What happens when you tell a story? What do stories do, in theatre and in our lives? The Catastrophe Trilogy - Alice Bell (2006), Daniel Hit By A Train (2008), and The Festival
(2010) - are some kind of an answer. They are the flowering of Lone
Twin Theatre, a step away from Lone Twin’s more purely performance and
conceptual work and a step towards theatre, or at least towards an
engagement with narrative and character. The first and third shows
follow singular stories; the middle show presents us with 53 capsule
narratives, stories on the edge being story.
It’s a beautiful trio of shows, each one
having its own distinctive identity and theatrical language, but with
pulses and echoes that ripple across all three. The catastrophes are so
different in each show that I wondered whether the title wasn’t a sly
joke about the pompous tradition of the playwriterly trilogy (Wesker,
Hare, et al.). I strained to find a catastrophe in The Festival (is a missed opportunity catastrophic?) and Daniel Hit By A Train
asks rather profound questions about the meaning and possibility of
representing catastrophe. Each show is punctuated by songs, often
accompanied on the ukulele, and the whole trilogy has a popular-theatre
tells the story of a young woman living in a country divided by a civil
war. She is sent away to boarding school but she runs away. She is
standing on a bridge when it is bombed by the rebel army but rescued by
the bomber. Since Alice is believed to be dead, she changes her name to
Clara Day but her identity is revealed when a schoolfriend sees her in
the street. She is forced to carry a bomb into town and while she yells
at everyone to get out of her way, she is killed in the explosion.
To give the story of this show is partly
to miss the point, though. It does have a narrative but it’s also
asking questions about narrative, the way that narrative organises a
theatrical encounter, the tension between the over-arching narrative and
the micronarrative encounters that punctuate our daily lives. The
dramaturgy of the show disrupts some of the features of that narrative
arc; some features of the story (and of the show) are given to us at the
beginning, both in Alice’s early monologue and a strange moment where
her brother gets visions of her future (including her singing a country
and western song). Soon after Alice becomes Clara, the show hurriedly
tells us about her unmasking in an eerie flashforward, moving this
narrative turning point ahead of its chronological sequence; the whole
story is then recapitulated up to her death in a rousing country and
western song played on ukuleles. These have an effect of suppressing our
breathless engagement with the twists and turns of the story, while
still presenting the story to us as an object to be observed, handled,
There are references to Oxford Street
and Denmark Street which would seem to place the action in London,
though the civil war and the reference to the bombed bridge suggested to
me the old bridge in Mostar, destroyed by Croatian bombardment in 1993.
In fact, these accidents of place and time don’t seem especially
significant to these stories; time and place were picked up and
discarded as required. The bridge in Mostar was a graceful arc and its
destruction seemed a resonant echo of the show’s bombardment of its own
narrative arc, the fragments of Alice’s story coming apart gracefully
The show was purposeful fragmented,
sections of the story delivered in distinct stylistic sequences.
Nicholas - the rebel leader - was introduced as a man who will harm you
and he’s given a virtuoso, and very funny, speech where he lists the
various people and things he will harm, from Ringo Starr to Eskimos
(‘Eskimos, you can run but you can’t hide,’ he warned). Alice’s
transformation in Clara Day was effected in a brilliant sequence where
Patrick, her lover, trains her to answer questions according to her new
personality, the two of them on either side of a table, which danced
slowly down the length of the traverse, marking her slow progress from
one identity to another. Physical sequences - performers pretending to
be dogs, a schoolgirl’s trick with her arms, Alice’s hobbies - were
sharp and witty, not difficult, just expressive and smart; sometimes
they had emotional pull, as when we see Alice and Patrick’s relationship
in him bending forward, supporting Alice who lies sideways across his
Daniel Hit By A Train is inspired by the 53 plaques in Postman’s Park
in the City of London, commemorating acts of impetuous, doomed courage.
Each story is told, usually with the same minimalism as the plaque. The
stories begin to collide with each other as the performance goes on
some stories told at greater length, the acts seeming sometimes brave,
often foolhardy, occasionally comic, often meaningless.
Here narrative is offered in its most
minuscule form as fact. We are given bare information: a name, an act -
‘Elizabeth, who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from
a runaway horse’ - followed by some tiny physical performance of that
act. Often these physical performances are provocatively inarticulate.
‘Here’s me aged 8,’ announces Guy Dartnell taking on the persona of
another of our doomed heroes; we watch as he stands doing nothing.
Nothing is what this show is composed
of. We know next to nothing about these lives and the company don’t seem
to have found out any more. There is no real effort of impersonation.
The stage is bare - a sheet of red vinyl, a door frame. Yet, we’re
constantly invited to look at things: ‘Here’s me’ say the performers one
after another. ‘This is...’ says Paul Gazzola, the ringmaster,
introducing his characters, also asking us to ‘regard the drum’ that’s
he’s wearing, to ‘regard its power’ as if this power were visible, to
regard the burning house, the runaway horse, the sinking ship and all
the other unseen forces of late-Victorian destruction. The remnants on
Victorian popular culture - bit of melodrama, a fair bit of circus, a
lot of music hall - strained through more contemporary pop culture (I
was continually and pleasurably reminded of Vic Reeves' Big Night Out)
remind us that in a way this is all theatre, which creates vast
offstage - and sometimes onstage - worlds with a word or a gesture.
After each mini-performance, the actors
gaze steadily at us; it’s a flat look, not inviting, not challenging,
not really engaging. It holds out looking as an object to be observed.
This whole show is looking at looking.
Because somehow these stories compel us
to fill them out. Knowing nothing but the headline, we seem to invest in
these stories, flooding the nothing with our own sentiments. And it is
sentiments that the show deals in initially, ripe old Victorian
sentiments, as in the song ‘Hey Mamma, Me Solomon’ telling the tale of a
boy who ‘saved my brother but I could not save myself’. I was struck
that the musical language was definitely pre-1920s, from the era before
recording, when popular songs had to be instantly memorable, strong
melodies, insistent rhythms. To couple these horrible deaths with such
nagging jingles is a moral challenge, but the show wants to know why
it’s so easy to tell stories, why we so easily want to weep for
‘Elizabeth, who died of injuries received in trying to save a child from
a runaway horse’.
This all comes to a head in the
(repeated?) representation of a girl who doesn’t want to be saved.
(Perhaps the ‘lunatic woman’ at Woolwich Station that Frederick Alfred Croft
saved at the cost of his own life.) The entire structure of sentiments -
bravery, heroism, failure, saved, help, sacrifice - collapses if
there’s someone who doesn’t want to be saved. Is this all just sentiment
then? Perhaps, but then it’s also utopian in some way. In a funny but
emotional sequence, two-thirds of the way in, Guy Dartnell is a would-be
Samaritan, running desperately between rival claimants to his aid, in a
frenzied desire to save everybody. (Remember the final episode of series 1 of the new Dr Who
when Russell T Davies had Rose absorb the power of the Tardis and come
back to bring everyone back to life - ‘everybody lives’ she said, her
eyes shining like a god.) The celebration of this heroism is an
affirmation of mortality, as if death can be avoided; it can’t, of
course, as this show both makes clear and laments.
follows Jennifer who goes to a music festival at Crescent Point, a
place where as a child she was taken, unwillingly, to watch migrating
schools of humpbacked whales. This time she fleetingly meets an older
man and they agree to meet there next year. She spends the year thinking
about this man but doing so has so changed her that when they meet
again, she doesn’t wish to take their friendship any further.
This is a step much closer to
conventional theatre. There’s even some acting, not all of it ironized
or placed in quotation marks. There’s interior psychological space and a
sort of set (chairs and tables). This is all deceptive, of course,
because in a different way from the first two shows, this too is
exploring performance. First, while the story is a good one and holds a
certain narrative interest, much of the acting isn’t in any sense
naturalistic (the scene in which Jennifer’s mother, a secret smoker,
deflects her daughter from coming down to the bottom of the garden is
conveyed by Nina Tecklenburg, hopping from foot to foot, percussively
delivering her lines between exhalations). Second, there are devices -
like omniscient narration, non-realist physical sequences - that partake
of different performance traditions. And third, probably the most
exhilaratingly memorable moments are where the ensemble recreate the
improbable headliners at the music festival: we get U2 singing ‘Where
The Streets Have No Name’ and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’.
Elsewhere there’s a snatch of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘By The Way’, a
recreation that cannot in any sense be ‘realistic’, since it calls
attention to the iconic non-presence of these rock stars.
Also, the dialogue is often perfunctory,
knowingly empty, entirely generic and lacking in content. Friends
talking in a cafe, executives at Nokia, parents dragging a child on
holiday, lab technicians, the situations are carefully presented to give
us only what we knew already and not to individualise: ‘I could run
upstairs and get the figures,’ offers a Nokia employee. ‘From all
accounts I think we’re pretty much exactly where we should be,’ comes a
reply both drained of specificity and archly commenting on the precise
conventionality of the response.
But also at work within the story is a
story about acting. Jennifer spends the year between Festivals thinking
of Oliver, a man she barely knows, just as we barely know Jennifer (and
barely knew the doomed heroes of Postman’s Park) and this in turn
triggers reflections on herself, just as, in imaginative engagement with
these fictions, our own performances and fantasies are engaged. Once
again, the mystery - if that’s not to strong a word - of acting and
theatre-watching assert themselves in a picture of a life changed
entirely by a quasi-theatrical engagement with quasi-fiction.
And again there’s something utopian
about the affirmation, the way we can connect so simply an immediately
with people who don’t exist - and with the actors who do. There’s a long
physical sequence 40 minutes in, which the actors perform to
exhaustion. It’s hard to watch partly because it asks questions about
the limits of watching, marks plainly that we are in the same space with
similar responsibilities to each other. It makes thick and bright the
connections we are making in the room. And then there are the songs;
cheesy, over-familiar maybe, but sung with enormous enjoyment, and
collective enjoyment - a picture of friends singing together, the
communitas overwhelming any fastidious distaste you might have for U2,
or the boredom triggered like a smoke alarm by the Red Hot Chili
Peppers. And this underscores the sentiment expressed through this show -
and, one remembers, throughout the trilogy - of a simple, unadorned,
unironic wish that everyone will be okay.
The show reminds me hugely of Suspect Culture’s Timeless,
one of the landmark shows in my life, though I’m sure entirely unknown
to Lone Twin. University friends meeting after several years, trying to
recapture the excitement of a night where they all went to the beach and
lit a fire and ate pakoras, their awkwardness and their yearning, their
regret and longing, the wish for the things they could say expressed in
beautiful words, but also in song and gesture.
What rich, beautiful work.