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.

Stockton, Stockton!

‘If Stockton can’t come to Las Vegas, Las Vegas can come to Stockton!’ So says Johnny, star of Johnny’s Stuntshow, who’s revving up the Friday night crowd here in Market Square – the epicentre of the Stockton International Riverside Festival. Well, more than that: the epicentre of Stockton – apparently there’s been a market on this site since the 14th century.

Stockton-on-Tees, in case you don’t know it, is a northern town not too far from Newcastle that was once at the heartland of the British industrial revolution: the Stockton and Darlington Railway was the world’s first regular rail route – Stephenson’s Rocket pulling the carriages that ferried coal miners back and forth daily. Nowadays, Stockton is fighting to survive: its castle has gone (replaced by the Castlegate Shopping Centre), and there’s little in the way of work. The railway station is hardly used. An empty waiting room boasts a sign warning that ‘drunken revellers from Middlesborough, Thornaby and Yarm’ will not be tolerated.

Yet the place is far less gloomy than I’d pictured it: yes, there’s drab call centres (just about the only local industry nowadays) and rows of boarded-up shops – but there’s also the prettily-lit Millennium Bridge across the Tees, some nice old waterfront buildings, and a bustling high street (well, two High Streets, but that’s another story) that seems to specialise in jewellery shops. There’s a surfeit of old-fashioned barber shops – the red-fronted, gilt-signed Paul Henry’s is the prettiest – and although there’s the usual identikit coffee companies and a depressingly large drive-in Burger King, there are also proper tea rooms, and plenty of independent and resolutely down-to-earth eateries with names like Tommy Tuckers and Barnacles. There’s also pubs a-plenty: the coiffed and lip-glossed ladies of the town frequent Georgia Browns, whereas The Stag, whilst not actually boasting a ‘men only’ sign, might just as well, as it’s frequented exclusively by elderly male drinkers in threadbare pullovers and dingy grey trousers who peer out through nicotine-stained nets. Of course nowadays they have to sit outside to smoke, so there’s always a park-bench-full of gents staring gloomily over at the street arts shenanigans across the road in Market Square.

Which is where, on this balmy summer’s evening, the slightly podgy daredevil driver Johnny and a nameless lank-haired sidekick are strutting round inside a metal-fenced enclosure that has a rusty Ring of Fire construction in the middle, and a marquee to the side bearing the legend ‘Johnny Goes Olympia’.

The gathered crowd is mostly families and teenagers – Stockton may be the town that God forgot, but SIRF has been going for decades, so this is a street-arts-savvy audience, who twig pretty quickly that our two stuntmen (dressed in a hotch-potch of ill-fitting racing driver leathers) are not all they purport to be… They are, in fact, German street arts company Bangditos.

So it begins, and the twosome make increasingly botched attempts to manoeuvre their souped-up VW Beetle up the ramp and through the ring. The car limps round in circles, and our two heroes perform a few low-grade acrobatic tricks, leaning out of the car’s front windows. Then, the lank-haired sidekick abandons the car for a miniature motorbike, and he and Johnny have a bit of a drive-off. Eventually, Johnny also gives up on the car, leaving it driving itself round in circles, Herbie style. My friend’s gentleman friend tries to explain how you do this with a car, something about a ‘toe-in’. Or maybe it’s a tow-in. Anyway – back to the car: there’s a lot of banging and crashing, wheels fly off, things catch fire, and the whole thing eventually goes up in smoke.

It all goes down well with the locals, although there’s a bit of a debate amongst the arty festival participants about whether the audience really get the irony, or are taking it all at face value. But I think they get it – I’m sure they do. It’s my first visit to Stockton, but it’s clear, seeing the range of work presented at this festival – from the high-end large-scale Wired Aerial Theatre show As The World Tipped (‘Arts de la Grue’ as someone cheekily dubbed this big-crane-dominated show, reviewed here) to Reial Companyia de Teatre de Catalunya’s furry-costumed shop window animation Bunny Me – and witnessing the audience responses, that this is a community that understands how to play the street arts game.

This becomes really clear the next day, at Red Herring’s live Punch and Judy show, That’s The Way To Do It. This is the third time I’ve seen this one, and Stockton is by far the liveliest audience – grandmothers shout abuse at the policeman, kids are quick off the mark to volunteer a list of offences committed by Punch and Judy (‘She killed the monkeys!’ ‘He threw the baby on the floor’) and there are raucous whoops and cheers when the policeman’s trousers fall down.

Rain stops play for most of the afternoon – including the second afternoon’s performances for the show I’m working on. I’m here with Ragroof Theatre forBridges y Puentes, a site-responsive show made in collaboration with French company Vendaval, and presented here in Stockton under the auspices of Meridians, a consortium of European festivals. Bridges is set in a multi-storey car park… except our car park got taken out of action by its owners (first time it’s been painted in ten years and they choose this week!) and the show ends up being sited partly on the ground floor of a disused shop, and partly in the outdoor car park next to it. A little bit of rain we can handle – but this is torrential. Still, mustn’t grumble – we managed two shows the day before, received well…

Also at Stockton were another Meridians-supported show, Scuba Club Collective’s Images of Villages. I caught the last ten minutes of this one the evening before. Placed on the other side of the town hall to the Stuntshow, it’s about as far away from it’s neighbour in style and content as you could imagine, being a very gentle exploration of pan-European traditions, featuring recorded birdsong, trance-like dances, and percussive music-making played out on a set made up of broken picket fences, wooden pallets, oil-can drums, and children’s toys. It’s early days for this one, but it did feel a bit like watching a series of workshop exercises rather than a show…

With rain putting a dampener on most of the outdoor action, it was good to have a few indoor ‘booth’ shows to shelter in. German company Fatalia presented a Cabinet (well, back of a truck anyway) of Curiosities called Cabinet Fatalia. Referencing medical display cases and fairground ‘penny arcade’ peepshows, Fatalia mixes 2D photomontage and 3D found object assemblage, a mix of monochrome and kodachrome with a kind of Victorian toy shop meets Fritz Lang aesthetic. There are faces everywhere, ‘real’ and artificial: miniature plastic robot-heads, Venetian masks, and spirals of tiny neon skulls. Real hair, filmed eyes, and photographs of leggy models and arm-waving astronauts. Fish-scales, fish-tailed mermaids, and fish-eyed lenses. Butterflies and birdsong, fossils and clockwork. There seems to be some sort of theme of the fight to tame nature, or artifice versus nature, and the more you look the more you see.

Most people seem content with a few minutes inside but I get a bit lost in the worlds within worlds, and find that a good half hour or more has passed by the time I emerge. By now, the rain is easing off and the plucky people of Stockton are back on the streets, ready for whatever might next turn up to entertain them…

Zecora Ura / Persis Jade Maravala: Hotel Medea ¦ Photo: Flávia Correia

Zecora Ura / Persis Jade Maravala: Hotel Medea

Zecora Ura / Persis Jade Maravala: Hotel Medea ¦ Photo: Flávia Correia

What is your heart’s desire? What do you dream of doing? What is the strangest thing you’ve ever done? Is your heart a stone or a feather?

From the very start, Hotel Medea (a collaboration between Brazilian company Zecora Ura and UK artist Jade Persis Maravala) asks its audience to do more than watch and listen. As we are whirled into a madcap marketplace of dancing giant umbrellas bedecked with multicoloured ribbons, with a cacophony of musical rhythms erupting from cassette machines taped to performers’ bodies, we start our shared journey – an enquiry into concerns that are at the heart of human interest: What is it to be a stranger in a strange land? How do different cultures relate: assimilate and appropriate each other’s differences, or conquer and divide? What is it to be a man, to be a woman? How far will a man go in his quest for political domination? What is it to be a woman in a man’s world, fighting for your autonomy? What lengths would a woman go to to get revenge on the man who has ditched her for a younger rival? What is the nature of love: erotic, filial, maternal, sacrificial?

All of this plays out in an exhilarating promenade performance that takes place between midnight and dawn – less a theatre show than a ritual journey of theatrical treasures that we are seduced into discovering with seamless ease; a rollercoaster of sounds, images, songs, dances, and games that takes us from the revelry of midnight sensuality and abandonment, through the soul-searching reflectiveness of the early hours, into the darkest hour of the night, and finally into the spiritual awakening of dawn. Along the way there’s a football match, a wedding, a rave, a lonely-hearts club, a deadly game of hide-and-seek, and finally a funeral – biers heaped with flowers, candles and teddies.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that the children get it: that’s the whole point with Greek tragedies; you know the outcome, you can do nothing to stop it – it is the terrible unfolding that is so thrilling. The delicious twist inHotel Medea is that we, the audience, are collectively the children: eavesdropping on the adult conversations as we are tucked into bed by our nurses, popped into pyjamas, placated with hot chocolate, soothed and stroked when the household erupts into mayhem, spirited away to avoid danger, and finally – well, you can imagine.

But then again, we are also Medea’s confidantes: the women of the harem, sipping gin (mother’s ruin!), sharing confidences on heartbreak and betrayal, witnessing Medea’s frustration and fury erupt into murderous madness.

And now we are something else altogether: the ‘focus group’ engaged in moulding the political campaign of Medea’s husband, Jason – wheeled out for photo call opportunities, or observing action from elsewhere relayed on a bank of monitors.

It all works so beautifully because of the care and attention that has gone into the placing of each character in relation to the audience: the protagonists, Medea (Persis Jade Maravala) and Jason (James Turpin), interact with us, but often at a distance – placed on a plinth, table, stage, or staircase. Urias De Oliveira plays Medea’s murdered brother, yet also represents the archetypalSinistra – a figure of foreignness, savagery, magic, a catalyst to action, a wild card, but not one in direct interaction with us. Juxtaposed with him is Medea’s nurse and protector (Thelma Sharma): the voice of reason, the worrier, the harbinger of doom.

This inner circle is supported and developed by a clever play on the Greek chorus: a team of women play both warrior Argonauts and the children’s nurses; a team of men play both Medea’s entourage and Jason’s campaign team.

Then, there is another circle of engagement: Zecora Ura’s company director Jorge Ramos Lopes and a team of helpers are our guides on the journey, helping us make it through the night.

Midnight to dawn – a little over five hours at this time of the year – might seem like a long haul, but we are taken every inch of the way: cosseted, nurtured, guided, loved, and supported – like the innocent children that we all are.

Traverse Theatre Company: Ten Plagues ¦ Photo: Richard Campbell

Traverse Theatre Company / Mark Ravenhill / Conor Mitchell: Ten Plagues

Traverse Theatre Company: Ten Plagues ¦ Photo: Richard Campbell

In London the plague came in 1665: ‘one hundred thousand dead but I alive’.

This is not the opening line from Ten Plagues but the ending, the epilogue, a joyful ‘I will survive’ statement from our protagonist, who has worked his way though fear, disgust, panic, loneliness, isolation, superiority, and humility to reach this point of liberation. Along the way he has encountered empty churches, fleeing physicians, lost lovers, greedy butchers, swelling groins, blistering bodies, heaving plague pits, and grieving mothers.

Ten Plagues is a contemporary music theatre work, a song cycle with libretto by playwright Mark Ravenhill. The texts are based on eyewitness accounts from 1665 – in which the city of London was ravaged by plague and ‘one third died, one third fled, and one third survived’ – and informed by Pepys’ diaries and by Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The music is composed by Conor Mitchell, our nameless plague survivor is played by iconic post-punk pop star Mark Almond, and the show is directed and designed by Stewart Laing. In the clever marrying of scenography and music, there are echoes for me of the work of Heiner Goebbels, and of young company 1927 who similarly use a mix of filmed and staged action which is supported by the key musical role of a solo pianist (and they also share an obvious scenographic interest in German expressionism).

At the start of the piece, we are seduced into believing that there will be a large musical ensemble performing; music stands (at least fifteen or sixteen) are spread across the width of the stage, on either side of the piano. Above is a set-within-the-set, an open-fronted box that is a bare-walled room fitted only with a wooden chair and a mirror. The stands stay unused, ghostly figures, the faceless hordes who died, perhaps, or the nameless occupants of the city. So just a lone pianist (Conor Mitchell I assume, although this isn’t stated), and singer Marc Almond, both clad in black kilt-like ‘skirts’, trousers and jackets, a look reminiscent of Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries phase.

Marc Almond is, as always, a mesmerising presence onstage, but oddly – given that the words and music were written for him – there are times when the musical range seems to be challenging for his voice. Less surprisingly, there are times when he doesn’t seem 100% comfortable with the simple, dynamic choreography – reminding us that, actually, acting isn’t easy: perfecting the simplest onstage physical actions such as walking, sitting, and standing still are a lifetime’s work for the actor.

Where he comes into his own fully are the sections that play the Kurt Weil / Jacques Brel / Music Hall card to the max: for example, in a gorgeous scene where he denotes a newly-shaven head (no fleas, no lice!) by donning a tight hairnet, then scoops a wig out of the skirting board, and flirts with himself in the mirror: ‘I’ve bought a wig … and in the mirror I admire myself for hours.’

In other memorable moments, led by the scenography, friends and lovers are played by filmed figures who enter and leave the boxed space, untouchable others; the empty buildings and fleeing masses are portrayed by contemporary, speeded-up and layered footage of London’s city centre; and our hero’s moodswings are mapped by a constantly changing palette of colour washes, from jaundice yellow to sky blue via putrid greens. This, perhaps, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death and the succession of differently-coloured rooms passed through, an image that has also been appropriated in recent times by Punchdrunk and in the David Hughes/Al Seed collaborationThe Red Room. There are also, for me anyway, strong echoes of Orhan Pamuk’s first novel The White Castle, which tells the tale of Istanbul’s plague.

Perhaps it is fair, though, to say that this is a universal human story: from the biblical ten plagues to AIDS, the fear of plague, and survival of infections that sweep communities, is a key part of the story of how we have all come to be here still. We’re all the sons and daughters of survivors, so this story is our story.

Roland Schimmelpfennig: The Golden Dragon ¦ Photo: Stephen Cumminsky

Roland Schimmelpfennig: The Golden Dragon

Roland Schimmelpfennig: The Golden Dragon ¦ Photo: Stephen Cumminsky

‘Take care not to tread on the props,’ says the usher as we enter the space – an empty space save for a row of tawdry everyday objects and accessories placed at the front-row audience members’ feet. There’s a few plastic toys, a pair of spectacles, a walking stick, a wok. Some green Lycra leggings, a sparkly headband, a spanner. Enter five actors – young man, older man, young woman, older woman, man of indeterminate age. They pull down paper from four great rolls of newsprint, so the floor now has a crackly white carpet, and the show is on the road.

We are at The Golden Dragon, a Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese local restaurant anywhere in the world. We meet workers, customers, and occupants of the upstairs flats. Everyone is transient in one way or another: the migrant workers in the kitchen, the air stewardesses just back from a long-haul trip, the couple whose marriage is falling apart, the trafficked sex worker held in an upstairs flat who never sees the light of day. A thousand and one stories interweave – some heartbreaking, some mildly amusing. We are taken on a journey across the world and back again, it all circling round the extraction of a rotten tooth in the mouth of the young Chinese kitchen worker.

What at first seems to be a rather clichéd take on ‘poor theatre’– with characters, for example, denoting old age with the addition of a pair of spectacles and a shaking hand, or waving the wok around to express frying up a Pad Thai – turns into something more interesting as the play progresses: the instant costuming-up becomes more surreal, and the characterisation and storytelling ever more layered – as one example, those green leggings and the hen-party headband with the jangling silver-bobble ‘antennae’ turn the young man into The Cricket, in a little folk tale telling of the industrious Ant and the lazy Cricket, and this character in turn becomes the representation of the ‘vulgar, sexy, abused’ girl upstairs. Meanwhile, the carefully crafted ebbs and flows of the text draw us in, or pull us out, of each storyline.

In his notes in the introduction to the playscript, director Ramin Gray reflects that a British playwright would more than likely have been drawn to naturalism to tackle the subject of migration, but that Schimmelpfennig – a German – draws on his own nation’s Brechtian tradition in the creation of this cleverly multi-layered and ‘playful’ play.

Viewing The Golden Dragon provides an opportune reminder that many of the dramaturgical choices that we associate with devised theatre – the mixing of storytelling mode with dialogue, actors playing many different characters, the transposing of one character’s words to another, actors stepping in and out of the action whilst remaining visible onstage, the voicing of stage directions – can in fact be scripted in, as is the case in The Golden Dragon: the deconstruction of the text occurs within the text.

It’s a clever play, beautifully constructed – a play that has been ‘wrought’ well by the playwright. But more importantly it’s a moving piece of theatre; we travel readily on the journey offered.

Wired Aerial Theatre: As The World Tipped

Wired Aerial Theatre: As The World Tipped

Wired Aerial Theatre: As The World Tipped

Directed by Nigel Jamieson, Wired Aerial Theatre’s As the World Tipped is a large-scale outdoor spectacular that takes as its subject the Copenhagen Conference and the subsequent failure of world leaders to initiate any meaningful directive on climate change.

It starts well. A large, square white stage is occupied by scurrying suits who move from desk to desk, working their way through towers of paperwork. The soundtrack gives us voiceover samples of speeches and discussions from the conference: President Obama’s bland, placating reassurances pitted against the impassioned plea from President Mohamed Nasheen of the low-lying Republic of Maldives, who says, ‘If things go business-as-usual, we will not live, we will die. Our country will not exist.’

Then comes the expected grand theatrical moment (the big crane behind the set is a giveaway!), as the enormous stage slowly starts to tip, and everything begins to roll off – paper flying, desks crashing to the ground (well, not quite – they are rescued by roadies as they fall, which is a slight disappointment). The now-vertical stage is raised ever-higher, becoming a giant screen.

The next section is an exciting interweaving of live and filmed action that plays beautifully with the relationship between 2D and 3D. Harnessed performers race over a speeding walkway of words, words, words; zig and zag along the lines of a graph; leap from square to square on a chequerboard of TV monitors which morphs into cuboid twin towers from which the tiny human figures tumble.

But it’s all downhill from then on – in both subject matter and performance content. We are presented with documentary-style footage of a series of global disasters – drought, tsunami, bushfire, tornado, earthquake. As giant projections of sorrowful human faces of various ethnicities stare accusingly at us, or as the screen is engulfed in floodwater or fire, the now seemingly mouse-sized performers dangle on their harnesses squealing, or bounce off the screen in various enactments of running to escape, falling off the edge of the world, jumping into the abyss – or attempting to rescue others who are falling/running/jumping.

The harnessed performers know their stuff, the film footage is brilliantly edited, and the soundtrack is cleverly mixed – I appreciated the occasional touch of ironic humour, such as the inclusion of the Elizabeth Welsh classic ‘Stormy Weather‘. The play with scale is interesting: there is one particularly lovely moment where a dangling person is apparently dropped into the open palm of an onscreen sleeping child.

So a technically brilliant show; beautifully executed; an extraordinary opening. The first 20 minutes, taken alone, would qualify the show as one of the best ever large-scale pieces by a UK company. But for the most part, the second half of the show offers no more than a repetition of the polemical points made earlier in the piece: in essence, that climate change is bad and someone ought to do something about that. ‘Demand change now?’ Perhaps ‘Be the change you want to see’ would be a stronger message.

I’m reminded of the Richard Schechner quote, ‘life is raw, but art is cooked’. More cooking needed here, I feel…