Hatch: A Better Tomorrow

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Okay, lie back and relax. Imagine yourself perfectly comfortable, the temperature neutral, your body completely free of tension and stress. Imagine, for a moment, that money doesn’t exist, that there are no limits on what might be possible, and then project your mind forward by one day, one week, perhaps one hundred years. What do you see? Where has the future taken you? Okay, begin to explore…is this a paradise or dystopia? Are you now an extra in Zardoz, The Matrix, Tron, Blade Runner, Logan’s Run or Planet of the Apes? Or a citizen in some forward-projected Ideal State that looks a bit like Ancient Greece, but with robots? Wandering around in a banal CGI exotica rain-forest full of blue aliens, or somewhere that seems…already familiar, with Starbucks, Google and Tesco adverts everywhere? OK. Now I’ll click my fingers, and you’ll be back in the present…

Hatch at Embrace Arts (Oct 13) [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Hatch at Embrace Arts (Oct 13) [photo credit Julian Hughes]

In fact, you’re not in the present, but the past. You’re at Embrace Arts in Leicester, and it’s October 13, 2013. It’s a date that even though it’s already receding into the past, still sounds like the future: the kind of post-millennial date in which most of the science fiction we grew up watching (and still watch, all the time, on DVD and streamed online) happened to be set. So this platform of performances imagining the future, and all the ways it might be made better, takes place in a recent past, on a date that, when it’s written down, feels like a future still to come. Maybe because this future we’re actually living in seems like it got badly corrupted in the transmission from promise to reality. There are computers, and robots, and even a Chinese robot on the moon as I write, but there are also the return of Workhouse mentalities (re-branded and free-range, but otherwise much as they were) and rising malnutrition in the richest nations. Amnesia is everywhere, too.

Hannah Nicklin [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Hannah Nicklin [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Which may be why it seems apt that the first performance I see tonight is Hannah Nicklin‘s Dead Time, a one to one presentation in a narrow room full of filing cabinets and books, so already like a secret meeting of some kind: the sort of location where the dissidents in films like The Lives of Others or novels such as 1984 tend to fleetingly exchange information while glancing nervously over their shoulders for signs of spies and secret police. It’s a feeling enhanced by Nicklin’s decision to voice the monologue through a recorded ‘message’ on her computer, while visual illustrations – Google Maps, folders of photographs and the like – are projected onto the white top she’s wearing, disembodying her voice while making her own body a screen. She tells the story of a friend’s sudden death and its effect on her, but it’s the sense created of these ordinary lives, whose narration gives the piece its human spine, being held inside a system that is most striking. At one point, Nicklin becomes an animated graphic showing real-time stock market and City trading, a pulsing map, projected onto a breathing screen, as complex as anything to emerge from a particle accelerator: an image is left in the mind that rivals one of those sixteenth century mappings of the cosmos onto the human form commonplace in Europe and India.

Third Angel [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Third Angel [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Although only around 15 minutes long, seeing Hannah Nicklin’s performance first meant I missed the bulk of Third Angel‘s 600 People, Alex Kelly’s stand-up lecture drawing connections between human evolution, space exploration and some of the many mind-boggling statistics about the depth of time and the size of the universe that have a tendency to be avoided in casual conversation because they can cause the brain to explode. Clearly, humankind has come a long way between the appearance of our earliest known ancestors in the Rift Valley and our current tracking of the Voyager satellite, which was launched in 1977 and officially entered interstellar space last year, leaving the solar system on August 25, 2012, its passage into the unknown accompanied by some strangely haunting noises. Kelly was evidently drawing his diverse threads together by the time I entered the main theatre, building to a set of conclusions whose precise significance relative to their origins I couldn’t quite pin down, having missed the build-up to them, but it was certainly obvious that Kelly was relishing his role as a kind of free-form Royal Society Lecturer reporting back on a series of conversations he’d had with the astrophysicist Simon Goodwin, and that the upshot was that our future as a species is in our own hands.

Deborah Pearson [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Deborah Pearson [photo credit Julian Hughes]

If Alexander Kelly had chosen to address these big themes in the simplest way possible, as one performer talking to a room full of people with just the occasional slide to illustrate his words, it was a strategy also followed, with a few variations, such as no slides, and remaining seated instead of standing up, as Kelly had, by Deborah Pearson‘s The Future Show, in which Pearson simply recites every single event that will take place in her life from the moment this performance ends – quite literally, from her walk off-stage after the applause and her train journey home, to her own death, placed decades into the future – with a dry intonation that suggests a bemused news-reader contemplating the absurdity of existence (complete with accounts of audience members after the show trying to catch her out by doing unexpected things, like pulling a dog from a coat pocket) and – in that death scene, decades hence – turning the whole thing into a kind of banal, everyday tragedy that is all the more affecting for its refusal to indulge in acting (at least, Pearson acts throughout as if she’s not acting) or ramp up the melodrama. After all, who would need to do that, when the bare facts of any human life are so peculiar and unsettling in their own right?

Mr Ferris & Daniel Oliver [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Mr Ferris & Daniel Oliver [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Talking of unsettling, that’s pretty much the raison d’etre of Mr Ferris and Daniel Oliver, formerly (and probably still, for all I know) instigators of the notorious performances of AuntyNazi. Certainly veering on the gentler side of what they’ve been capable of in the past, at least insofar as Oliver doesn’t have an axe in his hand this time out, tonight’s one-to-one performance (or, more accurately, tonight’s ‘two-to-one’ performance, given that you, the audience, are decisively outnumbered by Ferris and Oliver) involves being tied up with tinfoil, having batteries plugged into said tinfoil hand-cuffs, having a tinfoil hat put unceremoniously onto your head, then sat at a table facing Ferris, who delivers an interrogatory string of non-sequiturs to your face. Meanwhile, in a set of headphones, you hear Oliver’s voice, seemingly stranded in a parallel universe, describing his condition in language that defies logic but appears to have a similar structure to that of Ferris’s monologue. Ferris keeps saying ‘Repeat!’, but whether it’s a refrain or an instruction isn’t clear, and I end up, instead, trying to follow both streams of language at once. At a point that seems more or less random, but is probably precisely timed, the plugs are disconnected, the cuffs removed, and I’m abruptly sent back out into the corridor with a tin-foil hat still on my head, left to make of it all whatever I choose. The one word description might be: ‘disorientating’.

The Gramophones [photo credit Julian Hughes]

The Gramophones [photo credit Julian Hughes]

The Gramophones are rather more straightforward, and their Small Acts Of Protest show (currently touring under a different name, Playful Acts of Rebellion) does pretty much what it says on the tin, recounting the various paths by which the four women in the company came to a realisation that their general tendency to feel discontented with the world around them might be somehow related to their equal tendency to have not done much about it. What follows is a series of intertwined personal stories of growing activism, as each chooses an issue that concerns her and commits to spend a year doing something, whatever it might be, to try and enact some small change in the wider world. Kristy Guest takes up the cause of food waste, Hannah Stone – under the influence of Pussy Riot – that of feminism, while Rebecca D’Souza takes on media assaults on the very concept of the Welfare State and Ria Ashcroft revisits an abandoned protesting past, trying to find parallels between her former life as a protester and her current one as a performer. Poised somewhere between uplifting comedy and agitprop cabaret, Small Acts of Protest is energetic, likeable and sufficiently lacking in self-importance to avoid falling into the ever-lurking trap lying in wait for all message-based theatre (as skewered by the League of Gentlemen’s ‘issue based’ educational troupe, Legz Akimbo). Thankfully, the honesty and humour on display here help to keep things well away from that particular precipice.

Eric Rosoman [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Eric Rosoman [photo credit Julian Hughes]

While The Gramophones were looking for ways to improve the world, Eric Rosoman was spending the evening in the Embrace cafe trying to find the various Paradises, Utopias and other Heavens on Earth that already exist, in name, anyway: whether these towns called Bliss or Paradise could feasably live up to those names was perhaps another question, and one that Rosoman’s conversations with the audience in the cafe were intended to solve. Quite apart from the locations found by typing the many variations on Utopia and Perfection into Google Maps, then marking them on a board should we wish to visit them ourselves, Rosoman was also logging places audience members had experienced as some kind of Paradise, whatever they happened to be called. Clearly, this mapping of a global network of ideal places – and in doing this, trying to define what an Ideal Place might actually be – was more than a single evening’s work, so it’s not entirely surprising that the end of the night saw Rosoman’s project, like The Gramophones’ efforts to improve the world, implicitly a work in progress, to be continued in the future.

Andy Field [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Andy Field [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Three further pieces played with ideas of more personal experiences of the future. Andy Field‘s Motor Vehicle Sundown (After George Brecht) reportedly consisted of an imaginary journey, experienced as an audio narrative listened to inside a stationary car under the streetlamps of Leicester, but I can’t say exactly where this particular journey led as the excessively full platform elsewhere, 25 minute duration and capacity for only two audience members at a time ensured there was never a good moment to get inside that mysterious 2CV parked facing a hedge a few yards from the Embrace entrance and experience it. Perhaps, when it comes to imaginary journeys, it might be better to imagine what the imaginary journey might have been anyway?

Steve Fossey [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Steve Fossey [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Technical hitches rather than schedules scuppered Steve Fossey‘s Hello I Love You, for this punter at least. The idea had been to connect, by way of a mobile phone and a real but heavily symbolic rope suspended between two balconies inside the venue, and converse one-to-one, but remotely, in an exploration of whether such electronically mediated distancing made intimacy more or less difficult. Sadly, what was the final session of an otherwise technical hitch-free night saw our two phones refuse to connect, for some mysterious reason best known to themselves, which might be as good a metaphor for a failure to connect in other ways as any that might have ensued had the networks proved more cooperative. Oddly, given the subject, the technology’s failure saw Fossey and myself standing side by side, watching the phones in our hands repeatedly refuse to make contact, while we talked about what would have happened if they’d managed to talk to each other. Perhaps this could be considered the precise inverse of the intended script.

Krissi Musiol [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Krissi Musiol [photo credit Julian Hughes]

At least the decidedly analogue construct of Krissi Musiol‘s Making Time didn’t go wrong, partly because it took place at a table in front a cabinet full of craft ceramics by the staircase and consisted of Musiol herself delivering an in-person motivational sales pitch in which she promised a service that would accept proposals for things you’d like to achieve (submissions to be handwritten on a postcard, please) and keep track of them for you online, sending out reminders or little prompts to keep you directed towards the goals you’d expressed today. You could choose a goal one year or ten years off, a short or long term objective, and like Hannah Nicklin’s Dead Time, the substance was about how we use the time we have, or, in Musiol’s case, perhaps, how we fail to use it. Precisely because her performance adopted the form of a sales pitch, or (possibly) job interview, it seemed appropriate (even if it turned out to be accidental) that a ceramic Angel and Devil in the cabinet behind her lined up exactly with Musiol’s shoulders as she spoke, suggesting that all this talk of self-motivation and direction might be less trustworthy than it seemed on the surface. The good and bad intentions of this kind of inspirational talk were subtly exposed in what turned out be an entirely unintentional quirk of the location.

Jaye Kearney [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Jaye Kearney [photo credit Julian Hughes]

A definite contrast was apparent between Musiol’s Making Time and the last performance of the night, Jaye Kearney‘s One, despite a few thematic connections. In truth, though, there was a contrast between everything seen during the evening and Jaye Kearney’s One, since its whole aesthetic and energy was indebted as much to cheerful Hen Party celebrations and Bridget Jones’ Diary as anything in the usual Live Art and Independent Theatre armoury, and Kearney certainly did the night’s best job of scrambling our expectations of theatrical decorum. Beginning predictably downbeat, with Kearney seemingly defeated in the same pyjamas worn by Renée Zellweger in the films of Helen Fielding’s books, listening to sad songs and slapping labels like ‘fat’, ‘single’ and ‘loser’ all over her own face and body, halfway through she switches tone, puts on polka dots, and does the whole Gok Wan or Oprah ‘you go girl’ thing before decisively parting company with Bridget Jones, rejecting the search for a man and going through a whole marriage ceremony on her own, with the help of various audience members. Once married to herself, One turns into a full-on cheesy wedding disco that carries on long after the actual performance finishes. By this point it was hard to tell if we’d just seen a piece of experimental theatre or something that would simply go down a storm on daytime TV. Several weeks on, I’m still not sure, which suggests that if any performance tonight could be said to have been genuinely experimental, Kearney’s was it.

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