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Tag Archive | "Chris Thorpe"

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Review: I Wish I Was Lonely, Battersea Arts Centre

Posted on 11 March 2014 by Hannah Tookey

I Wish I Was Lonely

I Wish I Was Lonely is a layered and playfully experimental look at whether technology is drawing us closer, or pushing us further from the world around us. It’s an interactive show where, for once, you’re encouraged to leave your phone on – and not just on vibrate. Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe want to hear every buzz, ding and ring, with no exceptions. In fact, taking phone calls and replying to texts in the middle of the performance is welcomed, but do be prepared for the other 35 people in the room to listen intently until you’re done.

Walker and Thorpe are out to challenge our dependence on technology, question its place as a fifth limb in our lives, and ask ‘what if?’. What if everyone we loved wasn’t just a swipe and click away – and what if Alexander Fleming had called his lab and asked them to throw out those petri dishes he’d forgotten about?

With gentle poetry they probe at the barriers that technology creates. We might opt to send a cat GIF rather than talk about our feelings, and emotional and important conversations can now be had through text messages, devoid of the intonation of a friend or family member’s voice. We can bury ourselves in a deluge of social media, spend hours liking statuses or watching videos of people we will never meet.  We can post and comment to our heart’s content, sign petitions and like videos to express our support but “Assad won’t read your retweet” Thorpe tells Walker.

Our mobile phones lay together in a circle in the middle of the room – they look lost, vulnerable, wanting of a human hand. With hesitant glances at each other, we reluctantly part with them – fearing for the safety of our digital lives. They flash and bleep throughout the show, demanding our attention and diverting our focus with every dingle – each audience member glancing down slyly to check if it might be theirs.

I Wish I Was Lonely forces us to connect with others. We send texts to strangers we may never speak to, leave voicemails for people who may be sat next to us, and pass Chinese whispers from ear to ear. Through a series of clever and cunningly devised participatory exercises we are forced to appreciate and experience both the convenience and power of technology – its ability to save lives, but also it’s potential to destroy and confuse our relationships. Both its limitations and advantages are called into question, although with significantly more focus on the negative impacts of it – is our reliance on handheld devices really making us less content? Does the ability for constant and instant communication actually stop us missing people? Whilst it might not do exactly that, Thorpe and Walker certainly make us question it.

 

I Wish I Was Lonely is playing at Battersea Arts Centre until Saturday 15 March. For more information and tickets, see the Battersea Arts Theatre website.

Hannah Tookey

Hannah Tookey

Hannah is a freelance theatre and film producer with a slightly worrying addiction to coffee and travel. A graduate of Warwick University, she's worked with the RSC, NYT, and Many Rivers Productions, amongst others.

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Feature: Chris Thorpe – starting the conversation

Posted on 13 February 2014 by Devawn Wilkinson

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“This is not an interview, this is a conversation,” asserts Chris Thorpe fervently, as I’m apologising for offering a stream of personal observations on his work rather than any straightforward questions. It’s a generous, evocative statement that’s usefully indicative of Thorpe’s approach – from recent Fringe success, There has Possibly Been an Incident, to his collaborations with poet Hannah Jane Walker, (I Wish I was Lonely is soon to arrive at BAC) his work is always a kind of conversation – a meticulous contemplation of “cause and effect, the examination of the tiny steps” rather than any dogmatic dictation of the way things are. He resists any assumption that, as a writer, he intends to set himself up “as an expert – to suggest that the reason that I’m doing this because I have the answer, that’s absolute rubbish!” At the heart of his works is always “an attempt to grapple with a fundamental question,” he explains, adding with emphasis “…and not to provide the answers”.

That sense of “starting the conversation” is no doubt present in his newest play, Hannah, currently playing at the Unicorn Theatre, a work for younger audiences based on Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. In the original seventeenth century text, an arrogant, over-learned scholar sells his soul to the devil in return for absolute power and knowledge. In Thorpe’s retelling, the eponymous heroine – 11-year-old Hannah, frustrated by her life and feeling neglected by her hard-working mother – is rather more sympathetic. For Thorpe, it was crucial that the protagonist wasn’t “a selfish princess that just believes everything is hers by right, or a hyper-intelligent scholar ready to sell what makes her human,” but rather “an ordinary person as capable of being considerate and good – or selfish – as we all are. It’s really important that she’s quite ordinary, and that’s not to say dull or unintelligent, because she’s just like you and me, and this isn’t about asking ‘what would a theoretical selfish person do?’ It has to let us think about what you and I would do, given this opportunity.”

Though Marlowe’s work provided the impetus and basic structure, and Thorpe acknowledges it, as “one of the first plays [he] ever read,” as highly influential, he is also keen to communicate that Hannah is not simply Doctor Faustus modernised and “translated into a different language, into my idea of what this audience would want,” nor is it “a historical re-enactment”. He has kept to the verse form, which Marlowe uses only partially in the play, because it excites him and challenges him as a writer: Thorpe marvels at “the discipline that verse places on you, the different ways to express that it forces you into, and as a result of that, the different kind of work it asks an audience to do. As a conscious taking on of that archaic poetic form, I love what it does to the way I have to help the characters express their thoughts… and it’s incredibly versatile,” he insists, pre-emptively combative of any suggestion that the verse form is a redundant one, “and I don’t think it feels old, it simply asks us to work with language in a way that we don’t usually do in the theatre.”

If, as Thorpe emphasises, Hannah is not strictly an adaptation of the material of Doctor Faustus, what is its relationship to, and how does it reinvigorate, Marlowe’s macabre morality play, bursting with decadent greed, moral failings and religious terror? “Hannah is a new show that re-casts the questions that Doctor Faustus is asking, for now,” Thorpe explains. “I think those questions are still valid and very pertinent, particularly to young people. There’s something in Faustus which is about those ideas of personal power and agency that start to develop in you as you’re making the transition into adulthood. The fantasies we all have about our own power as we’re growing up, if we could do whatever we wanted – the idea that we can explore our relationships with the world and other people through the lens of how much we can exercise power over them.” What he finds deeply fascinating is that “richness in contrast” between how these ideas of power and punishment in Faustus play out, then and now. “Marlowe explores these questions through a moral and social framework that is absolutely tied up with ideas of external judgement.”  Indeed, the original play ends with Faustus doomed to eternal damnation, a conclusion, that quite rightly, Thorpe views as somewhat incompatible with the way most of us live. “Now, the idea of supernatural, external rules that will crash in and punish you if you violate them has mostly faded away. The difference now -–although many people may still have a religious, spiritual upbringing – is that the world in general, the society in general that the play is happening in, is much more concerned about your status as an individual, and what your individual responsibilities are.”

It’s seems like a delicate point to try and communicate to any audience, and indeed, Hannah might be viewed as a reaction, a kind of antidote, to the fact that young people in particular are often spoon-fed that simplistic, punitive system of morality. The reality for Thorpe is that “that idea of good and bad, those clearly delineated moral choices that we make, breaks down really quickly when we put it against the world, against any one individual and put that individual in society. If there’s an underlying principle in Hannah, it’s that there are no magic wands, because magic wands, in terms of being able to make moral choices or solve problems, are very dangerous ideas to carry around. It’s about recognising the complexity, and the advantage you have with a story based on Faustus is that you can show the consequences of wishes coming true – the cascading effect of that, even if that wish is unselfish. In fact, the main difference between Faustus and Hannah is that she is capable of making unselfish wishes, but even those have unintended consequences – because they are overly simplistic attempts to solve problems at a single stroke.” He visibly recoils from the suggestion that writing for a younger audience might mean “diluting the difficulty or the complexity of those ideas, because then you’re into a situation where you’re second guessing what your audience can cope with – that’s something that for any audience is dangerous, as a writer, especially when you’re dealing with people who are younger than you.”

There’s a line, of course, between necessary ambiguity and an inability or reluctance to tackle an issue head-on. Thorpe clarifies that “it’s important to be clear about what those questions are – to be clear about what we’re talking about, but remain open about any possible conclusion.” That leads us to wondering, I suggest, that if it is no longer theatre’s purpose to moralise, to warn us, to essentially frighten us into behaving, what should it do? Thorpe’s response is, as I’ve come to expect, eloquent yet refreshingly accessible. “We live in a world where, technologically, there is absolutely no reason for theatre to exist. If we look at the many ways there are to absorb information, for story and literature to exist – the many easier ways – it almost makes theatre redundant. But yet, it absolutely isn’t. It hasn’t gone way, and it never will. So what is it about theatre that makes it this different space? It’s not the ability to moralise, absolutely not, I think we accept that now. But it is the only place where we all are real in that room. Whether our job in that room is to watch and listen, or to pretend to be someone else, or to start a conversation, if we acknowledge that we are all in that room, then what that means is: theatre hasn’t died, and it won’t die. So the function of theatre, then, is to examine those questions in a participatory way, whatever forms that participation takes… and what I am hopeful about,” he muses, when I ask if he is an optimist or a pessimist (or neither) as a theatre-maker, “is that we can continue to develop these skills to analyse ourselves – to ask ourselves and each other when it’s pertinent, am I doing the right thing, right now? And I am hopeful about that – the ability to stand outside ourselves and go, ‘ah, I’m not right all the time,’ – to really get us somewhere… I think!”

Hannah is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 9 March. For more information and tickets, please see The Unicorn Theatre website

 

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer, performance poet and aspiring theatre-maker. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Exeunt Magazine.

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Feature: Sit up and listen – an overview of political theatre in 2013

Posted on 21 January 2014 by Matilda Reith

fiji land

This year, political theatre-goers were treated to high class drama up and down the country. Looking at topics including the Israel/Palestine conflict, homophobia, war crimes and sexism, 2013 saw major and minor theatre companies confront problems such as these head on. This brand of theatre offers society a service by providing accessible platforms, invitations to discuss and the opportunity for accidental discovery. For some, theatrical devices like dialogue, staging, music and movement have more impact than words on a page. Through research and devlopment, new stories are discovered and a company can bring a new angle to an issue. It is often the personal stories that are the most affecting right the way through, from actor to audience. But sometimes a show can pass for ‘political’ when it is as hard-hitting as a flannel, so here are some of 2013′s most memorable:

Set in 1920, These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich bought the story of four female watch-dial painters, fatally poisoned by the radium with which they worked. Lyrical and moving, it bought a historical fight for women’s rights to London’s new Park Theatre. The revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride at Trafalgar Studios took a raw and pacy snapshot of prejudice towards homosexuality in 1958 and the present day. During the curtain call, the cast held ‘To Russia With Love’ placards, which amongst growing distress towards Russia’s anti-gay legislation, made The Pride exceptionally poignant. Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica opened at the Almeida Theatre in London, twinning the famed photo of solitary protest in Tiananmen Square with a spoonful of modern geopolitics. Praised for attempting and achieving a great feat in theatre, Kirkwood’s Chimerica has been listed as The Guardian‘s No. 2 in Best Theatre of 2013.

The National began the year with James Graham’s This House which was set in 1974 parliament, but perhaps had less bite than The Shed’s Protest Song, for example, which twinned London’s Occupy movement with homelessness in one monologue delivered by an intense Rhys Ifans. Love Your Soldiers, at the Crucible, gleaned 4 stars from The Guardian, marrying military realism with a twenty-first century love triangle. At the Young Vic, Joe Wright directed historical A Season in the Congo, telling of Congo’s liberation from Belgian rule. The Royal Court brought Polish playwright Anna Wakulik’s A Time to Reap to British audiences and high acclaim. A Time to Reap charts the journey of a woman against the backdrop of abortion and the Catholic Church in Poland, and was performed in Polish and English.

As usual, political theatre burst from every seam in Edinburgh. This year, at least 120 shows used ‘politics’ as a key word to describe themselves. The Fringe is the place to take angry, low-cost theatre that shouts a politically-minded message. Northern Stage at St Stephen’s housed Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident which was hauntingly stripped back. It took vague yet recognisable events (a country’s revolution, a public shooting, a plane crash) when you must choose between heroism and compromise from headlines into our hands. Ballad of the Burning Star was also highly praised; Theatre ad infinitum returned with an Israeli drag queen, proving that the oldest issues can still be approached from fresh. The Traverse marked its fiftieth birthday with a selection of international political shows; Quietly by Owen McCafferty took up Belfast bombings, and George Brant’s Grounded, which flagged up the psychological damage to drone controllers through the eyes of a pregnant pilot, was a must see of the festival. After the Fringe, Grounded transferred to London’s Gate Theatre for an extremely successful run.

It wasn’t just theatre that took up the political gauntlet. In dance, the return of Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother was a sell out at Sadler’s Wells. A storming heart-attack of an evening with drums so loud you could hardly breath, it tackled terrorism and oppression. His new show Sun is a must-see for the 2014. Twitter went wild for spoken-word-artist Scroobius Pip’s Five Minutes which tackles domestic violence. Even Banksy’s Christmas card got in on the political action, depicting Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage blocked by the 25ft high separation wall in Bethlehem.

This month, Nick Gill’s fiji land comes to the Southwark Playhouse. A darkly comic look at torture, the play is a surrealist reaction to the stories that emerged from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in recent years. The fact that the problem is ongoing is a draw for director Alice Malin, but fiji land is mainly an exploration of the human capacity to hurt each other, and then justify it.

Theatre can be a wonderful mode through which to learn, feel connected and support a greater need. It is understandably daunting for a political newbie to go to a show dubbed ‘political’, but for anyone interested in affairs current and historical, it is a fantastic method of firing up anger, enthusiasm or surprise. In a year when we watched continuing revolution in the Middle East, marked the deaths of Margaret Thatcher, Lou Reed and Mandela, and watched North Korea unveil its ‘Barbie Army’, news stories have never been so varied, and our theatre reflected this. Perhaps 2014 is your year to get political?

Matilda Reith

Matilda Reith

Tilly is a first year English student at Sheffield University who is having an affair with the drama department. Between sleeps she likes to absorb and create as much theatre as possible but also spends a considerable amount of her time listening to jazz and drinking coffee.

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Feature: Brian Lobel’s ‘Purge’ – a space for dialogue

Posted on 05 November 2013 by Devawn Wilkinson

Purge_Credit_Aaron Reeves 3

Would you let a panel of strangers choose your outfit in the morning? Or perhaps select your date for the evening? How about letting them make the call on whether to keep or delete your Facebook friends based on a one minute pitch? Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either a harmless social experiment, a rather useful administrative tool, or an intolerable invasion of privacy. Performance maker Brian Lobel did exactly that, offering up his Facebook friendships to a jury of audience members, until, after 800 emails (“a lot of happy emails, some engaged emails, very angry emails…”) 64 retaliatory deletions and 2,000 comments on the live stream of the installation, he tells me, half-laughing, “I realised I couldn’t do that to my friends any more!”, and Purge the stage show was born.

Lobel, an American-born performance maker and also a senior lecturer at the University of Chichester, describes Purge, the show, as “a reflective talk for an audience on what that process was for me, and giving them the a chance to talk about their own experience with ‘deleting’ and ‘adding’, and what this all might actually mean..”. It’s a fascinating topic, and yet, we agree, one that has not been subject to enough interrogation. When an Italian performer performed her own initial Purge (Lobel is keen for his work to “live on after [him], to find new contexts..”) he recalls a German critic declaring disgustedly, “Urgh! Art about Facebook…” He laughs and then asserts, “See, my response to that is… yes! It’s art about the things that we surround ourselves with. Because Facebook is the place where I learn the most about politics, about fads, about my family! It’s not a space that’s unworthy of consideration.” He cites Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker’s I Wish I was Lonely as a work with similar concerns, a prompt to really “look at these objects that we have around as all the time, because we do completely dismiss them.”

Social media in all its forms is, of course, now such an ubiquitous presence in our lives that it seems necessary for artists to begin properly considering its significance. How and why, I ask, did Lobel’s own response to it come about? “Purge began by discovering my first boyfriend had deleted me from Friendster (a pre-facebook social networking site) but I only found out that he had once deleted me after he died. I was very upset to learn that, even though we were best friends in real life… so why should [that deletion] have mattered? That is what frames the show, the consideration of what these connections mean – for me and the audience that’s there.”

I take the opportunity to ask him about the much-discussed distinction or overlap between theatre and performance art – where might Purge fall on that spectrum? He is keen to clarify, “I consider myself primarily a performance-maker, but I am very interested in narrative structure and other theatrical elements – because I love telling a story, a story that has guides an audience along with it. At the same time, there’s no ‘suspension of disbelief’, and I call my work just ‘performance’ – yes, part of that may well be wanting to escape that misconception about ‘art’, because for me, it’s always about performance. I’m performing in front of you all the time – when I put on clothes in the morning and I say certain things – so my work is no different to that.”

“I’ve always had a problem with people thinking that my work is not intense enough in the sense that much of performance art is very ‘hardcore’ in its approach to the body, but, although I don’t bleed, I don’t physically hurt myself – this is a project that two years on I still have lasting effects from… I have genuinely lost friends through Purge.” If Purge has underlined anything, then, might it be that social media isn’t just a strange and distanced dislocation of usual social interactions, but an entire functioning social sphere in itself, crossing over to ‘reality’ without hesitation? “It’s almost immature to suggest there’s a difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘digital’ anymore,” Lobel agrees.

Has Purge shaped Lobel into either a champion or a critic of the social networks it investigates?“I think I have a very ambiguous and complex relationship with social media, so I certainly don’t believe in purists one way or another. What I want to do is deepen our relationship with social media. We’re really babies in this world of social technology – only 13 years into understanding digital social media – societally, we still think that countries are new if they’re under 20 or religions are new if they’re under 800 years old – so what does that mean for our response to and relationship with social media?”

I ask Lobel if, whilst Purge comes from an incredibly personal place, it is his intention to extend it into a tool for wider consideration? He is hesitant to define Purge so succinctly: “The show is ever-changing, even if my thinking doesn’t so much – I never came in with a particular agenda, it was more of a research project for me,” and he’s quick to emphasise that he doesn’t intend to make overarching, declarative statements. “It’s always been important to me to only talk about myself – I can’t talk about other people. If the work is good, then it will allow other people to come and access it. For me, it is about opening up a space for dialogue. At the beginning of the show I ask the audience to shout out who they would delete and they call out ‘my brother! My ex! Racists! Casual homophobes!’ and we talk about that. I like to create that space and then I like to return to my story, the story that I can tell.” An audience can expect to be something far more than simply spectators of Purge, then. “I want you to be an active participant, because this is not a movie! I want you to be active and engaged with the work. I want to create a safe space for audiences to actually think about difficult, and often very sad, things – people will end up talking about really personal stories in front of a large number of people. What I always want to be suggesting is, ‘you’re very welcome, here, to be frail – like I am’.”

The original impetus for Purge, Lobel emphasises, was personal, and it remains a deeply personal project, but he considers, “I suppose now it’s a show much more about sharing”. His hopes for an audience are touchingly and laudably simple: “I would like that when audience members come home from the show and turn on their computer, when they leave the show and they turn their phone back on, they’ll think about it a little more deeply – think about things with a little more of a pause, to reconsider, together, how we live our everyday life.”

Brian Lobel’s Purge was at JCC London on 2 November and will be at Canada Water Culture Space on 8 November. For more information and tickets please see Brian Lobel’s website.

Photo (c) Aaron Reeves.

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer, performance poet and aspiring theatre-maker. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Exeunt Magazine.

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