piece that would be to everyone’s taste – it could be said that it is firmly within a mould established by Trestle rather than breaking new ground – but within the framework that it is choosing to work, it is a good, solid piece; an enjoyable hour or so’s entertainment. It won’t change the world, but I don’t think it aims to.

Nowhere to run

Sometimes the Edinburgh festival gets a bit suffocating. Whether it’s artistic differences, Fringe fatigue, illness or something worse, there’s no point suffering in silence. So here are some possible escape routes from the festival bubble.

First, the Spotlight promoters’ centres. These offer free Internet access and advice for performers. There’s one at the Pleasance Dome, near Brooke’s bar (where free tap water is provided with genuine good grace). And the main centre is in the plush surroundings of the Freemasons Hall in George Street, which during the Fringe becomes the New Town Theatre run by Universal Arts. The welcome is always friendly, and there are leather chairs and newspapers (coffee seems to have been a casualty of the era of austerity, but perhaps it’s better that way). Full details of their locations, seminars and one-to-one sessions are on the Spotlight website.

However, the promoters’ centres are also quite well-known, so offer planned and unplanned networking. On my first day, a girl pounced on my press release for Thirsty by The Paper Birds. ‘Was that good?’ She said, letting slip rather smugly that she was a staff writer for The Independent. The details of the conversation have now faded, but I was left feeling a little peeved. Last year I bumped into the crew from Mobius Industries, which was actually quite helpful for organising tickets and photos. And a BBC producer seemed to be working from the centre at the Pleasance this Friday, despite the fact that some of the Beeb’s infrastructure (such as their rather public display of crew-only catering in George Square) seemed intact.

Second, Edinburgh’s network of Victorian swimming pools. (For the record, I swim slowly, asphyxiating during front crawl and slipping behind the recommended time allocation of 35 seconds per length in the slow lane, let alone 25 seconds in the fast lane. But you can still get something out of it.)

Natalie Haynes, comedienne and cultural commentator, once told me that she went swimming every day during the festival. I was interviewing her several years ago, and felt a bit bad as she invited me to Soho House for a student feature. It suffered from (a) the fact that she speaks very fast and wittily, whereas my shorthand was embryonic and (b) the fact that the copy was slightly mauled so I didn’t really recognizs the published piece. Anyhow, at the time swimming every day seemed an indescribable luxury.

You do have to be careful with the timetables. I’ve turned up at the Royal Commonwealth Pool to find it’s closed for refurbishment. I’ve arrived at Warrender Swim Centre when it’s closed for staff training or recently twenty minutes before the pool was shut for clubs, only to pay about twenty pence a minute to swim. (This was after Thirsty last Monday, actually, and the man on reception did throw in the sauna too – I just wasn’t really sure how to use it.) And in previous years I’ve arrived at Dalry Swim Centre during the disabled session. Of course, organised people keeping afloat during the festival could check the Edinburgh Leisure website.

Third, Glasgow. Scotland’s second city remains remarkably impervious to the madness that is the Edinburgh festivals. Occasionally, you see an actor ordering a beer from the trolley service on the train back, or hear a director chatting late at night. The shuttle can get predictably overcrowded at weekends or be taken over by a jolly orchestra late at night. However, Glasgow is basically oblivious to the thespian shenanigans.

However, there is a catch… You can’t be at the festival and escape it at the same time. The horribly sensible advice that I read in a recent interview with Fringe Society trustee Alister O’Loughlin was to eat, sleep and WORK the festival for maximum returns. RealEscort ‘The enjoyment is in the work, and the people who get the most from attending the Fringe are the ones who are prepared to earn it,’ he said.

I am now approximately thirteen reviews, five blog entries, 25 trains, two two-hour meetings and a few wobbly moments into the festival. Despite working for free (or rather paid in the uncertain currency of free tickets), and this type of work not being considered ‘work’ but leisure by many people, I fear the disapproving suggestion by other participants that I am not ‘working’ hard enough. In 2009, I supposedly took an evening ‘off’ in Glasgow, only to go to a preview of The Last Witch by Rona Monro at the Citizens Theatre. To be honest, I have also been getting a little tired for swimming, though still have energy for another valedictory cliché (no offence Martha Reeves and the Vandellas). Perhaps there are plenty of places to run, but nowhere to hide.

If it’s Tuesday it must be Edinburgh…

So where was I? Ah yes, Stockton! Well, I left there Saturday, heading for the station with a friendly taxi driver who called me ‘pet’, caught a train to Darlington and learnt all about the footie from the Middlesborough supporters, just about made the connection at Darlington, arrived at Edinburgh Station 9pm and got transported through the rain-soaked city by a friendly taxi driver who called me ‘pal’. Picked up keys, found my flat, set off into the night in search of new venue Summerhall for the midnight-to-dawn show Hotel Medea. Arrived an hour early, and it all looked locked up, so rather than stand in the torrential rain for an hour went off in search of a fish tea and found ‘Edinburgh’s finest’, The Newington. Suitably nourished, headed off again and discovered that Summerhall wasn’t all locked up, I’d been trying to get in the wrong entrance. Oh, new venues, new venues – who knew?

Summerhall’s an old Veterinary College, part of the University of Edinburgh. It’s a wonderful building – dark wood panelling, tiled floors, grand staircases, and what seems like a hundred rooms big and small – although I hear that there had been a fair few problems getting it ready. I’m not sure if the rumours of the discovery of strange animal remains are true, but it’s a gruesome thought. But ready it is, and running a tightly curated programme, under Rupert Thomson’s direction, with the support of both BAC and the Demarco European Art Foundation. Much of the interesting experimental theatre, live art and installation work at this year’s Fringe is sited here, including companies/projects such as Quarantine, Action Hero, BiDiNG TiME, Little Bulb Theatre, Imitating the Dog, The Paper Cinema, Me and the Machine, Melanie Wilson, and Curious.  A pretty impressive line-up, no? Oh and of course Hotel Medea, the extraordinary night-long journey-theatre piece, from Brazil’s Zecora Ura in collaboration with the UK’s Persis Jade Maravala.

It was a fantastic experience, but maybe doing an all-nighter on my first night in Edinburgh was a little mad. With a Total Theatre Awards assessors meeting at 10am, there was little point in going to bed, and I got through Sunday on the kind of speedy high you sometimes get when you haven’t slept. A relatively easy day, though, with just two shows, both at the Traverse. It’s odd to think that just a few years ago I would hardly have passed through the doors of the Trav more than once or twice in the whole of August. Now I’m a regular.

The Traverse is ‘Scotland’s New Writing theatre’ but their definition of ‘new writing’ has expanded more and more over the years, and now the work programmed there is most definitely within Total Theatre’s territory (this years offerings include site-specific work by Grid Iron, an intimate encounter with Adrian Howells, and Tim Crouch’s latest). It’s also clear that the world of UK theatre is changing, opening up to a more ‘European’ approach. So what with one thing and another, the longstanding divide between ‘physical and devised theatre’ and ‘new writing’ seems to mean less and less these days. So, on the menu for my Sunday night is the Mark Ravenhill / Mark Almond collaborationTen Plagues, a song cycle composed by Conor Mitchell and staged by designer/director Stewart Laing; followed by The Golden Dragon, a play by a German playwright that has the look and feel of a devised/collaborative ‘poor theatre’ piece, although it has in fact been tightly scripted. Check the reviews linked above if you want to know more…

Monday morning, and what Bootworks director Rob Jude Daniels describes as ‘the Hotel Medea hangover’ has kicked in. I’m not quite sure how I get through the day, but somehow I manage to stay awake through my three-in-a-row shows at the New Town Theatre. New Town is another gorgeous building, and home to Universal Arts, a lovingly nurtured venue that boasts another curated niche within the mayhem that is the Fringe. The programme has a strong international element, with work from the USA, Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Poland, Brazil, and Hong Kong – as well as from England and Scotland. (I’ve noticed nobody uses the term UK in these parts).

So my three choices are an eclectic mix – with a kind of Italian theme running through. First is Turandot, by neTTheatre/Grupa Coincidentia from Poland. The show’s a Kantor-esque reflection on the life of Puccini and the making of his unfinished opera Turandot, a very lovely mix of high and low artforms. There’s hardly anyone in the audience, a great shame as it’s an interesting piece – although it must be said that they aren’t selling themselves well with their PR copy, which doesn’t really flag it up as a visual theatre piece. Later that day at the venue I have an interesting standing-in-a-queue conversation with Herald critic Mary Brennan, who feels that companies are making some odd decisions, for example by choosing not to place themselves in the Dance & Physical Theatre section of the Fringe brochure. I say that it is probably because they are trying to reach as wide an audience as possible, but she points out, quite sensibly, that the problem with that is that those of us actively seeking out physical and visual theatre pieces to see and support are struggling to identify them in the great big mulch of information that is the Theatre section.

The second New Town show I see is Snails and Ketchup, a circus/physical theatre piece produced under the auspices of Made in Scotland, another curated programme within the Fringe, although in this case it’s a kind of showcase of Scottish talent flagged up in its own little brochure, rather than something linked to one particular venue. Good to see some wordless theatre on show at the Fringe! There does seem to be a fair bit of circus or circus-related work around this year… The Italian connection here is that this piece is inspired by Italo Calvino’s story The Baron in the Trees.

So third and last is Company XIV from the USA with Pinocchio: A Fantasy of Pleasures, a baroque ballet with music hall tendencies. The Italian connection here is obvious! But just to cement it, there’s a Venetian Carnival theme to the piece…

So that was New Town Theatre, but the night was not done. To wind it up was Ontroerend Goed’s latest, Audience. Well, this company seem to court controversy (the Fringe before last it was all around their speed-date show,Internal, pushing personal boundaries) but this time they’ve gone for the jugular. No doubt the show will be a big talking point of this festival, but for me it was a step too far.

So, Tuesday, sunshine! – although a chill wind. Another assessors meeting. A walk across The Meadows. A whimsical and charming dance-theatre piece,Agnes and Walter, at Zoo Southside – a venue that every August produces a solid programme of good work, much of it dance and physical theatre. Great to see good audience numbers – but Zoo Venues have put in the groundwork over the years, so now deservedly reap the benefits. A trip to Leith on the Fringe for another circus-theatre piece, This Twisted Tale, by the rather marvellously named Paper Doll Militia. And finally, to the Traverse again, for Dance Marathon. It’s four hours long, and inspired by the marathon contests of the 1920s and 30s. You remember the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Well, that was us. I had a great evening – and I reached the semi-final with my new dance partner Ewan, who I met at the start of the show. High five, Ewan!

So three days in Edinburgh that begin and end with a marathon… Once upon a time going to the theatre meant a chance to doze off for a while in a nice cosy dark room. Now it’s dance shoes at the ready and off we go… but I’m not complaining, I wouldn’t want it any other way.