Saturday, 22 June 2013

Naked people, Hugs and Pure Darkness!?

Chapter Arts Studio
Tuesday, 18th June 2013

As always Volcano have propelled their audience into unfamiliar territory; exciting, intimidating and totally overwhelming. In a production like no other Volcano demanded that their audience surrender the power of sight and leave themselves vulnerable as they crawled, shoeless, into the unknown. 

Blinda is genuinely like no other ‘theatre production’ you will see and as such it is impossible to write a distanced and analytical review of something that was designed to be personal and lead the participants into a mind state of self reflection and discovery. Mine is just one experience; some will love Volcano’s latest offering, others will have found it painful and uncomfortable, I am sure that more than a few will have left confused and possibly annoyed. I began as one of the second group, as a person who does not enjoy casual physical contact; no lovey hugs or air kisses for me thanks! But as I left the Chapter Studio I was firmly in the first group, I loved this crazy, unpredictable production.....although I would be very careful about who I recommended it to!

Now to explain the physical contact comment. We sat in the foyer of the Studio, each one of us on a small bench in an individual wooden box with the word ‘FRAGILE’ stamped on our hands like an expensive or precious parcel. Having been asked to discard our phones, bags, jackets, watches and even shoes and socks we all looked sheepishly at one another, initially hoping that everyone else was doing the same and then praying we weren’t being taken for fools. One by one we crawled barefoot into a pitch black tunnel and I instantly regretted my fashion choice of maxi skirt as the hard ground gave way to grass.

I fought my hayfever sneezes, not wanting to break the calm created by the soothing ‘wilderness’ soundtrack as a pair of hands found mine in the pitch black. I reached upwards accidentally and unmistakably grabbing an unknown woman’s breasts! As I exclaimed a muffled and very embarassed “sorry” she helped me up out of the tunnel and locked me in a gentle, but firm, hug whispering “shhhhh, shhhh” in my ear – the only words to be heard all night.  

As the unknown figure who had forced me into unnecessary contact let me go I was suddenly lost. Stripped of my sight with no way to tell which way was North I adopted the classic, hands in front, pose of the blindfolded in the classic children’s game ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’. Occasionally I would bump into something or someone; a velvet curtain, a corrugated cardboard wall or a hastily withdrawn hand as I listened to the sound of a roomful of clueless people fumbling in the dark. 

Eventually, just as I was beginning to feel ok in this visionless environment one of the hands didn’t withdraw; instead it grasped my fingers and guided them towards this unknown person’s face making me feel the eyes, nose and mouth like a blind person recognising a friend. They did the same to me, I inexplicably panicked when they moved my glasses, stupidly worried that they would take away my sight in a room that I could see anyway! After more awkward hugs and a strange little dance we parted ways. 

This pattern of complete aloneness followed by extreme closeness continued. I strangely found myself enjoying the solitary darkness, relying on my ears to guide me whilst also craving more of these weird encounters. Soon my heightened sense of sound picked up a lot of rustling in one corner, so I followed it. A dim doorway appeared and I shuffled through to a room that my feet told me had a cardboard floor and boxes strewn in my path. 

I bumbled around in there for a while alone, surprised that no one else had joined me. All of a sudden the room seemed full of shadows that were hastily shedding their clothes! Startled and confused I quickly made my way back to the relative safety of the room of grass and random hugs as a light slowly revealed the now naked actors.

Their four silhouette’s thrown against a thin paper wall separated them and the audience, they struck a few suitably artistic poses before we found the collective courage to enter the room. Standing awkwardly in ones and twos the group now displayed the very British art of ‘not making eye contact’ as the performers moved slowly in the dimly lit room decorated with hundreds of cardboard boxes. 

Unfortunately it soon became clear that just because the performers were now surrendering something to us it did not mean out part was over. They engaged in intense, but non-threatening eye-contact for worrying amounts of time – “do I stare back? Smile? Look away....but not down?” I opted for a friendly returned look and an embarrassed half smile, that simultaneously said “sorry” and “wow, you’re brave!”

Having always had ‘one of those faces’ I often find myself on the receiving end of the sob stories of complete strangers, normally I don’t mind this but when one of the male actors decided that on top of my feet was the perfect place for him to lie down I cursed my overly-friendly features. He stayed there for a long time, I tried to ignore him, watch the other move around and occasionally jump or twist fit-like. 

I was doing quite a good job until he turned his head and locked me in his stare, he slowly raised one hand, “am I meant to help him up?” Of course I did, just as I engaged with each of the other performers; an intense staring competition, hand-holding and shy smiles with one of the girls, silent comparison of our stumpy toes with the last. It seemed I was the only one to get this full on level of connection, the most anyone else had was a box handed to them, a head rested on their shoulder...damn my welcoming face!

After this odd display of naked strength and grace the four of them formed a pathway, at the end of which a door opened. The audience trailed through one by one, out into the foyer again, normality regained. There was silence, no-one knew quite what to say.

All of this may seem bizarre and totally unnecessary to someone reading this account but I genuinely have to say the whole experience, although odd and uncomfortable, asked some interesting questions about vulnerability and human connection. I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what Volcano were trying to tell us, but I definitelyt learned a lot about trusting my instincts and I can finally admit I do enjoy a goood, sincere hug (preferably from a family member or close friend).

Perhaps more extraordinarily if I ever see one of those audience members or one of the performers (hopefully fully clothed) on the street I would like to think we will share a knowing look. We will not say a word, we will carry on with our day but in that look we will share a secret – we know what the other is like in a state of vulnerability, we formed a strange yet comforting bond in less than an hour and none of it was as scary I we may have previously thought.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Comical and Inspirational Older Citizens say "We're Still Here!"

Chapter Arts Centre, Theatre
Friday 14th June 2013

No matter how much we may complain when our grandparents decide to tell us all about the good old days AGAIN, I’m sure I’m not the only one who secretly enjoys hearing the tales of their youth. In an astounding display of bravery ten older people have decided to share their very best and worst moments with a room full of strangers. But this production was not about harking back to the good old days, rather these aging and opinionated members of our community wanted to say “we’re still here!”

Terri Morrow bravely opened the show, telling us that making love is much more enjoyable at the age of 70 as she now has no hang ups about her body and is no longer worried about scoring a good performance. She asks why are sex and relationships such taboo subjects when it comes to older people – why is the idea comedic or repulsive? This funny yet serious opening set the tone for the whole show in which the group narrated their lives, shared their fears and voiced their bugbears.

The group of performers came from all walks of life; from an opera singer to a marathon runner; and all had a unique and fascinating story to share. Against the backdrop of a huge yellow sun and accompanied by a four piece band the elders bare all and explain how they reached their “mid-life crisis” at the age of 65. The sun is not setting on their lives, rather their retirement has provided new opportunities and challenges that they are facing head on. If an 86 year old is still able to fly to Australia to visit his family what else do you need to inspire you to live your dreams and make the most of life?
Poster by: Garry Bartlett

In a particularly poignant sequence each performer got the audiences’ attention by hitting a drum then told us what they hate. Ranging from the comical, “why can’t they make pills that taste of chocolate?”, to the political “when will the government decide if we can or can’t have free bus passes?”, to the downright horrific things that we all detest such as “abuse in care homes.” It quickly became clear that these mature citizens were still of value to our communities and they shouldn’t just be put in the corner with a cup of tea and a biscuit. They still have valid opinions and if we just ask them they may have the perfect solutions.

Please don’t miss another unforgettable evening from the Re-Live team who are constantly striving to bring forgotten and overlooked members of our communities to the forefront of our minds. This completely new approach to theatre making not only gave the performers a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and perform onstage but it will also challenge your views towards the elderly and will definitely leave you with a smile on your face. Inspirational, emotional and unforgettable.

Age will also be showing at Chapter tonight at 7.30pm – don’t miss out!

I would love to say something about each and every member of this wonderful company but 1. I don't have the space and 2. I don't want to spoil their wonderful insights and memories for anyone who may go to the show tonight.
Company: Marilyn Ankin, Lynette Baxter, David Carter, Jeanette Carter, Nicky Delgado, Marianne Harman, Terri Morrow, Julian Moyle, Jean O'Grady, Max Scott-Cook.

Please visit the Re-Live website for more information on what they do and to find out how you can get involved with their training days:

Monday, 10 June 2013

Dark Comedy Exploring the Inner Workings of an Unsettled Mind

Diary of a Madman
Living Pictures
Sherman Cymru, Theatre 2

Living Pictures have proved that all you need to make great theatre is an intriguing story, a team with great attention to detail and one actor with awe-inspiring charisma. 

Although set in 1830’s St Petersburg, Diary Of a Madman is a brilliant dark comedy that anyone could relate to. Shattered dreams and constant disappointment plague the sad clown of a man who is sharing his tale and although he may be pitiable and somewhat pathetic you can’t help but want to join him in some of his fantasies where dogs can talk and there’s always a happily ever after.

Robert Bowman is spellbinding as minor civil servant Poprishchin, whose main responsibility seems to be sharpening the pencils of his boss. He leads a tragic life; looked down on by everyone and hopelessly infatuated with his boss’s daughter he leads a lonely and disillusioned existence.

From the very beginning it is clear to see he is mentally unstable. There’s a constant feeling of pressure building leaving the audience waiting for the inevitable moment where Poprishchin’s mind will finally snap. When he discovers that the woman of his dreams finds him repulsive (via love letters that he is convinced were written by two dogs) it is clear to see his world completely crumbling around him and it’s not long before he has contrived a new life for himself – he is of course the King of Spain. How didn’t anyone notice sooner?

Photograph by Katy Stephenson 
The wooden pallets that make up the entirety of the set resemble both a cage and a lifeboat lost at sea – sadly appropriate for this unhinged man. Helping to move the story forward various props are discovered underneath the planks to be examined and enjoyed. 

The only other decoration is a single flickering light bulb hanging from the ceiling to represent Poprishchin’s unrequited love. Whenever he speaks of his beloved it is easy to picture her standing onstage as his gaze is so intense, wishing her into physical existence. 

An original score by Roland Melia and skilful sound design by Tom Raybould add more depth to this stripped back production. Just like Poprishchin’s mind the sound begins harmoniously, peppering his narration but by the end of the production the harsh, jarring music is overpowering and drowns out his speech. 

The clever use of technology extends to the lighting design by Katy Stephenson. Subtle changes in the tone of light allowed the small space to seamlessly become the civil servant’s office, his home, a Russian street and an imagined boudoir. This fine attention to detail in lighting and sound completed the production, helping to fill the stage and give Bowman something to bounce his terrific performance off.

Director SinĂ©ad Rushe was keen to explore the Michael Chekov acting technique in this performance. This approach, otherwise known as the ‘psycho-physical approach’, prioritises impulse and imagination, showing the psychology of the character through the actor’s movement and gesture. This expressive approach was perfect for Bowman whose physical and dynamic performance perfectly articulated the inner workings of an unsettled mind.

This excellent production is currently on tour and continues at the venues below:
13 June, 7.45pm
Taliesin Arts Centre
01792 602 060
18 June, 7.30pm
Galeri, Caernarfon
01286 685 250
05-06 July, 8.15pm
Tobacco Factory, Bristol
0117 902 0344
10 July, 7.30pm
Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli
0845 226 3510
03-25 August, 4pm
Venue 13, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
07075 161 620

For more on Living Pictures please visit: