Royal Exchange, Manchester.
20 – 22 July 2018.
CO:LAB is the Royal Exchange’s annual festival showcasing works-in-progress by “the next generation of North West theatre-makers”. The weekend-long event is part of the theatre’s Open Exchange talent development programme and it provides local artists with an opportunity to test out their work in front of a live audience, as well as a bit of space, time and money to make it happen.
This year there were 11 brand-new commissions from artists and companies (and I was lucky enough to see them all). They were works in various stages of progress, and most are likely to evolve or even completely change. What follows are some thoughts on both the festival and some of the individual shows I saw. I’m not attempting to review anything, nor offer a view on everything, just capture a sense of some of the work being shown at CO:LAB and share some of the enthusiasm I felt for it. So, in no particular order…
Ransack Theatre‘s Catching Comets (written by Piers Black) was a tantalising glimpse of a show starting to take shape. Orientating its audience via an episode of The Simpsons, it then shot off in various directions, inhabiting a world of disaster movies, heroism and boy meets girl. A full-throttle, very likeable performance from Ali Michael kept the whole thing buoyant as it switched perspectives and timeframes. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on – unlikely heroes, leaps of faith, second chances – but I couldn’t claim to know where it was heading. Stopping at a crucial point, their scratch performance (intentionally or not) left the audience with an old-fashioned Hollywood-style cliff-hanger. Of all the stuff I saw over the weekend this was the show I was most intrigued to see once it had developed further. Hopefully, to be continued…
Knaïve Theatre & Impermanence Dance Theatre improbably (but gloriously) choreographed their way through Brecht’s first play, Baal. Rich with imagery and mood, it veered from being exquisitely elegant to knowingly silly. With its glittery gossamer costumes, it was CO:LAB’s best-dressed show, and among its avant-garde stylings, there were hints of Weimar cabaret and snatches of the Thin White Duke. “If you understand a story, it’s not being told properly” someone says cryptically, and there was a delicate elusiveness about it all. Composer Robert Bentall’s live musical accompaniment added to the heady mix.
The most interactive show of the weekend was Commit (by Big Liars). Splitting the audience into two groups, it asked them to do everything in their power to persuade a young black American football player to sign up for the college team they were charged with representing. Energy levels were up, up, up as enthusiastic team coaches guided us through a succession of challenges. As a concept it reminded me slightly of Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw’s World Factory, as you find yourself suddenly knee-deep in messy moral decisions, and the ‘game’ turns increasingly sour. However, Commit goes for a more ‘fun’, more immediate approach, and dilemmas arrived via a hyped-up whirl of hands-on tasks, mobile technology and competitive spirit. Interestingly, the power dynamics of the situation were never clear-cut – even though your college could offer a free education, a route into the National Football League (NFL) and a chance to eventually make millions of dollars, so too could your rival team – and the decision was ultimately in the hands of the talented young athlete. What was clear though was that his welfare was the last thing on our minds, as we were cheerfully encouraged to play around with people’s lives and trample over subtleties to get our hands on this young money-making machine.
At first, it seemed that Altar/Alter (by Lydia Cottrell & Michael-Jon Mizra) was utilising technology to decouple us from our addiction to it. Oddly calming – it layered the language of mindfulness upon the mobile phone experience. Swiping became a gateway to being in the moment and the camera function our “third eye”. The breathy voice in our headphone-clad ears occasionally exposed the feelings of insecurity that online life can led us to, with a biting dark humour. And yet. Amidst the reassuring ritual, our every action was in response to instruction and the sounds, sights and smells we encountered tightly controlled. I was never sure if we were being liberated from the constraints of technology or being surreptitiously reprogrammed to accept it. Smart and settling/unsettling.
Prince Gorge from Sophie Coward, Eliyana Evans and James Varney was a Kafkaesque bed time story soundtracked by a mix of psychedelia, electronica and rock music. Over six chapters/tracks the performance followed the not-so-royal progress of a shape-shifting young prince from his celebrated birth to eventual disgrace. Dream-like, nightmarish, fantastic and revolutionary – an imagined life with a protagonist cursed to be all things to everyone, only be exposed as being worthless. Over the course of the dark and bloody narrative the supercool soothsayers strip their prince of his power. Deliciously seditious.
Highlight Collective’s After Birth was a multi-media installation exploring the huge gap between society’s expectations of motherhood and the reality of life post-pregnancy for some women. Through playwright Nicola Schofield’s plaintive monologues, one woman recounts her harrowing experience of giving birth and becoming a mother. Her story is filled with confusion, guilt and a sense of failure – the language is visceral and the imagery painful and at times horrifying. “This is not what I’d imagined. If I was your bathroom you’d have called a plumber by now. I’m leaking”. Sara Abanur (recently seen in the Royal Exchange Young Company’s Mixtape) gave a powerfully contained and deeply moving performance as a woman feeling desperately lost and alone in the middle of everyone else’s joy. New mothers had been encouraged to attend the performances (all of which were ‘relaxed’) and there was an added poignancy in hearing Abanur’s character express feelings of deep sadness and distress while the babies in the audience looked on curiously or, in one case, noisily blew bubbles.
I think, perhaps, the two shows that excited me most over the weekend were Over My Dead Body and Tuch.
Over My Dead Body saw performer Ali Wilson (who devised the piece along with James Monaghan) having a tête-à-tête with her mother Julie about the format of funerals. Julie is a funeral celebrant and what appears to start out as an exploration of how she approaches her job develops into something more personal and profound. Discussions about the seating arrangements, welcome speech, music and mourners, dissolve into disagreements, reminiscences and digressions. It becomes a portrait of a mother/daughter relationship, a snapshot of one woman’s life and a trial run for Julie’s eventual send off. It’s a performance in the form of a rehearsal – preparing for a goodbye and for a life without each other. What’s so striking is its apparent naturalness. Seeming to start in mid-conversation, it sets off as if under its own steam but there is structure to it and direction. Wilson introduces provocations at key points to spark input from her mother, such as suggesting unlikely music for her funeral (although her mother quite liked the idea of Kelis’s Milkshake) or naming a potential attendee, knowing full well her mother wouldn’t want them there. The fact that Julie has a bone-dry sense of humour and isn’t shy about speaking her mind is a bonus.
It plays around with its artfully assembled air of informality. While they listen to Staying Alive (another suggested song for the big event), mother and daughter chat inaudibly for several minutes while BSL interpreter Siobhan casually dances and sings along to it. In such moments it resists the usual expectations of performance, and leaves the audience to bear with what’s going on, and just sit back, watch and wait for the performers to pick up where they left off. It’s a very clever piece of work – reminiscent of Quarantine in its carefully constructed spontaneity, its enquiring nature and the thoughtful use of real people and their lives. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a show about how we say goodbye to the dead is ultimately a celebration of life, but it also reminds us of the ties that bind – and its most heartfelt moments are those where Julie imagines how her daughter will carry on without her.
Tuch (devised by Amy Lawrence with collaboration and realization by Tilda O’Grady) opened the festival weekend. The audience are encouraged to find somewhere to stand in the bare studio space. It starts with the simplest of introductions, a sparse explanation of what will happen. Then O’Grady begins to carry out sequences of individual movements – intricate, often at speed, sometimes expansive often compressed – all leading to touch. The intensity of feeling and emotion is gripping – there were moments that reminded me of Boris Charmatz’s thrilling 10000 Gestures.
She moves through the crowd, stopping now and then, reflecting and then moving on. There’s something of a ritual about it. Throughout she talks (sometimes in abstract terms) of remembered moments of touch, seeming to relive them before our eyes. Up close and personal. At one point O’Grady reads from a copy of Ali Smith’s Artful – a book whose narrator is haunted by a former lover. When she lets out a cry or repeatedly runs violently at a wall is something (or someone) being exorcised?
It’s a fascinating work, seeming to withhold as much as it claims to reveal. Starting to tell us something then remembering that there was a decision to cut that bit. Appearing to reach out and touch members of the audience but stopping just short of any genuine physical contact. Repeatedly asserting a need to be touched but then running away when someone eventually plucks up the courage to do so. Things speed up and then become momentarily still, sentences begin and then drift off. We are invited into her train of thought only to be rebuffed. It gives the illusion that we are active participants but what we are witnessing are memories of other bodies. Tuch’s flamboyant self-absorption is however difficult to resist as the fragments of sensuous intimacy coalesce into an enthralling spectacle.
Overall, and unusually for a theatre festival, CO:LAB had a bit of personality in the way it did things – especially the consistently friendly welcome from the Artist Development team (who staffed a pop-up box office in the Studio over the weekend) and Amit Sharma and Bryony Shanahan’s cheer-leading double act (admirably, the two Associate Artistic Directors not only attended all the shows but introduced each one and led the applause at the end).
Although this was only its second year, CO:LAB felt like a festival hitting its stride. Most shows were sold out, the programming was diverse and surprising, and there was a really positive atmosphere over the weekend (with performers staying around to support other companys’ shows and lots of socialising going on). If the Royal Exchange aren’t already planning CO:LAB 2019, they should be.
Images by Chris Payne.