Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Theatre’

Review: Landscape II by Melanie Wilson

In Performance Poetry on October 2, 2013 at 3:28 pm

– reviewed by James Webster

The thrum of deep base sound ebbs away, leaving only a ring of tinnitus. The lights retreat to a dim glimmer, the shivers stop running down my spine, and the audience audibly exhale. We’re about two thirds of the way through Melanie Wilson‘s haunting multimedia poem, and she’s holding us on a knife edge.

When we reach the end, spines thoroughly chilled and edges of our seats somewhat worn, the silence is palpable. There’s a distinct feeling that we’ve just been taken on a journey, carried away by the tides of Wilson’s story, submerged in her words and soundscapes. This mesmeric story merges together three different strands of narrative (a photographer, her great-great-grandmother and the woman she photographed in Afghanistan) that flow in and out of one another, all layered over a rich and discordant soundscapes and vividly absorbing video.

It’s a stunner of a show, overwhelmingly immersive, fascinatingly reflective and frightfully tense.

A variety of tools to shape a show …

Wilson uses some incredible technology to shape the show. Evocative images, in beautifully rendered video, are projected onto the massive screen that makes up the venue’s entire back wall, and they draw your gaze, showing you some key imagery, while also dancing round the edge of the story (we see feet, hands, the back of a neck, a cloaked figure, close-up of a spider’s web and the Devon landscape in first person). The electric cacophony of Wilson’s soundscape surrounds us, pulses under our skin and vibrates through our bones, as it plays with contrasting harmony and discord, noise and silence, thickening into an almost physical atmosphere around us. And the sounds of the story (a fox’s yelps, the click of a camera shutter, the bumps and groans of an old cottage, the sound of steps behind us) leap out at us at unexpected moments, provoking repeated shocks of static up the spine and surprised gasps of fear. The set, too, plays its part, with a hardwood floor, table full of letters, photos and technical equipment; it gives proceedings an intimate feel, as if you begin the show sitting in someone’s living room, with Melanie Wilson seated behind the desk, whispering to you through the microphone …

There’s an element of the puppet-master around Wilson’s performance …

As she sits behind the desk almost spider-like, visibly operating the sound and video, shooting out strands of story to ensnare us. All the aspects, the video, sounds and Wilson’s own voice, come together into one powerfully moving tale, each element blending with the others to enrich the sensory experience that presses in on us. It’s consummately done, Wilson’s carefully controlled voice always informing, but never overpowering the visuals and audio, instead it seems to drift out, directly into our brains, falling to a taut whisper and rising to fraught emotion.

It all streams very nicely around the narrative – and around us too – with moments of quiet reverie contrasting against the sudden bursts and threat that reaches into your gut and tugs at you. Together, the visuals and sounds merge with her voice, getting under our skin and leaving it tingling as we’re immersed in the story and the character.

It’s a story that you can lose yourself in …

The writing is clever and thoughtful, constructing a stirring and sparse language with a fragile kind of poetry to it. It’s kind of haunting and kind of gorgeous, leaving a lot of feeling unsaid behind the words, feelings that are fleshed out by the show’s multimedia elements. To use her own words, her turns of phrase “radiate their secrets like old gold”, trickling into our ears and then later building to a rushing surge for the piece’s finale.

The pacing and structure of the show is just right, each stream of the story has just enough meat on its bones to keep you involved. Wilson fills in the blanks of the three women’s backgrounds gradually, like a puzzle, letting them gradually build, before the different strands come together in a crashing crescendo.

And as they all come crashing over us, the sound builds into a rhythmic thump that comes up from the floor and vibrates through your bones into your chest, while the words wash over you and the video flashes with its interconnected imagery and it feels like we’re caught. As if we’re held in this intense moment and suspended in Landscape II’s narrative. But it passes, and the show ends on a quiet, contemplative note that leaves us with plenty to mull over.

Overall, this is an always involving and often scarily intense show …

It tells an intricate, otherworldly and profoundly moving story. While its high concept may not be to everyone’s taste, everyone will agree that the tech is phenomenally done, and it is definitely a hugely enjoyable and interesting way to spend an evening.

Landscape II is on at the Burton Taylor Studio tonight as part of its ongoing tour (presented by Fuel) that also takes in Exeter, Crewe, Brighton, Coventry and more. I strongly advise you to catch it if you can.


Review: Brand New Ancients – Kate Tempest

In Performance Poetry on October 11, 2012 at 9:00 am

19/09/12 @ The BAC

– Reviewed by Dana Bubulj

What is Brand New Ancients?

It is a modern poetic epic, written and performed by Kate Tempest (performed with backing musicians),  that follows the lives of several young people as they grow up, their paths crossing occasionally within a tight and heart-breakingly human narrative.

The band, whose music is similar to The Cinematic Orchestra, is illuminated on their stepped stage by light streaming in through small windows. They work well both as support for Tempest’s words and in their instrumentals. Only in the show’s refrains did they become a bit too loud for the vocal. Distress, frustration and hope were all straining through the instruments, with each character given their own clear musical voice that enhanced the storytelling.

Who are the Brand New Ancients?

“We are all still mythical”, Tempest starts, with the theme of the show. This is conveyed well, through her “epic narratives” of several, regular people whose characters are so familiar that they almost become archetypes. Perhaps, in less skilled hands, characters like Clive (whose abusive childhood taught him that violence was a way to get your point across) would have been undeveloped stereotypes, but in Tempest’s hands they are shaped into the modern, almost mythic, and oh so real characters that burst out of this piece. Periodically, Tempest weaves in Classical references (a Diana here, Pandora there), that help add to a sense of shared patterns of behaviour. “Your fears, your hopes are old”, she says, a comfort, perhaps, that the gods who “walked among us” (as well as, she acknowledges, periodically turning into animals and raping us), “fought for us” and were full of “imperfect”, human traits (“the gods can’t stop checking Facebook on their phone”).

It is the vividly drawn characters that makes this show so powerful. Tempest has a way with creating such believable people with humour and empathy (for example, Kevin, a “testament to the cavalry of men”), crafting conversations that sound authentic and paint the scenes as vividly as her narration (“prayers were not spoken in a silence like this”). Indeed, her words paint the awkwardness of youth with knowing brush-strokes, just as she also captures the flaws of their youthful reasoning (such as testing someone’s fireman skills with arson).

The “two man nation” of Clive and Spider, who “might have been warriors” in the olden days but now have nothing but each other to fight for, resigned to their fate as “the bad guys” and act accordingly, driving forward the plot’s violent climax with Gloria at her pub after last call. In a nice change from conventional narrative, Tommy, Gloria’s boyfriend, returns from his own crisis of faith (“by my love I am saved”) to see her rescue herself from Clive’s assault, buoyed by anger at a life of  past abuses.

What’s behind the Brand New Ancients?

Another facet to the narrative is that of the dangers of fame. Not a new concern, by any means, but Tempest takes it on well, panning out and tying the Cowell-led hunger for fame and fortune to her theme: “the gods are on their knees in front of false idols”. In almost a plea to return to the gods “among” rather than those “distant”, Tommy follows the convention of getting what he wishes (a job in the city as a graphic artist), to finally realise the unpleasant nature of his colleagues, all “overblown gestures like mime artists” and regret his decisions.

The conclusion seems to fit the themes of the narrative: the possibility to dip into a plethora of individual stories. Moving to years later, in the skin-crawlingly awful voice of Clive’s father, an alcoholic, abusive man now emigrated to Thailand (“out here, pension is riches”) where he’s surrounded by “men like [him]”, left wondering about what had happened to the central characters, we are distant once more to these ‘gods’, and encouraged to find our own.

Brand New Ancients ran from 4-22nd September at the BAC. 

Skittles by Richard Marsh

In Performance Poetry on May 3, 2012 at 11:43 pm

-Reviewed by James Webster

@ the Battersea Arts Centre


About Richard and Skittles

Richard Marsh is a very gifted performer.

A superb poet, who hosts one of my favourite poetry events Sage & Time every month in Farringdon, and has won a bevvy of slams (and has been reviewed several times by Sabotage at Sage & Time and Hammer & Tongue).

He’s also a talented playwright. He’s a writer in residence at Theatre 503, having written several shows that have been performed at the Edinburgh Festival and at 503. His one-man poetry-play Skittles premiered in Edinburgh last year, garnering a fistful of ebullient reviews, and he went on to do several sell-out performances at the Battersea Arts Centre. It was in the second run at the BAC that I saw the show and I have to admit I was blown away.

A sweet relationship – the story

The premise of skittles is simple enough. Take a witty, geeky, everyman, throw in a suitably quirky love interest with a tempestuous love-life who sees our everyman (called Richard, but Marsh maintains in the show he’s not playing himself) as just a friend, while he expresses his interest by never mentioning his feelings. So far so standard. Add a dash of skittles, have the characters bond over a shared love of this confection, and stir the resulting sweetness into your otherwise stereotypically bland romance. Where Marsh succeeds in crafting his story is that he takes an overused trope (geeky guy meets quirky girl, but she sees him as a friend, but he’s the only one who understands her) and puts his own stamp on it, showing us the story of a relationship that is eminently believable and swiftly overcomes its slight stereotyping by being equal parts sweet and insightful.

And just because their relationship is sweet, doesn’t mean it’s saccharine (Richard woos the brilliantly drawn ‘Shiv’ by drunkenly telling her to ‘fuck off’). The play charts their relationship from its romantic and lovestruck beginnings, but is possibly at its heart-wrenching best when alluding to the tiny cracks that appear in their relationship, movingly describing the couple’s arguments, moodiness and the use of Toploader’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ as an offensive weapon. The story is as good as it is because its so heartfelt, Marsh conjuring up the feelings of dizzying love and evoking bleak and crushing heartbreak with equal skill.

Playing with poetry – the medium

Another reason the story works so well and the show is so enjoyable, is that he uses the medium of a one-man poetry show so well. His performance persona is approachable, friendly and easy going, making even his more florid and descriptive verse easily accessible to the audience. Thus the poetic nature of the show magnifies and distills both the humour and the emotion of the play, while the free-flowing and natural rhythm keeps things moving and prevents Richard from ever seeming pretentious. And the action switches seamlessly from narration to well-defined and expressed characters and dialogue that are often very funny (the exchange where Richard proposes is especially fun as the characters get more and more exasperated, finishing with ‘I need the loo!’ ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘Yes, but I still need the loo!’), impressively taut and strained (an argument about wedding planning and excel spreadsheets is especially fraught) and sweetly moving.

Skittles also makes excellent use of music, sound and props. The props are mostly for comic relief: a t-shirt that reads ‘I don’t care about your fucking kids’ and a bowl of skittles that is offered to the audience at a wedding (coupled with the audience being told ‘you owe me a toaster from John Lewis’, in an excellent example of Marsh’s smooth way with the audience), although the skittles are also used again later to impressively depressing effect as a forlorn Richard shovels a giant pack of the sweets into his mouth, letting the crushed rainbow juices flow out the sides of his mouth and down his chin. Especially impressive as he did that every day of his run in Edinburgh (and apparently doesn’t really like skittles). ‘Taste the fucking rainbow’ indeed.

The music and voice recordings are also used to great effect. Toploader’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’, as mentioned above, plays a big role as a kind of emotional marker in the play’s central relationship that’s easy for the audience to identify. While an answerphone message from Shiv is also used several times in the show for varying effects, a very effective tool to show the changing nature of the characters’ relationship.

Language with character(s) – the phraseology

A big reason why the show works, why the characters are so endearing and why the audience were so carried away by the play’s alternating sweetness, sadness and wistfulness, is the strength and originality of Marsh’s language.

From the amusing and sweet descriptions of characters who are alternately ‘hotter than a pile of kettles’ and who the main character loves ‘like Oedipus loved his mum’ to a drawn out description of a break-up over a long car journey (‘a 60mph maggot’s nest’) that was so moving I felt like I was breaking.

Especially good was a lengthy personification of Sorrow as a woman he’s cohabiting with (while appropriately listening to Morrisey). It’s mournful and bleakly humorous, filled with language that is bled through with misery.

Throughout the show he lifts up little mundane details and makes them astonishingly beautiful, tearful and funny (I enjoy the phrase ‘salt and vinegar kisses’ on a flirtation in a pub especially’), and weaves them carefully into his verses and rhythms so they feel perfectly natural. Which of course they are, the feelings and experiences he describes are relatable to most and he manages to convey them in ways that seem plucked out of the audience’s collective consciousness. Only more eloquently expressed.

WASTED by Kate Tempest

In Performance Poetry on April 5, 2012 at 11:35 am

– reviewed by Susie Wild –

@Sherman Cymru, Cardiff – 24 March 2012

Tempest: Spoken Word to Stage

Kate Tempest has already made a name for herself on the spoken word scene as a poet, rapper and hip hop artist, but with a surname like hers it seems only right that she should cross over to writing for the stage. It is a successful move. Her debut play takes the best elements of these lyrical influences to tell an engaging, emotive story of three friends knee-deep in weekends and growing too old for the drug-fuelled South London party scene.

Friends raving or stuck in a rut?

The friends have known each other since their teens, and now in their mid-twenties, are finding new concerns, aware that in another decade they don’t want to still be gurning at parties, like the people they used to laugh at. On the ten year anniversary of their friend Tony’s death  they each visit his commemorative tree – which at least changes four times a year with the seasons – and make confessions of stagnation. Charlotte (Lizzy Watts) walks out of her job as a teacher and books a flight, wanting to move on, to make a difference – ‘I’m making a decision. I’m changing things. This is it.’ Danny (Ashley George) has a last chance to get what he wants and struggles to man up to the occasion whilst Ted (Cary Cranson) has a job and steady girlfriend but is resigning himself to growing up and going nowhere.

A slice of shared ‘wasted’ experience

Wasted is a wittily knowing and dynamic production, managing to relate the rave experience to those still enjoying it and those who have grown past it in equal measure – nostalgic winks and weary wising up cocktail-mixed in with the loved up togetherness of the shared experience. They dance in warehouses in Peckham where art students are ‘experiencing ketamine’ and all the people there have ‘adjectives as names’ and they spend ‘life retelling life and it’s getting boring.’ and ‘dropping pills just so that we can smile at each other without looking away.’ Acting drunk on stage is hard enough to do and get right, but here all three actors act perfectly wasted as they hug speakers and each other and make plasticine faces.

The show talks of trying to jolt yourself out of that rut where you do the same things as you have always done, but now going to parties you get fucked just to have something to say to each other, and that something is often nostalgia for those first parties, those times when it was all exciting and fun and new. Originally commissioned for Latitude 2011, it speaks to a festival going audience and mixes between pounding music and those early morning ‘what does it all mean, what are we doing?’ lucid conversations and the ‘I’m-getting-too-old-for-this-shit!’ comedown realisations and resolutions to do something else, something more, or perhaps just pop another pill, have another dab – ‘We forgot our epiphany the minute that we thought it.’

Fresh and innovative theatre

Paines Plough have a reputation for putting on innovative new works and spotting the direction that theatre is moving in ahead of the pack. Here, director James Grieve taps into the rising spoken word scene in the UK and make something fresh. Wasted places Tempest’s lucid words into the mouths of a strong cast, especially the emphatically charming Cary Cranson, and allows them to breathe. The multi-media piece effectively mixes poetry, monologue, music and drama yet falls down with the film background, which adds nothing to the other all production, except occasional unwanted distraction. However this, and the delayed start due to technical hitches – this was the first night of the tour where they were without their full team – were my only grievances with an otherwise exhilarating show. In her mid-twenties also, Tempest writes what she knows here and in doing so makes Wasted a heartfelt call to arms to a lost generation, reminding her peers that it isn’t too late to change track, to go for what you want.

Wasted is currently on tour. For dates and to see the video trailer visit: