Friday, 26 October 2018

Metamorphosis… Medusa, Jasmin Vardimon Company, Sadler's Wells

"A lot of people remember Medusa as a monster killed by Persius, but actually they don’t remember what made her become that monster…” Jasmin Vardimon

This is a highly-conceptual work full of remarkably innovative movement and narrative; it’s a Avant modern dance gig at Sadlers Wells and as such, a bit of an “away game” for me but I do at least have familiarity with the music which includes not only Sonny Bono, Handel and Grieg but also Ben Frost, Aphex Twin, Pharmakon, Mogwai and the mighty Silver Mount Zion who I've seen live many times.

This impressively eclectic range is used to accompany a retelling of the story of  Medusa, the jellyfish as well as the creature from Greek legend in a “story” that touches on the relationship not only between men and women but people and power.

More than that, there are so many themes interwoven in the narrative that it is impossible to not relate – pollution, male violence, women’s role in society, and the politics of now. There also so much deft and unusual choreography that you are immersed through concern for the performers’ safety as much as in wonder at the powerful precision with which they work.

One dancer waves a green lasso over her head and as it approaches each member of the company they have to fall away and push themselves across the stage as it compelled by a mystical blast. Then they must find they feet ready to repeat this move over and over again, with split seconds to spare… it is – appropriately enough – transfixing and one of the most impressive moments of human movement I’ve seen on stage.

The story opens as a lone dancer arises from huge folds of transparent plastic on the Sadlers Wells’ stage, she (Olga Clavel Gimeno – a sinuous presence throughout with a background in gymnastics before dance) clears paths through the plastic – the sea, the folds of jellyfish flesh, something more ectoplasmic? Then shapes shoot out from the central platform – is this a birthing? Then Olga is suddenly lifted up on the platform by a single male dancer – a stunning moment of strength and stage craft – my money’s on hunky Kieran Shannon as the lift in this instance.

The story is more thematic in the early stages, and characters start to emerge from the rest of the company notably Joshua Smith who, surprisingly, addresses the audience twice, the second time to try and explain – or should that be man-splain – Jean Paul Sartre’s text Being and Nothingness. This contends that it is the gaze of others upon ourselves that makes us realise that we exist as objects for others… the gaze of the Gorgon/Medusa.

There is also a quite remarkable sequence in which a man – Joshua - walks with his female shadow (I’m not sure who the dancer was – Silke Muys perhaps, apologies if I got the wrong one!), who, incredible is able to keep pace with his movement whilst rolling and pushing herself on the floor. She tries to get up at one point: to be on his level, but he eventually succeeds in knocking her down.

There’s also violence as the muscular Mr Shannon – whose long hair makes him look a little Norse – out-matches poor Joshua Smith. These physical struggles are so well worked and, as you can see from the picture of this interaction, require inch perfect rehearsal and athleticism.

Medusa is raped by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena who then, rather unreasonably, punishes the woman. Similarly mistreated are the invertebrate Medusas – the jellyfish – who after 650 million years are now been suffocated by plastic and man-made pollution… It’s not hard to spot who the real villain is here but there’s hope as even at the end, the forces of good – Athena (Patricia Hastewell Puig) resist.

In the cerebral melange of messages Vardimon has mixed together there is the philosophical question of “what to do” in a world of commodified everything… we need to transform ourselves and not get submerged and strangled in the everyday battles of ego and commerce. We need to work together as well as the Vardimon company and to clear the decks of the philosophical pollution as well as the all choking expansion of plastic.

The Guardian thought there was too much for one show but I have to say that it worked exceptionally well for me; after all isn’t there already “too much”? Away from the madness outside and in the comfortable seats, this was a chance to be slapped around the head and like it!  Which, broadly speaking, is the purpose of art is it not.

I must mention the rest of the line up as they were all outstanding:  Jasmine Orr, Andre Rebelo and the flame-haired Lucija Bozievic. Dance of this nature must be built up from the ground with fewer conventional steps; the mix of tumbling and even gymnastics must also take a long time to perfect: it was incredibly disciplined! Still Jasmin Vardimon has been doing thsi for twenty years and 

The run has now finished in the UK but I’m sure the show will be repeated just like the company’s Pinocchio which is returning to Sadlers Wells later in the year: not one to be missed!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: **** Viscera, vital and violent, Medusa works on the heart as well as the head to leave you questioning and reeling.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Oh bondage? Up yours! People Like Us, Union Theatre

Brexit…it’s the first thing in ages that’s actually made me FEEL something. So BIG - yet so personal. Visceral, even… 

There were times when Julie Burchill and Jane Robins’ new play felt so dated, not just in June 2016 when most of the arguments seemed stuck but also an earlier time… The music played before the start and during the interval was Nouvelle Vague’s soppy Gallic-pop tribute to British post punk – those Europeans just can’t do it like The Clash man, and then we had a snatch of The Jam’s All Around the World.

One of the characters says that Brexit was the first time in years that she felt out of her comfort zone: yes, Brexit was punk… Hey kids lets put the show on right here even if Syd can’t play bass and Joe can’t really sing. Yeah, with a band made up of Dave, Mike, Bo and IDS we can get gigs and make a real go of it. Julie always loved a wind-up and the more outraged the reaction the better yet, whilst we live in the age of the incurably irritated, there's a real opportunity to explain how people on both sides think: this could be hilarious and it could be healing.

Paul Giddings, Sarah Toogood, Kamaal Hussain, Marine Andre and Gemma-Germaine (photo: Paul Nicholas Dyke)
The action takes place in an Islington book group because those people are just evil and ugly. Three old Oxford chums are the core of the group: Ralph (Kamaal Hussain) is a successful man with a second house and a second wife, Clemence (Marine Andre) who is much younger than him and very much French.  His old friend Stacey (Gemma Germaine) is the second core member of the group often outspoken and the sharpest tongued by far, she lives with the working-class Frances (Sarah Toogood) an out-spoken and passionate women – a clear believer in the truth. The final piece in the collegiate triumvirate is Will (Paul Giddings) a writer perpetually mid-book who is so far on the fence it’s a wonder he is able to reach down to his herbal tea and copy of The Guardian in the morning.

There’s plenty of peachy banter in the first half as the old friends rub up against each other in that way you do; forever certain that any offence will be brushed aside.

The problem soon emerges though that the Remainer three are not just flawed characters, but they’re caricatures. Ralph has a “Ginsberg is God” cushion, says things like “absolutely charment” and isn’t, actually, “adoringly pompous” as Stacey describes him. He’s dressed head to foot in Paul Smith (is that still a thing?) and has aimed for young and pretty in his choice of a replacement for his now divorced wife, Sarah, mother of his two, relatively young children (I mean, what a git, right?).

Britannia resurgent! (photo: Paul Nicholas Dyke)
His wife does not like his old friends, or more specifically Stacey and why would she, there’ no warmth extended her way and, like so many Europeans – don’t you find – she is controlling, humourless and narrowminded. Proof? She can’t even see that Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is a bad book, only worthy of being a graphic novel (they’re all bad too).

And Will? He’s a drip but at least he’s out campaigning for Remain, actually putting his time where his mouth is? Yes, but he hasn’t finished his book though has he? In fairness, Stacey has a great line about reading: “when I was a kid, reading was a way of signalling you wanted to be alone, now it’s a sign of how popular you are.” But that’s no reason to exit the Customs Union, surely?

Stacey wants to leave the EU as Brexit is the only thing that has made her “actually feel something” for a long time. For Frances, the issue is a “power-crazed attempt to create a European super state” and also fears of cultural dilution as she makes the suggestion of a book that covers Islam. This is not racism, just a problem with integration and moral alignment, as Stacey says: “what do we do when two virtues clash: female honesty and religious tolerance?”

Their next meeting will take place after the referendum and Ralph warns them that they will be glad their “boring friends” did the right thing by voting for the seemingly inevitable Remain win…

Celebration time: Sarah Toogood and Gemma-Germaine
Frances and Stacey are riding high on victory at the start of the second act as they relish a revolution of their own: “I haven’t voted in something I believed in for ages!”

It’s interesting now to see their celebrations but the play struggles with the counter arguments from the disappointed Remainers who trot out cliched riffs as they struggle on in denial and anger. I’m perfectly willing to say that some of their phrases may have come from my lips/keyboard but these three say them with hatred for the “deluded” leave voters and I honestly think a lot of people were and are genuinely concerned for their businesses and their standard of living.

Taking a punt on an unpredictable and exciting new spin of the wheel doesn’t sound that exciting when, two years of evidence and argument later, the business case for Brexit is quite clear: there isn’t one. And, if you’re poor, have special needs (like my son), old or unwell, Brexit will mean less support for a long, long time… there just won’t be the money. Brexit is austerity.

Losers plot revenge exclusion... Paul Giddings, Marine Andre, Kamaal Hussain (photo: Paul Nicholas Dyke)
So, hearing these old tropes about snobbishness, urban elites and the Working Class (who they?) protest votes sounds dated and doesn’t quite ring true.  Frances and Stacey are the only believable characters and you’re much more interested in what they have to say than the Remainer three, so it’s incredibly unbalanced as a debate. They are excluded from the book group - cast off as friends... and made to seem the victims of the democratic expression of their free will... but we don't get deep enough into the argument to really feel this.

There are, of course, many good lines and the cast all do a tremendous job with the material. I just don’t buy into enough of it: I’m not a member of a book group and I don’t live in the city anymore… and where I live voted strongly to Leave.

People Like Us plays at the Union Theatre until Saturday 20th October – the run is already sold out but contact the Box Office for returns and details of any newly-released tickets.

Ithankyou Rating: ** A missed opportunity to really dig into the national divide is missed in favour of shallow characterisation and cheap shots.