Reviews by Jake Harrison


Rust Co-operative (South Africa) | Ostade A’dam, Amsterdam (Amsterdam Fringe 2014)

Siembamba addresses the stark and uncomfortable issue and relationship between the South African Black nannies and the rich white children they’ve left their own families to look after. Interchanging between ‘lecture style’ natural history and a dialogue between a black nanny and her young white ‘child’, several themes and reflections are thrown at the audience to largely great effect, namely the dynamic of being a part of the family and simultaneously an outsider.

Lesoko Seabe personifies Mother Nature as a forgotten and broken being, quietly lamenting the way humanity has left her behind. She also voices those involved in the Black ‘nanny’ situation; mainly as the nanny, but also as the nanny’s daughter and interestingly the white mother. Nieke Lombard plays the young white girl, whose confusion and resentment at the situation gives her the fierce resolve when giving a ‘lecture’ style presentation about the creation of the world (albeit as a virtually different character.) It’s a great moment in the performance and she jumps between English and Afrikaans delivering the speech at top speed. However this and other moments risk becoming too preachy, and the otherwise great writing keeps returning to the notion that ‘the highest evolved organism has broken a law of nature by ascribing status and perpetuating racial/ethnic difference.’ After the third time it got a bit dull. This state-the-obvious debate doesn’t reflect the general allusions of the piece.

October in the Chair and other Fragile Things

Old Sound Room (US) | MC Theatre, Amsterdam (Amsterdam Fringe 2014)

Old Sound Room from New York perform a selection of short stories by Neil Gaiman (a big factor in my choosing this show) framed by October taking the chair and delegating which month may tell a story. The setup should be clear: a campfire with various characters who then embody the roles in the tales as they’re told, simple. However, for the first fifteen minutes it was chaos. Four performers dash around supposedly becoming different personalities switching from one grotesque to another, repeatedly sawing the air with their arms like musical theatre vs Pantomime. It was noisy, messy and frankly looked amateurish. But after the first story finished it toned down and unraveled nicely. The use of props was generally good except for a prop sausage that lasted five seconds while an actor mimed a cigarette throughout (?) and they used an almost good looking puppet of a black bird that had a ridiculous and unnecessarily large base, which contrasted against a much better looking Phoenix (that was dismembered and pulled apart.)

The Valley of Astonishment | Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne

July 2014 | The Young Vic, London

Peter Brook introduces this piece as an exploration into “the mountains and valleys of the brain,” (quoted from the programme) while borrowing from passages of The Conference of The Birds, a Persian poem (by Attar of Nishapur) about a journey of birds through symbolic valleys, astonishment (or bewilderment, but astonishment arguably sounds better) being no. 6. Brook had adapted this in 1979 while the body of The Valley of Astonishment comes from another project, Je Suis un Phénomène, which comes from an even earlier Brook show. It must be said that neurological disorders have been doing the rounds for inspiring theatre and art and by now, since Oliver Sacks’ book [1985] on the subject should naturally run low on steam. We’ll see.

The Believers | Frantic Assembly

May 2014 | The Tricycle Theatre, London

Frantic Assembly are known for their projects of combined movement, design and text, having toured and collaborated in countless shows. The Believers is a play by Bryony Lavery and brings two neighbouring families with overtly expressed differences reluctantly together during a flood and ends in a tragic disaster, although it takes over an hour to discover what actually happened.

It begins with a series of odd tableaux structured around a large metal apparatus that eventually becomes representative of the rooms of the house. The performers stand around or lounge on the frame but not in a way that alludes or reveals traits of their character, rather, they all look a touch too serious and overburdened with ominous angst, which would be fine if the whole thing wasn’t a mystery. As an introduction it comes across as quite pretentious, it’s obvious they’re dying to unleash their troubles but have to strut around taking strange poses.

Kiss and Cry | Charleroi Danses

June 2014 | Barbican, London

This show is the result of an experiment: is it possible to make a film on a kitchen table and a dance performance using only hands? As featured in other performances using live-feed equipment, most of the apparatus is exposed on the stage. Shelves and storage are placed at the back, various work stations dominate key positions at the front and sides, a track for the primary camera reaches around three sides, a large screen hangs high above the action and a technical desk takes centre stage. This style of theatre, using cameras and cheap props to great effect, has been gathering popularity for a while, and the standard has been set pretty high by the likes of those from the small scale Paper Cinema to fully converged multimedia shows like Frauline Julie by Katie Mitchell with Schaubühne Berlin. Kiss and Cry has been going for years and should be more than capable of impressing in the same way.

Ubu Roi | Cheek by Jowl

June, 2014 | Barbican Centre, London

Resident Company to the Barbican Centre, Cheek By Jowl, gain access to the main stage for this attempt at a difficult text from an absurd writer and credited pre-cursor to the surrealists. My companion, James Hodgson (abstract performance artist and under-the-radar critic), and I couldn’t agree on this production: I thought it was a wasted opportunity to bring a founding text of scandalous theatre to a mainstream audience and it was a miserable failure; he thought it was an absolute disgrace.

Smashed! | Gandini Juggling

May 2014 | Udder Belly, Southbank, London

For over 20 years Gandini Juggling has been experimenting and innovating contemporary circus with a background in juggling, mathematics, rhythmic gymnastics and inspired-by-Pina-Bausch. It’s not just about what they juggle – it’s how they do it, what rhythms and detailed movements they adopt, what games they play and how they test themselves. Smashed! is a series of vignettes of nine performers and loads of apples. And a tea set.

Juggling has proved to be an exceptional device in ensemble training and Smashed! gloriously demonstrates this through concentration, tension, clowning, structures and chaos, alternating dynamic and static moments that are all present and the audience are drawn into endless mathematical patterns and games. I would confidently use Gandini Juggling as an example of Lecoq’s complicité or Meyerhold’s essential rhythm, which he believed was the most important element of theatre and created it from the very beginning with the mise-en-scène. Having argued that complicité can’t come spontaneously (despite many a teacher’s claims to the contrary), there had to be a structure and established rhythm. Skipping was the best example, at least over endless exercises with partners trying to compel one other to do something, with complicité, from nothing – until now. The audience also feel this hyper-awareness and the show is all the more compelling for it. Old-fashioned popular music is used throughout (seemingly to echo the point about Meyerhold) and the cast did very well to continue while a low flying helicopter decided to linger over Southbank covering all the sound for a few minutes (the show was also forced to share the venue with a considerably less professional band elsewhere in the tent.)

The Testament of Mary | Deborah Warner

May 2014 , The Barbican Theatre, London

This impressive adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, The Testament of Mary, takes the perspective of an altogether different mother of Christ. This Mary, bitter and resentful of the way her son has been deified in the aftermath of the crucifixion, reveals her grievous thoughts and stark attitude to the audience, framed by a visit of two evangelists seeking anecdotes to spin into propaganda. Deborah Warner returns to the Barbican with familiar collaborator Fiona Shaw (and Vulture) but the decision to invite audience on the stage in the soft opening is the most questionable element.

1984 | Headlong Theatre Company

March 2014 | The Almeida Theatre, London

The biggest decision made in this otherwise true-to-book adaptation is the inclusion of a post-1984 historical debate. In dystopian London, Winston Smith commits thought-crime and begins a diary, an act which frames the novel and inevitably leads to his demise. Within the novel Orwell alludes to no future after Winston, only that totalitarian fascists remain stamping on liberty and freedom of thought in perpetual domination, but creators Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke propose that it’s the inclusion of The Principles of Newspeak Appendix that structurally redefines the book and any further reading thereof.

Fuerzabruta! | De la Gaurda

February 2014 | Roundhouse, London

Fuerzabruta! (‘Brute Force’) returns to the Roundhouse as part of its ongoing international tour, demonstrating stunts, grand set pieces and pacey music throughout, in a sequence of dreamscapes. Music is both live and recorded (DJ’ed), switching between carnivalesque drums to an electronica score that supports the atmosphere and action of the piece which cuts through and over the audience.

Aragon excitedly wrote of Robert Wilson’s Deafman Glance as “…it is at once life awake and the life of closed eyes, the confusion between everyday life and the life of each night, reality mingle[d] with dream…” (belatedly arguing against a long-term decision that Theatre cannot be surreal.) Wilson’s production was a series of performed images, deliberately devoid of sound, but one is compelled to wonder what Aragon would have made of Fuerzabruta!, with it’s speed, fast changes of pace, ambitious design and use of technology on a grand scale. The experience, which attempts to tap into the audience’s primitive rhythms through carnival also encourages a more personal reflection;