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Postcard from London

By Humphrey Bower

Daily Review, 23 March 2015

I’m writing this Postcard in one of the slightly-the-worse-for-wear front carriages of the 10.02 to Chichester as it pulls out from London Victoria. I hope I’m far enough to the front, as the rear ones mysteriously end up in Bognor Regis. The view through the window is not encouraging: bare trees and concrete tower blocks rise up beneath leaden skies. It’s early spring, but you wouldn’t know it.

The carriage is almost empty at first, but as we pull up at Clapham Junction a horde of people pour in: emotionally contained locals (who mostly seem to dress in dark hiking gear as if about to embark on a Himalayan trek even on the Tube) and more expensively attired, bedecked, coiffured and openly sulky tourists (half of whom later get off at Gatwick Airport).

Two out of three people slump over handheld devices; others stare straight ahead or murmur in pairs as if under surveillance. Perhaps we are. According to a recent story in The Guardian there are six million CCTV cameras in the UK, one of the highest concentrations per capita in the world. More generally, there’s a culture of compliance here (at least among the English, I don’t include the Celts) that goes back at least to 1066 (not insignificantly the only date in English history that everyone remembers). Perhaps that’s why they’re so ready to form queues.

I arrived in London on a Friday morning on the first leg of a five-month pilgrimage of international travel, research, observation and training, courtesy of a mid-career Creative Development Fellowship grant from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. I’ve got a self-devised itinerary that’s taking me from London to Glasgow, Orkney, Berlin, Minneapolis, New York and Paris.

I’m staying in a garden flat in Islington, courtesy of Airbnb. It turns out to be a few blocks back from a shabby stretch of Holloway Road near Arsenal Stadium, in a quiet Victorian crescent. Turning the corner feels like entering one of those wrinkles in time London seems to harbour everywhere. There’s also a teeming diversity of cultures here one can only dream of in Perth. Ironically my Indian host lives in Sydney, but his mother and cousin are waiting for me when I arrive. Later I learn his parents are struggling to deal with his absence; his mother tells me it’s customary in Indian culture for children go on living with or near their parents.

I shop at a nearby Tescos and have dinner at the local pub next to the Tube station. I’ll be living here for the next ten days. Already it feels like a home away from home. When I leave ten days later, my host’s mother tells me she’ll miss me.

On Saturday morning I head off to Three Mills, a vast film studio complex (and former tidal mill) on an island in the River Lea in East London, for a final rehearsal/first runthough of Mermaid: a new production by physical/literary storytelling theatre company Shared Experience, written and directed by longstanding artistic director Polly Teale.

I’ve been reading about Shared Experience since the company’s inception in the ’70s. Originally led by Mike Alfreds, they pioneered a style of minimalist theatre focussing on the actor as storyteller and largely eschewing set, props, costumes, lighting or sound effects. Their adaptations of The Arabian Nights and Bleak House paved the way for other, more spectacular literary epics like Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata for the Bouffes du Nord.

In the ’90s the company shifted focus with the arrival of Nancy Meckler and then Polly Teale as joint artistic directors and Liz Ranken as movement director: the content became mostly derived from novels with female protagonists like The Mill on the Floss and Anna Karenina; and the staging and performances became more overtly physical and expressive of characters’ repressed emotional states. I saw War and Peace (co-directed by Teale) at the National Theatre in London back in the ’90s and it made a huge impression on me. I emailed them last year, and now I’ve been invited to watch the company at work as they make the transition from rehearsals to production.

Teale’s play is based on Andersen’s Little Mermaid as viewed through the lense of contemporary young women’s struggles with body-image, peer group pressure and the echo-chamber of social media. The script frames the original tale within a contemporary scenario involving a teenage girl (who is also narrates a version of the Andersen story), her parents and a network of unreliable ‘friends’. There’s an ensemble cast of eight, playing multiple roles, on (and under) a raised wooden stage. The show is travelling to regional theatres, where it will engage a local chorus of teenage girls at each venue. Education and community involvement is also now a signature of the company’s work.

I’m captivated by the staging of the Andersen story, especially the use of movement, music and chanting to create an emotional water-world. I’m less convinced by the contemporary frame-story, and slightly confused by the royal family and prince who seem to exist in both stories simultaneously. I’m also unconvinced and confused by the end, which replaces the cruelty of the original (in which the Mermaid like so many of Andersen’s protagonists dies and is ‘redeemed’ in an act of masochistic self-sacrifice) with an ecstatic merging between narrator and mermaid. I share my experience with Teale afterwards when she asks me if anything seems unclear.

I’ll see how the production shapes up, in a week’s time, when it opens at the Nottingham Playhouse. Meanwhile, I’m immensely grateful for being invited, and leave the rehearsal room with the sound of mermaids singing in my head.

Taking a break from theatre and storytelling, on Saturday night I venture out to Shoreditch Town Hall for a marathon retrospective of works entitled 21 Years by Charlotte Vincent and her eponymous Vincent Dance Theatre. The works on display hail from the ’90s through to the present, and are performed simultaneously in various rooms between 7 pm and midnight. They’re staged as durational works, with the audience free to come and go between them and the bar.

Underworld is a recent large-scale work for eight performers which lasts for two hours and 15 minutes without a break and is staged in the cavernous Assembly Hall. Rows of wooden chairs fill the space facing the audience; the performers sit a table beyond them, and after a while begin to enter the field of chairs, first singly, then in pairs and finally en masse. The four men wear dark suits; the four women, dark cardigans and dresses; all are barefoot. They leap over chairs, lift and chase each other, sit, pray, wrestle, play and gradually deconstruct the space: after about an hour, the chairs have been piled up in a huge pile; an hour later, they’ve all been neatly replaced in rows. A haunting soundtrack by minimalist composer Gavin Bryars fades in and out, featuring slow brass chord sequences, distant bells and a choir; it’s vaguely ecclesiastical, at times funereal, at others almost apocalyptic. One of the dancers also plays the violin. Lighting changes are few and far between, slow and momentous.

Audience members come and go, but I find myself mesmerised (as often happens for me in durational works). The dancers are utterly focussed, immensely skilled and intensely committed: each one a distinct individual uniquely devoted to their task while constantly supporting the others physically or attentively. For my part, I feel as if I’m observing a kind of post-religious rite, or a community in the process of being dismembered or reassembled: a work of negative theology, perhaps, or a search for a lost or longed-for utopia.

The work ends and I head off to another room. Look At Me Now Mummy is a solo work created in 2008 for Polish perfomer Aurora Lubos, a long-standing Vincent collaborator, after the birth of her first child. It’s a 40-minute work, and she’s been performing it on repeat for the last two hours, but it looks like she’s been living with it for the past 8 years. The room is a mess: strewn with food, clothes, props, kitchen utensils and appliances. Unlike the performers in Underground, who were consistently absorbed in themselves and each other, Lubos acknowledges the audience continuously from start to finish. It’s a clown act, with a desperate edge, about keeping up domestic appearances. At one point, she puts the bundle representing the baby in the microwave and slams the door.

Downstairs in a smaller room, Vincent’s 1998 short film Glasshouse is screening, also on a loop. It features Vincent herself and Richard Lowden from Forced Entertainment, and is tightly shot and edited by filmmaker Robert Hardy. A man and a woman have an abstract but violently charged encounter in a house of glass in a rural setting. The looped screening adds to the nightmarish sense of eternal struggle. Like Look at Me Mummy there’s a relentless bleakness to this early work; the more recent Underworld is similarly relentless, not least in the demands it places on the performers, but there’s a sense of collective reconciliation, if not exactly hope.

I leave Shoreditch feeling inspired, and float back to Islington on the bus. This was a program of work I’d be thrilled to see at a major international festival in Australia; here its audience and marketing suggests something more like a local fringe/independent night out. Tomorrow I’m catching up with a dear friend; on Monday I begin a five-day workshop with another legendary company, Complicité, at London Metropolitan University on Holloway Road around the corner from my garden flat.

It’s good to be back.