A beginning, a middle and an end are the three structural components of any story, or so we’re taught at an early age. Michael Pinchbeck’s triptych of work, The Trilogy, explores these markers of time through observations on the company’s collective experience of performance making and using various points from the work of Shakespeare as a stimulus. The pieces were not created chronologically: The End was the first piece created, the first I saw, The Beginning, was born from that, and The Middle was the final piece created. When experienced as self-contained narratives, they each have a distinct tone but when combined they feel as if they shouldn’t be apart.
The Beginning is billed perfectly as a “love letter” to theatre, but this is no overtly sentimental heartache teenage letter. A well-constructed heartfelt letter that endears rather than distances. The audience enters a space reminiscent of a rehearsal room during a tech run: there is a box marked on floor with white tape for the stage, Ollie Smith and Nicki Hobday sit outside on chairs in the “wings” and Michael Pinchbeck sits at at a desk where he acts as company manager, whose props desk is projected onto the back screen. The piece that unfolds is a crafted tale that weaves several narratives together: we get the stage directions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the story behind Serge Gainsbourg’s Historie de Melody Nelson and how the ensemble’s first experience of performing came about. The through-line of the piece is a notion of discovery, intentions and love. There are parallels in all the narratives: the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a group of amateurs performing because they love it, and Pinchbeck and co feel in love with performing through amateur dramatics. Melody Nelson falls in love with Serge Gainsbourg when she wakes up after he knocks her off her bike, just like Titania falls in love with Bottom as she awakes.
At the outset of the performance, both Hobday and Smith take a moment to tell us about their initial intentions when making the piece and welcome us into the auditorium. Hobday delivers her thoughts on her intentions when making the show calmly whereas Smith reads, sometimes aggressively, from a script “I’m a fucking professional and I’m here to get the fucking job done”. This section in which we are told Hobday and Smith’s intentions and the audience is invited to acknowledge each other, reassures the audience that it’s ok not to know where something is going. Throughout the piece we are treated to several references to the world of theatre making: Pinchbeck giving the company countdowns till they have to be on stage, and references to health and safety and, most prevalently, the process. Self-referential theatre can become trying and irritating but as these references are few and far between, and then woven so neatly within the various story lines, they comfort and draw the audience in.
It is a joy to watch the ensemble present all the various strands of story and weave them so seamlessly together. Hobday, Smith and Pinchbeck aren’t characters but heightened versions of themselves, they share snippets of their past and address the audience directly. The piece is a shared experience between the audience and performers, which reignites the joy and excitement of discovery within us all, whether this be in love or just the beginnings of something new.
During the interval, a time usually reserved for a drink and discussion, a man with silver grey hair is wrapped in bubble wrap and reads Hamlet. This is Pinchbeck’s The Middle, a touching 20 minute piece performed by his father. There is a small desk at which Pinchbeck senior sits. He is reading from a piece of paper that Pinchbeck junior wrote a long time ago, sitting on his stairs at home. It contemplates becoming a father and middle age. Also mentioned are the interval theatre rituals that so often take place: the drink from the bar, the decision whether to stay for the second half or not and, of course, the discussion of the first half. Pinchbeck senior then delivers a powerful version of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, which he first read out at school. Pinchbeck junior proceeds to cover his father in bubble wrap whilst Ronald Binge’s ‘Sailing by”’is played. The foyer is transformed into a dream like world, a transient space between present, past and future, the Pinchbecks wavering between fatherhood and grand fatherhood, the audience held in the middle with them. Succinct and touching.
The final piece in the trilogy is The End, in which Pinchbeck says it will be his last performance ever, as he trains his protege, Ollie Smith. “Exit pursued by a bear” from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale is the stage direction that spawned The End; Pinchbeck and Smith explore: the lead up to the bear’s entrance and exit, the end of a show, the end of a tour and the end of Pinchbeck’s career. The piece begins with Smith lying on the floor and Pinchbeck circling him whilst repeatedly saying “dot” and punctuating each “dot” by throwing a cue card on the floor. These cue cards contain the text of the show, and initially allow Pinchbeck to control Smith but the text eventually ends up restricting Pinchbeck, as Smith gains the upper hand. Throughout the piece, Pinchbeck, or his stage persona, is attempting to make this “a beautiful burst of song”. Smith serves to deflate any sentimental or romanticised notions that Pinchbeck presents through pithy interruptions. Smith corrects Pinchbeck on several occasions bringing him down to earth:
Pinchbeck: We’ve been through a lot, you and I
Smith: Actually we haven’t
Pinchbeck: Stop interrupting
An interesting dynamic which becomes apparent when The End is seen as part of The Trilogy is the conceit of it being Smith’s “first” performance. As the audience has already witnessed Pinchbeck and Smith before earlier in the evening, it becomes the conceit of a man trying to cling on. Smith is wonderfully weary as Pinchbeck tries to amplify everything to poetry, the two effortlessly draw us into this empty echoing world and tie a neat bow around the trilogy.
The Trilogy has something for everyone; it’s about the adventure of life and discovery, love, how an artist grows and matures, or doesn’t. It’s a meditation on the passage of time but perhaps more aptly that all the world’s a stage, which should be embraced.
The Trilogy played at Chelsea Theatre. The shows are currently touring. Visit Michael Pinchbeck’s website for more details.