All 4 entries tagged Degradation

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February 18, 2016

Complicite at the Barbican. The Encounter. 17th February 2016.

The idea that a theatre production based on in-yer-face technology – the audience must wear headphones throughout – would turn out to be an incredibly powerful piece of ecotheatre sounds improbable. The Encounter is quite simply stunning. It is living proof that the most effective ecotheatre, defined as theatre that forges an emotional connection between spectators and nature (Amazonian river, rainforest and indigenous people on the run from the oil industry) does not have to be staged in an obviously natural environmental space. A conventional theatre space full of a proliferation of electronic gadgets and media, plastic bottles, and electronic waste (a large pile of tangled audio tape in a cardboard box) will do just as well.

‘It seems empathy and proximity are connected, so I’d like to get closer to you’, said the ACTOR. The skin on the back of my neck crawled as someone came so close I could hear them swallowing, and blew in my right ear. There were snipping noises as someone seemed to cut my hair. I resisted the temptation to turn round – spectatorial earphones had been checked so many times by the production team that I KNEW this was Simon McBurney breathing into a binaural microphone, and sound effects were being skilfully manipulated by the sound team sitting right behind us. This did not get in the way of an embodied response on my part. So, I was primed for a mind-blowing experience.

The Encounter is based on the story of Loren McIntyre, a fifty-something National Geographic photographer who was dropped into the rainforest for three days on a photographic mission. Almost immediately he found the Mayoruna (‘cat people’). Obsessed by taking pictures to prove they existed, he was drawn into the jungle, failed to mark a trail back to camp, and became their prisoner. He found himself forced to walk through the jungle for days, for they were constantly on the move, and not following them would have been certain death. Gradually Loren (and we spectators) found out that they were on the way back to the ‘beginning’. This consisted of a ceremony close to the head of the river, where they would burn all their possessions in order to go back in time thereby escaping the ravages of civilisation. What a parable!

Followed up close and personal by the Barbican audience, Loren battled his way agonisingly through heat, hunger, an attempt to put the hex on him by burning his watch and trainers (and destroying his camera), and an attempt to kill him by leaving him embedded in a thorn bush in the dark. He ripped his way out of the thorns and his wounds were (oh so disgustingly) invaded by flesh-eating maggots. He drank desperately from some strange cucumbers and suffered hallucinations. The fact that the sound effects associated with these intensely physical, psychologically disturbing experiences were the polar opposite of natural did not matter one jot as far as my reactions went.

I held tightly on to the arms of my seat to stay grounded even though I should not have needed to do that. Modern reality was there in-yer-ears and in-yer-face all the time. The sound effect of people walking on grass in bare feet (heard in rustling detail in my earphones) was actually produced by the ACTOR treading on the pile of tangled audio tape in the cardboard box. The action was interrupted several times by Simon McBurney’s five year old daughter – she opened the door (in recording of course) and demanded something to eat, something to drink (nicely timed with Loren’s desperate thirst), and a bed time story. We were playing with several dimensions of technological time in counterpoint to Loren’s refractory experience of time in the rainforest, without a watch, not as a theoretical construct but (thanks to proximity and empathy) as a series of parallel emotional states of mind.

Loren survived by tuning in to the ‘other’ wordless language of the ‘cat people’. Was the intonation of ‘Some of us are friends’ he repeatedly heard benign or threatening? I felt every prickle of fear Loren must have felt all over my own skin. A whisper in the back of my head suggested that, without the technologically produced dislocations between here and there, now and then, this (also technologically produced) up-close-and-personal experience of psychological deconstruction might well go beyond a reasonable threshold of discomfort, as it surely did for Loren: ‘I feel that my hand groping around the universe has torn a corner open. Soon there will be an encounter. [...] I’m not prepared for this encounter; it’s true. I’m not prepared. Not like the spider swallowed by the snake. And then a thought howls, savagely.’

And Lauren howled, like a two-year-old in a tantrum or a poor threadbare forked animal fit only for a padded room: ‘I was never part of nature. No, I’m not!!! [...]. We’re human beings. We’re not part of nature.’

The story had a happy ending for Loren. He connected with the jungle. He danced to the music of time in the ceremony, and almost immediately a deluge of rain forced him into the river on a flimsy raft, which delivered him back into civilisation. So he lived to tell the tale to Petru Popescu and Complicite. What a bedtime story! As we staggered out into the rainy chill of the London evening, we carried with us a lingering sense of the warm, humid, ‘tense febrile stillness’ of the rainforest, and the sure and certain knowledge that the ‘cat people’ really do exist.

Directed and performed by Simon McBurney.
Co-director – Kirsty Housley.
Design – Michael Levine.
Sound – Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin.
Lighting – Paul Anderson
Projection – Will Duke
Associate Director – Jemima James

Complicite / Simon McBurney (2016). The Encounter (London: Nick Hern Books).

August 03, 2015

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester. The Skriker. 18th July 2015.

“Who will speak for the environment?” asked Warwick University ecocritic Dr. Jonathan Skinner, in the Summer of 2015. Attending productions such as this – The Skriker at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester – we all do. “It’s about what we’re doing to the planet”, said one spectator to the group of friends sharing the programme with her, as we waited to go in and take our seats. She could be sure of this because the programme for this production includes plenty of environmental cues. The Introduction (written by Director Sarah Frankcom and Lead Artist Maxine Peake (playing the part of the Skriker)) describes the Skriker as ‘environmental fury in extremis’, and the play as ‘a call to arms from the Earth herself’. The same programme features an extract from Naomi Klein’s climate change polemic This Changes Everything. Oddly enough the play has not always been seen this way by its audiences even though The Skriker first came to the stage in 1994, not long after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Critical responses to the play at the time do not say much about the environmental message. The story of the moment, back then, was feminism.

But, forget what’s in the programme. For me, the penny-dropping climate change moment, speaking volumes about climate change culture in 2015, arrived in the Underworld in the form of a spectatorial laugh. It happened when the Skriker was trying to persuade Josie to drink some wine so she would be trapped in the Underworld for ever. Josie (Laura Elsworthy), shilly-shallying (she was obviously dying for a drink), said: ‘Yes, but I don’t want -’. The Skriker: ‘Don’t you want to feel global warm and happy ever after? Warm the cockles of your heartless.’ For me, the chuckles I heard in the audience, in reaction to this cajoling ‘global warm’ moment, say something important about a change in the way people think about the environment. Of course I cannot speak for everyone there, but, when I laugh (as I also did at this point in the play), it’s not usually about something the programme pointed out. Here (for me) it’s because the language has forged a witty, ironical connection to something Nico Frijda would describe as an emotional matter because it is a ‘daily life concern’. My reading of this chuckle at this particular moment is that the stunning poetry of The Skriker, performed in 2015 in Manchester, connected to the emotions (via the daily life concerns of the environment and climate change) more readily than it seems to have done in 1994.

Of course such emotional connections are not easily made. They tend to arise in the context of excellent performances, in which the acting is good enough to evoke sympathy, empathy and identification with the protagonists (c.f. Sauter), for the audience. Maxine Peake’s performance as the Skriker was, quite simply, stunning. At times her voice was mesmerising (it was easy to see why Josie failed to resist the wine); at others her tone was chilling, alienating, even terrifying. Executing virtuoso switches between roles across a wide register – from child to vamp to old woman – Peake WAS the Skriker. The Skriker, being the Skriker, dominates, but other narrative threads were also impactfully performed. Josie and Lily (Jumah Sharkah) delivered a horrifying narrative of abuse and abandonment, in which babies were casually killed, tortured or dumped. The beautiful singing of some words sometimes turned absurd ideas – such as the Hag (Jessica Walker) searching for her head, heart, arm, leg on the feast table – into a heart-rending experience.

Of course I don’t know if this production had this effect on everyone – after all it’s fashionable to say there is no such thing as an audience. In this production of The Skriker, there were at least three identifiable audiences. On arrival, spectators with stalls tickets were guided by torchlight through a spooky subterranean passageway into the performance space – a seven-sided dilapidated arena furnished with wide trestle tables. (At one point some spectators had to be ushered out of the way by the dancers to make room for the action.) The spectators-turned-onlookers gazed up through a slightly murky haze at the faces encircling them on two levels and wondered what they had let themselves in for. I was one of those submerged down in the infernal basement, under the gaze of the other circles of hell; this configuration and the close proximity of the performers certainly intensified my own experience. It was, quite simply, amazing to be carried away, embedded in the rip-roaring operatic Bacchanalian feast in the Underworld.

Caryl Churchill (1994, 2015). The Skriker (London: Nick Hern Books, 2015 reprint with a new cover and cast-list).

Manchester International Festival. Programme: The Skriker by Caryl Churchill. 2-18 July 2015. Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Nico H. Frijda (2007). The Laws of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge).

Willmar Sauter (2000). The Theatrical Event. Dynamics of Performance and Perception (Iowa City: Iowa University Press).

November 06, 2014

Young Vic – The Cherry Orchard. 21st October 2014.

Sometimes, in nature, it's not the fittest animals that survive, it's the cruellest, says Peter, eternal student in Simon Stephens' version of Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard. This production successfully underscores the brutality running through human behaviour by highlighting individual moments of sadism, thus reminding of Stephens' climate change play Wastwater.

Early on in this version of the play Alexander describes a brutal beating at the hands of his drunken father, establishing abuse as an important leitmotif. As the play progresses Firs becomes increasingly fearful of the menacing bully Yasha, and the detail of the walking stick kicked from under him and the doctor's letter not sent after him to the hospital but torn up before our eyes leaves no-one in the audience in any doubt that Yasha intended him to die, imprisoned in the freezing old house at the end. As the family and its entourage chaotically moves on from the old way of life to the new, it is horribly clear that if everyone had not been so self-absorbed, someone might have noticed Firs' predicament. Yasha committed the crime, but everyone in the family was implicated in the act of murder.

The destruction of the cherry orchard is, in a similar vein, set in motion on the basis of an unwitting collaboration. Son of serf standing on the shoulders of former serf owners is helped by Adam Smith's invisible hand - the market in holiday homes supplanting the market for cherry preserves - as well as by the actions of others. Not unlike Yasha, Alexander did the deed, but Lyubov's self-indulgent passive reactivity accelerated the cross-generational series of actions leading inexorably towards environmental destruction. The question is, who is now the fittest to survive, Alexander, seemingly winning but still trapped in the system, or Anya and Peter, seeking to escape.

A play depicting orchestrated environmental and human wreckage is well served by an ensemble cast, and there was a strong team of actors at work here. Yasha (Tom Mothersdale) was satisfyingly unpleasant; Lyubov (Kaye Duchene) was cringingly self-pitying thus (appropriately) hard to pity; and there were some heart-tugging performances from Gawn Grainger, Natalie Klamar and Angus Wright, playing respectively Firs (touchingly keeping Leonid safe), Varya (pining painfully for Alexander) and Leonid (involuntarily propelled into an imaginary game of pool at difficult moments).

Absorbed in watching this comedy of survival, we the audience found we, too, had skin in the game, as the saying goes, thanks to a conventional but nonetheless effective theatrical tactic deployed early on. When Leonid and Lyubov, just back in their old home, were looking nostalgically out at the white cherry orchard under the moonlight, the audience became the trees at risk, proprietorial finger pointing directly at us. Through this trick of imaginary metamorphosis we became entangled, first with the (ominous) future then, later on in the play, with the past - for Peter and Anya, about to embark on a journey of atonement, we represented the voices of the souls of long dead slaves whose sweat and blood built the orchard. Chekhov's play draws out the connection between environmental degradation and slavery in the name of economic progress, then and now. Mitchell's production, incorporating all of us in Chekhov's ecosystem-at-risk, puts us at the core of the damaging nexus of human activity represented in the play.

Weaving the audience into the fabric of an imagined environment seems to be a regular ecotheatre riff. In John Godber's 2007 climate change play Crown Prince, the corner of a bowling green is centre stage and 'When the characters bowl towards the audience they have their eye on an imaginary jack somewhere out towards the centre of the audience.' Metaphorically speaking an unseen (environmental) 'curve ball' is bowled into the audience. So it is with this production of The Cherry Orchard. As the characters in the play say, at different moments: *We could change everything. We just don't. We have so much. We should be giants. We really, really aren't. Life is passing us by. It's as though we've never lived it at all.*

* Text between asterisks is drawn from the published text/theatre programme - see sources.

Creatives: Post Office Clerk - Cavan Clarke; Wanderer - Andy Cresswell; Lyubov Ranevskaya - Kate Duchene; Firs - Gawn Granger; Peter Trofimov - Paul Hilton; Station Master - Peter Hobday; Boris Simeonov- Pishchik - Stephen Kennedy; Varya - Natalie Klamar; Charlotte Ivanova - Sarah Malin; Yasha - Tom Mothersdale; Dunyasha - Sarah Ridgeway; Alexander Lopakhin - Dominic Rowan; Simeon Yepikhodov - Hugh Skinner; Anya - Catrin Stewart; Leonid Gaev - Angus Wright. Direction - Katie Mitchell; Design - Vicki Mortimer.

Sources. Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, English Language Version by Simon Stephens (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014). Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, translated by Sharon Marie Carnicke (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2010). John Godber, 'Crown Prince', in Plays: 4 (London: Methuen Drama, 2009). Simon Stephens, 'Wastwater', in Wastwater and T5 (London: Methuen Drama, 2011). Played at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court in March 2011.

June 16, 2014

Arcola Theatre – Waiting for Godot. 11th June 2014

The Arcola setting of Waiting for Godot was centred around a pile of rubble rising diagonally up through the walls and onto the first floor of the seemingly crumbling building of the theatre itself. For some spectators, sitting opposite, it resembled nothing less than a giant desiccated wormery, whose former inhabitants had long fled. Sometimes, Didi scrambled up and sat on the first floor ledge, legs dangling over the edge, to watch the proceedings, and, indeed, the audience. Sitting directly opposite him at the same height, making an effort to hold his unwavering voyeuristic gaze, I was no longer the observer but the (uncomfortably) observed, waiting for Godot.

The stage, if it could be called that, was an uninviting, badly damaged, puddled surface of unknown origin. It could have been a degraded formerly interior concrete surface, or a piece of land stripped of topsoil, right down to clay. A large duckboard lay futilely towards the front or was it the side, or the back, or the middle of the stage - which would depend where you were sitting in the audience. Our seats, positioned in front of, behind and to one side of the action, were mixed up with the wreckage shored up against environmental ruins. A dilapidated old chair, identical to the seats an audience member had perhaps sat in in a former life, lay overturned where it had fallen or been thrown. The single naked tree meanwhile stood rigidly against the steel corner beam of the building, roots trapped in the mound of bricks, lumps of concrete and stones. This was the utterly awful place in which Didi and Gogo waited for Godot, and the limits and pressures of physiology and psychology (accurately played by a strong cast) shaped the self-inflicted human suffering endured by the people stuck in this environment.

Una Chaudhuri refers to the ecological meaning in plays such as Waiting for Godot as 'occluded'. In the Arcola production, such meaning could hardly be more stark. Didi and Gogo inhabit a post-entropic world composed of layers of accumulated degradation and dead matter, so dry and dusty that all hope of decomposition is gone, and jugs of water are required to slake the dust that might otherwise choke the audience. The water of the world was a 'constant quantity' and it is gone. Gogo's first appearance, ironically, resembled a birth as he comically struggled to emerge from the plastic sack in which he seemed to have slept, and now might suffocate. In a couple of centuries' time, the recently predicted disappearance of the West Antarctic ice sheets might develop in parallel with desolate scenes like this, and the human beings enduring preindustrial conditions might be imagined to say, as Vladimir does: 'What's the use of losing heart now [...]. We should have thought of it, a million years ago, in the nineties'. Waiting for Godot adapts with the times, and one of several possible environmental readings of this production, for the 21st century, is of the danger of waiting for so long that it will be too late to 'look to nature'.

Creatives:Adam Charteris (Boy); Jonathan Oliver (Pozzo); Tom Palmer (Vladimir); Michael Roberts (Lucky); Tom Stourton (Estragon). Source: Programme Notes.

Brief production history: San Quentin Prison (1957); Mississippi during the civil rights movement (1964); Sarajevo during the Bosnian War (1993); post-Katrina New Orleans (2007); post-Deepwater Louisiana Wetlands (2011); Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street (2011); post-tsunami Fukushima (2011). Sources: Programme notes and the websites of Loyola University and the Kamome Machine Theatre Group.

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