Maiden Speech, TheatreN16

In world of Harvey Weinsteins, Bill Cosbys, MRAs and other own-brand misogynists in and out of the arts, A mini-festival of feminist theatre should be a soothing balm to the wounds wrought by male privilege. It is, in part. Though it’s great that feminist work is getting much-needed exposure, Maiden Speech varies in quality and lacks true intersectionality.

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Catch Me, Underbelly Southbank

by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

The Underbelly Festival Southbank is like a mini Edinburgh Festival where visitors cocoon between pop up bars, fake grass, fairy lights and giant flowerpots have a sense of exclusivity, as they wonder through to enjoy the bars as much as the shows. This vibe will stay all summer and I will no doubt be returning to sip Pimm’s in the sun whether I have show tickets or not. But having seen both currently billed shows twice now, in Edinburgh and London, their quality, popularity and longevity cannot be argued.

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Oh Yes Oh No

Some questions for women:

Is it ok to want to be fucked?
                                 Does wanting this oppose feminism?
Is it ok to want to be hit in bed?                      Will this man expect that from other women?
Is it ok to fantasise about being raped?               What does this mean if I’ve been raped?

Louise Orwin is asking big questions about female sexuality and desire, but she doesn’t have the answers. There are no definitive answers anyway, just individual experiences. To make Oh Yes Oh No, she interviewed dozens of women around the country and found some disturbing patterns – about 90% of the women she met had been raped. Many of them developed rape fantasies. Women struggled to reconcile their feminism with wanting men to dominate them in bed.

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Day Two at Buzzcut Festival

Part of the reason I wanted to come to Buzzcut is that I find it hard to write about live art. I don’t dislike it, far from it – I have a broad but uninformed appreciation of it. But my theatrical home is built from Shakespeare, text-based narratives and the great American playwrights. I’m no Megan Vaughan or Rosie Curtis – I see performance art every now and again, but not nearly enough as I should. So the goal is to see a lot of live art, and write about. The range in styles and approaches is vast and the festival draws live artists from around the country, so it’s a great place to experience this form of performance.

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The Four Fridas, Woolwich Barracks

Voladoras_1396b-LWhen she was little, Frida Kahlo yearned to be able to fly. Her parents’ gift of a dress with wings proved disappointing though her dreams of flight remained, particularly following a crippling bus accident that left her with chronic pain and unable to have children. Bedridden for months during her recovery, she channeled her despair and rage into painting. These paintings, along with the ones she made over the rest of her short life, are the inspiration for Bradley Hemmings’ stunning outdoor multimedia event at Greenwich & Docklands International Festival this year. Using pyrotechnics, dance, projections, aerialists, music and the Mexican fertility ritual of the Voladores, The Four Fridas is a visually arresting spectacle but the show that is meant to be a tribute to Kahlo does not provide any particularly unique insight into her life and work.

Divided into for sections that reflect the elements earth, air, water and fire, The Four Fridas chronicles Kahlo’s life. Whilst there were clear acts to the script that took place in different areas of the site, the association with the elements was loose at best. The most sculptural set piece, a bus and tram crash built from metal and crates, was only used briefly towards the beginning. The script itself was fantastical and poetic, but densely written and delivered at a quick, even pace. The language was second rate to the visuals, though what with how impressive they were it would be nigh on impossible to surpass them with any other production element. It was easy to ignore the language in favour of visual performance surrounding the audience allowed to freely wander the performance site.

There were two highlights of the 45-minute long production. The first was an extended projection and aerialist hybrid against a giant screen held up by a crane. The projections were animations based on Kahlo’s work, with the performers against the screen adding texture and further detail. The most exquisite sequence was a flying butterfly, with a performer as the body of the insect. Each aerialist was controlled by a less obvious human counterbalance who scrambled up and down the vertical rigging on the side of the screen. This added an element of puppetry to the performance mediums used. These sections reflected freedom Kahlo felt when painting and her anguish of being trapped in a body that had previously been healthy and unscarred, but made no specific comments on her life.

The second most notable feature was the ancient ritual of the Voladores. Using nothing but rope to ensure their safety, four people climbed a wooden pole without harness, only to fall backwards suspended by their feet. The top section of the pole gently spirals, lowering them to the ground. Whilst this is a Mexican fertility ritual, the vague connections to Kahlo are her inability to bear children and that it also hails from Mexico. Surely it is an affront to an infertile woman to end a performance about her life with hope for children? Nevertheless, it is a remarkable cultural phenomenon to witness.

The free access to an event with such high technical requirements is highly commendable, though the tech is at the mercy of the outdoors. On the last night, part of a scaffolding tower collapsed and had to be removed (fortunately no one was hurt). On a previous night, winds meant that the screen was unable to be used. Whilst this adds to the immediacy of live performance, it also means the performance is shortened. Whilst it was free to stand in the site and watch, bleacher seats came at a price. Those that paid may have felt short changed by the abbreviated length.

Hemmings had set the bar high for this kind of accessible public performance though his work on the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony and stylistically, work like this should be produced often, up and down the country. It is a shame that the spectacle did not particularly support the woman it is meant to honour. Even with basic knowledge of Kahlo and her work; the opportunity was there to communicate a deeper understanding but that was never reached. Though this kind of theatre is still new and infrequently produced, it should aim to develop more nuance and meaning. I look forward to more artists creating large-scale public performances incorporating a rich combination of performance practice and technology. This is the sort of art that has the potential to capture public affection and encourage them to more fully marry art with day-to-day life.

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