May 26, 2008

Underground and Cargo @ Millburn House

Last Friday saw the official opening of the new premises for Warwick's School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies in Millburn House, where I'm also based. The wine flowed, the food was demolished and the School hosted a series of performances and installations by a variety of theatre practitioners. It was a good, varied day and I managed to get to a couple of events.

First was Motionhouse Dance Theatre, the Leamington-based dance company, who presented their new touring piece Underground. Unfortunately the poor weather meant it took place in a Rehearsal Room, leading to apologies from the company manager beforehand owing to the cramped space. The tight surroundings, though, actually benefitted a piece whose primary concern was claustrophobia. On a small frame structure, four performers enacted the discomfort, unease and fear of a tube journey over an impressive and entertaining half hour. Twisting, swinging and flipping around the beams, shaking the structure back and forth and ripping through the cling film that initially covered the gaps in the frame, the physical dexterity of the dancers, particularly at such close quarters, was breathtaking to watch.

The themes and ideas that came out of the various movements were equally fascinating. One whole section, after the frenetic opening, saw the exhausted dancers leaning and falling asleep on each other, spinning away and swinging from the overhead bars from one side of the 'carriage' to another. Most powerful was a section set to Placebo's Meds that saw one dancer emerge as a character suffering a form of withdrawal, clutching at his head, curling up and lashing out, while the other three dancers edged around the carriage trying to keep away from him. The piece culminated in a section based around pickpocketing, ending as a case burst open and threw a shower of poppies into the air and over the audience. The whole show tapped fascinatingly into the day to day business of travel on the underground, bringing up issues regarding the suspicion and paranoia with which we regard the strangers we are forced into proximity with.

The Plasticine Men were one of the evening's two closing acts with Cargo. Its position in the schedule immediately after the wine reception prevents me from providing a particularly thorough or insightful interpretation of the performance, but the three performers (Simon Day and Chris and Matt Gunter) created a bizarre and very funny hour of devised randomness. The relatively coherent opening, two men adrift on a raft in search of a mythical figure, while a scouse shark swam around them mouthing off to the audience about how 'ard 'e was, set the tone, and the scenes that followed conjured a surreal Lord-of-the-Flies-type world where half-literate men hunted a football that snorted like a pig, sat impatiently through a church service and, at the last, faced the American war machine. I wasn't familiar with the stories of 'Cargo Cults' that were being referenced, but the themes were clear enough and the storytelling techniques employed - from little toy captain-suits suspended under an actor's face to the simple re-use of just a couple of palletes and boxes to move the action around the south Pacific - were never less than inventive.

Plus, it was all free! 

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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