Opie Zeitgeist

[photopress:opie1.jpg,thumb,three_up][photopress:opie2.jpg,thumb,three_up][photopress:opie3.jpg,thumb,three_up]

Several Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows this year have marketed themselves with Julian Opie style images. I’m not quite sure why Opie’s aesthetic, made famous by the Best of Blur album cover design in 2000, has suddenly caught the zeitgeist. Perhaps the producers see how the stylistic forms, which are simplistic yet idiosyncratic, remind us how we build up our ideas of the human and its nature from a few bold strokes. More or less the same lines, but a million different possibilities. The same, they reason, could be said of their play.

Or perhaps its just easy, lazy design, tapping into an already recognisable ‘cool’. Maybe its a coincidence.

Elsewhere, I see Jabr-wocky has suggested that the Best of Blur album may have been derivative in itself.

Edinburgh Minge

[photopress:streetdance.jpg,full,centered]

Midnight, and a busker on Edinburgh’s Cowgate cannot believe his luck. Two drunk young ladies with belts for skirts decide to whip up some loose change from the punters, by performing an erotic dance for passers-by. While the guitarist strums rock classics, badly, they rub their arses on each others breasts, and (with practiced ease) bite each others buttocks. The crowd is three deep. The minge of the fringe.

We walk on to the Smirnoff Underbelly, and into the popular late night comedy review ‘Spank’. They have a popular feature called ‘The Naked Promo’ where one plucky Fringe performer can promote their show, on stage… but only if they are naked. An actor from the much trailed Bloggers takes the challenge, and we get to hear all about the show, while looking at his cock.

I think I’ve seen enough pubic hair for one night.

Middle-East wars and the Edinburgh Festival

I am hot and busy, working on the AV elements for Black Watch, an Edinbrugh Fringe production by the NTS. It is based on interviews with former soldiers who served in their 2004 tour of Iraq. We’ve been called in because the show takes in ideas of modern warfare, and how public perception of conflicts are influenced by the media. We see the results of an attack on the TV news, usually before those who actually carried it out. Instant analysis, spin, moralising, judgement. No more heros, just jarheads who create the cross-fire for children to get caught in.

The current conflict between Israel and Lebanon feels very much like a play, running to a predictable, banal script. The headlines from Condoleeza Rice’s latest trip to the Middle-East:

” … we have great concerns about the suffering of innocent peoples throughout the region.”

Is there any possible universe in which she would not have said that? Is there any possible universe in which Israel would not have retaliated against the Lebanese after the Hezbollah rocket attacks? These events are a tragedy in the strict sense of the word, where the traits of the main characters make certain events inevitable. Sure, Israel didn’t start it. Watch any one of the countless Greek Tragedies that will plague this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and you will see that it is never the protagonist’s fault. Hercules didn’t start it. Electra didn’t start it. Clytemnestra didn’t start it. But at the end of the play, when everyone’s dead, one still thinks “if only you had been different.” Nasrallah is the malevolent deity, nowhere to be found yet omnipresent at the same time. He laughs at how easy it is to provoke this tragedy.

And just like the Greek stories, now the children are being dragged into it. Some Israeli kids have been signing the missiles being shot into Lebanon. After drawing their pictures (I rather doubt they are writing messages of death to other kids as Sabbah suggests), the Israel children probably don’t see the effects of their missiles. We do, however, because we are the TV audience. And we watch as the cycle repeats itself. Another blood feud is created, ready to be concluded in some Tel Aviv pizza parlour in 2012.

Ghost

A few months back, I wrote about the ghosts in the ipod, who swim about in the diodes and relays of your MP3 player, and choose songs which somehow soundtrack your mood. It is interesting to gaze upon an old, familiar sight, and yet feel new emotions, even notice new things, because the accompanying soundtrack has changed.

A few days ago, I attended a quirky piece of theatre titled Ghost, produced as part of the Leith Festival. Arriving at the venue, you are presented with a small MP3 player and headphones, and sent off onto the streets and schemes of Leith. A narrator allows his story to unfold, while you are told which paths to follow by a robotic, feminine ‘GPS’ guide named Thanos. As you walk past random pedestrians, and sullen truants, you realise you are part of a clandestoine world which those around you cannot access. When you do spot another ‘theatre-goer’, you let slip a conspiratorial smile. Their identical MP3 headphone set is like the badge of a secret society.

The story is one of love, loss and flight, but is not without wit. References to an Icarus-like fall from the Heavens are complimented with a pair of angel wings, discarded in a tree in a church-yard. It is as if William Blake’s angels in the trees have had a nasty mid-air collision. Soon after, the narrator (a Daedalus figure) declares that he has invented the ‘cyborgs’ who walk around you. Look, notice! The man on his mobile phone, or the others with wires coming out of their ears. All robots, following the complex programming they have been hard-wired to follow. It is at this point that you are struck by the realisation that you, too, are following a pre-ordained path around the city. The production company is Puppet Lab: they have created a show where the audience and the puppets are one.
Continue reading “Ghost”

Airport Angels

I was delighted to play a small part in the production of Roam, the latest offering from the Grid Iron Theatre Company. The show took place in Edinburgh Airport, with scenes taking place at the check-in desks, baggage reclaim, and even ‘Air Side’ at a departure gate. Our role as AV consultants was to take over the display screens for use in the show, conjuring up high-tech thought-bubbles for the characters.

“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from the terminal ceilings announcingthe departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workman like casing and pedestrian typefaces do nothing to disguise their emotional charge of imaginative allure. Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Warsaw, Seattle, Rio.”
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

The play is a meditation on the process of air travel. It takes in themes of citizenship and national identity, and how different passports mark out fellow humans as either ‘them’ or ‘us’. One entertaining scene stages a revolution in Scotland, with hapless refugees fleeing to the ‘Cathedrals of Hope’ – the airports – to catch planes to the safe havens of Beirut, Kigali, and Sarajevo. While the unfortunate Scots are made to wait and fester, those with Rwandan or Bosnian passports are allowed to pass unhindered.

Seeing scenes from the play several times over, it was interesting to eventually let my eyes wander away from the action, to actual passengers and airport staff, who went about their business as the actors represented them:

“What makes an airport especially curious is that its look-alike settings are the scenes for the most emotional moments… people break down at departure gates, in racking sobs…”
Pico Iyler The Global Soul

It was very bizarre to see such moments of emotion reconstructed by the cast, and then repeated by real travellers, who were often totally unaware that a group of seventy audience members were looking at them. It is actually very easy to be so oblivious: one does not expect a play to be in progress at an airport.

The two quotes above are lifted from director Ben Harrison’s notes in the programme. He also says:

Multi-culture is for me the only way forward. It is an inescapable fact…

In the age of cheap flights and global communications, this is so true. This the notion of multiculturalism needs to be embraced, not rejected, and indeed reclaimed from those who have misdefined it as something wholly negative.

The run has now finished, the actors dispersed back to Beirut, Spain, Holland, via the same airport that they had been performing in for three weeks. I make no apology for not plugging the show before now: It sold out without my help, and received some pretty good reviews.

The show has also been nominated for several critics awards, which is pleasing.

Hear No, See No, Speak No…

Of all the plays I have had the fortune (and, my God, the misfortune) to watch, none so turned me so upside-down as much as a bizarre, one-off performance I caught, quite by chance, in the latter-half of September 2005. The venue – the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh – had advertised the play as ‘an extraordinary experiment in light and sound’, which immediately alienated me. After another season trapped at the Edinburgh Fringe, yet another experiment in ‘light and sound’ gave the impression of vaccuous installation art-as-theatre that had numbed me for three lonely weeks.

However, a good friend of mine had two complimentary tickets to the event. Being the kind of person who assumes that a complimentary ticket usually means a second-rate performance, I would normally have made a snide remark at the offer. But my friend happened to be deaf, which for some reason made me less inclined to turn down her gesture. I accepted the ticket, and braced myself for not just an evening of boredom, but an evening of boredom with someone who would not be able to hear my whining plea to walk out early.

The Studio 3 space was small, as was the audience. This I had anticipated, because the event was clearly the one performance in every run which is signed for the deaf. Hence the complimentary tickets. Reading the programme before the lights dimmed, I noticed that the play did actually include a deaf character, so I assumed that the play, whatever it was about, would be of particular interest to Joey. I resolved to stay until the end, and try to enjoy it. The programme also included a slip of paper which explained that not only was this the signed performance, but it was also the audio-described performance. I remember thinking that someone in the scheduling department at the Traverse had clearly been pushed for time, and decided to shove all the disabled people in together. The Deaf, the Blind, and me. Great.

The set was sparse and disorientating. The audience, all fifteen of us, stood in a semi-circle along one side of the room, while the actors, all five of them, came and went from behind two or three sheets of gauze. Each actor played just one character, with none appearing to have more lines than the others. Dressed in white shirts and blouses, with neutral black trousers, they lacked a certain distinction of character, and sometimes it was difficult to remember who was who… especially remarkable since one of the actors was black. Another character, a charismatic artist named ‘T’, was revealed to be blind only in the second scene, the first time in the play that he had cause to actually get up out of his chair. This twist was well timed, coming as it did after a particually verbose monologue from the same character that threatened to send the whole play into an arid exposition on the nature of perception.

The plot, confusing at first, fell into a decent rhythmn when it was finally allowed to gather pace, towards the end of the first half hour. The pain of some characters unrequited love becoming most apparent in those scenes where other characters were oblivious. In the interactions between the pale young girl and the older man, most poignant were those scenes of contrived social interaction, where what was being said and what was meant were two very different things. The slightly cliched plot device of having a sixth character created entirely ‘off-stage’ slightly punctured the overall coherence of the story in my opinion. However, the dark reason for the absence of this friend, the man at cause of all the heart-ache, was only hinted at, leaving the audience guessing and adding a layer of uncertainty to the piece.

At just over an hour, the story was wrapped up with a rather weak final line (“I thought you knew each other?”) which sounded incomplete to me. The absence of the sixth character was never quite explained, but the couple in love achieved some kind of closure, if not happiness. The philosophising of the first section never returned and I applauded with enthusiasm, more at the discernible talent of the actors in creating believable characters, rather than because any profound statement of human nature had been achieved. We retired to the bar.

Sitting awkwardly among the punters, the conversation meandered onto other subjects – the play, I considered, not being controversial enough to provoke debate. However, as I was returning from the counter with another whiskey and soda, I had to avoid one of the actors from the play, the one who had played the middle aged man, who was on his way home. I smiled as I squeezed passed. Back at the table, Joey nodded towards him, and said something so odd, I was sure I had misheard.

“I wonder what happened to the little boy we never saw?”

She was talking about the play again, but clearly this was a mistake. The the absent character was definitely a man, an adult, but Joey had called him a “little boy”.

“In the play? You mean, ‘the man we never saw’?” I corrected.

“No, the little boy. The person who they all talked about but who wasn’t on stage.”

“That was a man. An adult.”

Joey looked puzzled, and slightly offended, as if I was making fun of her. She could see from my face that I wasn’t joking. To resolve the matter, she turned around and tapped a bald, bearded man on the shoulder. He was also deaf and she apparently knew him. Either that, or she at least knew he was deaf. They signed a quick exchange, before Joey turned back to me. “It was definitely a little boy.” she said. They both stared at me, waiting for a response.

And so the short, yet fantastic detective story began. At first, it began with a simple disagreement over the facts of the story, but it soon became clear that the woman signing the translations for the deaf audience members had been referring to the “boy” off-stage, while those of us with proper ears had been lead to believe that person was a man. I was tempted to write it off as a mistake, until the man with the beard signed something at me. Joey translated.

“He says, ‘if it was a man’ then how come they were so worried he had left them?’”

It was if they had seen a different play. The key elements were there, of course. A tale of unfulfilled love, the same essential character. But the story Joey and the Beard had percieved had taken on a profoundly different tone. Rather than worrying about what sinister motivation had removed the sixth character from the scene (A prison sentence, I had half-conjectured), they had been concerned for the well-being of a missing child. There was even, Joey said, the strong possibility he had been murdered. I was baffled that something so fundamental to the story and the characters could have been missed, or altered. I excused myself and made for the toilets.

Splashing water on my face, I became aware of someone behind me. Looking into the mirror above the sink, I noticed a man in dark glasses stagger out of the cubicle. His walking stick betrayed him as blind, and I offered to get the door for him.

It occurred to me that I needed an ally in my argument with Joey. “Did you just see that play in there?” I demanded.

He chuckled at my insensitivity, and nodded. “They gave us some ear pieces, with a narrator telling us the actions. Fucking weird. Can you help me back to my table?”

I sat him down on the table next to ours, where Joey remained seated with the Beard who had joined her. They were furiously signing in utter slience, while the bar chattered around them. I waved at her, and they stopped signing. “This guy saw the performance too.” I mouthed the words slowly. They looked at him, as if waiting for some kind of revelation.

“Odd bit of fun, wasn’t it?” He was from Essex. “Don’t know why those two didn’t just knob each other and get it over with, but still.”

“I should have thought it was obvious, the strain they were under.”

He looked at me (or rather, he turned his head in my general direction, the eyeline was slighty off, but I couldn’t mention it). “You what?”

The riddle had become a conundrum. The blind man had been in the studio with us, but the audio description had given him yet another angle on the play. The action he described was more frantic, more angry, and more farcical than what the rest of us had witnessed. He had come away from a performance that was satire. It had made him smirk.

It was obvious that the director and the actors had been a part of this triplicity. They had been putting extra information and false descriptions into the audio feed, and the translator performing the sign translations had blatantly been mistranslating the story. It was irritating that I had fallen for such a plot. I was particularly annoyed that I hadn’t managed to spot the different reactions on the faces of the other audience members. Why had I not seen the blind man smile, or Joey gasp, at moments when I was cringing? The company had been playing with us, and I didn’t like it.

“Well this is really not on!” I said eventually. “They’ve been telling you the wrong story. They shouldn’t play with people’s disabilities like that. Its mean.”

Joey knocked on the table. “But we saw the right story, not you. We didn’t need a translation for Miranda’s part, did we?” Miranda was the deaf character that Joey had been interested to see. Half the time, the actress spoke normally, but signed at the same time. In a few scenes she simply signed to another character, apparently her brother, without speaking. He always answered her properly, but her words were spoken by the interpreter, the woman at the side of the studio who usually translated the rest of the play back into signs. I could not even remember what the translator looked like, but it was beginning to seem as if she had some diabolical hold over the entire performance. Not only had she deceived the deaf people, she had deceived me too. Joey had a point.

I rescued myself. “Well, they definitely fooled you,” I said, turning back to the blind man.

“I suppose so. It took me a little while to recognise that one of the characters was deaf! They never told us that, and I only worked it out when I heard the bodies moving in the one place, and the voice for that Miranda girl coming from off stage.” He chuckled and felt on the table for the stick.

I didn’t say anything then, but I knew he was wrong, and that I was wrong too. This man had heard body movements from the other side of the room, movements I had not noticed because I was too engrossed in my own, critics eye-view. Perhaps scenes that I assumed were heavy and brutal had an underlying spring in their step that only a blind man could hear. Perhaps the key moments in the scene were not the confrontations that distracted me, but a slient resolute expression that only the deaf would see. It was not that the performance had been audio described, or sign interpreted. It had been vocally and visually translated for me.

The show had a run of only three nights. I attended the third. The magazine I wrote for had huge lead times, and in any case was struggling to break out of the niche market it had dropped into, so I never had a chance to review it. It was ignored by the tabolids, of course, but a couple of the broadsheets summarised it in a couple of paragraphs, giving it three stars and using words like “standard” and “interesting”. Someone told me that Mark Lawson on the radio had called it “pedestrian,” but I didn’t hear the programme so it might have been something else.

There has not, to my knowledge, been a revival. I am left with a perennial weed in my stomach, the feeling you have when you suddenly realise you have seen something fantastic, but did not realise at the time. You look back, but it’s gone.

All that remains is the memory, bliss and agony, of the moment we finally stood up, put on our jackets, and went to leave the bar. I suddenly remembered the innoccuous final line of the play: “I thought you knew each other?” I imagined that line, in the light of the master plan we had revealed. I considered the alternatives witnessed by Joey, the Beard and the blind man, and suddenly the various possibilities of the story were open to me. Far from being weak, that final line had brought those parallel stories together. With all the clues in place, that line revealed exactly why the sixth character was missing. Too late.

I winced for breath as we emerged into the breeze on Lothian Road. The Deaf, the Blind, and me, struck dumb.

Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden

Pauline Lockhart as Lily

Creating the play

In a small and half formed garden in the quaint town of Pitlochry, Sweet Fanny Adams became incarnate in a human form. Playwright Judith Adams‘ creation Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden was performed by a troupe of actors in the Scottish Plant Collector ‘s Garden. They were assisted by: costumes; a container of props; some sets; a sound system; and an array of sophisticated digital technology. In two hours they told the stories of three women, three men, and a little girl dressed in red (who may have had wings). Audiences were on the whole delighted by the piece, which combined the fairy tales of their past with a distinctly 21st century sense of humour. Sweet Fanny Adams & was a promenade performance, with scenes taking place simultaneously across several locations around the seven-acre space. Despite this ambitious approach, reviews from favourable across the board. In common with the audience, the summary was always I’ve never seen anything like it!

And “You’ve never seen anything like it” is spot on – It is the conclusion to this article. It may appear a paradox therefore, when I declare that the reviewers to a large extent missed the point. Despite a lengthy briefing by the playwright herself in the pre-show interviews, there was little comment on the way in which the play had been created. In failing to do this true nature of the achievement escaped the reviewers, like a butterfly from a net.

After the Stellar Quines Theatre Company commissioned Adams, she began researching the characters and the gardens upon which it was suggested the play should be based. She quickly found that there were myriad ideas and several interlinking themes, swimming around in her own head, and in the writings and words of her subjects. How to connect them in a way that made sense?

Collaborating with the design and multimedia production company Fifty Nine, Adams found that existing Internet authoring technology could be adapted to her needs. As the characters’ words were typed into the computer, so too were the links between the scenes, and ‘core texts’ to which they referred.

Many scenes in Adams’ earlier work are characterised by a certain antagonism to linearity, with the various characters’ words and worlds overlapping and mirroring one-another, creating what may be described as a symphony of speech. Just like a musical composition, the individual instruments (in this case, human voices) are each a part of a greater whole. The Internet (or more specifically the HTML pages that may also be viewed on a computer without an online connection) provided a much better medium with which to generate this sort of writing. Overlapping and concurrent scenes may be presented just so. If a character repeats a refrain from an earlier scene, well, that scene with all its richness may be ‘linked’ to its counterpart in the later acts.

Of course, once the non-linearity of the medium became apparent to the playwright, the proverbial floodgates proverbially opened. If one were not constrained by notions of ‘before-and-after’ or ‘here-and-there’ (just like the fictional, fairy-tale characters, and just like our imaginations), why stay in one time, or one place? Presented with an entirely new method of writing plays, Judith Adams presented an entirely new type of play. Worlds collide. One word shoots a fountain of others in all directions. Embracing the medium, the playwright created scenes that did not require a place in a linear narrative.

Video was introduced as a means by which a character could physically exist in more than one place. Moreover, in this context of suppression and dominion, video also represented an alternative mental space.

A web of stories

Taking stock, then: The play that appeared as a scruffy CD-ROM in the hands of director Muriel Romanes was text based, but non linear. The constituent parts of the script (I hesitate to call them pages) existed in their very own piece of cyber space, one that neither preceded nor succeeded any other. They therefore made as much sense when put in one order, as they did in another. This matters, because non-linearity better reflects the human mind, thoughts, history. We are constantly affected by the actions of others, and each thought (indeed, each life) is affected not by one, but several narratives that have gone before. A scene has two meanings, one for each character. A scene may have two meanings, depending on what has preceded it. There is circularity to our lives and our history that is ideally represented by a non-linear medium.

Let it not be said that Sweet Fanny Adams has no discipline, or that the scenes are ordered without thought. A finite number of carefully considered words make up the text. No more may be added. In this way, the play is like any other. Eventually, a certain order was imposed on the piece so that it could be presented to actors and then used in physical rehearsals (Eight or more Palm-top computers were not available at the time). Fifty Nine used computer modelling to determine which combinations of scenes were possible in Pitlochry. The proposed order was carefully considered, with the writer, director and production team examining its implications, and the interpretations of the story that were likely to be inferred as a result of the imposition.

However, devising this order did seem a betrayal, and alteration of the piece. Clicking ‘print’ and creating a paper version was an act of adaptation, moving the composition out of its natural environment. While the audience were ultimately allowed to choose an order for the scenes themselves (and therefore the performance changed for them, depending on their whims and preconceptions), their choices were nevertheless limited to those possible within the space and time of the performance for which they had bought a ticket.

The current proposals, submitted to the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and Arts Council England (Yorkshire), push this audience interaction a stage further. They suggest the creation of an online version of the performance with specially recorded scenes. In this way, they seek to return Sweet Fanny Adams to is natural habitat. There in cyber space, each performance will be unique for each audience member. Indeed, the audience member becomes an important character in the play. They take over the role of Smith the Showman, who gives voices to, and then silences, the women he keeps under surveillance. That the audience may take on this role is the mark of true interactivity, something that only the Internet may deliver. So far as text-based performance goes, it is very rare for a play to even acknowledge the existence of an audience, let alone allow the character of the audience member to influence and bend the proceedings, according to that character. Even in Pitlochry and especially on the Internet, Sweet Fanny Adams achieves both these things.

The actors, their characters, and the audience

Leaving aside the creation of Sweet Fanny Adams in Hyperspace Eden, there is a second important point about the structure of the piece. This was very pertinent in the case of the Pitlochry performance. Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden requires of the actor a whole new type of text based performance, a subtly different type of acting that not all can master. The Pitlochry performance literally redefined what it meant to develop a character. On successive nights, the actors rediscovered what the website had demonstrated all along  that their words could be delivered in any order. Towards the end of the run (when usually the actors might be settling into a tiresome repetition, with one eye on their next audition) the Pitlochry cast were inventing entirely new scenes, and thus finding new meanings in the play, new insights into their characters. Crucially, this was not improvisation, because what could and could not be said had been clearly defined by the writer some months before, and rehearsed during the previous fortnight. Instead, they evolved scenes that revealed secrets about the world of Sweet Fanny Adams that even the writer had not consciously understood. The four-week run allowed the kind of character development that is not possible in media other than theatre, and rarely explored in conventional (linear) theatre. It was the unique construction of the script online that gave the actors the confidence and inspiration to play, create, and innovate in this way.

While Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden is conventionally entertaining, with a set of strong characters, and Fairy Tale themes given a defiant twist, it is nevertheless the method of its creation that sets it apart. This piece simply could not have been created before the advent of HTML language, and not practically before the introduction of web authoring tools (such as Adobe GoLive). It is one of the few examples of Internet technology being used as a medium for creation in itself, rather than as a substitute for the page or the TV screen. It is thus quintessentially of its time. Furthermore, it has inspired new techniques for actors, and presented an entirely new form of performance art to the audiences of Scotland. Back in cyber-space, it will bring this new art to the rest of the world.