[author-post-rating] (4/5 Stars)
Made In China are innovators within contemporary theatre in the UK. It’s a company which continually tests its audience, pushing themselves as performers and makers closer to the edge of the unknown. With each new performance they take flight, a free-fall to the ground somewhere far beneath them. It is through this leaping into the unknown I have found myself continually questioning, often frustratingly, how and why Made In China does what it does. From my first encounter in 2011 with its piece Stationary Excess, to the desire to please the audience in 2012 with We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?) and the rebelling on top of the National Theatre in Get Stuff Break Free, Made In China has tested me more than any other company. Each performance I see is a signing of a contract, between us the audience and them as controllers of our line of sight for the duration of the performance. In agreeing to this contract I open myself, unguarded, to the work.
It is this spirit of openness (a vulnerability like holding your shirt open to display your bare chest to a heavy-weight boxer, waiting for the jab of their left-hook to strike you) that I entered Made In China’s latest piece Gym Party. Sitting in the front row and staring into their eyes, this feeling of vulnerability was relentless, and I couldn’t look away. In a piece about competition and winning, about spectating upon someone else’s failure and not stepping in to stop unwanted punishment, I, like the company, took the punches that they delivered to my gut and I was left wounded. As Jess Latowicki is demoralised through insults to her body, and Chris Bailey receives a blow-by-blow account of his failings as a person, I too suffered their shame and ridicule. Even as Jenn Watts receives a hefty punch to the stomach for losing a round within the competition, I felt that blow. It is not through exaggeration that I recount the sickening feeling of watching a performance that affects you, turning your spit into bile and your stomach churning into acid. After seeing Gym Party I wanted to be sick.
The premise of the piece is a simple one: the performers are on the stage to be the best contestant that they can be through a series of challenges. The person to catch the most amount of water, or the first to push a ping-pong ball across the room with their nose, is declared the winner. They’re silly and childish games that make us laugh, but after each round there’s a punishment for the losers. Slapping and punching, heads in buckets of waters and blood that trickles from their noses. We’re told, repeatedly, that Jess, Jen and Chris and doing this for us, the audience, for our enjoyment, for our need for performance, and that the buying of a ticket is a contract to accept what they must do for us as performers. It’s not so much a freak-show or dirty game show that we encourage, but it’s about the act of spectating and continuing to spectate when really we should walk out, or stop the proceedings altogether.
The games are about childhood and growing up. Stories about the gymnasium at school and the sinking feeling of failing. There’s always the point within a Made In China piece where you can feel the subtle shift of ground beneath the feet of the performers, and beneath your seats as the audience. The shift comes in the tone, the direction of accusation, and the faint wagging or pointing of a hand to the audience to get us to understand this is about us, for us. It’s the same in Gym Party; all of this, the wig, the games, the performance itself are for us the audience, and we have to understand this transaction. We have to accept the punch that the performers are going to give us because that’s what we’ve entered into.
Gym Party marks a turning point in Made in China’s work. It’s richer and more dynamic than previous pieces, and it shows that as a company it’s coming into its own. Whereas in previous performances I’ve questioned what I’m meant to take away from the work, there is no denying the sickness and vulnerability that I left with after seeing this piece. It’s not often I leave a show with a sickness in my stomach, but Made In China certainly caused a devastating blow to me, a punch with force that I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.
Gym Party is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 25 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.