Author Archives: nic

Haptic Memories

Of Pixels and Voxels and nervous messes

In 1995 I was employed in exhibit development at Discovery World, a museum of science, economics and technology. My job led to my involvement in several vastly different technologies and scientific fields, from hydraulics and lasers to electricity and health. One particularly interesting piece of technology with which I became involved was a “Haptic” interface, called “The Phantom.” Haptic, from the Greek, means touch, and the Phantom was intended to provide the user with virtual sense of touch via a single finger tip.

It looked much like a miniature architect’s lamp, an arm with several degrees of freedom, terminating in a thimble-like cup at the end, which, in turn, was attached to an armature governed by priceless little motors and sensors. The entire design intended to allow the user to move their finger as freely in space as any of their other digits, until they encountered a virtual obstacle. This might be something as simple as a simulated piece of paper, or sandpaper, or perhaps something more complex, a billiard ball, or banana, a wrist, or a wrist with a pulse.

Via the thimble, the controlling computer system could convey texture, viscosity, pressure, vibrations, movement — the entire range of things we can feel with our fingers, albeit not heat nor cold nor the pin-prick of pain. But one might pluck an invisible guitar string, and feel its harmonics, or palpate the back of a virtual patient.

My group were unsure just what we would have the device simulate, nor how we would allow a visiting public to interact with it, given the inherent fragility of the device (and the largely reckless tendencies of the public). But as this was very new technology, having just been invented a year earlier by an MIT grad student, there was a scholarly conference about it, held near MIT, in suburban Boston, and I was to attend. In fact, when I received my conference credentials I was pleasantly bemused to see that I was credited, on MIT stationary, as Doctor Nic Bernstein. Doctor indeed!

Upon arrival at the conference assembly I was greeted by a curious assortment of engineers, scientists, investigators, doctors, physicists. Oh, and a three-star General from the US Army; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same people who invented the Internet. Other than myself, and a geologist from Australia, everyone else there was, in some way or another, in the pocket of this General, something I pointed out during our plenary introductions. At the next meal break, said General sought me out as a dining companion. How, he needed to know, was I not also on his payroll?

There were several obvious implementations of the Phantom being discussed, such as a medical school using them, along with surgical dummies, to help physicians learn proper technique for administering epidermal injections & draws.

The Australian geologist was working with seismic stimulators to probe for deeply buried oil & gas deposits. This being done by amassing the vast amounts of three dimensional data produced by seismic stimulation — essentially carefully calibrated “shakers” attached by outrigger arms to long, low trucks, like massive insects, which would slowly advance along a grid work, shake the ground a bit, raise, advance some more, lower, shake, etc. Once a full grid had been worked, and the data assembled into a three dimensional model, the investigator would probe through the data, feeling his or her way along veins of ore or into voids filled with gas or oil; each substance represented with a different virtual viscosity.

During a field trip to the labs of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry corporation, a friendly scientist showed me the system they were developing to help orthopaedists feel their way around (“appreciate” in the parlance) the knee joint of a prospective surgical subject, prior to wielding an actual knife.

Here’s how it was done. The patient would receive a scan — PET, CAT, MRI, whichever technology would best image the tissues involved — and the data would be loaded into a computer model. Rather than the pixels (Picture Elements) we think of from the two dimensional world of television or video, or printing, this data were rendered into Voxels, Volumetric Elements. In addition to the X, Y, & Z coordinates of a datum, there was also information on the density of the matter, rendered to the “viewer” as viscosity or resistance. A doctor could thus feel around the back side of a kneecap, for example, to appreciate the condition of the soft tissues there (if any remained), such as cartilage or muscle, each rendered in a different haptic manner.

It was fascinating. This was 1995 remember, long before these sort of things were depicted as routine in movies and on telly.

Unreported Stories — London 2018

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Friday morning and I haven’t written a thing since Tuesday.  Must fix that.

Tuesday evening was Bryony Kimmings’ I’m A Phoenix, Bitch at Battersea Arts Centre, itself a bit of a Phoenix.  Friday the 13th March, 2015, fire broke out in the roof of Battersea’s Great Hall.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX (4527938a)
Fire at Battersea Arts Centre
Battersea Arts Centre on fire, London, Britain – 13 Mar 2015
A major fire has broken out at Battersea Arts Centre, a leading independent theatre and arts venue in south London.

The entire rear third of the building was lost, but with steely grit and unflagging determination, and loads of support from the community, BAC rose from the ashes.  It held a public event in the (relatively) unscarred front of the building just 26 hours after the fire was extinguished, and this year marks their “Phoenix Season.”  More of the building than ever before is open to the public and in active use.

Byony Kimmings is a performance artist.  In 2016 she was beset by a series of tragedies which, together, nearly broke her.  Her and her partner bought a tumbledown cottage, in the middle of nowhere, to settle their new small family, but post partum depression had a grip on her.  Then her son, Frank, began to suffer unexplained seizures, and she and her partner began to disintegrate.  This is the story Bryony presents to us through an intriguing and fascinating set of theatrical devices.

Not content just to talk to the audience, ala Spalding Grey, another performance artist best known for turning life into narrative, Brynony has four small “sets,” initially covered by sheets, around the performance space, and the back wall is black scrim.  One by one she undrapes the small sets, one a kitchen counter with backdrop, another a bed, etc.  She rolls a camera on tripod up to marks before each set, settles into the set, and on with makeup, wigs, etc.  In each she performs a mini-sketch which brings us into her mind for the “morning after the night before” with her new love (kitchen) or the pregnancy and birth (bed).  We can watch her working within the cleverly designed sets, or watch her on the video, projected onto the scrim.  We can enter her story, or observe it, or both.

The most interesting of these small sets is a model of the small cottage and the hill upon which it stands.  Fans of model railroads will recognize the construction materials; Norwegian moss, sawdust drass, etc.  It’s strikingly realistic, and we are brought into it by Bryony wielding a small video camera as she narrates their occupancy of the home, acting it out with small dolls.

I’ve described some of the tools and techniques Kimmings uses, but what I cannot do is describe much of the story, or the more awesome stage effects.  This is due to my respect for the artist’s prerogative that the show not be revealed too much to prospective future audiences.  I will say that it was a deeply moving story, told with unique story telling tools, and bursts with vision from a singular creative mind.  Some day I may post a photo or two, but for now this will do.

Much thanks to a pair of Phoenix; Battersea Arts Centre and Byony Kimmings.

Clouds, Clowns and Oresteia — London 2018

Pawn has come frequently to London in the past decade, spending about six months here in that time.  Along the way, one builds up a list of go-to venues when looking for new, edgy, fringy, performance.  Arcola, Bunker, Menier Chocolate Factory, Pleasance, among them.  Pleasance and Arcola stand out in this list in that they are a regular part of Fringe.  Pleasance have a large and popular venue there every year.  With their Caledonian Express program they are short-circuiting the old six-month process of bringing new work from Fringe to London stage.

For those not familiar with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s a loosely organized (one of their founding by-laws is that there are no rules) annual showcase, running for most of the month of August.  It’s become one of the foremost producer’s showcases in Europe, alongside events like ITS Festival (focusing on recent European arts academy grads) and has long been a critical component in bringing new works, performers and troupes to the stages and screens of the world (the popular television show Fleabag, for example, originated as a Fringe production).

With Caledonian Express — so named for Pleasance’s North London venue, off of Caledonian Road — they are now presenting promising Fringe acts just a month or so after the festival.  An act one sees during this phase is not really finished, per se.  A full six month development cycle would lengthen many shows, refine them for a more formal theatre setting, things like that.  In the Fringe, every act must find their own venue, many in tents or other pop-up spaces, with severe limitations of technical aspects, like lighting, sound, video, etc.  And time.  A Fringe piece is an hour long.  That’s tradition.  In many newer “fringe” festivals (outside the Edinburgh original) the rule is 50 or 55 minutes.  To become a full-scale show, suitable for the stages of the world, much work is still needed.

Pleasance are a mainstay in that process, as are many other presenting venues throughout London; Battersea Arts Centre, The Bunker, Arcola, etc.  These venues don’t just provide a space to perform, but they provide mentorship, connections, designers and the friendly surround artists need to make a successful transition to the stage.

Today brought Pawn back to Pleasance for the second time this trip, having seen the Edinburgh hit In Loyal Company here just the other day.  First was a late matinee performance of The Oresteia,  “  is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC, concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra, the murder of Clytaemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and pacification of the Erinyes.” in the words of Wikipedia.  In the hands of Splendid Productions, it’s hip-hop meets vaudeville by way of British music hall.

Three performers, Nuala Maguire, Grace Goulding, & Tanya Muchanyuka each perform multiple roles, starting with the Furies, whose role in the lives of men are marginalized by the events enacted in these three plays.  Given the 60 minute time frame, the stories are severely shortened, as one might expect.  The story telling was fast and furious (no pun intended) as we whipped through the background of all of the various murders, slights, infidelities, patricides, matricides, etc.  Some of this involved a not-so-strong fast-forward/reverse conceit of fake reverse motion.  One hopes that gets worked on, or eliminated.

All in all, most of the piece was strong.  It moved along, had moments of great beauty, and got us involved (quite literally) in the story.  It’s hard to flag individual performances, since the three women so often were acting in unison, but Macguire, as Clytemnestra, was exceptional.  That she had arguably the best part certainly helped.  But, too, she resisted mugging and gave some of the best straight performance of the show.

I saw this show with a handful of regular theatre goers, those one might expect in a late-afternoon (16:30) matinee, and about 150 schoolkids.  The kids were a noisy bunch, but fully engaged by the music-hall aspects of the show, and not the least off put by the history.

Things would be different for A Clown Show About Rain, by Silent Faces.  This small show was performed in the much smaller Downstairs venue, a small thrust space with minimal wings, no flies, and about 40 seats.  Silent Faces is a female clown troupe – a rarity – with a sense of politics and a hopeful, optimistic mein.  This show is a take on depression, but you wouldn’t know it for most of the hour.

The performances are crisp and smooth.  These women know how to share a stage with each other, and with five of them in such a small space, that’s no mean feat.  Most of the time, however, it’s just two or three at a time.  We have three sailors, or are they fisherwomen?, weathering a gale, in their macs, being blown to and fro, fighting over the ship’s wheel, or frantically trying to place buckets under an invisible leak.

Or we have two mates, off fishing, having a light snack and listening to the shipping forecast on the BBC.

These may or may not strike you as funny, or potentially funny, situations, but Silent Faces find the humour.

And slyly, ever so slyly, they start to introduce the issues of mental health which lie at the heart of their work.  We don’t see it at first, it may just be there on the fringe, but it’s there, and it’s devilishly clever.  Given that this is mostly physical theatre, and very well done physical theatre, it’s intrinsically hard to describe.  So I’ll take the coward’s way out and punt on that.  I can tell you that there are moments of great beauty here, and striking pathos.

Watch Your Neighbour, Redux

[This post has been updated both to reflect my evolving thoughts on the performances, and to correct a glaring oversight of description.]

Back in 2008, I wrote about both the prevalence of CCTV camera throughout London, and of the guerilla marketing campaign for the Ausie-import on the telly, Neighbours.  Last night at Menier Chocolate Factory, Pawn attended Pack Of Lies, which, set in the cold-war-heightened intensity of the early 1960s, brought that guerilla marketing campaign’s chief slogan, “Watch Your Neighbours” a quite literal meaning.

It was a savvy bit of genius to revive this play now.  Originally written for a BBC playhouse series in 1971, as Act of Betrayal, when the original events were still fresh in the public mind.  Playwright Hugh Whitemore then adapted it to the stage for its original 1983 run, starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams (real life marrieds).

Highly appropriate in our own times, this story seems ageless.  While we bridle at the thought of spying on our neighbours, we read daily newspaper accounts of Russian agents offing people with poisons, stealing secrets on-line and in-life.  The events of this story could just as easily have transpired today, but by leaving the setting historically accurate (and then some), director Hannah Chissick has chosen to give us a little breathing room, some distance from our own reality.

Based on a true story, action takes place in the northwest London suburb of Ruislip, Middlesex.  The set itself is a near perfect recreation of the classic British two-up/two-down semi-detached homes so common both in London and in the bedroom communities all around England.  Ruislip, itself, is just 5 kilometres from North Harrow, where Pawn was born, at about the time the events recounted in this play were actually playing out.

Pack of Lies — Set

The Portland Spy Ring affair involved a Soviet spy ring gathering intelligence and stealing secrets related to UK & allied (NATO) naval operations and capabilities, and smuggling that out to the KGB, via micro-dots and radio transmissions.  The central figures were businessman Gordon Lonsdale (Canadian), civil clerk Harry Houghton, his moll, Ethel Gee, and others.  Lonsdale was tailed, and observed to make frequent visits to Ruislip, to the home of antiquarian bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen.

MI-5 proceeded to make contact with the neighbours across the street, Bill & Ruth Search, and it was from their first storey window that MI-5 surveilled the Kroger home, and ultimately collected enough evidence to arrest, charge and convict the whole ring.

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara in the sitting room

In our play the family is Bob & Barbara Jackson and their daughter Julie, but all of the other names, or, aliases, really, are left as is.  The Krogers, Canadians, are really the Cohens, Americans.  Lonsdale, the Canadian businessman at the center of the ring was, years later, revealed to be Konon Trofimovich Molody, a Russian agent.

The central conflict in the story is that the Jacksons are being asked, if not to “spy” on their neighbours, their best friends, at least to facilitate spying on them, and lie about it, to their friends and their own daughter.  Bob seems ready to accept this; he’s a civil servant himself, bound by secrecy for his work, and is used to submitting to the state on these matters.  Barbara, who admits she has a hard time making friends, just cannot abide that she must lie to Helen.

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

In the moral calculus of the story, the state is to be trusted and the neighbours are not.  That Barbara takes so long to come around to see this almost makes her a Polly-Anna, but is that so healthy a message in a world where it seems our every undertaking is watched, observed, catalogued, accounted for, by someone?  Grocers track our every purchase via our “Club Card” (or the like), Amazon know everything we buy, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter compile vast storehouses of knowledge on us, for sale to the highest bidder.  Cambridge Analytica steal into these storehouses to figure out how to get millions of people to vote against their own self interest, throwing elections for Brexit and US President.  The Russians, not to be left out, stir the pot too, but, at least in the present cases, their targets are email servers instead of submarine plans.  And, amid all of this, one might not be blamed for thinking that our own government is the least of our worries.

Maybe, maybe not.

The most remarkable thing about this production is easily the total verisimilitude achieved in all aspects.  Paul Farnsworth’s set and costumes are stunners!  The flexible Menier space has been configured to support the single set laid out lengthwise along a long wall.  We see the entire ground floor, from the bay windows in front (stage right) past the staircase up, the sitting room, and kitchen, finally the door to the back garden (stage left).  The upstage rooms are fully formed, the downstage rooms represented by their baseboards and door frames.  The furniture is spot on accuracy — the comfy chair, settee, telly, dining table and sideboard all perfect, as is the coat stand in the hall, the kitchen appliances; everything!  Costumes, similarly, are perfect.  Barbara is a home seamstress, and many of the clothes would have been made by her, other than Bob’s suits and the knitwear.  A 1954 Ford Consort sits in the front garden, a proud possession.

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

Accents, language, tea ritual, it’s all just right.  Homework was done, and done well.  Not a thing is wrong.

The performances are all quite serviceable, but it must be said that Finty Williams shines as the troubled Barbara.  Her struggle with the competing loyalties to country and friend, her chafing under the constant presence of MI-5 staff, and her effort to persevere and raise her daughter not to lie, are almost too much for her to handle.  Williams makes us ache for her.  Similarly, but with less of a splash, Chris Larkin as Bob brings us a perhaps overused canard of a submissive British husband, ruling over his home while submitting to his wife and cow towing to his superiours.  He delivers this less than complicated character with sufficient realism to bring us along, and he is obviously troubled by the jam his wife is in.  Jasper Britton, as Agent Stewart, seemed to muff a couple of lines, but that may just have been affect.  Otherwise this was a tight ensemble, midway through a six-week run, comfortable in the piece and their roles, but not sloppy comfortable.

All in all, this was a lovely night at theatre, and a potent story for our times, even if it is based on facts nearly 60 years old.

Waiting For Peer Gynt — London 2018

Photography by J. Schmitz

Yesterday was a busy day of theatre, and started with Henrick Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in a German language production by Theater an der Ruhr.  This is the third Ibsen piece I’ve seen in the past 30 months, and all have been in different languages: Hedda Gabler first in Norwegian, in Amsterdam in July 2016, then in Czech in Prague in 2017, now Peer Gynt in German.  One of these days I’ll enjoy hearing the words of Ibsen once again, in a language I understand, but for now, surtitles will suffice.

Photography by J. Schmitz

But the words of Ibsen seemed rare in this production.  This two-handed presentation was more of a rumination on Peer Gynt, a sort of Meta-Peer Gynt, or, as alluded to in the slug for this post, a couple of clowns interpreting Peer Gynt.  The two performers seem to be passing the piece back and forth, between them, as they consider the story, characters, scenes, and settings.  First one then the other is the titular Peer, or the father or mother, or Solveig, the desirable neighbour’s daughter, or Ingrid, a former girlfriend of Peer, now seduced by him in the woods, on her wedding day.

Photography by J. Schmitz

For me this performance was so reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, not so much in content as in the feeling one got, in the audience, as two clownish performers tossed language around between them, each holding the story-telling “ball” for a moment or two, commenting upon it, observing it, and then tossing it back.  Neither performer, Maria Neumann or Roberto Ciulli, plays any given part for long, and while this can be confusing at times, one soon learns that it doesn’t really matter so much who is playing whom.  The cast of forty-odd characters are dispatched with alacrity by this able duo, and we soon just stop bothering to keep track, and enjoy their faces, their pose.

That these two have performed together a long time seems a given, and they are both resident members of the company; Ciulli, and Italian director, being one of the founders.

In Loyal Company — London 2018

In Loyal Company, from Lab Rats, blew through town last night for a One-Night-Only engagement at Pleasance Theatre on Caledonia Road and Pawn was there for the whole hour of it.  Yes, 1 entire hour; this being a piece conceived for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it was constrained in length.  A one-hander staring David William Bryan, who also wrote it, with Sascha Moore, tells us the story of a young Liverpool lad, Arthur (Joe) Robinson, who joins up during WWII and is sent off to the Pacific theater.

Joe, Arthur’s family nickname, is telling us his story, while skillfully acting out the best bits of it, on a mostly bare stage.  He tells of his time in training, for reconnaissance, and his deployment.  He tells of Loyal Company, his battalion, and his reassignment to an infantry division.  He tells, of the hardships of slogging through jungles and confronting an enemy unschooled in the gentleman’s battle behaviour Joe has trained for.  When a Japanese unit breaches a line of barbed wire — the first wave throw themselves upon the wire and subsequent waves cross their backs like a bridge — he is shocked.

He was shocked?!?  We were shocked, such is Bryan’s amazing ability, through both his storytelling and his delivery, to draw us into the world he’s inhabiting, and to let us see through his eyes, feel through his soul.  More than a few times I was left scrobbling for tissues to staunch the tears as one trial, indignity or another was visited upon poor Joe; when we heard the notes his Mum wrote on his behalf, or those he crafted (wrote upon his mind, lacking stationary) to her.

I won’t tell any more of the story, as this show “has legs,” as they say, and will likely end up on telly or tour or otherwise present many opportunities for more audiences to see it.  And it deserves to.  Bryan has given us not just a view into the unsuspecting young lads thrust into unconventional warfare, but this unsuspecting lad was Bryan’s great uncle, and the story is true.  He has researched it with great effort, and crafted a compelling narrative which brings the audience along with self deprecating humour and magnetic pathos.

Kudos to Bryan and his team for a job well done, a story well told, and for not being afraid of the raw nerves and emotions which come from telling true stories of people we love.

La Maladie de la mort — London 2018

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

This is a bit of a delayed reaction post.  Pawn attended the Wednesday 3 October performance of The Malady of Death (La Maladie de la mort) by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, at Barbican Centre.  But, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it, and to clarify my thoughts on the piece.

La Maladie was written by Alice Birch, based on a 1982 novella by Marguerite Duras.  This production is hard to describe, so bear with me.  The basic story is that of a man and a woman in a hotel room.  The man has hired the woman, for a rather high fee, to spend a series of nights there with him, as he tries to learn how to love, how to admire, how to relate, intimately, with another.

The set is of a hotel room, the hallway outside, a window upstage looks over a courtyard and the sea, beyond.  The hallway leads upstage, and we can see one or two other room doors along it.  An elevator lurks upstage right, we are lead to believe.

To far stage right, however, is a small sound booth.  A woman sits in it, dimly lit.  Before her a stand with pages on it.  She is the narrator, hers is the predominant voice we hear.  The two characters, the woman and the man, are not silent throughout, but any thoughts they have, are spoken by the narrator.

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

That’s not the whole story, nor the whole cast, however.  For this is a live piece of film making.  Above the set is a projection screen, and upon that screen is a film maker’s view of what’s happening in front of us, augmented by interwoven clips from other settings, such as the woman’s private life, or the beach beyond the window; the elevator we hear but cannot see.  Around the set are three camera teams, a sound man with a boom mike, a couple of stage hands and dressers.  These folks are not on the periphery, they are in the middle of the action, all beautifully choreographed.  Never do they get in the way of each others shots.

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

Key to the story telling here — and I shan’t get into the story itself — is the frequent transition from the male to the female gaze.  The woman undresses and lays out on the bed.  The man looks at her, but it’s not just that he looks at her, it’s how he looks at her.  He makes a comment, and the woman looks at him.  Again, it’s the how that matters.

Photography by Stephen-Cummiskey

So this is commentary, then, not just on how men and women regard each other, not just on isolation and personal distance, not just on prostitution and pornography (the man a frequent user of such), but a holistic examination of these themes, a realization of their inter-dependency upon each other.

The work is impressive and compelling.  The story, I found, fell, at times, into easy tropes.  Sometimes the characters seemed to resort to actions simply for the shock factor, or for the In Your Face aspect.  As a whole, it was a grand new kind of performance, pushing at the edges of film and theatre in ways we haven’t seen before.  But story, no matter how it is told, must still speak for itself, and here, Duras’s story let me down.

Performances were brave and bold by Laetitia Dosch as The Woman and Nick Fletcher as The Man.  Irene Jacob narrated, Katie Mitchell directed, Paul Clark composer.  The final show at Barbican is this evening, 6 October 2018.

Immersed in a Kettle of Fish

Photography by Helen Murray.

Last night took Pawn to the latest at The Yard theatre, A Kettle of Fish, by Brad Birch, performed by Wendy Kweh and featuring a rich soundscape by Max Pappenheim.  It was an immersive treat, to be sure.

The set (above) is simple, a linear space divided into thirds: lounge, cabin and cube.  The former serves as a space grounded in reality, the middle, a space in motion — train car or airplane cabin, the latter is dream, or fear, somewhere within the mind.  The mind of Lisa, that is, played expertly by Ms Kweh.  Lisa is a single woman, recently looking after her newly widowed father, and working a high-stress job.  This job is taking her on a business trip, and that trip makes up the meat of this show.

Photo by Helen Murray

The set is a wonder of simplicity, and serves its purposes well.  Designed by Ingrid Hu, lit by Joshua Gadsby, it provides a pallet upon which Kweh can move from place to place, mood to mood, with just a step or two.  Projections by Tegid Cartwright play upon a scrim draped across the face of the cube, stage left, and, through that, upon the wall behind it.  Within this cube Lisa may wander within her mind’s eye, or be cast into harsh reality, by Cartwright’s deft control of the visual mood.  All under the direction of Caitlin McLeod, this team of designers have taken the spare and small stage of The Yard and within it take us from Lisa’s house to the train station, the train itself, airport, plane.  All along the way we are surrounded by Pappenheim’s soundscape, inescapable due to the wireless headphones each of us wear.

Pawn is no stranger to immersive productions (a term often abused in its vagueness, but quite appropriate here) nor are wireless headphones a novelty, having been used to great effect by Silent Opera in their La Bohème some years back. (interesting side note, these headphones were branded with a logo for “Silent Disco”).  Whereas Silent Opera’s use was to pipe in the music of a recorded orchestra (and reinforce vocals), in this case it is a panoply of music, sound effects, aural nudges.  And Lisa’s voice, sometimes her live voice, as she addresses either the audience (a common feint) or her unseen characters, or send us her (normally unspoken) thoughts.  It is this last use which most sets this apart from your typical single handed production, as Lisa serves as her own Greek chorus at times.

I’ll come right out and say it; the design team, as a whole, deserve whatever award can be given for this sort of work.  The whole of it is so brilliantly executed that it easily overcomes the limitations intrinsic in so small and under equipped a space as Yard.  For being a one hander, this feels more like a fine ensemble production, the tech is so intimately woven into the work Kweh makes on stage.

The production, then, is as good as can be.  The script, however, could use some work.  Before picking nits, however, let me say that I left the theatre happy, thrilled, and moved.  One cannot ask for much more.  That said, there are times when we audience members feel as unteathered as Lisa appears to.

The story (no spoilers) starts with some plain exposition.  We meet Lisa, learn of her contentious relationship with her father, and of her stressful work life.  As the story progresses, through her commute to the airport, she lets us in on some truths about her job, her employer, and her sidelines.  She is involved with the data side of PR, the polling and data mining which go into understanding a market, whether it’s customers or business partners.  She shares that she’s heavily active on social media, maintaining numerous false identities so as to insinuate herself into fora and discussions that her real identity would preclude.  The people with whom she works are, to her, schemers and climbers and otherwise incompetent.  But Lisa is junior, and so must appease.

Photo by Helen Murray

Shortly after the flight begins,  a flight attendant taps Lisa on the shoulder, takes her aside, and tells her something dreadful is happening on the ground.  Lisa’s life is upended, but she’s trapped on this plane, 30,000 feet in the air, and can do nothing about it.  What ensues, as Lisa tries in vain to phone down to Earth, is a fugue state anxiety attack.  Lisa drifts in and out of her present reality, ruminates on her firm and its plans, experiences flash-backs to happier times, sees in her fellow passengers the faces she has stolen, online, as avatars for her false identities.  All of this is happening as the plane hurtles towards a former East Bloc nation to which her firm will be relocating.  Or will it?  All depends on Lisa and her persuasive powers and data-mined factoids.

That’s all I’ll tell you of the story, but of my complaints let me say this; the orthogonal narrative forays sometimes seem too highly contrived, and, at times, wholly disconnected.  One wonders if the piece were edited by a non-English speaker?  But, and this is significant, I cannot say if this ultimately detracts from the theatre going experience.  Odd as it might sound, this sort of disconnectedness, detachment, as it were, from the narrative train, might just be working, under the psychological hood, to bring us all along with Lisa on this hellish ride of hers.

You have until 13 October to find out for yourself.  Tickets still available, and in this intimate space, all seats are good.

Post Photos 1

Various images taken of posts, walls, windows and barricades from a stroll along Columbia Road, Hoxton High Street, Shoreditch and climes.  Images are in hi-res, click on one to see full version.

Please Help Yourself!

Please Help Yourself!

Available Options

Available Options

Chicken kabobs

Chicken kabobs

THEY

THEY

DO NOT TRUST ROBOTS

DO NOT TRUST ROBOTS

Brought to you by robots

Brought to you by robots

Steal Happiness

Steal Happiness

Safety first

Safety first

Got my eyes on you

Got my eyes on you

Looming threats

Looming threats

Birdman

Birdman

Manifesto! The Velvet Reunion!

As mentioned in an earlier post, this is the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, but it’s also the commemoration of the student uprising of 1974, a full 15 years earlier, and a communist crackdown which followed on the heels of that.

So I went to the National Gallery, and caught my tram, the number 17, suitably enough, on 17 Listopadu, (17 November) street, so named for the more somber commemorative event.

A plaque there reminds us, in English & Czech

This, combined with my early morning hectoring (see a couple of posts down), served to jog my brain’s connective tissues and I suddenly realized why there were no performances at area theatres, etc. this evening.  The Velvet Reunion is today!  That explains those temporary stages I saw being put up in Wenceslas Square yesterday!

Doh!

So I caught my tram up to the Trade Fair Palace, which houses the more modern portion of the Czech National Gallery collection (it’s scattered about among several museums, the main one of which is closed for renovations until 2019).  This building, about a century old, is a functionalist marvel, and pretty darn cool.  Makes a good museum, too.

Turns out that this being the Velvet Reunion day, admissions to national museums is free.  Cool!  Still have to pay for the temporary exhibit I want to attend, but at 150 CK (about $6.50) I don’t mind one bit.  Less than the cost of a matinée at your local movie theater.

And that’s a bargain, since what I’m going to see is the Julian Rosefeldt film Manifesto, as it was intended to be seen, on thirteen separate screens, in one large room, all going at once.  Splendid!!

Those of you who were lucky enough to see this during the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, or on DVD (Netflix has it, which is how I saw it, thanks to X) you already can imagine where this is going.  For those of you who know not of which I speak, allow me to summarize.  Actually, allow the mystically translated words of the National Gallery serve that purpose:

The 13-channel film installation Manifesto pays homage to the moving tradition and literary beauty of artist manifestos, ultimately questioning the role of the artist in society today. Manifesto draws on the writings of Futurists, Dadaists, Fluxus artists, Suprematists, Situationists, Dogma 95 and other artist groups, and the musings of individual artists, architects, dancers and filmmakers. Passing the ideas of Claes Oldenburg, Yvonne Rainer, Kazimir Malevich, André Breton, Elaine Sturtevant, Sol LeWitt, Jim Jarmusch, and other influencers through his lens, Rosefeldt has edited and reassembled thirteen collages of artists’ manifestos.

Performing this ‘manifesto of manifestos’ as a contemporary call to action, while inhabiting thirteen different personas – among them a school teacher, a puppeteer, a newsreader, a factory worker and a homeless man – Australian actress Cate Blanchett imbues new dramatic life into both famous and lesser known words in unexpected contexts.

In the anteroom of the gallery is an exhibit of manifesti (what is the plural of Manifesto?), many of which are featured in the film.  Here’s some unartful snaps of them; pardon the glare:

No, I didn’t read them all.  But, the photos are actually pretty hi-res, so I probably still can.  I did enjoy listening to the Czech-lish descriptions of them all from the multi-lingual tour guide who’s group was lagging a little behind me as I browsed.  It was especially fun to hear him explain such concepts as Fluxus, Dada and such in the context of today’s “Fake News!” world (his citation, not mine).

Now into the main gallery.  The darkened room is quickly filled with light from a large projection screen, which is filling with licks of flame as the first of the manifestos is spoken in voice over by Ms Blanchett.  I am drawn not to sit before this screen, however, as I want to get a sense of how the whole thing is laid out.  I enter further into the space.  The walls are all blacked out, as are the pillars.  All that’s not black are the screens and the benches before them.

The screens are scattered around the space, and not too close together.  Not all of the screens have sound on all of the time.  Some have sound throughout, but others only have sound at the “golden moment” (as I’ll call it). Back to that shortly.  Each screen is showing a segment in a loop.  All of the loops are the same length, and all have just the right kind of beginning and ending that they loop seamlessly, more or less.  I hadn’t recognized this when seeing them all strung together into a sequence, in the film.  But it becomes quite clear when you’re watching one and all of a sudden realize that you’ve come around full circle.

You can generally hear some sound from other screens around you, but it’s not intrusive.  Some of the characters voices carry more than others.  The high-strung, severe choreographer, for example, can be heard just about anywhere in the space, as can the vagrant with a megaphone atop the ruins.  The mother saying grace (sort of) is fairly quiet, as is the woman saying a eulogy.  But then the Golden Moment arrives.

This moment comes about 2/3 of the way through the loops, I think, but it’s not really clear to me that all of these loops start and end at the same moment; just that they’re synchronized with each other,  That much is clear.  At this moment, every screen is taken up with a close up of Blanchett’s face, who is staring straight into the camera, and speaking in a high-pitched, almost robotic voice.  Each iteration of Blanchett is speaking words which belong with that incarnation’s manifesto, but there is an almost unison effect between them.  As I’ve previously stated, this is the only time when all of the screens have audio, so it can be quite arresting when the stock trader you’ve been watching in relative silence suddenly is starring straight at you and barking out some pith.

I spent over an hour in this space, wandering about, standing and watching, or sitting on a bench.  I loved the entire experience!  The multi-lingual tour group from the outer exhibit found their way around, and tended to sit, as a group, before each screen, whilst the guide flitted about stage whispering to them in different languages.  I noticed one couple, man and woman in their 20s, just sat side-by-side in front of the puppet maker screen for at least four or five loops.  They were enthralled with it (easy to understand).

What a great way to spend part of my Friday!  I love this stuff.

There was a lot more to see in the museum, and I did thoroughly enjoy my visit.  Didn’t even drop any dough in the gift shop, because it wasn’t a gift shop, it was a book shop, and I don’t read Czech! 🙂

More photos from the day later.

O Egg
GREAT EGG!
OUTSTANDING EGG!
BONJOUR!