“It’s Like He’s Knocking”

created and performed by Leo Kay

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 24th May 2011

Immersive theatre is on the up all over the theatre world, no less than at Warwick Arts Centre, where the current season is breaking the boundaries between audience and performer. We are being asked to interact with performers like never before, bringing us closer to the story and delving deep into the human psyche. In It’s Like He’s Knocking, Leo Kay proves there are two ways of engaging an audience: look them in the eye, and get them sozzled.

We are led through the bowels of the Arts Centre, winding up in a smokey dressing room, adorned to resemble a bedsit. Kay sits in a chair, playing an accordion, before proceeding to tell us the story of his past, present and future. Particular emphasis is placed on his father and grandfather, both of whom had extraordinary lives with tragic endings, and Kay uses this to hang on his own reservations, dreams and ambitions. It’s transfixing.

But this is more than just a monologue. It’s Like He’s Knocking is theatre, in every sense of the word. Interspersed among Kay’s speech are moments of sheer spectacle, which is remarkable considering the size of the space. One moment sees a pitch black room being lit by a tiny window to the outside world, illuminating Kay’s face to the tune of man-made sea sounds. In another we watch Kay and his musician, Mestre Carlao, stare each other in the face intently while playing the most extraordinary ritualistic music on accordion and tambourine respectively. In the finale, Kay downs multiple vodka shots while stumbling around the room, as lights flash and music blasts. It’s the sort of spectacle which wouldn’t seem out of place in the Olivier.

Towards the beginning of the piece, we are asked to drink a toast of vodka, immediately drawing us in. Later, we write down memories of our own childhood and partake in a small wager. As the piece continues, it slowly becomes clear why these are relevent. It’s a beautifully structured piece of writing; sometimes, we are listening to facts about Kay’s ancestors, and the next about how the performance gestated. Both are interlinked, each utterly dependent on the other.

Kay is mesmerising. It’s a touchingly honest performance, if indeed you can call it a performance at all. It’s so clearly from the heart that it feels wrong to call it something normally associated with pretence and externalisation. He takes us on a journey, keeping us hooked from the moment we walk in. When he looks you in the eye, he’s talking to no one but you. It’s supported beautifully by Carlao’s ethereal soundscaping, created using random objects and a looping machine.

The small-scale spectacle of this performance is not hindered by the intimacy of the venue, nor vice versa. At its heart, It’s Like He’s Knocking is a story about how a man arrived where we are sitting. Kay’s script (can you call it that?) is brutally honest and charmingly poetic, and he pulls at strings in our own hearts which we were perhaps not aware of. Without wanting to sound like I’m hyperbolising, I haven’t left a performance feeling so emotionally drained since Jerusalem. But maybe that’s the vodka talking.

http://vimeo.com/8860605

“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 18th May

You can say what you like about the RSC – that they represent the establishment, don’t push boundaries and have too much funding – but, like Michael Boyd’s recent Macbeth, Rupert Goold’s production of The Merchant of Venice proves that the company is once again trying to take risks, reinterpreting classics and showing them to be more than the stale stage versions we often see. Although Goold’s production isn’t without its faults, it presents a spectacle and a highly charged concept which brings out elements of Shakespeare’s text which weren’t previously evident.

Opening in true Gooldian style, with a casino pre-show followed by a song-and-dance routine, this Vegas production is brought headlong (gettit?) into the twenty-first century, and, for the most part, the text survives relatively intact. The world of excess in which the characters find themselves fits the themes of risk and greed perfectly and, like Goold’s ENRON and Earthquakes in London previously, we get a vision of a world obsessed by the material. Shifting the world of Belmont to a Deep South game show – “Destiny” – is nothing short of genius, offering a performative mirror to the showiness of Vegas.

The play, so often associated with racism, here becomes something different; this testosterone-fuelled world is exclusive of any sort of difference, showing our society to be a despicably intolerant one. The religious zealotism of America is the focal point – like gambling, believing in any form of god or otherwise is a risk. Some extraordinary moments in this production come through the sometimes heavy-handed concept. The ‘Destiny’ game show scenes are truly tense, and the final trial scene is stunningly performed by all.

In fact, the weakest link in this production is also its star name. Patrick Stewart, once again, plays Patrick Stewart, although this time with a dubious American accent. His two registers are more pronounced than usual, and he never portrays enough gravitas for us ever to take notice. The “If you prick us” speech comes out of nowhere and his voice simply limps through the space. Far more engaging are Jamie Beamish’s fantastical Launcelot ‘Elvis’ Gobbo and Howard Charles’ vicious Gratiano. Scott Handy provides a contemplative Antonio, and Richard Riddell’s Bassanio is the confident leader of a group of ‘Lads on Tour’. The performance of the evening, however, comes from Susannah Fielding’s aspirational Portia, whose pretence of putting on a classy public persona eventually forces her to break-down.

Tom Scutt’s garish blue and gold set-design evokes the trashy showiness of Vegas casinos, and Rick Fisher’s lighting makes the reflective surfaces both glamorous and grungy. Adam Cork’s music utilises Elvis, Duck Sauce and Glee, providing a perfect backdrop to Goold’s excessive world.

Although Goold’s concept sometimes comes through at the expense of the text in the first half, there are plenty of moments in which Shakespeare’s words are heard loud and clear. Some great performances and hilarious gags make this a highly watchable production which doesn’t see any issues with this ‘problem’ play. Goold and his team have once again created a spectacle, emphasising a material world, ploughing through and never looking back.

“A Game of You” by Ontroerend Goed

at Warwick Arts Centre, 11th May 2011

There’s very little one can say in a review of a performance such as Ontroerend Goed’s A Game of You without divulging the details to future audiences. This is one of those things which will be ruined by any spoilers; something you have to experience yourself to truly understand. A Game of You asks us to reevaluate not only the way we view theatre, but also the way we view the self and our identity.

The audience member, alone, is taken through a series of booths and corridors as our mentor shows us more and more about ourselves, drip-feeding us snippets of information and asking us to do the same to others. We are watcher and watched, but never know which role we are in at any given time. It’s clear that how we want to be seen is never the same as the reality of our public persona.

It’s also fascinating to see how much of our own life story we place upon others, suggesting perhaps a need to find connections with others. Obviously, my experience will differ vastly from others’, but it wouldn’t surprise me if common themes are found across the board.

A Game of You, let me clarify, is completely safe, and you only ever reveal how much you want to. Yet honesty is the best policy here; only by saying the first thing that comes to mind at each point can you delve deeper into your personality. Being given a CD allows the performance to continue long after the ‘performance’ has ended, allowing our epiphany to remain ongoing. If you want to truly see yourself, you’ve got to see this.

“The Summer House”

devised by Will Adamsdale, Neil Haigh, Matthew Steer and John Wright

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 3rd May 2011

The behaviour of us men when we’re in groups is a peculiar thing. Our encounters often begin with seemingly harmless ‘banter’, slowly descending into various feats proving masculinity before ending up in deep and meaningful conversation. Under the direction of John Wright, Fuel Theatre’s Will Adamsdale, Neil Haigh and Matthew Steer present an hilarious look into the male psyche not without its impressive theatrical moments, taking us on a rather epic journey along the way.

Will’s stag in Iceland has gone awry, and Neil’s driving skills take the trio deep into the Scandinavian heartland, amongst the mountains and the polar bears. The summer house they’re staying in has a hot tub and is filled with curious artwork. Much of the next ninety minutes simply involves the three men discussing relationships, work and Bob Dylan, but towards the climax of the show we are treated to a beautiful chaos, including earthquakes, giants and broken artwork. Interspersed among the main story are two other strands representing the group’s take on Viking culture, told through short witty vignettes.

The Summer House is unashamed of its own theatricality, pulling out all the stops in the final moments to create some truly stunning images. Live and recorded sound are used to great effect, and a miniature model of the summer house on one side of the stage serves constantly to remind us of the bigger picture. Some remarkably funny (“Why is the sky green?”) and insightful (“It’s art if the artist says it is”) lines underpin the play’s awareness of how farfetched the story becomes, serving not to push us away but to pull us further in.

All three actors give highly energetic performances, (almost literally) baring all on stage. At the groom-to-be, Will Adamsdale shows a somewhat nervy but relatively cock-sure side of masculinity. Matthew Steer’s best man, complete with maps and laminates, shows the geek and awkwardness innate within all of us, and Neil Haigh does well do hide his secrets from the audience for so long, asking us to consider our outward appearance to other people.

Michael Vale’s ambitious design is set within a world somewhere between Ikea-catalogue-reality and Brechtian symbolism, supported by Ian Scott and Chris Branch’s lighting and sound. The Summer House succeeds most when taken as pure delight; the moments of attempted seriousness during discussions about Matt and Will’s jobs aren’t quite developed enough to warrant their existence, but this is perhaps due to the chaos ensuing around them. The resemblance to the farfetched nature of shows like The Inbetweeners allows us to revel in the men’s stupidity and acknowledge their humanity, whilst along the way creating a show which, above all, is damned good fun.