Hatch at NEAT11: 30 Bird Productions/Gareth Morgan: Live Action From The City Ground

The third instalment of the Hatch: NEAT programme picked up on fragments from both its predecessors, with 30 Bird Productions promising Poland 3 Iran 2, a show that made an informal connection between Chris Dobrowolski‘s Polish father and Krissi Musiol‘s grandfather (as evoked by Sugar Statues at the Polish Eagle Club last week) while the more general role played in tonight’s session by football seemed to echo something of Medium Rare’s abstract PE sessions on Wellington Circus during the opening weekend

The emphasis on football as a thread through tonight’s Hatch had me slightly concerned, if I’m honest. After all, as a British-born working-class male who has successfully managed to achieve the near-impossible and avoid any real contact with ‘the beautiful game’ for most of his adult life, even a few seconds of crowd chanting in the background of a Match of the Day trailer on the TV can see me reaching for the remote with a reaction speed that startles the cat. So it seemed an ominous start when I boarded the Hatch coach and realised Nottingham Forest’s 1978 anthem We’ve Got The Whole World In Our Hands was playing at a fair level of volume, on a loop. 

Luckily the sound of Paper Lace and the 1978 Forest squad soon faded to be replaced with Gareth Morgan’s Births, Deaths & Marriages, a rambling but likeable account of the author’s long and accidental relationship with Nottingham Forest Football Club. While the bus took in some of the key locations from Morgan’s story – the house he grew up in at Elmswood Gardens in Sherwood, the City Registry Office on Shakespeare Street that his father found closed one day in 1988 and the City Ground itself, our final destination – Morgan’s stand-in for the day, Richie Garton, did his best to cope with a challenging script.

The tangle was partly due to Morgan’s absence, since the actual subject of the autobiography was in China: apparently Morgan had committed himself to reciting the tour script to a no doubt bemused audience in Kowloon at the precise time we were hearing it, which in China meant he was performing at 1.30am on Wednesday morning. This left Garton to cope not only with the narration of a rather densely layered story, which demanded the bus arrive at certain locations as we hit exact moments in the tale, but also with making sure we knew which parts of the narration were being related exactly as written by Morgan, and which were the improvisations of Garton himself. 

But whatever confusions arose in the convoluted set-up, Births, Deaths & Marriages was in essence a simple and sweet natured tribute to a football-mad father, who had managed (thanks to that fatefully closed registry office in 1988) to register his son as a Nottingham Forest Supporter a full week or two before his birth had been legally recorded: as Morgan saw it, this technicality meant he’d been a Forest fan longer than he’d been officially alive and Garton handed round copies of the birth certificate and photographs of Morgan’s father holding his newborn son – wrapped snugly in a Forest blanket, naturally – to illustrate his case.

It may have been a less than polished presentation in many ways but at its heart was a touching emotional honesty and a powerful sense that football is just one of the many things British men use to communicate and express affection, in place of actually communicating or expressing affection. As Morgan’s script wondered, while our coach pulled through the gates of the City Ground and passed a sign reading Home Of True Reds, “if I had ever talked about feelings with him, would he still have been my father?”.

This shift between football and family history, and Morgan’s own comments on club affiliation as a kind of cultural identity, led neatly into the concerns of tonight’s main attraction, the two-man show of 30 Bird Productions’ Poland 3 Iran 2. With Mehrdad Seyf and Chris Dobrowolski taking their shared fascination with a 1978 match between Iran and Poland as a starting point, the football quickly receded to being a peg for a wide-ranging series of anecdotes, histories, comic digressions, coming of age stories and whatever else seemed to fit, all illustrated with slides, photographs and snippets of blurry YouTube footage from the 1978 game.

Anyone who saw either part of Dobrowolski’s performance lecture at Hatch: It’s About Time  last year will know the man can talk engagingly and at length, but Seyf managed to hold his own and the two passed the reins of the performance back and forth as they went, building a loosely structured double narrative in which Seyf’s family history – that of Iranian Communists and progressives finding their way between the Second World War, the Shah and the Islamic State under Khomeini and Ahmadinejad – criss-crossed with Dobrowolski’s account of his father’s migrations from Stalin’s prison camps by way of the Caspian Sea to fighting with the Free Polish Army and finally settling in Essex to work (and learn English) on building sites.

These narratives connected directly in places: as Dobrowolski’s father made his way to the UK his unit stayed briefly in Iran, where Seyf’s father was a key figure in the local Communist Party. But the key event remained the one that first brought the two narratives together, the shared experience of watching, on televisions in very different places, that 1978 Olympic staging of a Poland-Iran football game. Within this framework both Dobrowolski and Seyf take any number of digressions, from Seyf’s mother’s attempts to reconcile her Communism with a love of Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth and Hollywood films to his own tendency to miss major historical events by being ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’ – a place that often turned out to be the beach.

Dobrowolski, too, misses out on such momentous events as the Solidarity strikes of 1980 by way of being in Poland (with its news blackouts) but preoccupied with a family visit to relatives, where he insists, instead of taking part in the unfolding of history, on day trips to Hitler’s bunker and Auschwitz, where he finds one of the least appropriate souvenirs imaginable: a candy-coloured Holocaust Viewmaster. The shifts between light and dark, sport and politics, family anecdote and the sweep of history, are deftly handled, and while the structure doesn’t follow that of the football match (there’s no half time, no goals or attempts to win possession of the performance) there is something here that echoes match tactics.

As the two pass the spotlight back and forth, just as team-players keep the ball moving on a pitch, Poland 3 Iran 2 becomes not so much Poland versus Iran as both teams deciding to ignore the score completely and just enjoy the game for its own sake, like kids having a kickabout on a bit of wasteground with coats for goalposts. The resulting show more closely resembles a two-handed lecture or stand-up routine than a conventional theatre piece but it holds our attention to the final exchange of shirts, and leads me to wonder how Gabriele Reuter’s Tourist, on at Nottingham Contemporary on Thursday, will further complicate the threads of that broader theme of ‘identity’ we’ve seen developing so far.

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