Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Blanket Play

Daniel Austin’s new play ‘in-the-making’ was inspired by Continuum: Blanket Stories an exhibition by Marie Watt at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in autumn 2004, which I also saw.

Marie Watt: Blanket Stories

Her twisting columns of blankets were immediately striking because of the familiarity of the objects together with their unusual display, evoking totems and storybook ladders to the sky, as well as all the connotations of the blankets themselves – of warmth, comfort, community, intimacy, honour, ritual, memory and above all stories – gifted and gathered from thrift stores they might have been given in friendship, wrapped around the newly born and the dead, or traded between settlers and indigenous weavers.  They represented a link between past and present generations and their scents and signs of wear, the moth holes and cigarette burns and distortions (as if taking the shape of their owners) might have been clues to their stories.
Walking into St James this evening to see a giant tipi almost perfectly fitting the central space can only be described as magical.

photo: Daniel Austin

The piece of theatre is presented by four young performers, who have spent the last week or two with Daniel experimenting and creating its 24 ‘blankets’. 
These encompass poems, storytelling, film projected onto the canvas sides of the tipi, readings such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and found material from current newspapers (including in this performance humorous comment on the Royal Wedding and Aung San Suu Kyi on her father: ‘parents would take their children up in their arms and say, “Look!  This is Grandfather Aung San’s daughter” from The Guardian) as well as many beautiful blankets and quilts and ‘treasured’ objects brought in by audience members (which this evening included childhood toys, photos, jewellery and an intriguing notebook from 1941).
I particularly liked the description of the ‘spirit line’, the deliberate flaw introduced by Navajo weavers so that their work would not be perfect, a concept antithetical to typical Western notions of art.
The piece avoids being too, what Daniel referred to as, ‘earnest’, by using a wide range of universal material, such as Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, by a freshness in the performances - particularly from the youngest cast member who, at nine, is still naturally inquisitive and playful, by the beautiful simplicity of American Indian poetry which encourages almost a meditative mood, but also through the physical embodiment of a work that is part installation, part site sensitive.
This almost homespun physicality is the play’s greatest strength.  With the audience seated in a circle in the tipi, a real sense of community and intimacy is created.  Objects are passed around and blankets displayed and a space for sharing created where new stories might evolve or be disclosed – evoking a sense of past times and of the handing down of memories between generations.
This was a first showing of a play still at the experimental and ‘playful’ stage prior to a longer run - 28 June to 2 July at St James, which I look forward to experiencing again.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


               crows gather

on the shore

                  as I pass

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Attempts on Her Life

According to Aleks Sierz (Theatre of Martin Crimp) 'it's no exaggeration to say that his 1997 masterpiece, Attempts on Her Life, is one of the very best plays of the past quarter-century.'

Michael Billington described it as  'a prose-poem that implies our notion of the individual ego is being steadily eroded by a mixture of rampant consumerism, global capitalism and technological advance’ and  'a work which implies virtually everything in modern society conspires to reduce our sense of self.'

In its 17 scenarios for the theatre, an irreverent postmodern chorus of voices deconstructs European Everywoman Ann/Anne/Anya/Annie/Anny/Annushka, who may or may not exist, even within the fiction of the play – she’s a central enigma, a lover, an actress, an artist, a porn star, a suicide, a terrorist, even a brand of car.

The text of the play is prefaced with a quote from Baudrillard:

No one will have directly experienced the actual cause of such happenings but everyone will have received an image of them’

and this is a brilliant description of both how the play works and also the experience of audiences/participants at Jersey Arts Centre youtheatre’s production at Grand Jersey this week.

The text is all refraction and resonance: answerphone messages, marketing-speak, translations, descriptions of photographs and exhibition materials – an assemblage of postmodern ennui, ideology, parody and angst, by turns romantic, sophisticated, callous, sinister, cynical, ironic, acid sharp, playfully funny, gossipy, sentimental or self-deceiving - a second-hand barrage of fiction, perceptions and insights, bizarre and mundane, with product placements, hearsay, a skit, a poem, a rap…

The play could be described as all chorus and no action – so it was an inspired decision to locate the Jersey Arts Centre production in the Park Suites at Grand Jersey, a luxurious assortment of conference rooms (including a private cinema) with inspirational and motivational quotes on the walls. 

From the moment we were greeted with canapés and drinks in the lounge (director Daniel Austin is always solicitous of audiences comfort!), then led by youtheatre members (very sophisticated in black cocktail dresses and suits) through a seeming-labyrinth of business suites, to be confided in, lectured to, whispered and shouted at, until the final scenario holding hands with the actors in a circle on the hotel terrace (at night, in front of a busy road, and no doubt to the bemusement of some hotel guests!) the audience was truly embedded in the world of the play, so that it became a site-sensitive work.

Yet the cast remained true to the text with its overlapping voices, silences, poetic rhythm (the beautiful 100 words) and languages (in this case Roumanian and French) with just the addition of  a few props; a dinging bell between scenes, classical music played on a laptop, black blindfolds for scenario 12 STRANGELY!

It’s an ensemble piece and one of the strengths of the Jersey Arts Centre youtheatre has always been its ensemble work, and in this they excelled again to produce a very mature piece of theatre.   I can’t unpick this to do justice to all of the actors who worked together so professionally, but I did find Fleur very powerfully moving in scenario 3 Faith in Ourselves, and Hermione, tipsily giddy with self-love in scenario 5 The Camera Loves You, was a comic scene stealer.

I already admired Martin Crimp’s text, so this opportunity to experience the play was a real treat – I noticed how subliminal meanings were exposed through being stated explicitly - the racism coming out of the marketing spiel about the Anny car in scenario 7 which makes you flinch; or through being exaggerated - the hype about the Porno Anne who could change the world, end animal suffering, end human suffering, popularise psychoanalytical theory, dance with the particles of light etc.. 

It’s an early 'Attempt' at a new type of theatre to penetrate and exploit the media saturation we take for granted, which makes us blasé and almost unreachable because even atrocities are pre-packaged for us;  an 'Attempt' at describing our experience of the world through language, while simultaneously exposing the fallacies of this.  It seems to parody itself in the critics scene:

It’s funny.  It’s sick.  It’s sexy.  It’s deeply serious.  It’s entertaining.  It’s illuminating.  It’s dark.  It’s highly personal and at the same time raises vital questions about the world we’re living in.’

The work cheats us of a conclusion – it slyly trails off in the last scenario, with a whimper rather than a bang – it has to really, and our audience was left appropriately wondering if the play had really ended, following the cast as they strode back into the hotel, ignoring us.

But as in the Baudrillard quote, all those words left after-images in my mind of things which I hadn’t actually seen – photographs reducing to just little dots, Anne’s red bag filled with stones, the child in two bags…

And the refrain of it is still stuck in my head the next day like some catchy pop tune:

She’s the girl next door
She’s the fatal flaw…

The camera loves you