Author Archives: Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor

About Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor is one half of the Whalley Range All Stars – a street theatre company he formed with Sue Auty in 1982. www.wras.org.uk www.edwardtaylor.pictures

Theatre Tof - Dans lAtelier - Photo by Melisa Stein

Skipton Puppet Festival

Theatre Tof - Dans lAtelier - Photo by Melisa SteinSkipton Puppet Festival is a biannual affair run by the resourceful Lempen Puppet Company.  Resourceful because over the three days the festival runs they manage to give the audience the full range of puppetry (for young and old, indoors and outdoors, national and international) in a town which isn’t blessed with obvious venues.

The street programme featured S.A. Marionetas from Portugal showing us a story about Don Roberto – the Portuguese version of Mr. Punch. I say story but basically it’s an excuse for Don Roberto to whack seven shades of hell out of a skeleton, a crocodile, and a bearded figure whose symbolism eluded me. He ended up marrying a fair damsel. The courtship involved a fair bit of mutual whacking.

The set was your basic Mr. Punch-style booth (covered this time with a floral pattern rather than deckchair stripes) on which perched a crudely painted (or very well-toured) castle with a turret. This gave Don Roberto and his foes two levels to appear on which they did with speed and in places and combinations which constantly took you by surprise. The puppeteer appeared occasionally to demand applause for a particular scene – sometimes his demands were met but often the crowd’s reactions sent him back to carry on with the story and earn the reaction he demanded.

What can I say?  It was violent, simple and very funny.

Theatre Tof are yet another excellent Belgian export. Their show Bistouri is a classic and to this you can add Dans l’Atelier, the show they presented at Skipton.

The set is a messy worktable covered in tools, bits of crud and cardboard boxes. A figure made of a headless coat and gloves appears and sets about trying to rebuild its body. A cardboard box reveals a small polystyrene block which is impaled on a knife and stuck in the neck-hole of the coat. The hands scrabble around on the table and find a brush and pot of paint so that eyes can be self-administered. The two puppeteers scrupulously follow the logic of each development in the creation of the body.

Once the head is in place it needs to be sculpted into a more realistic shape. Like trying to cut your own hair in the mirror this is easier said than done, especially with the use of a big saw.  The eyes get accidentally trimmed off.  A smaller head is fashioned with the use of a fork stuck into the shaving with the eyes painted on it.  The larger block is then placed in a vice so the coat can carry on in a more “artistic” manner.

With the appearance of a pair of trousers a whole body is assembled and in the process the figure changes from being passive in the hands of his animators to becoming a tyrant with bullying tendencies. This process is emphasised when he discovers the end of a small brush and fixes it under his nose to resemble Hitler. Eventually the puppeteers have to “kill” him. As he’s stuffed into a box he doesn’t go without a fight  but a cordless drill finishes him off.

Over the 20 minutes the show lasts the company push the ideas to the limit. It’s extremely funny, shocking, and a brilliant demonstration of visual story-telling.

wonder.land

Damon Albarn / Moira Buffini: wonder.land

A few minutes before the start of the show the lights have gone down and the woman next to me is pleading with the usher (who has asked her to switch her laptop off) to let her finish her Facebook messaging. When the usher leaves the woman carries messaging from within her handbag in the dark as the show begins. A fitting prelude to a story about the combination of online and real life that permeates how we live today.

wonder.land is a musical written by Damon Albarn (now on his third visit to Manchester International Festival) with book and lyrics by Moira Buffini, and direction by Rufus Norris – the latest head honcho of the National Theatre. Set and stage design is by the National Theatre’s War Horse team: Rae Smith (designer), 59 Productions (projections), and Paule Constable (lighting); and Katrina Lindsay designed the costumes.

It starts off in a grey tower-block world where the rain permanently falls and the heroine Aly is a 12-year-old who escapes her surroundings ( a grim flat and a mother who’s more interested in the new baby fathered by a man with gambling problems who has left her) by visiting wonder.land.com, a Second Life-style world where you can be who you want to be via the creation of  self-designed avatars.

She creates an Alice familiar to us from the Tenniel drawings. This Alice appears courtesy of huge CGI projections – the bright colours of which contrast vividly with the grey ‘real’ world. These projections function as the screens on mobile phones, allowing us to see what the characters see, and their scale emphasise just how immersive this interaction can be. The heroine is bullied online and onstage, and the Miss Jean Brodie-style headmistress confiscates her phone and adopts her avatar in a manner that will ultimately lead to no good – it’s not just the kids who are vulnerable to the temptations of the internet.

The stagecraft is excellent. The projections dominate the huge stage and a series of backdrops on wheels move around restlessly, creating new openings into different spaces and occasionally depositing actors in relevant positions. Characters from the story appear in the projections and onstage (although they didn’t seem to know what do with the caterpillar, which came on walking forwards through a doorway then went off walking backwards through the doorway before we had a chance to see the costume in full).

But despite the adventurous design and staging, the show is essentially a West-End musical with a series of songs that aren’t really Albarn at his best. The plot has echoes of Gorillaz’ Demon Days album with its strong sense of teenage melancholy, but the songs don’t capture that same mood.

wonder.land takes the wildly inventive, un-pin-downable Alice in Wonderland story and reduces it to a worthy soap-opera with a message. I can see that the creators realised that they could be contributing to a middle-aged moral panic about the over-use of computers if they weren’t careful, so wanted to add something less preachy. But that point arrives with such an obvious kerr-lunk that it almost appears to be an afterthought.

The best scene is when the bullied Aly meets a bullied boy in the girl’s toilet. It has no connection to the Alice story, it has none of the visual pyrotechnics of the rest of the show, and is just a well-written, well-acted, witty exchange that rings true.

Footnote:

wonder.land comes to the National Theatre in London for the 2015–2016 Christmas season.  

 

Lakes Alive: Mint Fest 2014

MintFest2014-Breekbaar

Two men are sitting down with a large painting of what could be an aerial view of a battleground on their laps. All you can see of them is their legs and all you can hear is a rendition of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Due to an itchy foot the song stalls on the word ‘long’ and it’s repeated as if the record is scratched until the shoe and sock are taken off, the itch is relieved, and the shoe and sock are put back on. As this happens I turn round and see the audience of 80+ people hanging on every ‘long’ and being perfectly happy to have their patience stretched to the very limit.

This is a small sequence in Desperate Men’s current show Slapstick and Slaughter which allows them to use their considerable skill and experience to entertain an audience via the medium of dadaist provocation. The noise poetry of Kurst Schwitters is evoked, turn-of-the-20th-century drawing-room drama gets a mauling, and nonsensical non-sequiturs hang in the air

I saw Slapstick and Slaughter in Kendal as part of the street programme of MintFest, the annual festival of international street theatre. Further down the street were the Grand Theatre of Lemmings presenting a revival of the late, great Marcel Steiner’s classic Smallest Theatre in the World. Co- artistic director Dave Danzig started his career working with Marcel so there’s a full circle going on here. In its OTT, rough round the edges, boisterous way the Smallest Theatre in the World is the fore-runner of all these one person/small audience shows that are so fashionable these days. But unlike those shows a larger audience gets to join in with the experience.

MintFest2014-DeFo

Later in the evening Belgian duo Compagnie DeFo took the concept of provocation one step further. DeFo are an object theatre company and their performance featured two bewigged aristocrats who had stepped straight out of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. They had a banquet table on wheels on which a sumptuous meal had been placed. The meal was mainly meat but also featured a range of dolls that looked as though they had only just managed to escape from the bizarre experiments of Dr. Moreau. You could see further mutant toys in little windows all around the base of the table.

The two aristocrats then proceeded to show how such decadence ends in corruption and debasement. They fell on the meat like hungry dogs, a case of cocaine was emptied onto the table and sniffed, the woman performer ground her backside against the groin of a man in the audience, further dolls were assembled from the legs and arms found amongst the meat, and eventually all this excess turned to shame.

Definitely not a family show (the programme warned as much) but what was fascinating was that the audience both young and old took it in their stride. What made it work so well was that the two performers were so good at standing their ground in such close proximity to the people watching.

For a complete contrast you could walk up the hill and take in Theater Tuig’s contemplative music machine show Breekbaar in the grounds of Kendal castle, a perfect setting for a show that requires you to listen hard. Tuig’s work is process led – you see the nuts and bolts of a theatrical effect being assembled in front of you. Breekbaar features a large music machine covered in flowerpots and drums. Inside this outer structure is a giant spool of rope. As one of the performers pulls the rope it causes another large interior cylinder to rotate. This cylinder is covered in small spikes which trigger beaters in the same way that those small musical wind-up toys function.

Tuig are always a fascinating company to watch and their shows generally finish with a satisfying theatrical pay-off. Breekbaar looked like it still had some way to go in that department.

MintFest is taking a year off next year and apparently the Arts Council wants it to present a new ‘vision’ for what the festival can be. The response to that can only be, why? Innovation rests in the work and a festival needs to be adaptable to the needs of that work so that the audience gets to see it in the best conditions possible. Last weekend there were street theatre shows, installations with sound, a specially commissioned promenade performance around town, circus, large-scale shows, fire sculptures, and dance – virtually every form of outdoor work you could imagine. If it’s not broke don’t fix it never seemed more true.

Makadam Kanibal, Le Cirque des Curiosités | Photo: Frédéric Frivaz

Winchester Hat Fair

Makadam Kanibal, Le Cirque des Curiosités | Photo: Frédéric Frivaz

Winchester Hat Fair (now in its 39th year) has always had its roots in street busking and performance art, from the likes of Forkbeard Fantasy to the late, great art nuisance Ian Hinchliffe. So it was good to return in 2013 to see that those traditions are still being adhered to, but that the developments in UK street arts over the last ten years have added some bigger, more technically complex shows into the mix.

If you want an example of a classic street clowning show then there really is none better than Fraser Hooper’s. He never rushes, his act retains a fresh quality to it (I’ve seen some of his routines and gags more than several times), and he has a winning way with an audience. He picks children from the audience to come up and assist him, and although they are often treated in an offhand manner there’s not a trace of weary cynicism in his act.

Makadam Kanibal from France presented a show, Le cirque des curiosités, which had its roots in circus routines but which was the polar opposite of Fraser Hooper. The set was a rough little Art Brut house made of driftwood and polythene with a chimney sticking out of the barely adequate roof. It was inhabited by a couple who were part Deliverance and part Tom Waits at his most hobo-esque.

There was juggling with axes, a soup ladle (rather than a sword) got swallowed, a shower was taken in an angle-grinder’s sparks, and the man knocked the woman up midway through so that the show could culminate in the birth of a pig-baby. The humour was rude, crude and it demonstrated how the French are pushing circus into places which aren’t about the performer’s need for an audience to like them. In fact, many disgruntled parents led their children off as the action unfolded.

Wet Picnic’s show The Lift, performed from a moving booth, presented a ‘This is Your Life’ moment for individual members of the public. It’s quite performer heavy (four if I counted correctly), and, though technically well realised, the balance between the individual experience of the person selected to go into the booth and what a larger audience gets to see isn’t there yet.

Pif Paf’s Something to Hold presented a dance/acrobatic piece based around a small scaffolding structure which acted as a crane and a pair of scales which could rotate. The performers climbed all over the structure and spun around and around on it, one performer counterbalancing the other. The narrative concerned an astronomer searching for reason and truth but being continually led astray by two anarchic spirits. In the end an equilibrium was achieved between the two opposites. Big themes, and in some ways it was a pity that the crane structure wasn’t bigger in order to emphasise this.

The horizontal bar rotating on an upright principle was also used by Ray Lee in his sound installation Chorus, but instead of two performers there were two speakers at the end of each bar. The bars were mounted onto four-metre-high tripods. There were about 12-15 of these structures which were put into play gradually by technicians who milled about throughout the concert. The music is electronically generated ambient sound, the rhythms of which subtly change over the 30 minutes. You walk amongst the tripods and the music acquires a rich spatial quality. The installation was on the Dean’s Garden of Winchester Cathedral, and in response to the location the rhythm and texture of the music suggested bell-ringing at times.

It’s a very simple idea, technically quite complex, and Lee makes the most of the limitations of the form to create a powerful sensation.

Ilotopie, Fous de Bassin (Water Fools)

Ilotopie: Fous de Bassin (Water Fools)

Ilotopie, Fous de Bassin (Water Fools)

Ilotopie are one of France’s best funded outdoor theatre companies, and over the last fifteen years they have been working on spectacles that take place on water.

Tonight they are in Salford, on Manchester Ship Canal. Their backdrop is the Lowry Centre, while on the other side, behind the audience, is the BBC’s new northern HQ towers.

The show starts off in a very low-key fashion. A Fiat Tipo drives along the surface of the water and suddenly breaks down, plumes of smoke bursting out of its bonnet. The driver gets out to inspect the damage and then sits and waits for assistance to arrive. As he does so a street cleaner with a wheelie-bin drifts by and someone cycles past. Streetlights emerge from the water. This is the sort of scenario that IOU used to do expertly.

The driver’s hair catches on fire and what was a reasonably rational narrative gets invaded by a variety of characters straight from a film like Fellini’s Satyricon. Someone rows a huge bed into view which collides with the car, causing the duvet to split and release feathers en masse. A naked king parades up and down a barge. Timed to exploit the fading of the daylight, the scene on the water now resembles one of those royal pageants that Handel wrote the Water Music for: the boats are lit by fire and there’s a noticeable increase in the use of pyrotechnics.

The technology is quite cunning. Performers can steer the boats and their floating platforms without appearing to use their hands – I’d imagine there’s some sort of foot control like those used in Segways. The pyrotechnics (of which there are a lot) are all fired from eight floating buoys. I’d love to have seen how they packed so many rockets and gerbs into such a small space.

The show was extremely charming and well-staged, but at times seemed a hairsbreadth away from It’s a Knockout!, especially in the use of a broad pantomime performing style. The transformation of the normal into the fantastical could have been much more developed – the form of the show makes it very interesting for an audience to watch so they could have let the beginning slow burn a bit longer. The most arresting image when you arrived was a tree growing out of the water, but apart from being a tether for the bed it wasn’t used. The image of a clown cycling along clutching a bunch of coloured balloons was, quite frankly, beyond the pale.