“One day, a rabbit decided to go to the circus and see a play…” This isn’t, it should be said, the beginning of Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour‘s script for White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, nor is it much of a clue as to what the script contains. But there’s the bind. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’s entire raison d’etre is that the contents of its script remain unknown, not so much to the audience, perversely enough, but to the performer chosen to enact it on any given night. No performer can perform the script more than once, and no performer can know what the script holds in store before they are onstage, where they are handed a sealed envelope containing a text they have never seen. From that moment, with a thin sheaf of white A4 printed pages in his or her hands, the performer delivers the lines as an unrehearsed cold reading, knowing no more (or perhaps less) than the audience does about the script’s trajectory when its stories begin to unfold, one inside another.For NEAT14, Hatch recruited three performers to take their places on the stage in a function room above the Peacock pub on Mansfield Road, where White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was performed on three different nights. Chris Sainty, The Gramophones‘ Hannah Stone and Zoo Indigo‘s Ildiko Rippel took one turn each to become the borrowed voice – or perhaps the puppet – of Nassim Soleimanpour. The reason for this substitution of performers lies in two aspects of the script. First, its origin as a piece written to circumvent the travel restrictions, now lifted, that its author was under in 2010, when he wrote it in the cities of Shiraz and Tehran to send into the world in his place. This meant that the act of borrowing the voices of others for what is, in essence, a one-person show, must have seemed a necessary device to underscore the author’s physical absence. There are also internal features of the situation the script engineers that require a ‘blind’ performance. Without giving anything away, it’s central to the meaning of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit that the audience fully believes that whoever reads Soleimanpour’s words knows nothing about the outcome or anything of the path taken to reach it. Each performer must gradually realise the process of manipulation they have become part of onstage, with the audience watching and (sometimes) participating. At the heart of this manipulation is the question of obedience: will the actor perform the author’s instructions or put down the script and leave the stage? How far will they go to fulfil their duties as the performer of this script, under the pressure of an agreement to complete the task? Given the way that the text operates as something akin to military order papers rather than a conventional play mediated by a director, Soleimanpour’s nationality and personal history, as a conscientious objector to military service, have been invoked to explain his intentions. In truth, though, there is not much cultural specificity here. The script’s allegories of play-going rabbits, officious bears and crows, of cheetahs impersonating ostriches, of white and red rabbits undergoing experiments, can all be read as easily within the English framework of The Wind in the Willows and the Work Programme as they can be connected to any Iranian literary or historical precedent. If anything, this is a script that best fits certain 1960s definitions of the Theatre of the Absurd. As for the larger points about obedience and manipulation? Well, as Soleimanpour has explained himself, in more than one interview, Iran is not the only place on earth where such questions need to be asked. Whatever the reason, then, this is a script that must be discussed without exposing too much about its details and workings. The cold reading and insistence that Soleimanpour is speaking directly through the actor often means that in hearing both voices we’re not hearing either very clearly and this can act as a distancing screen – a device that’s conceptually apt but sometimes operates in a trade-off with immediacy. It’s interesting to note that Soleimanpour himself, seeing the piece performed for the first time three years after he’d first written it, apparently felt compelled to interrupt and explain to the audience that he could now see all the things he’d do differently, but he would leave the script alone, as a piece of work grounded in its moment of origin – he was already a sufficiently different writer to the one who had written White Rabbit, Red Rabbit to feel any attempt at revision would be to redraft a voice now displaced from his in time, much as the text had originally set out to speak remotely, displacing Soleimanpour himself geographically. Equally – since the objective of any performance is to create an illusion of real events unfolding – would we be any the wiser if a performer who had read the script got up on stage and played the part? Isn’t the whole point of theatre that we regard the feigned death of an actor as the real death of the character? Couldn’t the cold reading be faked? But perhaps the key to White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is precisely the question of obedience and trust implicit in the performer’s not-knowing. Soleimanpour has issued instructions that can be disregarded, adapted and changed at any time. A performer can choose to interject her own stories and ad-libs (as Ildiko Rippel does) or follow the script exactly (as Hannah Stone did). The audience can interrupt and change the outcome, as happened to Chris Sainty. The message seems plain: the power of any script, theatrical or otherwise, lies solely in our own willingness to act out its instructions. Such knowledge can make red rabbits of us all.
Walking into the foyer of Nottingham’s Theatre Royal to find Lexi Strauss sitting in an armchair, disconnected from the outside world by white plastic ear-pieces, seemingly possessed by the spirit of an elderly lady telling the story of how she met her husband at the old Empire, which once occupied the site where the Royal Concert Hall now stands next door, is a markedly uncanny experience. Her two-minute verbatim performance, Beryl, is not acting, or even a feat of impersonation in any theatrical sense, but a kind of portraiture built on the empathy needed to fully occupy, and on some level temporarily become and give voice to, another human being entirely.Talking to Strauss herself, who performs the short piece on a loosely timed loop, pausing between each completed cycle to remove her ear-buds, revert to her own voice and manner, and chat to whoever happens to be around, it quickly becomes clear that the uncanny or possessed quality evoked at first glance is not really the point of the piece, more an accidental (and probably inevitable) by-product of what she’s trying to achieve. Strauss used to be an actress, she explains, working in film, TV and theatre, but three years ago switched to making art exploring empathy through a process of immersion not only in the words, but the breath, tone and textures of voice of her subjects. Beryl, its subject her own grandmother, is a distillation of six hours of taped conversations to a tiny but evocative fragment that contains its subject in the way a hologram holds a three dimensional image. It’s still fairly early in the afternoon and a few people wander across the foyer, at which cue Strauss puts the ear-pieces back in, settles into Beryl’s posture and begins the loop again. Her voice and facial muscles become notably other as she repeats the story of a romance born of a shared Conservative affiliation, a political liking for Neville Chamberlain. But it turns out that the new entrants have come in to get their photos taken with a cardboard cut-out of nuns advertising Carlton Operatic Society’s afternoon performance of Sister Act, and Strauss, now returned to herself again, explains that the ear-pieces are important, not only to hear the original voice as she speaks in it, connecting her directly to the subject, but to distinguish the deeper habitation of her subject she’s exploring from more conventional acting. By the third switch I witness from Lexi to Beryl, I’m starting to wonder if Strauss deliberately homed in on that shared Conservative political affiliation, just before the Second World War, precisely because if anything seems to run counter to soliciting or representing empathy in 2014 it’s likely to be an affiliation with the Conservative Party, even though empathy is precisely what Beryl is ultimately about, and it’s true that the idiosyncrasy in the voice seems to counter my usual, visceral, response to declarations of Conservative Party belief. By this point others are arriving and sitting down to listen, settling in to hear Beryl’s voice and witness the shifts between one human presence and another taking place in this corner of the carpeted foyer. As I walk away, that note of the uncanny persists and it only really occurs to me later that Strauss’s techniques must once have been part of the armoury of spirit mediums faking possession by voices and spirits as a means of persuading the bereaved that their relatives were indeed speaking to them. I’m reminded of Strauss’s earlier comment that her paintings, produced alongside works like Beryl, are less about painting, per se, or conventional portraiture, and more like extensions of these performances, pretexts for spending extended periods of time with subjects, listening and trying to capture their energy and presence. If there is something medium-like about these verbatim pieces, then, it seems to rest on a desire to channel the voices and messages of the living.
Look up the word ‘Quixotic’ in a dictionary and you’ll find a list of synonyms that includes idealistic, unbusinesslike, romantic, extravagant, starry-eyed, visionary, utopian, unrealistic, other-worldly, impractical, not-viable, useless, ineffective, implausible and impossible. The word itself stems from the tragi-comic hero of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, published in two parts, one in 1605, the other in 1615 (though the second part only appeared after someone else had beaten Cervantes to his own sequel, which then became the subject of the actual sequel he felt compelled to produce). As with most things related to Don Quixote – its story, author, characters and history – it’s all very complicated, confusing, absurd and entertaining. Nothing about it should work, but it does.You could argue that the real beauty of both the Spanish novel, Don Quixote, and Don Quijote, the performance by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio seen at Playworks in St Ann’s on Friday night, is that they’re united in being authentically Quixotic ventures. The idea of of adapting an epic 900 page novel, regularly considered one of the greatest books ever written, into a 60 minute performance on something less than a shoestring, is only one part of that equation. It’s the performers’ possession of an apparently unshakeable belief in the resulting unstable construction that seals the deal and renders Don Quijote mostly invulnerable to criticism. The more that goes wrong, the greater its failures, the more Quixotic it becomes, giving concrete form to the wider political point Frankland and Cooper aim to make: that only by choosing to live in the world as it might be, not as it is, and doing this now, when we’re at the greatest risk of failure, can we hope to actually change the world, even if we probably won’t. It is the tragedy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, after all, that its hero finally regains his sanity and returns to his worldly duties: in losing his delusions, he loses hope. The performance itself takes the form of a kind of cabaret. We are ushered into a room where Y Viva Espana is playing, then handed red cushions and invited to sit pretty much anywhere we like on the floor. A shadow play begins, skipping back and forth between iconic scenes from Don Quixote, as though the whole first book has been put through a narrative blender (a copy of Edith Grossman’s translation is physically dismembered with a power-saw at one later point). When Quijote himself appears among us it turns out that he (or in this case she, given that the guest role is tonight played by Priya Mistry – the next day it’s Selina Mosinski’s turn) has been hidden in an armchair under a dust-sheet all along. With some assistance from the audience a suit of armour is constructed from cardboard boxes, bubble-wrap and parcel tape. A spear and toy horse are found. A few poses are thrown. But no sooner is the lead character in place and costumed than she promptly snags a volunteer to act as her very own Sancho Panza and leaves the venue to go on an adventure. With Quijote AWOL, it’s left to Frankland, Cooper and Juan Carlos Otero to deliver a rag-bag of stories, skits, guitar solos, elaborately layered jokes and deadly serious political lectures to fill in until Quijote returns. There are Skype conversations and some very basic DJ skills. They do a soothsaying monkey act, put on a bullfighter outfit, bicker about questions concerning the authenticity of their representations of Spanish culture to a soundtrack of Tijuana Brass. There is a sentimental and possibly true story about rose petals, there is live drumming and more shadow theatre. It’s messy, silly, deliberately hit and miss stuff, which you could take as unformed and indulgent, or might equally plausibly see as following the form adopted by Cervantes’ own novel, cobbled together as it is around a slender thread of picaresque plot from a jumble of set-piece scenes, philosophical digressions, literary parodies, swipes at enemies and detractors and disillusioned commentary on the world of his own day. The parcel-taping together of our Guest Quijote’s armour from scraps of cardboard turns out to have been less a minor early scene than a declaration of intent. The final act consists of a roll call of modern-day Quijotes, ranging from Brian Haw and Pussy Riot to the ‘nudist rambler’ Stephen Gough, before Mistry returns to take a bow and shred some pages from that destroyed copy of Don Quixote. These shreds will, it seems, be thrown into the air in a celebration of impossible odds, blown over the audience’s heads like wedding confetti using a powerful electric fan. This is where we celebrate that we are all, at least potentially, a Quijote with the power to change the world. Except, inevitably, that’s not quite how it goes. The fan fails to work, the confetti is feebly thrown by hand, and when Frankland dips behind the set to check the plug sockets he topples over a big red placard that reads: ‘ALMOST DEFINITELY FAIL’. It turns out that Don Quijote really is supposed to end with a working fan and a storm of confetti, but I couldn’t help thinking that this version, where it all goes wrong and Frankland is still fiddling with a plug on the floor when the lights come up, somehow seems more apt than the real finale would have been.
The last time I encountered a Steve Fossey performance was at Hatch: A Better Tomorrow, where an inexplicable mobile phone glitch meant that the failure of technological devices forced the at-a-distance conversation intended to become a decidedly analogue and off-script encounter. Perhaps it’s for the best that Host – taking place under makeshift cover in the slightly rainy courtyard of Cobden Chambers, just off Pelham Street – took a very different approach and required no technological co-operation whatsoever. In Host, everything is experienced face to face, knee to knee, and with some unsettling moments of food-related participatory intimacy along the way.The set-up is that Fossey has home-cooked a large quantity of vegetarian curry and, working with a group of assistants, ‘hosts’ whoever turns up. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that. There are certain conditions to this hospitality, one being that Fossey’s ‘guests’ (we are, we must assume, Fossey’s ‘guests’ rather than his ‘audience’, just as Fossey is a ‘host’ rather than a ‘performer’ here) do not feed themselves but are fed, in a way that suggests both romantic intimacy and infantilisation, by himself or those working with him. The conversations are also directed, always to questions about love: How do we define love? Have we been in love? Are we in love now? What does love feel like? Where in the body is the feeling located? As I take my own seat I find myself knee-to-knee with two of Fossey’s appointed hosts, one of whom periodically offers food on a spoon while the other leads the conversation. There’s a certain pressure to offer a definition of love, or simplify my answers to something succinct, but I find myself almost instinctively complicating the questions, occasionally questioning back, though whether this is some kind of resistance to the participation required or simply a more general interest in listening to someone else rather than myself talking is probably a moot point. Either way, the conversation strays into quantum physics (which none of us understand, but might be vaguely relevant), the work done by those questioning me, LSD experiences, Buddhist ideas about letting go and much else besides. Whether any of this is on or off script is hard to tell. There don’t seem to be any right or wrong answers, just more or less complicated ones. In the meantime, after the first few spoonfuls, the curry is forgotten and grows slowly cold, and as the gathering grows, the conversations shift, from one person to another. It’s hard to tell exactly who is a ‘host’ and who a ‘guest’ here, or – I realise – to work out my own response or the intentions of the performance itself. On one level, Host is an uncomplicated staging of social generosity, in which guests are fed and attentively listened to, but this structure also echoes focus groups and corporate strategies, inviting us to trade our privacy and independence for an illusion of caring and belonging from our service providers. Does Host itself have a concealed agenda? Or is the social context driving instinctive distrust of a situation like Host being temporarily set aside in a small, utopian gesture? Much rests on that combination of questions about love – the shortest of short-cuts to intimacy and personal exposure – and the gesture of hand-feeding, which is both literally and symbolically placing us in a position where we allow ourselves to be spoon-fed by strangers with unknown motives. The feeding could be experienced as a comforting reversion to infancy, or the substitution of an intimate gesture for the real connections of intimacy itself, or simply a genuine moment of intimacy in a public space. As with the simultaneously real and synthetic connections of social media, exactly how we process the experience of Host – and whether we fully or partly trust, or refuse, its seductions – is left entirely in our own hands.
In that peculiar way Hatch programmes sometimes have of forging unplanned (and rather tenuously significant-seeming) links between one performance and another, emerging from DJ Entropy’s The Golden Record to take a seat in the window of Lee Rosy’s Tea Shop for Manchester duo Sheepknuckle‘s Walk With Me makes it hard not to think about the parallels between the slender thread of communication we still have with the Voyager probes, now both billions of miles distant from us, and the everyday technological links that today promise to live-stream images from walks taken by the Sheepknuckle performers in the streets around us.Of course, technology being technology, it’s not quite as straightforward as that: an earlier visit had been postponed while the mobile phone batteries were recharged after an unexpectedly busy couple of hours had taken their toll on the equipment. Once everything was up and running again, however, the vicarious walk could begin. I put on headphones and hear a male voice, that of Padraig Confrey or James Monaghan, I assume, starting to tell a story about a man who is walking a city’s streets. In parallel, a Bambuser film, showing scenes from the walk, unscrolls sometimes jerkily, sometimes more fluently, across the laptop screen in front of me. The images are neutral, recording the pavements and streets, the shop-fronts and alleys, the fragments of graffiti and signs glimpsed by someone walking at a steady pace, a camera-phone held just below eye level, improvising a route as they go. The story in my headset describes the city from the viewpoint of that man walking the streets, seeking contact with a woman who exists in a different time, their paths moving closer and closer in a context that seems to make any actual meeting impossible. There are occasional glitches in the broadcast, rendering movement as a series of stills, and the combination of this voice-over and the way the images pixillate and freeze, then release themselves back into fluency, sometimes contradicts, sometimes underscores the story being told. It’s not clear whether these moments are anticipated by the script or accidental. As the remote walker loops around a circuit of familiar streets, moving further from the venue, then begins to find a way back, the story’s indication of its two characters’ paths moving ever closer together is more heavily signalled. Some of the time-travel aspects of the text suggest Chris Marker’s La Jetee has been an influence; the effort to evoke some mysterious but everyday urban epiphany reminds me of certain features in the work of Patrick Keiller or Iain Sinclair. Did these apparent references highlight the lack of a comparable idiosyncrasy or specificity in Sheepknuckle’s writing and narrative framing, making Walk With Me a more generalised experience, falling short of its immersive potential? Yet there’s a sense of exploring a familiar urban space through the random path taken by another person, a stranger to the city, whose attention catches on details that are slightly defamiliarised by being seen in this new context. Sheepknuckle gather tropes from many current trends in performance, whether walking, the one-to-one, psychogeography or the kind of technological mediation used by Blast Theory and Willi Dorner, to name only a few. Even so, Walk With Me is its own low-key thing. When the final line of the audio coincides with a view of ourselves on screen, and a white rose is placed into a vase, right beside us, the technological mediation is breached and the end comes to feel like the real beginning.
If Chris. Dugrenier has her work cut out encapsulating her own life experience in the short space of a stapled last will and testament, imagine the exponentially greater task of compression that faced the committee chaired by Carl Sagan, tasked to choose images and sounds that would represent the sum total of global humanity for some unimaginably distant potential alien civilization of the far future, their scope constrained by the analogue storage capacity of an encoded photo-viewer and a golden 16rpm LP record entitled The Sounds of Earth.The contents of this record – which was actually compiled by Sagan’s committee to be dispatched into space aboard the two Voyager probes launched by NASA in 1977 – provided the raw material for Nottingham-based, Portland-born DJ Entropy’s performance at Screen 22 on Bank Holiday Monday, in which he live-mixed, layered and recombined the many tracks making up this portrait of humanity’s self-knowledge, representing our own sense of our kind’s place on Earth, and Earth’s in the Universe, with a few of our species’ musical ‘greatest hits’ thrown in. The record embraces everything seen to be important – or essential – about humanity in the year it was made, and DJ Entropy treats the contents like sonic equivalents of the bits of glass inside a kaleidoscope. Birdsong and insect noises float through greetings in male and female voices, in dozens of different languages. Snippets from Mozart and Bach cross paths with Chinese flutes, a Pygmy initiation song, didgeridoos and Azerbaijani bagpipes, while the lovelorn strains of a Hindi song, a few bars of Louis Armstrong’s jazz trumpet or the opening chords of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode slice through the sonic canopy like comets. Essentially a sound-piece, illustrated only with a slideshow of the diagrams, equations and photographs sent into space alongside the record, the mix varies, once ending dramatically, with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, another time dispersing into birdsong, rain and insect noise. The visuals show reproductive cycles, mathematical formulae, humans at birth, in old age, of all races and types, at work and leisure. There are landscapes and sunsets, images of animals, microscopic views of sperm homing in on an ovum, like spacecraft approaching a planet: all human life, barring the worst of us – the wars, exploitation and sufferings we inflict on one another – is here, one way or another. Perhaps the curious thing, watching and hearing all this material unfold in the bridge of a starship-like interior of Screen 22, is how this global portrait already seems to have reached a future civilization very different from the one that selected its images and sounds. The 1977 launch of the Voyager probes, after all, pre-dates the entrenchment of economic Neoliberalism and it seems unlikely that any similarly capricious project would be viable today without corporate or media sponsorship. The NASA record, then, is itself an artifact from our own past, a mirror to humanity’s best qualities and endeavours, heading into the unknown, and already beyond the boundaries of our own solar system.
Chris. Dugrenier‘s last appearance at Hatch took the form of Elan Vital, a scratch piece in which she combined an exercise class for her audience with her own quest to perform a perfect gymnastic back-walkover, all at an age when such a thing was liable to be difficult if not entirely beyond her physical reach. Perhaps there’s a certain intentional irony, then, in the fact that Wealth’s Last Caprice explores Elan Vital‘s opposite, the fact that we will inevitably run out of time and leave behind not just unfinished business and unrealised goals, but quite a lot of accumulated stuff.Taking the form of a will-writing session (staged, appropriately enough for a legal process, in a neutral office space inside the Galleries of Justice), those of us in the audience are asked to be her witnesses and partial beneficiaries. The will made is, incidentally, genuine and legally binding – though it is revoked by that made in any subsequent performance. Dugrenier begins by printing out a copy of her last will and testament. She has, she explains, carefully itemised every single item in her possession, several thousand things ranging from books in French and English and a hundred and sixty-plus pens, to an easel, a silver pilates ball, a box of cassette tapes and a lot of socks. Not content with merely counting and listing her material possessions, she also photographs them, screening images of tangled cables, single socks, swimming goggles and caps along the way. The question she poses is what all this stuff means. Imagining herself gone, she wonders what use these things will be to those who might inherit them. We learn her estate’s total purchase cost, then divide it by the number of objects to find the average value of its contents. We hear personal stories attached to certain objects. One sequence maps the process of falling in love through the objects – saucepans, an artist’s print, an engagement ring – to which Dugrenier’s memories are connected. The debris on some level represents a life – specifically the eighteen years since Dugrenier arrived in England – but on another level is mostly a heap of everyday junk that only means anything because Dugrenier herself invests it with meaning. Dropped in among Dugrenier’s explanations of her will’s intentions and her valuation of her own estate are projected sequences of handwritten ledger pages with readings from other wills, made in other times and places. One husband leaves his estate to a wife on the condition that she spends a year with her mouth taped shut, another expresses unconditional love in a single phrase: “what is mine is thine”. One will leaves nothing tangible at all, merely lists memories and some of the moments experienced in life, while another leaves only a letter and its author’s own body, reduced to a candle, to the object of his unrequited love. Whatever the motive behind its drafting, a will reveals its potential to be a weapon of vengeance, an appeal to the future, a kind of eulogy, declaration and self-portrait all at once. Dugrenier, like many of us, has little of material value to bequeath – and seems burdened by the weight of even what she does have, despite a temperamental inability to get rid of even the least useful or sentimentally charged things. But Dugrenier is keen to redefine her estate as the traces of a life, perhaps lived well – something other than the physical things left behind even as those things might, occasionally, feel connected to us. In short, Wealth’s Last Caprice is a light, touching and optimistic piece about the inevitability of death – which is surely a harder balance to find than Dugrenier makes it seem here.