February round-up

ANALOG.UE

What. A. Show. Some things are hard to translate into words, and the beauty of this show is one of those things. It was the first time I’d seen anything at the National Theatre and the scale of the Lyttleton had a slightly overwhelming effect on me, especially given how full it was on a Wednesday at 11.30am. The stage is simply set: there’s a table with an assortment of items on it at the back, and the combination of the lighting and the distance from the audience serve to make this a striking tableau; at the front there’s a lone table centre stage, that houses (it later becomes apparent) a bank of six-way extension leads. There’s also a chair to the right, and as the safety curtain opens, Daniel Kitson (writer, performer, director of the show) is stood in silhouette, looking at the items beyond.

Through the course of the show, Kitson dismantles the arrangement at the back, piece by piece, simultaneously constructing a vast web of tape machines toward the front of the stage that each amplify a part of the story that’s being told. The extraordinary and varied texture of the amplification from myriad machines, along with the precise formalism of Kitson’s movements, make the show’s aesthetic beguiling.

Woven into this hypnotising tapestry is a story. Or three stories. Or maybe actually only two stories. There’s a fiction – that much is clear – that celebrates the tiny daily actions that make us who we are. The fiction concerns an elderly couple, who met late in life, who between them prompt a version of a life to be recorded onto tape. It concerns a woman who discovers and embeds this recording into the fabric of her own life. Structurally, the story of the couple moves forward episodically over the course of a day in September in the 1970s, and the story of the woman covers a day in September in 2012, but it is told backwards and so becomes folded into the story of the past – it becomes the only future possible for a woman, and a collection of tapes.

Wrapped around this story, or perhaps puncturing it, is another story – neither proclaimed as a fiction, nor its veracity extolled – a story that I didn’t want to believe and yet somehow knew to be true. It’s Daniel’s story, the story of how Daniel came to make the show; a story that gives shape to the loneliness in his life – a loneliness that could be understood as both the effect of his profession, and the cause of his profession. This story focuses the themes of the fiction: rather than serving as a contrast, it instead tightly binds the narrator to his characters, moreso than the tape binds the three characters to one another – because, after all, emotions connect us in a way that ‘stuff’ can’t. Much as we feel Daniel’s enthusiasm for the endurance of tape, and machines that can continue to record onto, and play, tape, we can also see it romanticised in the story, which highlights how ultimately fragile this stuff is.

The fictional life passed on existed on multiple tapes, and so now does Daniel’s story. He left us with a poetic promise – that his tapes would be cast back into the world, as fragments ready to be discovered, and perhaps erased, by others in an unknown future.

WORLD FACTORY

Since the start of the year I’ve been doing a little bit of work on this exciting project by METIS. On 13th February, as an alternative to fashion week, Artsadmin hosted an event to launch two significant parts of the project: their publicly accessible research platform, Digital Quilt; and the World Factory Shirt. Zoe and Simon at METIS decided that, in order to really understand the system of garment manufacture in China, they needed to participate in it, and so they’ve launched a pre-sales portal to enable them to reach the minimum order of 200 shirts so they can green-light production. Their production run will give them access to the factory, and allow them to meet and interview the people that construct the shirts – which I think is important, because it reveals just how dependent on people the textile industry is. The shirt is supported by bespoke technology that will allow shirt owners to scan barcodes on their shirt and meet the people who’ve handled their garment. Practising what I preach, my crowdfunding commitment this month was to buy one of the shirts and play my part in the project.

THE STORY | DEVOTED AND DISGRUNTLED | MUSICAL THEATRE NETWORK

Opportunities to engage with peers and reflect on work don’t come as often as I’d like, but February has seen a bumper crop. The Story 2014 was its usual sparkling self, bringing together speakers from many disciplines who are concerned with story. I heard from a pair of film-makers that ‘fucked with [Nick Cave’s] head’ in the making of 20000 days on Earth, watched with glee as Kenyatta Cheese told the story of gif as the fable of Snow White, was impressed with the power of foley sound – both in a live demonstration, and in comparing clips of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with and without foley – as shared by Barnaby Smith, was moved by Gruff Rhys’s utter dedication to expressing the story of a distant ancestor (embodied as a felt companion), and was totally enthralled by the easy manner of Tony Ageh, with his obsession with lists, and his hilarious story about how iPlayer was conceived.

Following that, I stepped into the position of sharing experiences in a panel alongside Rishi Coupland (National Theatre) and Eleanor Turney (A Younger Theatre). We engaged an interesting bunch of people who are involved with musical theatre at the invitation of Musical Theatre Network and the ensuing conversation was a stimulating mix of practical advice and speculation about the future of social media. Then I attended my first Devoted and Disgruntled event to try and play my part in answering the question What are we REALLY going to do about race and diversity in UK theatre? Though I met some really exciting artists, and feel optimistic about making great work, still, it was a sobering day of stories about a lack of social justice. I was especially sad to hear someone say that ‘as audiences we accept the fact that what we see on stage doesn’t reflect what we see in the real world’ – because I DON’T, and I’ll do everything in my power to challenge that acceptance.

BOOKS

Perhaps at opposite ends of the optimism spectrum are two books I finished in February: Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer and The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larson.

Out of Sheer Rage was recommended to me by Jo Lee, doyenne of curiosity in Pam Flett. It’s a book about commitment to endeavour as much as it is about DH Lawrence – a book that articulates the many and varied ways one can be distracted, disinterested, disenfranchised, dissuaded and denied, a book about prevarication, a book about the trappings of the mind especially. In this, the book had a powerful hold on me – I’ve thought myself into inaction, into loops that cannot find an end, into the conviction that there must be a better way, if only I could think of it. As such, it left me with a feeling of despair – thinking that the endeavour to improve myself and eradicate my foibles will ultimately by futile. But in some ways, it was also affirming: so much attention is directed at what we do, rather than what we do not, that it’s refreshing to elucidate the regularly excruciating pain of trying.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet was one of those happy coincidences – I saw it on a friend’s ‘to read’ list, and days later it found me in a bookshop in Cambridge. Despite an early eagerness, the book in all took over six months to finish, and that may, in part, be a result of format. The book is heavily annotated – in a way it’s almost two books: the footnotes/asides; and the main narrative. It’s a beautiful book, that illustrates humanity in many wonderful ways. But as a story, I found it somewhat lacking. The ‘narrator’ is a boy of twelve who has an incisive mind for cartography – social, historical, geographic, behavioural – whose language shows a conflict between childhood naivete and intellectual sophistication (something I thought was endearing). He goes on a journey, and the promise of his ‘coming of age’ unfolding as his journey did was enticing, but the surreality of the journey, and the heightened obscurity of his destination seemed to denigrate the careful consideration that I enjoyed so much in early parts of the book. There’s also a story-in-a-story, something that I often find problematic. But, to critique the story so much seems to deny the achievements of the book that are not narratively driven: it really is a pleasure to discover the drawings, maps, and ‘digressions’ that form the visual spine of the book. I recommend exploring the website that goes alongside – it displays some of the charm of the book.

LOOKING AHEAD TO MARCH

I’ve almost finished The village against the world by Dan Hancox, and I’ve signed up to a Coffee House experiment, arranged by Culture Label. A note to self: how about being a bit more succinct next time?

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