Author Archives: Jo Squires

Fye and Foul - Cathedral - Photo by Vivianna Chiotini

Fye and Foul: Cathedral

Fye and Foul - Cathedral - Photo by Vivianna ChiotiniSet in near-darkness, Cathedral, inspired by a short story by Raymond Carver, uses light and sound to explore our experience of memory, truth, and reality. The darkness is disorienting at first, leaving us in a heightened state of awareness, waiting in earnest for the smallest flicker of light or movement.

The performance is built around these flickers – snippets of story told through voices broadcast from an old cassette player, describing a seemingly random selection of memories from a relationship. The memories are disjointed and without context, but even so, we strive to construct a narrative to connect them, actively looking for the beginning, middle, and end of the relationship in their disparate recollections. The couple are never seen but their voices and their memories paint a vivid picture, full of the small details that make each relationship unique: how they met, the way she looked in the bath, the scrawl of her handwriting.

Gradually, in low light – and often no light – two performers begin to act out not the scenes being described, but rather their memory, or perhaps just the feeling of the memory.  Sometimes their movements are slow and measured, at other times quick and erratic. With handheld lights, they cast ethereal shadows across the stage adding to the surreal quality of the disembodied voices. The clever use of light focused solely on a performer’s mouth, for instance, seems synchronized with the recorded voice but as sound and performer slowly become uncoordinated the scene eerily mirrors the disintegration of memory as we might experience it.

Given the darkness of the performance, Cathedral also relies heavily on sound for impact, and the sound design of each memory adds another layer of meaning. Some clips sound distorted or distant as though painful or only barely remembered, where others are repeated throughout and frequently overlapped, suggesting pain or regret. These effects seem to more closely mirror the reality of patterns of memory: the random access, the vagueness, the blanks.

Although two voices (male and female) are present throughout, the two performers are both women, begging the question of whose memory it is. Could it be the memory of the male voice, his memory of the woman? Are the performers two different characters, or are they different memories of the same character? Do they represent characters at all? Many of the moments described are dreamlike, Carver’s imagery references priests and doppelgangers, giving the narrative a morbid feel and encouraging the audience to question the truth of each memory. Accordingly it is a highly conceptual performance, nothing is concrete, everything open to interpretation.  While this can be liberating, it is also frustrating at times, offering little in the way of resolution.

As a whole, the experience of the performance recreates well the feeling of memory, which its research, partially supported by the Wellcome Trust, sets out to explore. Simple actions such as a performer repeatedly moving their light across their body give the impression of remembering the same, single detail again and again. Or a split second of light first distorting and then clarifying a silhouette conveys a memory just out of reach before becoming clear. While each of the memories that make up Cathedral provides a moment of interest or intrigue, the performance overall feels less cohesive, ending abruptly and leaving the audience without a firm grasp on the overall intent. The experience is certainly immersive and explores some interesting subject matter but leaves the audience with rather more questions than answers.

Strangeface - Dissonance - Photo by Mark Dean

Strangeface: Dissonance

Strangeface - Dissonance - Photo by Mark DeanDissonance is the story of wise-talking hitman Mikey, ‘The Ghost’, and the existential crisis he faces after a chance encounter challenges him to look more closely at his life’s choices – and question if he ever had choices at all.

We first meet Mikey, a bald-headed tabletop puppet wearing nothing but his pants, holed up in his New York apartment. He invites us in, shows us around and begins to tell us the story of how he came to his current predicament. We follow his story back and forth as he deconstructs the significant moments of his life, his narration hilarious and harrowing in equal measure: a riverside initiation, a Mexican border crossing, Toys R Us. Each memory offers us a little more insight into Mikey’s character and each deconstruction offers a little less certainty for Mikey of what that character is, and what is should be.

Supported by research from the University of Lincoln and the Wellcome Trust, Dissonance tackles some heavy themes, and some profound and often uncomfortable ideas are contained within the darkly humorous narrative. Mikey describes dissonance to us as the state of holding two conflicting truths in the mind simultaneously, and the play’s narrative centres on the choices we make in order to resolve that conflict and rationalise our actions. But the question Mikey keeps facing is, are those choices really choices at all? As one character puts it, ‘we deny logic in favour of ourselves,’ changing our views instead of confronting the harsh reality of the hurt and damage we might be causing.

Philosophical hitman or not, over the course of the show we become attached to Mikey and his no-nonsense, yet often poetic, views on existence – ‘I was drifting on a sea of thought.’ We cannot help but join him in his psychological struggle it as he contemplates the ideas of self, identity and agency. We feel acutely the irony and humour as, despairing, he yells ‘I am not a puppet!’.

So engaging is his plight, that it’s easy to forget that there are indeed three puppeteers deftly controlling his head, arms and legs – their remarkable and seemingly effortless craftsmanship bringing him to life. The play begins energetically, showcasing his movements, buying the audience in to Mikey’s story and his reality. With only a single prop on stage, it is the precision of Mikey’s gestures and reactions combined with an engaging and well-executed sound and light design, that create and populate every scene: touring his apartment, relaxing in a steam room, dodging bullets, axes and explosions – each scene all the more complete precisely because we are forced to imagine it and fill in the gaps. With the crook of a finger here or the tilt of a head, the puppeteers artfully create an entire cast of distinct characters: teenage delinquents, an expectant mother, an agitated yet well-educated steam room companion. It is a colourful and vibrant story entirely channelled through our semi-naked narrator, which itself cleverly expands upon the show’s questions about the ways we construct our realities.

Like much art with such complex subject matter, Dissonance leaves us with more questions, perhaps, than it answers. Mikey’s journey inspires the audience to face the uncomfortable truths about how and why we make decisions, inviting us to become more than puppets to dissonant thought, and challenging those who seek to use it to manipulate and coerce.

Part Beckett, part Scorsese, Dissonance is a satisfying blend – science communicated through art – and certainly food for thought.

Rhum and Clay - Hardboiled

Rhum and Clay Theatre Company & Beth Flintoff: Hardboiled

Rhum and Clay - HardboiledFor fans of film noir, Hardboiled is a delight. Inspired by classic thrillers like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and, later, Chinatown, Hardboiled translates the essence of this brooding genre into the language of theatre with great style and inventiveness.

The story follows a young but determined private investigator, Sam Shadow, as he takes the case of the alluring Scarlett Addison, investigating the disappearance of her lover who, until recently, worked at her husband’s company, Addison Electric. Shadow uncovers a dastardly corporate conspiracy (loosely based on the Enron power outages scandal in 2000) and must untangle a web of lies and deceit to find out just what sort of private investigator he wants to be.

The production is a pleasing homage to the genre: the story a careful balance of conspiracy, action, and repressed emotion; the characters, all played by the four-strong cast, conveying every 1940s LA caricature and stereotype. The dialogue crackles with one-liners like ‘everybody’s a nobody,’ and ‘love makes monsters of us all’. It’s a veritable highlight reel of the genre’s best-loved tropes.

To those familiar enough with film noir, there are no real surprises to be found, nothing that can’t be guessed at ahead of time, but then, that’s not really the point. Never taking itself too seriously, the production allows the audience to relax and bask in its dim, atmospheric glow, enjoying the fun and satisfaction of identifying the references and clichés.

The most impressive element of Hardboiled is the way in which it conveys cinematic convention. This is a genre well-known for its flashbacks and exposition and as such the play makes creative use of vignettes, with characters frequently dropping in and out of their own narratives to act out past events and different lines of Sam’s enquiry. Close-ups and split screens are also inventively addressed. One client reviews photographs of his wife’s indiscretions and, perfectly coordinated with his gaze, the cast recreate the scenes in freeze-frame behind him. In a moment that proves a particular favourite with the audience, Sam is chased by an unknown car in the night, two sets of headlamps and two led lights moving across a map depicting a surprisingly tense chase scene, recalling a traditional editing technique, popular in the forties and still used in films today.

Most entertaining of these cinematic-theatrical crossovers were the play’s seamlessly choreographed montage sequences. As Sam solves cases, collects evidence or drinks himself into a stupor, the music rises, the set unfolds and reassembles around him, and an eclectic host of characters join and leave the fray. These moments are meticulously crafted and performed – it feels as though no movement or prop is wasted. With remarkable inventiveness these scenes bring to life every character and set piece you could hope for from a quintessential film noir.

Although perhaps most concerned with showcasing as many generic conventions as possible, strong performances from all the cast and a creative set, sound and light design make for a very satisfying production. Overall Hardboiled brings the classic formula back to life with an enjoyable modern, self-referential twist.

Wildheart & Lyric - Wolf Meat

Wildheart & Lyric: Wolf Meat

Wildheart & Lyric - Wolf MeatOstensibly, Wolf Meat follows an all-too-familiar contemporary plot: an overbearing drug lord, a grandson seeking love at the expense of family, a harassed maid plotting the family’s downfall, and an undercover cop looking to take them all down. This, however, is where familiarity ends. The drug lord is an incestuously-motivated grandmother, her grandson, Wolfie, a repressed and hapless manchild, their maid a wild-eyed psychopath and the cop,  a butch lesbian with her own theme tune, Dawn Taylor.

The link to Little Red Riding Hood is hard to fathom, the story bearing little similarity to the fairy tale and the characters referencing it in name only. Suffice to say that this play was not for children. The audience are led into the first act by Grandma who both directs and acts out the series of increasingly unlikely events in her Croydon sitting room, the play-within-a-play structure allowing for frequent stops along the way to drop in and out of character to explain, comment, or throw insults at the audience.

Although at first a few jokes seem to miss the mark – doddery old ladies and crude freeze-frame exploits – as the show gets going, the self-referential humour, bizarre tangents, and untold silliness build up to an explosive finale. Both characters and audience are swept briskly along by the plot which manages to hit every conceivable (and inconceivable) scene and trope along the way: musical numbers, drug-fuelled highs and lows, and one startling moment of full-frontal to name just a few. What Grandma’s play might lack in polish or finesse, it certainly makes up for in variety and ambition.

And therein lies much of its humour. Against the domestic and, frankly, libidinous aspirations of Grandma and Wolfie, the grand themes of drugs, murder, and conspiracy are comically out of place; comedy that  increases significantly as they try desperately to fill their mundane lives in Hollywood cliché and educate the audience in sophisticated ways of cinematic discourse.

The biggest laughs of the evening, however, come from the interaction between characters and audience which are both frequent and playfully inappropriate. One audience member was invited to ‘quality check’ an unknown substance, while another was given the power of life or death over a character and subsequently made the wrong decision. With a small audience (only 50 or so per performance) any interaction implicates the whole group by association, and once brought into the world of the play, willingly or otherwise, the audience more easily laughs along with its silliness rather than at it.

The use of props, sound, and light throughout was clever and inventive with no opportunity for humour wasted – even their limitations proving a self-referential delight. In one scene Wolfie stops to assess the value of their most expensive prop (a solitary pot plant transforming living room into a park) with a view to returning it for a refund after the show’s run – amusing and potentially true?

Over the course of the hour, the actors keep the story moving with enormous energy with Carla Espinoza’s maid Luna providing the best moments including a hilarious and excruciating turn that would give Meg Ryan a run for her money in that scene from When Harry Met Sally.

Overall, Wolf Meat is a wickedly funny production; irreverent, absurd and very entertaining.

fanSHEN - Invisible Treasure

fanSHEN: Invisible Treasure

fanSHEN - Invisible TreasureTwenty people, one room, and a seven foot rabbit with questionable intentions, Invisible Treasure describes itself as an ‘electrifying exploration of human relationships, power structures and individual agency’. There are no actors and no plot as such, just an enigmatic display board on one wall offering cryptic instructions which the audience must decode and carry out together in order to progress to the next ‘level’ of the experience.

The atmosphere in the room is one of carefully constructed foreboding. The rabbit is an inspired cross between Alice in Wonderland and Orwell’s 1984, its eyes flashing different colours depending on its mood, and its mouthpiece, the display board, goading the audience with commands like ‘behave’, ‘conform’ and ‘Eugenie Knows’ as they get closer or further away from unravelling the tasks.

Each challenge is woven together with an inventive balance of lighting, sound, and technology. Moods throughout the performance move seamlessly from panicked activity as timers count down and lights flash amber or red in displeasure, to moments of serene contemplation as fluorescent digital paint flows across the ceiling, mirroring the movements of the audience below. To lighten the mood and express his satisfaction the ambiguously motivated March Hare occasionally flashes green and white and shoots bubbles from his nose.

The real performance of the experience, however, comes from the audience members themselves who, without prompting, assume the roles of leader, director, follower, interrogator. It is easy to discern parallels with cultural explorations of social experiments that have come before – Lord of the Flies, Lost, the first half of any zombie film – which similarly confront the audience with existential questions like ‘if this were real, would I survive?’, ‘Who can I trust?’ and ‘Who is Eugenie, and what does she know?’.

It is this element of the experience that seems to hold the real purpose of the show. It quickly becomes clear that success is only possible as a group, but each participant is encouraged to question their individual role in that accomplishment and their experience of it, ranging from the enjoyment of successful teamwork to irritation and rebelliousness as the group is challenged and different members vie for leadership.  There is no definitive comment offered on these dynamics, merely a reminder of their existence, which perhaps is enough. The audience leaves conscious that they have unwittingly played a part not only in an interactive digital experience, but also in a mild social experiment examining impromptu power structures, the agency of the individual, and cooperation and competition in group dynamics.

The experiences also offer the audience more practical insights, like how difficult it is to form a human triangle in the dark.

The beauty of any interactive, audience-led performance is that the experience will be unique for each group, often depending on the politeness, collaboration and/or general sobriety of its members. For this performance there are a few moments of inactivity and confusion, leaving the audience wondering whether their actions are truly moving the performance forward and to what extent the messages, lights and sounds are predetermined. These lulls, however, do not last long and no sooner have the questions arisen than the performance moves on, either by the audience’s ingenuity or the grace of the omnipotent benefactor. We hope for the former.

But if the audience are left questioning their success in some of the tasks, Invisible Treasure has one final act to reveal. The first and second acts (arrival and participation) take place entirely within ‘the system’, overseen by the furry, bubble-blowing megalomaniac. The third act, however, takes place outside of this system. It allows the audience to explore its artifice, to see the complex technology at work and to view their experience from an alternative perspective. It is this third act that gives the first and second their meaning, keeping them from fading into superficial novelty. Where a good illusionist keeps their audience guessing and questioning by withholding their secrets, conversely, Invisible Treasure offers the same level of intrigue by revealing all and laying bare its very construction. After seeing and examining everything, both inside and out, the audience have nothing left to question but their own actions and behaviours – memories that will stick with them long after the performance has ended.