Meg Ryan Entombed in Cement

1 June 2007
First Night - Forced Entertainment

In London all next week with Forced Entertainment at Artsadmin’s Toynbee Studios in the East End, presenting two performances from the back-catalogue. Its pretty fascinating to be going back to these, and a rare chance to catch them again (or for the first time) if anyone’s in London. Do come and see.

End of the week is First Night (2001) – a kind of vaudeville gone-wrong, all rigid smiles, failed magic and sequins. Its on the very dark side of funny I guess – a nice reminder of the place we were in before the relatively easy-going attitude of shows like Bloody Mess (2004) and The World In Pictures (2006). Start of the week goes even further back in time to Dirty Work (1998) which is very stripped-down minimal, almost virtual theatre or cinema even, at least in the sense that nothing happens as such, everything is described/summoned in language. I guess this piece has a close relation to some of the things that I’ve been working with in video – especially the piece Starfucker in which white text titles appear in sequence on a black screen, each line an image involving some Hollywood star in the midst of some unexpected or inexplicable event or scenario.

Tom Cruise on an operating table.
David Soul in drag.
Michelle Pffiefer with her foot raised, just about to place it on a step.

You can read the short programme note I wrote for the re-presentations of First Night and Dirty Work below.

Dirty Work 5 – 6 June 2007 | 9:00 pm.
First Night 8 – 10 June 2007 | 9:00 pm.
Performance 10 June starts at 8pm.
Toynbee Studios, London. 020 7650 2350


A note on First Night and Dirty Work: June 2007

Think about it this way: inside the theatre there are only the performers and the audience. Onstage the performers have some material items – flimsy or not-so-flimsy scenery, various props and costume stuff. The audience, for their part, have their coats, their handbags and the contents of their pockets. But that’s all. The whole of the rest of the world ¬– its physical locations and landscapes, its entire population, its complete set of objects and its unfolding events – is invariably outside, emphatically absent. Theatre then must always be a way of making presence in the context of absence; a process of bringing in the world.


The two pieces we’re returning to, to present at Toynbee in this season, each come at the theatrical situation in quite different ways. The melodramatic tones of Dirty Work, with its trio of performers on an empty stage and its hint of music hall and bombast, contrasts sharply with what we always called the disastrous vaudeville of First Night, a performance in which the theatrical is pursued in a far more maximalist incarnation, via a line of performers with fixed grins washed up before us from some song-and-dance show.

In Dirty Work the two speakers approach the job of theatre through a bold, assertive act of summoning, assailing the bare stage with a text that pulls in as much as of the outside world as it can, always eager to find a new act, gimmick or show-stopping event with which to entertain, confront and challenge its audience.  Sketched in language alone, the performance shifts from theatrical spectacle to absurdist cabaret and includes, amongst many other things, fragmentary magic acts, scenes of murder mystery, Shakespeare and science fiction as well as mundane events drawn from daily life. At once a competition and a collaboration between the performers who each strive to make something happen using words, the performance is always fragile, an act of will and a determined attempt to draw something from nothing. As audience our presence and indeed our complicity in what takes place is essential, invited as we are to imagine all that is said, our minds constantly co-opted as a screen for the acts, scenes and events that are only described.

First Night for its part is focused less on the creative limits of the theatre act than on the dark double-bind between performers and audience, who are shown in this later work caught in a circle of mutual need, fear, laughter and incomprehension that soon spirals to make a fully-fledged black comedy of failure. The audience, for the hapless entertainers of First Night, are as much the start of a problem as they are a community of potential friends. The theatre’s distance from what we think of as the real world – whose absence is masked by only the thinnest veneer of patter and dances – becomes here a source of rich anger and absurdity. The masks of those onstage slip constantly, the fixed showbiz grins no more sustainable, plausible or human than the mugging of warmongering politicians at a badly staged photocall. The show goes on though (as the world does outside) and as it does so the end-of-the-pier dream of a theatre that might help us forget all our troubles and woes falls to pieces before us, like a car crash of sequins and greasepaint in slow motion.

We’re delighted to get the chance to re-present these pieces. If they each draw attention to problems in the theatrical economy, it’s not just, or not only for the sake of our interest in theatre itself. Instead for us the things that we approach through both Dirty Work and First Night – the role of the viewer in making meaning, the economy of expectations and the negotiation of rules on and off the stage, the temporary formation of community that happens in context of any live performance and of course the always-troubled play between reality and spectacle – are things that speak to the heart of the world we live in, to an understanding of what it is to live now, and to the possibilities of change.

TE, Sheffield, 2007.

You Break It You Pay For It

31 May 2007

Best Tom Waits image of the week:

A violin case lying wide-open, broken-backed filthy and discarded on the pavement and half-filled with rain water, somewhere down the way here on Rheinsburger Strasse.

Late afternoon, once the obligatory downpour is done, we see the Thomas Hirschhorn at Arndt & Partner. A sign on the door says its not suitable for kids but on my quick inspection I miss the images that are *really* unsuitable (colour inkjets of internet pictures showing  grisly corpses, probably in Iraq – faces shot to pieces, entrails wrapped around sticks, limbs hacked off). We’re in there already before I realise.

Hirschhorn - Stand AloneIts a good piece I think – long thick lengths of cardboard constructed ‘tree trunk’/ intestine/pipeline making their way thru all the rooms, obstructing ones progress, a series of large fireplaces spew detritus of timber and other stuff all over the floor making progress even harder, books are piled here and there, whilst smashed phones and computer elements (screens, keyboards, mice) are all parcel-taped to the walls here and there and what clear space remains is scrawled all over with marker-pen graffiti in red black and blue. A huge density to the text itself. Slogans, out-of-context words, mad phrases, many repeated so often that they become scrawl or meaningless scribble. Much of it is ersatz-political press-release-ese; phrases that seem to float around the war in Iraq – ‘containable situation‘, ‘sustainable democracy scenario‘ and ‘regional interests‘.

The rest is less nice talk – more bitter rumour, rant, paranoia and accusation; “Can’t get in. Can’t get out. Can’t get in. Can’t get out. Can’t get in. Can’t get out” it repeats at one place. In another spot who-ever has been writing stuff has given up and simply tried to cross out a wall-mounted clock using spray paint, a big crude black X running right across its face. In yet another there’s a scrawled version of the sign you often see in bijou antique shops – ‘If You Break It You Pay For It‘.

I guess that just about sums it up with Iraq.

M. came out saying ‘bleak, bleak, bleak..‘ but he seemed to get something from it.

S. for his part took one look at the first set of extremely grisly images (taped at intervals along the twisting tree-truck/pipe-line structures) and looked back to me.

Dad, these pictures are Horrid.” he said.

I laughed (trying not to make it worse..). “Yes. They are.. Maybe don’t spend too long looking at them..

OK” he said and with no sign of trouble, dismissing the pictures with the single word “Horrid” he went back to the game that he’d already invented, playing stepping-stones along the cardboard circles that Hirschhorn has taped at intervals on the floor. Amazing. I found something very resilient, very optimistic in that. Later we read some parts of the text together and talked about it. All fine.

What I liked about the piece is that its hard not to be in it – you are in it in fact, as soon as you step through the door. It surrounds you with itself, with the knots of the situation, with the horror of it, with the discourse around it, with the impossibility to escape and with the literal problem of navigating a space that is extremely barricaded, made difficult to pass through. I’d seen a related piece by Hirschhorn in New York some while ago (a year or more?) and hadn’t liked it that much – I think because that one so dwelt (and relied) on the same kind of war-images from Iraq, screaming with a voice invoking their authority and authenticity, but also, in a troubling way, underscoring their redundancy. In this more recent piece (Stand Alone it’s called) the reliance on the images is not so great, though they’re there in the background, like a serious toothache.  Instead the experience; ugly, disconcerting, rather total and immersive, is as much about space and language, about ones physical presence as a body/thinker/witness through language as it is about some kind of confrontation with ‘the truth’ or ‘the evidence’.

The image is one of several of Stand Alone at Hllr’s photoset on Flickr. Some rights reserved (see here for info).

Old Magic

30 May 2007

Best spam subject line of the week:

> I couldn't bear the thought of another woman having your child.

Torrential rain in Berlin, alternating brilliant sunshine. Corresponding dips and hikes in the temperature.

Yesterday at some pretty haphazard Wall Museum with the kids. Strange arrangement of random artefacts, photos, texts. At some point for no reason that I would grasp the focus shifts from 1945 and 1953 and 1989 to a room devoted to 'Religions Of The World'. Its a temporary glitch tho – before long you're back to the rooms featuring models of the East and and the West, photos of wall construction, bona-fide chunks of graffitied concrete and the hollowed-out Trabants and improvised aqualungs that people used in escapes.

What stayed with me was the whole genre of photos showing people just after escape – earth-covered men and women blinking in electric light on emerging from tunnels, two families stood next to the home-made hot air-balllon they flew over the border.

Best of all was the whole string of shots of people smuggled out in the trunks of cars, or people emerging from them or people stood proudly beside the cars in fields, driveways and garages – drivers and escapees, proud, pleased, dazed, numb. Adults playing hide and seek. Pictures taken to mark the moment, to prove that this happened, a certificate of some kind. In some cases the eyes in these images are blanked out – like in personal-ad sex pictures, or as if they were innocents caught by accident in pictures of criminals and whose identity must be protected.

More than anything else though all these pairs of people stood next to cars or clambering inexpertly from the trunks, look like they're in clumsy publicity shots for a set of strange deconstructed magic-acts. A series of drab magicians lacking glitzy costumes, all photographed in black and white, with their grinning but dazed-looking assistants stood next to them, gesturing prouldy to their dated, home-made automotive disappearing cabinets. A kind of old urban magic.

Gaps and Fog

25 May 2007

A beautiful combination of vagueness and super-concrete detail in Tony White’s great new story at 1001 Nights Cast, Barbara Campbell’s project which I wrote about already here with some thoughts about my own most recent contribution. In Tony’s story Ahead in the Line men whose names you don’t know are telling tales that the narrator can only half-remember as they wait in some kind of line for something that you don’t really get to the bottom of but which you intuit is probably horrible.

Ahead in the LineMost of the time you’re filling in narrative blanks, running scenarios in your head about possible contexts/ relationships/contents. All the while you’re addressed as if you were a visitor from far away, for whom common sayings or phrases need  gloss and explanation. Even the narrators voice might best be called enticingly unsteady; oscillating as it does between thick and thin, contemporary and slightly antique. But there’s really more than enough in the constellation of details coming out of the fog, and the constant gaps  in information, for your brain to get to work with.

“There was a funny story too – I can’t remember. Something about a woman and her daughter. I think the daughter was this guy’s niece. Who was telling the story. And this was when those wretches were going from door to door. And they had no respect at all.”

This one reminded me, although it’s very different, of M John Harrison‘s stories for the 1001 project, especially his first, from the prompt Cocking A Snook, in which the narrator seems to overflow with details about a situation, but on the other hand utterly neglects to give any kind of overview. He generalises a lot too, in description, which is beautifully disconcerting – “a man” arrives in his room in a “long house”, “figures in authority” do certain things in the corridor just outside and a radio plays “the local music”, where we can’t possibly know what kind of music that means or what kind of authority these “figures” have over what. Very wonderful and funny and deadpan. Taken together its a picture that’s totally in focus some places but murky and blurred in others. You’re aware of vivid detail, but lack much solid framework to put it in. The world comes out of fog, or emerges through a constellation of points and shadows, or is discovered like a gift only half unwrapped, or an object wrapped hastily and inexpertly in rags – in some places you see precisely what’s there, other places you can only make out forms, shapes and structures that must be guessed at.

“It was impossible to calculate how many rooms there were in the long house. This information was known only to the figures of authority who often squatted in a line along one side of the corridor eating a vegetarian meal.”

Very funny. Also frightening.

What both stories do really well I think is show how it’s the arrangement of words and the gaps between them that create the zone in which meaning can happen.

Cocking A Snook

These stories also celebrate the reader very much, pulling us into the game of language; knowing full well that where there is space, a lack of information, disjuncture, incompletion or anomaly, it’s imagination that thrives. They’re both really enjoyable too – texts where the sense of incompletion doesn’t mean melodramatic puzzles with an old-fashioned ‘mystery’/ denouement but rather structures that are somehow loose and tight at the same time, and which test nicely at the border of what we might be prepared to call a story. For now, in these cases at least, that seems to mean creating a kind of totally gripping situation which also remains somehow ‘only’ a constellation of possibilities, summoned by words, sentences, phrases.

I guess the interesting question might be if or how this kind of approach could be sustained over something longer length. 1001 Nights Cast lends itself very much to the fragment, the almost-a-poem, but if you think ‘novel’ I guess there’s a need (?) to fill more of the gaps, or perhaps, at least, to confirm or deny what’s inside them.

(Interesting recent stories on the 1001 site also from other friends and colleagues Adrian Heathfield, Sara Jane Bailes, Peter Petralia, Cathy Naden and Rinne Groff.)


Stage Floor - Bloody Mess in Toulouse

Watching Bloody Mess last night in Toulouse I felt like I’d forgotten so many things. At the end I walked around the stage and took more pictures of the shredded tinsel, strewn popcorn, spilled water and beer, boiled sweets and other stuff that’s littered everywhere – detritus of the performance.

The popcorn, sweets and tinsel against the black floor look so like galaxies.

Email Fragments

22 May 2007

D. describing a bad gig:

my main impression of the audience was a constantly changing glow of faces lit up by their mobile phones as they were checking the time. I found myself whimpering like an 8 year old at one point in what felt like a free fall of lack of interest – but a couple of vodkas in the bar nearby seemed to help – a bit.

F. describing life in general at the moment:

no big stresses besides the usual bike
falls, benzine flares, lost keys, learning how to be
loved, shopping at german discount shops, etc, etc…

Some spammer/robot inserting random text after the usual gif with info on unmissable Cialis/Viagra/Stock Exchange Options:

We are the civilian contingent – representatives of the town intelligentsia and merchants.
The caller can disable this behavior by setting bit 3 in DX.


Both Sitting or Brecht Might Have Liked It

21 May 2007

I’ve written a short text for Humus 3, a book on the 30 years of the Kaaitheater, about the extraordinary duets by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion – Both Sitting Duet, Quiet Dance, and Speaking Dance. The complete text, titled Brecht might have liked it, is below (and continues after ‘read more’). An edited version of it will be in the book, which comes out in September.

Kind of similar-looking but for sure not identical, semi-bald blokes in identical or nearly identical clothes are sat on chairs right next to each other and doing things. Mainly it’s movement broken by stillness – a lot of hand and arm action, some of it recognisable as versions of everyday gestures, the rest of it more abstract or more dance-like. There also seems to be some interest in sound; the noise that comes when the slapping palm of a hand makes contact with a knee, or the sudden exhalation of breath when they both slump forward in a posture of exaggerated rest.

In the next piece they lose the chairs and move around instead, sometimes together, more often alone. They are pacing paths back and forth, walking circles repeatedly. With these paths and circles they make sounds; a long ‘aghhhhh’ or ‘aaaahhhhh’ for instance, which although done without noticeable emotion still invokes a notion of falling, dread or non-specific fear. Sometimes, moving down there on the black floor of the stage, they look like claymation – simple-figure-humans with a comically (or tragically) small vocabulary of action and sound. They are creatures living within a limit, two men caught in some skeletal scenario, an encounter whose pieces have been disordered, dislodged from continuity and causality.

In the final of the works they go back to the chairs and make yet more sounds – speak words and sing even. The words run simultaneously – going with and through each other, side by side, over and under, point and counterpoint. The words are mostly describing movement; movement that could possibly be dance or could possibly be something else. Run. Run. Run. Stop. Run. Run. Run. Stop is all I can immediately remember. It’s fast, vivid exhilarating.

All of it messes with your sense of what’s simple and what’s complicated. Mostly it starts at a place you’d call simple, very simple, but then they pattern it zealously; repeating, overlaying, looping the sequences, moving in and out of phase with each other and altering the time so that what maybe began as something you could teach to eight year olds, ends up more like Bach. A lot of maths, a lot of counting. Strangely virtuoso, for all its insistent aura of banality.

Read more…

John Cage: Laughter is Preferable to Tears

16 May 2007
John Cage

Vlatka sent me a great clip from YouTube in which John Cage performs a composition called Water Walk on some 1950’s gameshow. As part of a very showbiz intro that Cage deals with really well, there’s a big joke from the presenter concerning the various items that Cage will use to make the music, including a bathtub, a duck call, five radios, a vase of flowers, a pitcher, a soda-syphon etc and a grand piano. He asks Cage if he minds that some people in the audience might laugh when they listen to the piece and Cage says ‘No, that’s OK, I think laughter is preferable to tears‘.

The music when it comes is great and his performance – deadpan, stopwatch in hand but somehow still relaxed – just amazing.

That Night Follows Day – UK Premiere – Tour Dates

15 May 2007
That Night Follows Day - Phile Deprez 01

The UK Premiere of That Night Follows Day is this Friday and Saturday (18th and 19th May), in Birmingham as part of the Fierce Festival. I’m really looking forward to that. The piece is a collaboration between myself and the Flemish theatre company Victoria, and has a cast of seventeen children, between the ages of eight and fourteen. The set is by Richard Lowdon (Forced Entertainment) and the lights are designed by Nigel Edwards who has worked with me and my colleagues at Forced Ents for a very long time. The pictures here are by Phile Deprez.That Night Follows Day - Phile Deprez 02

Someone wrote a very nice blog entry following the first performances in Brussels the week before last. You can read it here.

You tell jokes to us.
You grade us. You tell us that we’ve worked hard, or that we have to work harder.
You save our drawings.
You say that Rome was not built in a day.
You say that silence is golden, that silence is important.
You sit by the bed.

You stand in the doorway.
You wait in the car.
You wait outside.
You teach us to swim.
You read to us about things that happened in a very far off, very distant galaxy.

You watch us when you think we aren’t looking.
You look at us with expressions that we can’t exactly read or properly recognise.

The whole tour list for 2007 is down below. There are already more dates planned for 2008, and I’ll try to add these here soon.

  ******   That Night Follows Day – Tour 2007
04.05.07 Brussel – Kunstenfestivaldesarts
05.05.07 Brussel – Kunstenfestivaldesarts
06.05.07 Brussel – Kunstenfestivaldesarts
07.05.07 Brussel – Kunstenfestivaldesarts
18.05.07 Birmingham (UK) – Fierce Earth Festival
19.05.07 Birmingham (UK) – Fierce Earth Festival
07.09.07 Rotterdam (NL) – Rotterdamse Schouwburg
08.09.07 Rotterdam (NL) – Rotterdamse Schouwburg
21.09.07 Graz (A) – Steirischer Herbst
22.09.07 Graz (A) – Steirischer Herbst
23.09.07 Graz (A) – Steirischer Herbst
12.10.07 Modena (I) – Vie Scena Contemporanea Festival
13.10.07 Modena (I) – Vie Scena Contemporanea Festival
19.10.07 Hamburg (D) – Kampnagel
20.10.07 Hamburg (D) – Kampnagel
02.11.07 Paris (F) – Festival d’Automne
03.11.07 Paris (F) – Festival d’Automne
04.11.07 Paris (F) – Festival d’Automne
23.11.07 München (D) – Spielart Festival
24.11.07 München (D) – Spielart Festival
30.11.07 Berlin (D) – Hebbel am Ufer
01.12.07 Berlin (D) – Hebbel am Ufer