October 2014 | Kwai Tsing Theatre, Hong Kong, New Vision Arts Festival
With Watch Me Fall, Action Hero do an excellent job of deconstructing the spectacle of risk as entertainment in a way that is playful, funny and painfully human.
James Stenhouse and Gemma Paintin are charming enough to bring us along for the improbable ride of coca cola-based daredevilry, using text that apparently comes from a mix of real interviews with daredevils, Chuck Yeager, president’s speeches, Mexican wrestling matches, drag races and so on. When we enter we’re given cans of coke and disposable cameras. The cameras are a big hit in Hong Kong, and the amateur photographers in the audience are eagerly trying to photograph the ‘big’ moments. It’s a great start and gets us involved and invested in the performance.
The stunts work particularly well when they are reminiscent of endurance based performance art: when Stenhouse is holding out two open 2-litre coke bottles in his outstretched arms we can truly feel the difficulty of the feat and see his shoulders begin to shake in protest. When another 2-litre bottle is poured from a height into Paintin’s open mouth we also experience that visceral connection with the act, in which we identify with the performer’s genuine physical struggle.
Less successful are the ping pong ball sequences, though they provide a humorous build up. While the real risk of the audience being hit was refreshing in a way, the use of a golf club to hit the balls was disappoingly at odds with the genuine treatment of most of the material, seemingly asking us to imagine the ping pong balls as having the properties of golf balls. Hitting them with a ping pong bat would have seemed more coherent, as well as avoiding an awkward golf swing. However, this is a very small criticism of what is a very well-built structure of escalating stunts and audience involvement.
The dynamic between the duo’s male and female characters is an important element, with the chauvinism of the daredevil world (or the entertainment world, or the world) being repeatedly exposed with juxtaposition of action and borrowed text. Stenhouse’s character constantly portrays himself as the centre of any risk and the originator of any act, even as it is undermined by Paintin’s tasks. The pornographic allusions in his pouring the coke into Paintin’s mouth below are also clear enough.
The ending has the potential to be very powerful, but I think on this particular night it fell a bit flat because of the fairly small and restrained audience. The audience stands on two sides of the ‘runway’ for the whole show, but many retreated to the safety of the (blocked off) seating area in the theatre. I don’t blame them really, because the Chinese surtitles are very high up and difficult to take in while standing in the right place to watch the performance. It seemed that those standing close by were those who could follow the English without difficulty. This is a problem with the theatre rather than the show itself, but I think it’s an important consideration for a non-English speaking audience, as it affects the atmosphere a great deal.
I would love to see this show again with a bigger, louder audience. It is a rare combination of clever deconstruction, charm and visceral fun that deserves to be seen by more people in Hong Kong.
On for the next couple of days only at Kwai Tsing Theatre, info here.
*I couldn’t find photo credits for the images – I think some of them might be from the audience cameras in shows (which is very cool) – let me know if you know who took them and would like credit.
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