Notorious, Barbican Centre

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by guest critic Nastazja Somers

It wasn’t by accident that I ended up seeing The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein’s new work The Notorious at The Barbican Centre. Give me feminism, plenty of liquids and general messiness on stage and I’m there, screaming my head off, like when Lucy McCormick performed her Triple Threat two years ago at Edinburgh Fringe.

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Jane Doe and The Shape of the Pain, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Though the fringe is still often gloriously lo-tech, more shows and venues are embracing and exploring the role technology can play in live performance. New Zealand-based Zanetti Productions’ Jane Doe and China Plate’s The Shape of the Pain are powerful, challenging productions that use tech in different ways from each other, but it is essential to both and enhances the productions’ impact.

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Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

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Hamlet may or may not be Shakespeare’s magnum opus, but the Dane is unquestionably one of the greatest roles in the English language. Theatre’s pop star Robert Icke, what with his reputation for hot takes on the classics, no doubt found the play’s allure irresistible. This Hamlet, freshly transferred to the West End from the Almeida, is a slick, beast of a production surpassing three hours. Undeniably contemporary, it does its best to smash the restrictions of the proscenium arch with a celebrity cast and achingly cool, Scandi/corporate design. His casting of Andrew Scott in the title role and subsequent character choices makes this a Hamlet for cool young people on the hunt for profundity, depth of meaning and instagrammable aesthetics.

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Thought to Flesh, VAULT Festival

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The ice bucket challenge did a lot to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease. But how many people who froze their tits off because their mates dared them to actually learnt anything about the condition? Probably not many, so other means of educating about the condition are needed. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, Thought to Flesh creators Nathalie Czarnecki and Gareth Mitchell worked with doctors and researchers to develop a work that shares the human side of MND in an episodic montage following a young woman’s life with MND.

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The People Show 124: Fallout, Toynbee Studios

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Making devised work for the past 50 years, People Show are nothing less than prolific. Their multidisciplinary works are numbered as part of the title; the company’s works now number 132. To celebrate their anniversary, the company’s taken over Toynbee Studios for three days, filling the venue with performances, films and an exhibition celebrating their half a century of work.

People Show 124: Fallout, first performed in 2013, is resurrected here. The piece deconstructs speeches by public figures and adds light, sound and film; the overall effect is one of provocative absurdity – isolated soundbites lose all meaning, even in a world that’s said to be falling apart. This short piece drives its point home quickly and efficiently and stimulates the senses, but with its message emphasising meaninglessness, it soon becomes repetitive.

Everything in the room is white, even the padded floor is powdered with talc to add an additional layer of frost. Pillows attached to the walls evoke a soothing dreamscape. But soon, pulsing colours disturb the peace as the cast of four fiercely deliver snippets of text. The lights are often so bright they are uncomfortable, even though the colours are childlike and fun. The juxtaposition is clever and sharp, and the switch from austere to saturated is an effective one.

The actors’ tone ranges from gentle to antagonistic, with a decidedly post-apocalyptic bent to the text. Projections of sweeping desert landscapes back up the promises of nuclear fallout, though the dreamy atmosphere from the beginning still lingers – what is real, and what is the product of our subconscious? The disconnect from reality diminishes any potential meaning, making the outcome decidedly absurd, even though the intention seems to want to carry more weight.

This colourful world enhanced with gorgeous projections, bright lights and music is integrated  with the text, though there is a lack of development in the core idea of the piece. If real life is has no purpose and we’re better off in a dream because the world is hellbent on destroying us, that’s fine – but a performance telling us that is not an easy thing to execute and in this case, not done fully effectively.

People Show 124: Fallout is now closed.

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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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