Arts Review: Into The New 2015

The Arches, 12th-15th January

Tuesday

Running over the course of 3 days, Into the New showcases the work of final year students from BA Contemporary Performance Practice at RCS. The performances take place deep within the underground warren of the Arches – a perfect, atmospheric setting.

First up on the program tonight is Bel Jessica Pye’s Bodyhoods, an exploration of identity, invisible disability and what it means to be comfortable within your own skin. The piece is staged very well, with the performer pacing up and down a blue strip, in the style of a catwalk. The visuals on screen echoing what the performer is saying are emphatic and the use of a secondary performer who acts as an audio describer also works well in conveying a kind of dialogue between performer and hostile “society”.

The piece focuses on accepting yourself for who you are and not feeling the need to hide your flaws from society – a message which is mirrored in both the peeling of an apple and the performer gradually removing all of her clothes. The nudity makes the show rather sensationalist but is probably its core concept, without which it would seem rather generic and bland. The play throws many questions at the audience – what is a disability? Is something only an illness or disability if it can be seen? Should mental illnesses actually be considered illnesses? Should we embrace our flaws rather than try to medicate them away?

There are no real answers given. Given that the festival as a whole is trying to “raise some impertinent questions” and “your role, as audience is to domesticate their ideas, to deal with them and perhaps to explain them to yourselves and each other” it is alright that no answers are given, as discussion and debate is definitely triggered by the performance.

{Front End/Back End} similarly raises some points to  consider without actually saying much itself. The piece begins with the performer announcing that he is in fact not the actual performer, but the performer’s flatmate, called in due to a last minute emergency. He then begins to recount an argument regarding a dubious pink paint stain in a drama studio in the RCS. Many things contribute to the “unfinished, quickly pieced together” tone of this performance – for example the folder with which the performer uses to prompt himself. Therefore the piece raises some interesting thoughts about the creative process itself, and offers the audience a “behind the scenes” view.

Overall an interesting and enjoyable night of theatre from some of Scottish Contemporary Theatre’s promising new talent.

 

Wednesday

Like many shows available at Into the New, if you try to think about Louise Doyle’s Living in the Dim Light too much, you will inevitably get confused, lost and maybe even a little cross. The key to this work is to ask yourself the question, am I enjoying watching this unfold? And the answer is a thousand times yes.

Living in the Dim Light is a series of delightful forays into sound, form and humour, showing the audience what it is that falls under the remit of the artist: everything. Anything can be sacred. From elusive slippers, to christmas tree angels fluttering into the audience, in this realm of the giant puppet toothbrush, Doyle’s ‘dim light’ touches everything, and infuses it with a pathos so that you never know when the audience is next going to laugh, crane their necks in attempt to take in the stage, screen and “live” band at once (an impossible task) or fall into a meditative reverie over this ballet of objects.

Next comes Gabriel Spector’s When There Is No-One Else, a glimpse of one performer in search of an audience. With his back to the audience, Spector sits at an upright piano, interweaving music with his musings on being alone. His mode of address is jarring at first, too rehearsed-sounding to come across as sincere, but as his desperation grows into an all-consuming echoing roar of loneliness his performance comes into its own, in a thundering of piano hammers and strings. Cut off from my four fellow audience members by a black cloth, this one-to-anyone-who’s-out-there-please performance challenges the audience perception of what we deserve as spectators- by the end I desire to be acknowledged by Spector just as ardently as he appears to need someone to save him from his isolation. Yet I still can’t quite bring myself to answer: hello?

Rounding off Wednesday night is Jack Stancliffe’s Half House, an exploration of amateur theatre, following a structure which Stancliffe explains to us very carefully, having made us aware of his gratitude that we came to his show. There are lots of other things on, he knows, and our time is precious. What he wants to present to us is the transcript of various conversations he has held with members of an am-dram group. In doing so, he deconstructs the entire aesthetic of this kind of performance, while his volunteer performers reconstruct the set of Abigail’s Party around him. His words and those of his interviewees blend without distinction, they fold into the patterns of small talk emitting from the recording of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party which plays behind them, and hold a balance between detachment, sincerity and charm. By the end, what has been achieved? Well, it’s difficult to tell, but as Jack engages his volunteers and audience in a post-show discussion in the fading lights, it’s evident that those on stage have enjoyed themselves. And that we as an audience have been invited into that. And isn’t that what am-dram’s all about?

 

Thursday

It’s the final night of Into the New, and the two shows I’ve been invited to watch couldn’t be more different from each other.

First up is What Next?, a one-woman show by actor and comedian Sarah Short. Short presents a self-parodying look into her obsession with fame, using personal experiences to confront the more sinister aspects of celebrity culture. Her style is lively and likable, and she seems confident on stage. She banters with the audience quite successfully, demonstrating a natural feel for improvisation that is always a sure winner in live comedy. However, it does seem like she gets bigger laughs because most of the audience are her friends, and I can’t help thinking I’d find it funnier if I knew her personally.

The transition from light-hearted silliness to more heavy-handed social criticism is also a little under-developed. Short switches to a spoken-word style, in which she rallies against the harmful nature of the consumerist culture that produces celebrity, but this shift occurs so abruptly and so late on in the performance that it feels like a bit of an afterthought. The incorporation of talk-show footage also isn’t as successful as it could have been, and leaves a flavour of ambiguity.

The second performance on my list, Instruments of Torture, is really something special. Two performers in military costume – Katherine Dye and Zachary Scott – immerse the audience in their recreation of the psychological discomfort and claustrophobic intensity of life amidst conflict. The choreography is as sharp and unyielding as a knife edge, and the performers seem to spare no expense in pushing themselves to the limit both physically and psychologically. Using battered old instruments and their own bodies, they create a primordial music that at turns enthrals, intimidates and abuses. It makes for upsetting and uncomfortable viewing, and this is why it is so effective.

The purpose of the performance is to explore “whether performance can aid our survival or become another means of torture”, and the performers certainly succeed in fully engaging the audience with this question. We are completely at their mercy, being provoked into varying degrees of anxiety, shock, outrage, amusement and grief. It is a show that lingers long after it ends, because it doesn’t really end at all. We may be fortunate enough to be able to walk away from this theatrical portrayal of the human spirit broken by conflict, but conflict itself is still very real, and when it isn’t been fought out in war-zones or detention camps, it’s being carried in the minds of individuals.  Instruments of Torture is a stunning example of just how powerful theatre can be in alerting our minds to something so raw and pertinent, without the need for words or explanation.

Before the aftershock kicks in, however, we are ushered towards the closing moments of the 2015 festival, as Jak Saroka’s durational piece, Acts of Self-Love comes to its culmination. Having spent four years on a degree working towards these performances, it wouldn’t be difficult for the CPP students’ work to fall into the self-indulgent. Yet as Acts of Self-Love shows, each performance has been an offering to the audience, of a point of view, of a question about the world we live in, about ourselves. And as Saroka dominates the catwalk at the dénouement of the festival, the energy in the room is one where thought is put aside for a collective feeling. Of unity. Of expectancy. Of something new.

[Alice Lannon {Tuesday}; Caitlin MacColl {Wednesday}; Cat Acheson {Thursday}]

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