Camden Fringe: Window at the Tristan Bates Theatre

It’s hard not to Witness Theatre's Window at the Tristan Bates Theatrefeel sorry for the London theatre scene in August, clamouring for press coverage as the creative centre of gravity moves north of the border. One wouldn’t begrudge Edinburgh this attention: in no other arts festival in the world is a city so effectively commandeered to the service of culture. However, for those who are London-bound – or bound to London – there is a smaller-scale alternative in the form of the Camden Fringe, which comes to a close on August 25th after a tight programme of events throughout the month. The programme, which is in its eighth year, takes place across sixteen venues around Camden and Covent Garden. With a similar ethos to the early Edinburgh Fringe, the shows are nearly all performed by unknown actors tackling untried material. This gives plenty of room to explore ideas and concepts in new ways but – as with any fringe festival – the results are uneven in places.

One such example is the Brighton-based group, Witness Theatre, who offer an intriguing premise in their short production, Window, staged last week at Covent Garden’s Tristan Bates Theatre. Developed from an award-winning short screenplay of the same name, the show is billed as a “multimedia theatrical thriller” dissecting our relationship with the internet. The show was funded partly through crowd-funding, a modern exemplar of the internet as an instrument for artistic solidarity – but, ironically, the show itself does little to suggest that technology will bring us closer together.

A one-woman performance, the show is focused on Alice and her growing obsession with the internet and her online life.  Ostensibly a look at what technology and social media is doing to our relationships, the show has a dystopian feel as loops of video and sound haunt Alice. However, while the questions it raises are interesting, it often fails to dig much deeper than the surface. The multimedia dimension is a mixed bag, with elements of dance, monologue, poetry, video projection and audio playback thrown together without any clear sense or reason.

The strongest parts by far are the semi-confessional monologues delivered by the performer, Witness Theatre producer Hannah Jarman. In these sections she chronicles the day she lost her imaginary friend, her later discovery of the internet when she was eleven years old and, finally, her withdrawal from the world as she becomes obsessed with her online personae. The prevailing themes – isolation, imaginary friendships, fake relationships, the disappearance of those we love – are all strong and are all touched on at one point or another in the short performance; however, none of them are given sufficient space to grab the audience’s attention.

The parallel between a child’s imaginary friend and our own imaginary online personae is a case in point: it is an intriguing connection, and raises questions about how far this advanced technology serves only to infantilise us. However, as with other themes encountered, it is simply not explored in sufficient depth.  Instead, the production switches backwards and forwards between pre-recorded projections, pseudo-dance pieces and live delivery, creating a confusing amalgam.

This mixed format may be an attempt to mirror the limited attention spans of the modern audience, but without the interactivity of the internet there is not the same response.  While your average internet user may flick between web pages, music and YouTube clips at whim, it is a fundamentally different experience to watching a scripted performance where there remains a challenge in creating a coherent narrative.

While in some shows the ability to spark a thousand unanswered questions can make the piece resonate more strongly, the lack of coherence in this case creates something of a barrier to enjoyment. As a solo piece, there is not the scope to create the broad spectacle which might otherwise have carried some of the non-spoken segments.

Nonetheless, this remains an intriguing performance, not least because it tackles material that is normally the preserve of newspaper opinion columns and turns it into a living, breathing piece of theatre. While this production may not challenge the established theatres down the road in Covent Garden, it points a light on the issues that might one day unseat them, as the technology to which we devote ourselves drives us to retreat further and further into our online shells.

Book Review: The Drive by Tyler Keevil

From the front cover to the last page The Drive has all the dials turned to madcap as Tyler Keevil follows in the dust trails of the great American road trip. This kinetic journey through the backside of America lives firmly in the shadow of Fear and Loathing

The action starts in medias res with Trevor, our protagonist, fearfully swallowing his stash as he is questioned at the American border.  Successfully gaining entry to the hallowed land, he is propelled through a series of bizarre, comic encounters as he desperately attempts to outrun his feelings for  ex- girlfriend, Zuzska.

In a series of flashbacks we get a little backstory on their relationship but the main thrust of the novel is concerned with Trevor letting go and seeing what America has to offer.

‘This here is a forty-four magnum,’ he said. Even I knew what that meant. That was Dirty Harry’s gun. Pigeon flicked open the cylinder to load it. The rounds for the Magnum were big and squat and glistening, like slugs. I guess that’s why they call them slugs.

As the outsider exploring a foreign land, Trevor is a magnet for the various deranged individuals that populate the back- ways of the Pacific NorthWest. Ostensibly travelling south to meet an old friend in San Francisco, Trevor’s journey corkscrews through the States like a sidewinder. As he travels, he throws himself into proceedings with gusto, in a bid to lose his breakup blues, but underneath it all remains the quiet Canadian boy apprehensive of the brash southern neighbour.

Whatever America had in store for me wasn’t going to be good. I mean, I’d shot her national bird. She wouldn’t be happy about that.

The novel falls short during the occasional moments where it reaches for deeper spiritual connections. The nutty philosophies on life, the universe and everything that the other characters expound are engaging but when Trevor picks up his own kitsch idea of synchronicity it can feel like an over eager undergrad.


To The Grime Born: The Arcola Theatre Brings Opera To The Streets

While Grimeborn may take its name from the more established opera festival at Glyndebourne, it is unlikely that it shares many of its visitors. With none of the pomp of is south coast namesake, this short programme of events  in East London’s Arcola Theatre has taken a more experimental, tongue-in-cheek approach, bringing opera to the streets.

The Arcola may have recently completed a renovation but the space remains obstinately bare and simple. The main stage is not much of a stage at all – more a small floor space surrounded on three sides by raised seating, supported by scaffolding poles. A Dalstonesque theatron, the exposed brick and scaffold creates a space designed for chamber productions and up-close theatre as opposed to symphonic compositions viewed from the gods.

For the audience this means that the performers’ every action is up close and personal. The fourth wall is largely forgotten; at times, the performers enter the stage via the same door that the audience used to take their seats. Encompassing a range of performances including experimental vocal compositions, multimedia drama and low-key productions of established operas, the tone is intimate rather than bombastic.

The performances on the bill for this year’s festival take advantage of this, playing up the audience connection and intimacy of the space when virtuosity or spectacle are not attainable. The result is a charming and exploratory programme of events showcasing an art that might commonly be dismissed as the preserve of the moneyed and privileged.

Near the start of this year’s festival,  Exquisite Corpses (August 1) took in pieces from six living composers –  Mark Applebaum, Anthony Braxton, George Chambers, Pauline Oliveros, Michael Parsons, and Lauren Redhead – to explore graphic and open forms of notation, relying exclusively on the human body for instrumentation.

The piece was presented by the Vocal Constructivists, who take their name from the Soviet design movement famed for its  modernist experimentation and geometric abstract forms.  In a similar fashion, the company’s approach to sound is more about pulling apart the listeners’ preconceived ideas than constructing a coherent narrative. Formed in 1993, the group has developed a decidedly distinctive style: while at times dissonant tones and lack of melody may distance the audience, the performance is never less than lively.

Each piece is more than a mere recital; it encompasses idiosyncratic notation, dance, video projection and a bewildering collection of sounds. The group conjures a constantly moving floor of noises – lip pops, tongue clicks, finger snaps, flutter lips, white noise, rapidly changing vowels, singing through clenched teeth,  percussive envelopes, humming and ring-modulation – all bubble from the mouths of the performers as they weave amongst each other.

The repertoire of this fifteen-strong group is linked primarily by a refusal to enact traditional musical norms.  In the rare occasions where a sustained rhythm or melody threatens to appear, the group subvert expectations to keep the listener guessing.  Where words appear they are fractured, turned into their component syllables and refracted through the vocal chords of the performers. A line in the piece Nevrazumitelny by Michael Parsons reads ‘working reworking the rock’, and there is a sense that the various clicks and percussive sounds are the outward signs of the performers working and reworking their own aural bedrock.

From the very start the notation is centre stage: geometrical and representational shapes created specifically for some of the group’s pieces are projected as they vocalize, a kind of musical Malevich. To the outsider these shapes, resembling obtuse graffiti tags, at first appear to have no meaning – but as the performance progresses there is an evident, if nebulous, connection with the sounds that are being produced.

For those seeking more melodious recitation, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (August 7-10) presented a well-travelled option.  Since its premiere in 1791, it has consistently been amongst the most frequently performed operas worldwide. This version, transferred to London after a  sell-out run at the Ryedale Opera Festival,  wisely chooses not to outperform it antecedents  but instead presents a stripped-down, rough-and-ready version.

Working from an English translation of Schikaneder’s original German libretto, the aim of the production is clearly accessibility and in this the performance plays to the strengths of the space. The story – a light frothy fairytale following the tribulations of young prince Tamino as he uses his magic flute to pursue his love Pamina – remains as ever subsidiary to the music.

Relying on the humour of the piece and the directness of the story, the performances do not bear close scrutiny – but neither do they ask for it. With a minimal set and sparse orchestra, the cast are engaging if not virtuoso and the close proximity to the audience throughout creates a warmth that is harder to conjure on more palatial stages. Just as opera presents a marriage of music and drama, the connection with the audience remains the key to these performances and to the continued success of Grimeborn.

The Grimeborn Festival continues at the Arcola Theatre until August 31. See the theatre website for more information.

Book Review: A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman


The way that online identity is changing our real world relationships is much discussed in the press but thusfar has seen relatively little literary exploration. Andrew Blackman’s new novel – A Virtual Love – takes up this challenge and raises some interesting questions.

The novel follows Jeff Brennan, a seemingly mediocre IT consultant in Milton Keynes, who is mistaken for a famous political blogger who shares his name. When he meets Marie, a beautiful Californian girl, obsessed with the political blog of a different, reclusive Jeff Brennan, he can’t believe his luck and they embark on a relationship built around one rather large lie.

The entire story is told through the prism of Jeff Brenan’s friends and family. Each chapter describes a different perspective as characters relate their version of events to Jeff but Blackman chooses to render him silent, despite being the main character. This stylistic choice creates a fresh texture to the novel but as a result the writing is a strange mix of first person and second person singular which can create a certain distance and does not always work in conjuring up believable characters:

The one exception to this is Jeff’s girlfriend Marie who comes across as startlingly gullible. Despite being entranced by the insightful blog posts that the virtual Jeff Brennan publishes she appears to have very little critical appraisal of the world around her. Considering the current, rather shabby, state of UK politics it is hard to understand why a young American girl, with no obvious connection to the political world, would find these blog posts quite so transcendental.

To an extent, this is a problem with all the characters, in that they are primarily relating Jeff’s story so that it feels like their own narratives are second-hand. As a result it can be hard to connect with the characters. There are numerous mentions of blogging as an activity but hardly any mention of what is actually being written about. Even the creator of the UK’s number one political blog seems to see it more as a task, akin to ironing, rather than a creative process driven by the ideas themselves.

While the characters are not always plausible this does force the reader to question quite how impartial each account is. Where characters are not credible it is not because the world of the novel is fantastical or unrealistic – they inhabit the same modern Britain as the reader.

The topics raised throughout the book are precisely the issues that we all sub-consciously navigate on a daily basis. In a sense the question is no longer whether online identities affect our relationships or not but what kind of relationships, in the modern world, can exist without virtual identities.

“So it’s just on the net that you’re not real.” Your response was a weary sigh. “It’s not that, it’s just that I have different identities for different places. I experiment.”

A Virtual Love was published in April 2013.

Book Review: Roman Elegy by Sabine Gruber (trans. Peter Lewis)

event_71For the English translation the title echoes Goethe’s ode to Italian culture – Roman Elegies – and, as in Goethe’s 24-poem cycle, this book is also concerned with a German perspective on the sensuality of daily Italian life. From the start however, Sabine Gruber is focused not only on the sensations of life in the Italian capital but also the historical tensions that have existed between these two grand European cultures.

Told through the eyes of three women, all from the same fictional village in Northern Italy, Roman Elegy spans the decades from the second world war to the present day. Stillbach, the village that spawns these three girls – Clara, Ines and Emma – is a microcosm of the South Tyrol, the German speaking part of Italy ceded from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919.

“‘So, if you’re not German,’ demanded Antonella, ‘then what are you?’ Truth is, I wasn’t sure what I was. I never had been. And the more people wanted me to tell them, the less idea I had. To lots of Italians I was a German, while to most Germans I was neither an Italian nor a German.”

The changing political landscape of post-war Italy is examined from the perspective of these three very different South Tyrolese women, each of whom feels an outsider in Rome despite being native-born Italian. The different language, the different landscape of their upbringing, the prejudices they believe in all serve to drive a wedge between them and their surroundings, forcing them to look at events with dispassionate eyes.

The novel starts in the present day period with Clara, a writer, travelling to Venice in the aftermath of the death of her childhood friend, Ines. She is joined by Paul, an Austrian academic, and past lover of Ines.

Upon the discovery of Ines’s notes for a “multi-volume” work the story plunges back to 1978 when Ines first met Paul and was working for Emma Manente, the proprietess of a budget hotel in Rome. As Ines struggles to comprehend life in the hustle and bustle of Rome, away from home for the first time, Emma recalls her past love for an SS soldier and the steps that have led her to become ostracised from her beloved home town of Stillbach.

“Yes, the Stillbach dialect fell firmly between two stools, a place where it felt safe and comfortable. The Austrian monarchy, Italian Fascism with its proscription of the German language, and finally schoolbooks and tourists from Germany had all left their mark on it.”

While ostensibly a work of fiction, it is apparent that Gruber is equally, if not more, concerned with historical contemplation. Although the characters each face day to day dilemmas, struggle with their work or their love life, the plot is always tied back to the underlying political situation. Historical fiction can be notoriously difficult to get right – either leaning too far towards fiction and appearing lite on the facts or else becoming dry and academic.

Recent fiction titles such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH have taken a fresh approach to the study of recent European history and Gruber manages this line masterfully, weaving layers of fiction in with hard research and detailed background on the role of Nazism and Fascism in recent Italian history. At one point the author herself is referenced by one of the characters and, at the end, in a where-are-they-now post credit she gives equal weight to her fictional creation Emma Manente and the real-life politician Horst Köhler.

“They’ve got it easy writers. They can write the truth and pass it off as fiction.”

Blending intimate background on day to day life in Rome with a fascinating exploration of the historical development of a country, Gruber has delivered an homage to both Rome and South Tyrol that satisfies on several levels without ever reaching for easy options or cliché.

Roman Elegy by Sabrine Gruber was published in April 2013.