Author Archives: Joelson Gusson

Canadian Stage: Helen Lawrence

Described as ‘a cinematic stage production’, visual artist and filmmaker Stan Douglas and screenwriter/producer Chris Haddock’s creation Helen Lawrence is inspired by postwar film noir. The production, seen as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, weaves together theatre, visual art, live-action filming and computer-generated historical backgrounds.

A huge transparent screen separates the audience from the stage, looming over the scenic blue box where the performers act. There is no other staging, just the screen and a few chairs and boxes. Throughout the show, the actors are filmed and these scenes displayed in live-feed on the big screen that is in front of the stage. This way we can see both the film being displayed and the actors who are playing it, illuminated with a theatrical light. The show is thus an interesting play between live and mediated presence, as our gaze takes in both realities simultaneously. All cameras are operated live by cast: the actors themselves alternate between cameramen and stage performers, making the creation of the film work part of the live performance element.

Adding to these layers is one other: using the chroma-key created with the help of the scenic blue box, the characters in the story are sometimes placed in magnificent scenery, walking in and out of the onscreen action through nonexistent doors.

The show demonstrates an extremely well articulated cinematic technique, combined with perfectly adequate performances, in a plot that explores the stereotypes of gangster movies and film noir. We are drawn into the lives of a group of pimps and owners of illegal settlements in a degraded area of the city of Vancouver in the 1940s, surviving with the connivance of a corrupt police force. There is the husband who never returned from the war; the former soldier who feels at a loss in civilian life; the young lady who is married and seeking an abortion; the young prostitute who falls in love with her client; a lesbian orphan living on favours in a hotel; and of course the femme fatale, the eponymous Helen Lawrence, rich and blonde, who arrives to cause disruption to this world (played beautifully by Lisa Ryder).

The script is unfocused, a web of parallel stories that often don’t get resolved, but in many ways the story is the least important element: this is a show about cinematic technique, and about the relationship (or otherwise) between stage acting and acting to camera. It is grandiose and intellectually stimulating rather than empathetic – we do not really care about these non-existent characters who are mere ghosts of the silver screen. The living experience that theatre creates between performers and audience is lost, no doubt deliberately, as we are constantly drawn to the oversized faces on the giant screen, and left to ponder on the nature and power of cinematic imagery.



Shona Reppe: The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean ¦ Photo: Douglas McBride

Shona Reppe: The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean

Shona Reppe: The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean ¦ Photo: Douglas McBride

It is always a delightful experience to watch a show where the line between spectator and performer is tenuous to the point that the audience believes that they are participating in a dialogue, and not watching a theatrical presentation in monologue form. That’s what happens in The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean, created and performed by Shona Reppe – we feel really spoken to, and we feel that we are involved with the performer in the creation of the story.

Presented as a lecture by a scientist specialising in the excavation and examination of scrapbooks (the science of ‘scrapology’) this piece, aimed at older children, has the power to enchant both young and old.

The smartly turned out Patricia Baker (Shona Reppe) is a ‘scrapologist’ investigating an old and faded scrapbook that has been unearthed, with the intention of discovering who it belonged to, and this person’s story. Gradually, with a nicely pitched forensic tone, she discovers that it was in the possession of a Victorian gentleman named Artemis J Mood, the presumed owner of the scrapbook, who, it emerges, seems to have had a secret romance with a lady called Josephine Bean. Thereafter a full ‘forensic’ investigation takes place, and the very curious life and love of these characters is, little by little, unravelled. To reveal too much would be to spoil the show, as the manner in which the secrets hidden in the scrapbook unfold is truly magical.

The stage is set up with the scrapologist’s work-station, from which hang all sorts of interesting objects, along with an OHP, two screens and a projector. A renowned puppeteer, Shona surprises us with a play without puppets which is, nevertheless, ‘puppetesque’, using the skills that one would expect from an experienced puppeteer in her handling of the objects around her workstation and the artefacts that emerge from the scrapbook (photographs of Artemis which turn out to show something unexpected when re-examined; train tickets that turn into a little train chugging across the screen; feathers, seeds, and seaweeds that have their own tales to tell). The story unfolds very cleverly, with sudden moments of awareness dawning about something that occurred earlier. It’s as if she worked on the intangible to whet our imaginations so that we, along with the performer, build the story of Artemis and Josephine’s relationship.

Care and attention has been given to every detail in the show – the text, the scenery, the objects, the film, the music and everything else that contributes to create this charming and intimate atmosphere. As a counterpoint we have the character of Patricia Baker, a friendly scientist who can become extremely authoritarian from one minute to another. This interesting and very real character contributes greatly to the sense that we are not being patronised by the performer, a very common hazard in theatre for children.

A truly sensory and thought-provoking piece – a great piece of children’s theatre that is not just for children.

Side Pony: The Pride

Side Pony: The Pride

Side Pony: The Pride

Shamelessness is sometimes a virtue. Imagine a group of actors dressed up like lions, but not real lions, no – dressed up in bad fancy-dress lion costumes, as if entertainers at a children’s party. Then, imagine these actors performing almost naturalistically, almost as if they were at home, discussing private matters.

Now let’s give them a story: let’s see what happens to these guys/lions placed in a sort of crossover between lion and human society – a society where a man thinks he is the boss, but is not. Not the centre of the universe, and the source of power no longer. Of course he plays at being the boss, being in charge, but when it comes to it, when his moment has passed, he has to go, stripped of all his possessions and his beliefs, superseded by a younger male, a usurper who steals his wife and his house.

On one level The Pride – performed by Side Pony from Perth, Australia – is just a comedy, a lighthearted comedy in which the performers have lots of fun making the show for us, almost like an inconsequential game created for self-amusement. But it is far more. It goes deep, and then deeper, into gender-role discussion, into the mores of male behaviour, and into the irrefutable fact of ageing in a world in which youth is everything.

The story is a simple one: a young couple of lions (Bruce and Linda) have been married a while and are building up their home. The female gets pregnant and gives birth to a dozen little lions (to the tune of Everlasting Love). She needs help and is waiting for her sisters to come and live with them to help out. The male has to fix up the house and improve it for the guests but he, as the strong-self centred-male, just cares about himself and his favourite male son – although he has just about managed to install dining-room lights (with a clap-on, clap-off feature). Suddenly a young male arrives on the scene who offers to help him paste up the new jungle-feature wallpaper. Time passes and the male that owns the house gets older and lazier, always defending his territory, but the fact is that he must be replaced by the younger one, and – after a desperately funny dinner party (featuring a blood, rather than chocolate, fountain and gazelle cake!) that ends in disaster – that is just what happens.

The wonderful thing about this play is how this group raises important issues using a format that is not so far away from Disney’s Lion King; how they’ve built it and transformed it into an extremely funny, and at the same time incredibly serious play.

The construction of each character, and of this manipulated and mannered naturalism (which seems naturalistic, but in a very subtle way is not) is the key to the success of the play. They have, in their onstage world, created a parallel society with parallel behaviours which don’t quite match ours, but which expose a ridiculousness in our society.

The group explores, in a very sweet way, the sadness of becoming useless in a society that idolises youth, and at the same time offers a reflection on gender politics in the contemporary world. The Pride is a very cleverly devised and successful piece of theatre work.

ThickSkin: The Static ¦ Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

ThickSkin: The Static

ThickSkin: The Static ¦ Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Presented as part of the Made in Scotland programme, The Static is the third piece by ThickSkin in what could loosely be called a trilogy, the first two pieces being White Noise and Boy Magnet. What these three works have in common is an interest in investigating natural forces like electricity or magnetism, and in using them as the basis for an exploration of the dangerous enterprise of becoming an adult.

The Static tells the story of a 15 year-old boy called Sparky who is written off at school as a disruptive influence and a lost cause until the day he is prescribed Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sparky apparently becomes addicted to this drug, and when he falls in love with a strange girl called Siouxsie his thoughts become telekinetic, giving him superpowers over objects, the ability to make things fly.

This is thus a metaphor for the moment in life when a person is no longer a child but not yet an adult, sometimes playing with toys, at other times trying to act like a grown-up, struggling to understand a huge number of new rules and patterns. A drug is offered to mitigate the anxiety, the thoughts become clearer, the body becomes stronger, but it’s not enough to deal with the heart… Love appears as an infinite and uncontrollable source of power and it’s exactly because it’s so uncontrollable that life seems brighter and darker at the same time – secrets and desires are unveiled to expose the youth to a painful world.

Written by Davey Anderson, and directed and choreographed by Neil Bettles,The Static creates a magnetic atmosphere with lots of multimedia effects. A very simple and functional scenography, composed basically of schoolroom steel cabinets and a table, is perfect to create different stage spaces and moods. Brian Vernel as the leading actor plays his role with veracity and a charming kind of abandonment. The other actors – Samantha Foley, Pauline Lockhart and Nick Rhys – are also secure and strong in their constructions of different characters. The Static is a delicate group work that, despite the kitsch choreography, brings us a playful way to think about the difficult task of becoming an adult.

The KTO Theatre 2: The Blind ¦ Photo: Sławek Jedrzejewski

The KTO Theatre 2: The Blind

The KTO Theatre 2: The Blind ¦ Photo: Sławek Jedrzejewski

The Blind is an outdoor theatre show created by the Polish company KTO Theatre and inspired by the Portuguese writer José Saramago’s novelBlindness. I’d find it impossible to review the show without making some consideration of how Saramago’s work has influenced a whole generation of new creators in performance arts and cinema. In South America, where I come from, his books have been bestsellers for the last two decades. Saramago’s poetic writing, his atheism and his political concerns run strongly through all his books, and manifest both in his singular perception of the world and in the way he writes on issues of power, humiliation and loneliness in the relations between people.

When Saramago’s idiosyncratic universe was put together with that of the also idiosyncratic and politically concerned group KTO Theatre, a huge and violent wave of ideas was created in the form of this masterpiece, The Blind, a word-free piece of spectacular outdoor theatre that combines the physicality of its performers with music and all sorts of extraordinary visual effects.

Saramago’s book Blindness, and thus the narrative of KTO’s show, tells the story of a group of people that suddenly, and without any explanation, become blind and are locked in a kind of asylum. As time goes by, everybody else in the country also becomes blind. This small isolated group is lead by one person who didn’t develop the strange blindness, and together they start reproducing all the relational problems of a ‘normal’ society.

The monumental staging of this story – which includes a great scaffolding structure and a massive array of hospital beds that wheel and race and clatter across the space, along with pyrotechnic effects and a forceful soundtrack  – succeeds admirably, and deals brilliantly with the epic proportions of Saramago’s story, appropriately presented in this big outdoor courtyard rather than a confined theatre space. The way blindness is performed by the actors is also something to be commended. One of the most important elements in this play is the sound: music, and the sounds of all the objects in the space, lead us into this world of darkness.

The Blind captures all the deep impressions carved in Saramago’s book and brings the audience into its parallel universe of fear and blindness. A superb interpretation of this fantastic novel.