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AO 22: summer 2008

REVIEWS

> Pere Ubu and the Brothers Quay - Bring
me the head of Ubu Roi

>
Christopher Leith - Scholastica
> The Gentle Giant
>
Theatre-Rites - Lighten Up
>
La Cie Akselere - Sleeping Beauty
>
Horse and Bamboo - Veil



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Pere Ubu and the Brothers Quay
Bring me the head of Ubu Roi

Queen Elizabeth Hall
24April 2008

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Pere Ubu is a rock band originating in Cleveland, Ohio (USA) in 1975. It styles itself as ‘avant garage,’ drawing inspiration from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays and Jarry’s mock-philosophy of ‘pataphysics – the science of rules that govern exceptions’. The band is anti-commercial to the core, and only band leader David Thomas remains from the original lineup. The pairing of Pere Ubu with American-born, London-based stopmotion and puppet animators Stephen and Timothy Quay to produce a new version of the first and most famous of Jarry’s Ubu plays, Ubu Roi (1896), held out great promise. But, as Ubu would have put it, by my green candle! This version of Ubu felt more like an elaborate practical joke than a fully realised theatrical work.

Excerpts of the play as adapted and directed by Thomas were read by Thomas (playing Pere Ubu) and Sarah-Jane Morris (playing Mere Ubu) between musical numbers. Occasionally band members would emerge from the side of the stage (marked by a sign reading ‘This side of stage invisible’) to dance in a stiff style in a poorly illuminated upstage area. Repetitive films of animated cutlery and the like by the Brothers Quay were back-projected onto a large screen. (These felt more like technical exercises, and did not show the Brothers’ customary scrupulous attention to detail.) Thomas roared and spluttered into the microphone. Problems in amplification made it difficult for this reviewer to understand some of the dialogue. As technical and dramatic mistakes, intentional or intentional, proliferated, Thomas cursed and muttered cutting remarks. ‘Off-book’ comments by Thomas and band members, such as a discussion of how to sell the show to the BBC or a comment that ‘I think we’re in danger of alienating the audience,’ did provide some comic relief, however, as did a comic bit about a helium balloon that failed to alter the voice of a band member playing a soldier. The promise that ‘the more you drink, the more it makes sense’ projected on a slide at intermission was not borne out, and the thunderous pre-recorded applause and self-gifted bouquets of flowers that ended the play left me cold.

Thomas is clearly a significant talent, and in the hands of a more capable director than himself and in a production in a more intimate space than the cavernous Queen Elizabeth Hall, he could have made a delightful Pere Ubu. Ubu Roi has survived the death threat of the production’s title, but Thomas and his band have come off the worse for the melee.

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Christopher Leith
Scholastica
The Little Angel Theatre
London
7 June 2008

Reviewed by Penny Francis

A one-person production in every sense, the performance was like a good deed in a naughty world, a veritable oasis of calm and harmony. As soon as it started I, like most of the audience, took a couple of deep breaths, relaxed, and basked for an hour in the administrations, as it were, of a master of his art and craft.

The show is based on a legend: the annual meeting of St Benedict  –he who established the Benedictine Order  –with his sister Scholastica, a nun. One inhabited a monastery he had founded on the top of a mountain in sixth century Italy (maybe Monte Cassino - it is not specified) and the other a convent near the foot of the same mountain, and they used to meet half-way. The meeting is, in this case, the last time the twins are to see each other, as Benedict is soon to die.

The text is nearly all (unaccompanied, live) Gregorian chant, sung beautifully by Leith who has long been a friend and pupil of the famous, now late, Mary Berry; and although there is little more than discussion between the siblings (thought to be twins), and although the scenography and the mood is almost monochrome, I felt engaged and even conscious of tension and anticipation.

The Angel who appears at the end in his magnificent red cloak provides the only splash of colour. Like all the characters he is an exquisitely made puppet some 20 inches high, and like all the characters he is manipulated on (and in the Angel’s case above) a plain table top with Leith in shadowed view moving them from the rear. Benedict and Scholastica are on small carved plinths with rods to their hands, carved in the typical Leith hieratic style and dressed in flowing robes.

Benedict was a towering influence in the social, scholastic and ethical development of  Christianity, founding some twelve monasteries of his Order, whose monks took vows of obedience, stability and ‘conversion of life’ which sounds to me like a bad translation. Maybe what he wanted was their conversion to a good, healthy and useful life. They were set several hours a day of labour: their wider history is a fascinating one.

The piece captured something of the spirit – or so I like to think – of the two saints, and for an hour we were transported to another kind of world. Scholastica deserves to return to the Little Angel and indeed to venues all over the country, since it only played there for two nights, both very well attended. Leith’s skills, his deep sincerity and his gentle persona ensure a unique experience in puppet theatre.

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The Gentle Giant
Linbury Studio theatre, Royal Opera House
London
March 2008

Reviewed by Penny Francis

Performed to pleasing but not at all facile music by Stephen McNeff, the now-you-see-it now-you-don’t opera for young people at the Linbury appeared only for one weekend in March, but could, I’m sure, have packed the place out for a longer run. The Michael Morpurgo story, adapted from by Mike Kenny to form the libretto, concerns a very tall, mute man exiled from society, feared for his abnormal height and his inability to utter anything but the most mournful cries. His refuge is an island in the middle of a lake which gradually stops producing fish. The fishermen of the nearby village blame him for their ill fortune until a young girl (Jessica Summers, who played and sang most winningly) discovers the Giant’s heart when he rescues her from drowning, and thereafter takes pity on him, in the age-old manner of fairy tales. He is able to detect the reason for the fish famine – a carpet of poisonous weed over the lake - and saves the fortunes of the village. The story has many resonances for our times, in terms of pollution of the environment and the ostracising of people who are ‘different’.

The presenting venue, The Linbury at the Royal Opera House, has featured puppetry in its productions on several occasions. Puppetry and objects played their part in this production, in that the Giant was an ingenious body puppet with the actor, Joe Carey, visible in its interior, rather like an upright turtle within its shell, operating two rods to the great hands (but unmatching little legs and feet). Carey performed the character with sensitivity and gravitas, and I greatly admired his ability to step among the haphazardly stacked wooden boxes which stood in for the rocks at the lake’s edge and constituted the main part of the setting. 

Ideas for the object play were somewhat unimaginative: for example, handfuls of straw randomly manipulated were, we soon realised, toxic weeds later to be transformed into the weed mat choking the lake. The prepared mat was thrown over the pile of boxes at the rear of the set and spread out by the performers. It needed a puppeteer of invention and aesthetic sensibility to handle both straw and mat, and indeed all the visuals could have been made less clumsy, and to more convincing effect.

The family audience clearly enjoyed the production very much, as I enjoyed the music, the singing and the puppet giant.

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Theatre-Rites
Lighten Up
Unicorn Theatre, London
March 2008

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

The opening sequence of Lighten Up set the scene for a playful, pitch-perfect exhibition of black-light style puppetry, updated through clever use of neon cabling that cycled through dynamic dances, both abstract and figurative. Soliciting laughs of pleasure from the audience, this proved in fact to be simply the prologue to what became a lively deconstruction of performance and puppetry, exploring the power of theatrical light.

Our companions on this journey were the black-clad puppeteers, who, led by company bursary holder MeiMei, began a rebellious mutiny from dark invisibility. Their adventure became both a convention-busting romp around the increasingly well-lit theatre and a celebration of colour and brightness as nonconformity and self-expression. The set was a richly simple recession of velvety black semi-circles, giving texture to the tone, and used to great effect in pantomimic chase sequences in the search for missing MeiMei, vanished into the spotlight. The entire approach was determinedly metatheatrical – performers played ‘as themselves’ and its completely straightforward approach to the audience kept its slightly theoretical ideas grounded in immediate relationships. This provided a springboard from which moments of theatrical beauty, such as MeiMei’s dance amongst rainbow coloured ribbons streaming across the stage, could really fly.  

There were moments when the show seemed underpinned more by intellectual than theatrical principles, but these were fleeting, generally punctured by well-observed character-driven comedy from the highly endearing cast. Indeed, the five-strong cast deserve special mention for their hearty and honest performances that welcomed a young audiences into this decidedly theatrically world, allowing them to feel completely at home there.

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La Cie Akselere
Sleeping Beauty
UNIMA International Congress, Perth, Australia
April 2008

Reviewed by Rachel Riggs

I first saw a work-in-progress of this show from Compagnie Access L’air, as they were then known, when they came to perform Apres la Pluie’at the Blackpool Festival of Puppetry & Visual Theatre in 2002.  It was pure fairy tale then, and for children, and I believe Collette Garrigan and Franck Bourget still perform a version called Cent Ans Dans La Forêt for the very young.

But this grim, heightened realism version of the classic tale is for adolescents and adults. Written, directed and performed by Collette Garrigan, this is a tour de force one-woman show. Set in 70s urban Liverpool, it is semi-autobiographical tale of growing up that pulls you into the dark shadows behind everyday objects to show a dysfunctional world.

Inspired by the filmmaker Ken Loach, Collette’s princess lives in a kingdom where you are better off in a gang than alone, where poverty and unemployment have devastated the landscape, and where the spindle has been replaced by the needle.

Talking frankly to the audience at the opening of the show, she weaves her magic, comforting us that it’s only a story and an easy ride through fairytale land. This false sense of security is soon broken by the uneasy sense of something not being quite right. Dad has gone away somewhere, there’s no money, so she has to go to Grandma, who turns into a wicked witch shouting abuse and locking her in the dark cellar. We move through her childhood and the pain and trials of growing up, where the world spirals out of control and life seems an endless merry-go-round till she winds up in hospital with Prince Charming gone.

Her use of everyday objects transforming into heightened-scale shadows, set around a dinner table against a white torn paper backdrop, accentuates the extraordinary dreamlike, surreal world of memories and of things not said. There’s a clever use of lighting – a single halogen floodlight turns a toast rack into a cage, and silver forks become a forest, merging with back projected images.

We are always brought back from the brink of neurotic realism, with humour bringing a light-hearted contrast to the evil we know is possible, both within the real world and the fairytale. That’s what fairytales are for, to help us to deal with scary stuff safely, and it is with an adult audience that a talented performer such as Collette Garrigan can veer madly between reality and the fantastical – as children who grow up with abusive lives often do.

Full of passion, straight from the heart, this is a brave and finely crafted tale that turns the sugary sweet traditional fairytale concoction into a bittersweet contemporary nightmare.
Happy ever after…

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Horse and Bamboo
Veil
Salisbury Arts Centre
16 April 2008

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

It’s refreshing to see a visual theatre company striving to express stories both epic and concrete in their reach and Veil, combining original complex mythology and contemporary political resonances does just that. The story follows twin sisters, separated at birth and thrown into diverse cultures, one traditional, one modern, each haunted by a mysterious sense of what they have lost. It suggestively spins together resonances with the founding myths of a nation and integrates eclectic commentary on topics as varied as male-oriented society and the cultural imperialism in the theft of Iraqi art.   

The frame for all of this is decidedly storytelling:  the opening sequence portray a tricksy juggler and puppeteer, setting up his stall, but it is a frame that the clunky reality of the content, like the large-scale transformative set pieces, consistently refuses to be contained within. It felt as though the company were grappling at the coalface of what was possible within their aesthetic. Scenes of quiet domesticity, abuse, and psychiatry seemed to bump against the parameters of their form – the fabulous masks and ethereal scoring jarred against their hard reality. The rhythm of these scenes, though true to the masks and puppets, felt strange in a world of recognisable mundanity. At the same time, the use made by the company of recorded voices and translations seemed to belie the subtlety of communication possible through the visual media they were working with, leaving us with the worst of both worlds. Yet dream, fantasy, myth arrived with their impact perhaps strengthened by this juxtaposition and Horse and Bamboo are certainly masters of the plangent image rich in tone and meaning: one image of the twins, reunited, stepping into a theatre-high waterfall projection that flooded the stage, resonated with the potency of a dream.  

This production most flies when it doesn’t compromise its language but allows the richly metaphorical expression conjured by the mesmeric combination of masked movement, digital imagery and digital sound to speak on their own terms. There is much the audience can take from association, rhythm and tone in the precise context established within the work. The company have had the courage to take on a complex story via their idiosyncratic form – it seems a shame then that they still sometimes lose faith in their form’s ability to define and carry their tale.

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