For a part of their final year, students at Salford University on the 'Theatre And Performance Practice' and 'Comedy Writing And Performance' courses are tasked into producing a mini-Fringe festival of plays. the remit for these being that they must last no longer than one hour and must take either an already existing script or recognised theatre form, and freely adapt to suit the performers and fit into their genre choice.
Plays being performed included shortened adaptations of The Thrill Of Love, Jerusalem and Private Lives, whilst others chose to devise their own scripts or even produce a short film.
Due to the lateness in knowing about this festival, and my already heavy diary during this time, it was impossible to be able to cover all the plays on offer, although I would have liked to have done so. We did however, manage to see 6 out of the 18 on offer. So here below is a brief but hopefully informative coverage of those we did see.
This was presented by Happy Ending Theatre Company, and saw 4 students present a show which drew heavily from the inspiration of 'We Want You To Watch' by RashDash and similar works.
The play centres around a newly formed Theatre Company whose sole aim it seems is to try and get a world ban on all pornography. The 'twist' if you like is that the company and her ethos is just a cover for her own depraved and illicit sexual appetite, as she clearly is aroused by directing and working with the actors she chooses for her company. And as they become more and more uncomfortable with what she requires of them, the more awkward it becomes for everyone. Cue, entrance of the Queen to bring closure to the matter - surely the piety and prudence of HRH will allow her wish, a total ban so that she can own and control everything... but no, the parting line being from the queen herself, 'If you will excuse me, I have an orgy to attend'.
With cast in underwear, sexual activity aplenty, and various sex toys and explicit references throughout - as well as a very funny and clever TV sex chat advert and a real-life Ken and Barbie sequence, this show could quite easily offend; and that is probably its intention. However, where RashDash fail and this company succeeds is that it is not overt, and there is depth and substance without it being completely 'in-your-face'. there is a message and lesson to be learned; it is how one puts that message across which is important.
Brutally funny, excellently acted and executed, but certainly not for the more prudish amongst us. Gemma Davies played the theatre company owner Rosemary with a touch of resignation but also keeping her dark desires quite well hidden; whilst the two new members of her company Lauren ('Angel') and John Best ('September') [using pen names to emphasise the cultish nature of her company] were superb. The small role of The Queen was played by writer Catherine Duggan.
2. THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.
This deconstruction of Poe's novella, The Pit And The Pendulum was performed by Horrible Sanity.
Four people are in a room together, who are they? How do they know each other? We don't know where they are but we are told that they have been there for a very long time, and will not be bale to be free until they have finished finding a better and alternative ending to the story since they were dissatisfied with Poe's inasmuch as he allowed his character to live, and they think he should die.
Deconstructing the novel as they go - each character taking it in turns to read extracts from the story, they then discuss meaning, symbolism, and events before embarking on the next paragraph.
The play is slow and formulaic with little or no change of pace, and even the four characters themselves don't develop as strongly as they could. They are clearly four different and disparate individuals but little was made of this and every time there was just the spark of something interesting theatrically between them, they went back to reading Poe.
The characters did eventually leave. No idea how or why, since they still hadn't finished their given task, and the way out simply appeared from nowhere. Of course all this is very much in keeping with the Deconstruction style... no attempt at explanation or resolution should be given and to this end the play succeeded.
Deconstruction Theatre as a genre though is now somewhat dated and found fleeting 'fame' in England in the early 1970s having come from Europe, and there was urgent need for theatrical change in a stagnant and elitist group of theatre-makers. It was an abreaction to the times. Nowadays such theatre exists as curiosity or period pieces only and audiences are not aware of such a style and as such will undoubtedly baulk at it's blandness and seemingly poorly-acted, ineffectual narrative.
Matt Bradley, Jamie Stevens, Ruby Tebbs and Lorna Welsh obsess over Poe's story and we are like the flies on a wall in a reality documentary of some kind - except we aren't since the story is read to us by them sitting at a desk and 'performing' the story vocally through a microphone.
As Deconstruction Theatre pieces go, this ticked all the boxes and left the audience wondering what it was all about and with a feeling of insubstantiality. In this regard, the piece succeeded, but outside of a drama school 'experiment' this genre of theatre is no longer commercial or indeed acceptable.
3. CURIOSER AND CURIOSER.
Upside Down Theatre Company's choice was a re-telling of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. With just three actresses, with one of them remaining as Alice throughout they managed to create the idea of many different characters with very quick and minimalist costume changes.
Their new take on this old favourite was twofold. First, they wanted to act the play as if it were some LSD fuelled nightmare, (which it may well originally have been!), and also to question our idea of identity, as everyone was constantly demanding of Alice, 'Who are you?' to which the answer of either a girl or Alice seemed insufficient and she began to actually question herself as to who she was.
Chelsea Jackson (Alice) with Jamie-Leigh Allen and Katy Taylor as everything else tried very hard to keep the narrative alive, fresh and sparkling, but to my mind this play was the least successful of the ones I witnessed. Poor staging and poor choice of direction hindered the play, and it lost a lot of pace, focus and indeed humour because of it. It would have benefited greatly from a director not acting in the play as well.
Another thing which perhaps weakened the production somewhat was the idea of audience participation. Using audiences in conventional theatre, unless pantomime, is not necessarily advisable unless it is done in such a way as to make the audience feel necessary and useful, in a non-threatening way. To walk up to an audience member on the front row and sniff them dejectedly as a 'red rose' was a little off-putting, as well as demanding that we all stand for the queen. You can ask the audience to stand, you cannot demand them to do so, and not continue until they have.
This is a very difficult choice for students to try and find something new with, since you can more or less guarantee that someone somewhere has already done it before you, so well known and so versatile and adapted is this story. It's a bit like Romeo And Juliet in this regard. The company didn't find anything new with their adaptation, but they did deliver what they wanted to, and the two themes which they were trying to explore were evidenced, unfortunately not explored to anywhere near the extent either of them could easily have been. Carroll almost offers you carte blanche with the premise of this story, and even the title that the company chose gives that much away, however, the company stopped far short of expectations, with a rather bland and seemingly self-indulgent script.
Trillium's piece #Valued looked at another subject of which a whole plethora of new work has been and is being written and produced about... that of the social conditions surrounding young people needing and craving acceptance by being considered beautiful Ideas of what beauty is are 'given' to us by those selling the products to make us 'beautiful', via the press, social media, fashion designers and the like.
It is not a new subject to tackle, and so Trillium needed to find a new angle, which they did; tackling issues of self-love, self-worth and self-acceptance in a very frivolous way. Part interpretive dance, part theatre, this piece was on the surface very light-hearted and insignificant, but the messages and themes stayed with us long after the show ended.
Starting with the 'princess phenomenon' , and using an interestingly shaped acting area with audience on three sides, it started well and with a good pace and promise. [I especially liked the blood ribbons!] Once the 'fairy story' had been told and they had segued from that very nicely through a stylised dance into the more hard-hitting material, we were all very comfortable and happy to accept some home truths. The social pressures put on girls and young women in our society and how social media can escalate the bullying and negativity. I had never heard of or knew anything about the 'Am I Pretty' videos on Youtube, but sure enough I took a look, and found some which had some extremely hurtful comments on from apparently total strangers!
Again, another dance sequence before we are back in the 'happy world' again, and just before the end we are all given envelopes containing ideas and mantras about self esteem, with website links to further reading. The ending itself though was a little awkward, as they sat down in the audience themselves and just sat there without acknowledgment waiting for us to leave. Odd.
Isla Hollinghurst, Rachel Dicken and Igbon performed this piece with real zeal, obviously being something which is very important to them and a message they want to tell.
5. THE BACCHAE PROJECT.
Ekstasis Theatre’s loose reinterpretation of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae is a fascinating example of immersive theatre, where the audience become participants within the play. The Bacchae Project focused on the ritual of the Bacchae, the followers of the God of wine and performance, Bacchus (or Dionysus in the Greek original).
Upon arrival, the audience were asked to choose an ivy leaf from a bowl which had a symbol drawn on it. This symbol related to one of the four elements (earth, water, air, fire) and decided which of the four guides (Terrana, played by Tabatha Firth; Ignius, played by Josh Rowland; Aetherius, played by Sean Fitton; Acquius, played by James Mackie) would lead us through the ceremony. Upon entering the performance space, audience members were requested to remove their shoes and leave any bags near the entrance and to sit and join their allocated guide on the floor of the performance area.
The first part of the performance was essentially a couple of orientation tasks: the guides did ‘readings’ with their allocated audience members which, while not all from ancient Greece, was designed to focus attention to the mystical aspects of the Bacchae and their rituals. There was a brief introduction from each of the guides as to who they were and what element and compass point they represented and the explanation that their ritual was designed to call forth Bacchus to herald the coming of Summer. From here, the audience was asked to lie back and imagine a ‘pathway’ exercise where Aetherius described a scenario where audience members came across a ritual in full flow: sips of wine and dancing were intended to generate a looseness of inhibitions and a thrall to pleasure and while Aetherius described the events, drums and other percussion instruments beat a rhythm as the action intensified. The pathway exercise acted as a precis of what was to come.
The audience were then asked to engage in a chant to bring Bacchus into the mortal world and after the chant, Terrana wore a crown of olive leaves and declared that she was Bacchus, summoned to the mortal plane in the form of a woman. Audience members were then asked to eat grapes and take a sip of wine (or grape juice for the non-alcohol drinkers present) to celebrate the appearance of Bacchus. There was then a moment of interpretive dance crossed as Ingiud and Acquius performed the conflict between fire and water which could only be stopped by Bacchus’ intervention. Audience members were then initiated into the brotherhood of their allocated element and then there was a circle dance which weaved in and out and was quite disorientating, which was the desired effect.
At the end of the circle dance, the lighting changed to a UV light state where the tattoos on the performers of the elements glowed and modern dance music began to well up and the audience was invited to dance along to it. The parallel between the ritual of ancient Greece with modern rave culture was made clear enough. Then, things took a darker turn: Bacchus led Acquius off-stage declaring him to be Pentheus who had been slandering Bacchus’ god-like nature and there was the sound of Pentheus screaming, liquid dripping onto the floor and Bacchus returned with the heart of Pentheus, the human sacrifice required to conclude the ritual.
The Bacchae Project was a fascinating glimpse into the rituals of an ancient civilisation but the performance can’t be judged on the same parameters as a conventional production: the performance required the audience members taking part to be as committed as the performers taking on the roles of the guides and being prepared to go along with the various sections of the ritual. The performance did, however, recall how conservative British theatre is (generally speaking) and how productions like The Baachae Project would be welcome to break down the barriers and encourage more audience participation in performance.
Definitely the highlight of the shows I saw, Girls' Time Theatre Company's devised work, Freak, was a non-stop hard-hitting two-hander about sex. First time sex, craving for new experiences sex, debauched sex, loving sex, in fact every kind of sex possible. The two actresses responsible for this sexual onslaught gave tour-de-force bravura performances. Even when an audience member fainted and had to be taken out momentarily stopping the play, they were not fazed and still gave excellent and highly creditable performances
We see two rooms, both untidy with discarded clothes and food wrappers. One side is a sofa, the other a bed, and between a shared 'mirror'. Cleverly designed and worked well.
Rachel Isbister plays Georgie, a 25 year old young woman who, after splitting with her boyfriend finds life very difficult, and finds 'pleasure' in being at home and masturbating to inane TV programmes counting how many times she can cum rather than facing the world and acknowledging her hurt. Finally she does acknowledge this by finding work as a stripper in a local bar, which gives her the empowerment she was after. Stripped naked in front of anonymous males, she can recover her self-esteem, or at least so she thinks. One night however, in a drug-fuelled state,. she allows herself to be taken to a client's home to be humiliated and gang raped. She loses her self-respect as she is violated and hurt. It is this act though which acts as a wake up call for her, and a realisation that rather than letting that be an end, it should be a beginning and she resolves to get her life back on track, which she does.
Meanwhile, we also learn about 15 year old Leah (Crystal Williams), and her first adolescent flirtations and sexual experiences. How she feels, what she expects and what she wants. She feels, 'stuck, naked, in No-Man's Land, too young to be old, old but in a young body, stuck in the middle trying to be an adult, and unable to do the childish innocent things now'. And in the name of experimentation and the need to be seen as 'cool' and high status by her school peers, she allows herself to be violated and to sleep with the two best looking boys in the school.
There is a sharp change to the dynamic now as the two girls change sides through the mirror, an omnipresent allegory, and we learn that they are step sisters . And through shared experiences, albeit for different reasons, they allow themselves to become friend sand solemates too. There is a very clever ending in store too.
Directed by Harry Hemingway-McGhee, this was a hard-hitting, provocative and confrontational drama with heart. It was impossible for me to believe that these two actresses were still at university such was the quality and intensity of their performances. Surely two names to look out for in future!
Reviews by Matthew Dougall except Bacchae Project.
Bacchae Project review by Andrew Marsden
on 18 and 19 May 2018.