Arsehammers – a monologue by Claire Dowie

An early January event – going to Crescent Theatre, that company of amateur theatre, run by volunteers but feeling quite professional, to see a production of two of Claire Dowie’s famouos monologues, staged by an incredible youth theatre company, Stage 2, founded in 1988 by Liz Light.

Clare Dowie Arsehammers

You walk in … and are overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia; you see a group of kids playing a distoreted version of snakes and ladders with a die half their size and a splatter of childish glee across their faces. The audience is seated all around the room, as if encasing the children, centre-stage. The lights are bright and colorful, cheerful, much like the kids’ demeanour. They’re all dressed in overly bright shades of red, blue, and yellow; radiant and whimsical.

Stage 2, pic2The repetitive counting as they move their allotted steps adds a sort of ominous feel to the setting, as if this childish whimsy won’t last. The lights eventually dim, and there’s silence; darkness.

The kids appear centre-stage, spot-lit, each with a toy-like prop and an exaggerated excited grin; they’re all engaged in play, happily oblivious, until they start speaking. They talk of a grandma gone to live with the angels, of a granddad who’s alone and might come to live with them. There’s excitement and wonder about them, but also sadness; as each kid speaks a bit of the narrative, they sit down, as if resigned, and continue to play with their props in a more subdued manner.

The lights dim once more and explode into sudden brightness, mayhem, and laughter. There’s sudden, projectile noise: protests to being fed false stories about angels and death. The monologue evolves into vivid dark imagery and angry tones, talking of death and claiming to be more mature. The music and the lights seem to follow the tune of the monologue, rising in pitch and brightness, until it reaches a crescendo and then falls, the lights slowly dimming and the excitement dwindling, as if the children were crashing after a sugar high.

Silence and darkness descend once more, and then they’re spot-lit; four of them are centre-stage with the rest lined at the back, each holding fast onto their toys. It’s a slow progression from then, they all slowly move to the centre, forming a V-shaped gathering; they talk in slow, eerily synchronized tones, of how granddad had gone out and not come back, of how the parents had been worried and out searching, leaving the kids at home, upset, confused, and angry. The dialogue is simple, but packed with emotional reverence, it leaves you feeling sympathetic, and oddly apologetic, longing to reach out and hug the hurting children.

Stage 2, pic1The tone shifts once more, the performers easily breaking into five groups, all engaged in excited play. It’s reminiscent of the fickle nature of childish thought and fixation, how easily they can go from angry and reserved to excited and animated.

The music, having picked up once more as the kids began to play, eventually fades, and they’re all still, as if in a game of dancing freeze, but they break away slowly, exaggeratedly, moving around the room with grand gestures and overly enunciated talk of the war. In a brilliant display of production, the childish speculation and mayhem about granddad’s exciting adventures to weird and wonderful lands is juxtaposed by loud short bursts of music, as if telling of war times, but subtly; hinting at the real reason for granddad’s spontaneous disappearances, as opposed to the gleeful speculation of super powers.

They envisioned a dance they imagined he would always do before venturing out on one of his adventures, a silly little thing with an equally silly chant, but one they tried to copy one too many times, only to burst into giggles or disappointed sighs, wishing and hoping they would once more go back to playing hide and seek with granddad, instead of him always hiding away, leaving them alone, with a little sister too immature to entertain and a mother too frustrated to fully connect with.

The atmosphere slowly shifts again, its more solemn, more tense; granddad’s not with them, or so the parents say, but he seems perfectly alright, seated on his armchair with his binoculars slung around his neck, only he doesn’t talk or play, just stares ahead into a void, scaring and worrying the kids. They all pile into a car shortly after, being told by mum and dad they’re visiting granddad’s new home. It’s not quite clear why he couldn’t just stay with them, but they weren’t sure they wanted him around either, not if he wouldn’t play with them, so the journey was spent in confused sulking.

Stage 2, pic3

The desolate mood dissipated once they arrived at granddad’s new home; it had nurses and doctors in fancy clothes, and many other grandmas and granddads. They asked a reception lady that smelled a tad funny about this new place they’d be running up and down and all around in, and she told them granddad would be working with experts, lighting a new fire in their little tummies. He would be working with experts, with cool gadgets and machines, and saving the world all the other grandparents. The kids were beyond happy, even proud.

Only, mum was crying in the car on the way back, and they had to pretend not to notice because dad was driving on as if he didn’t notice, but it became harder and harder to ignore her tears and her sniffles the louder they got and the longer they continued. You could never contain curiosity for long, and so they asked, and mum told them granddad would not be coming back, that he was very sick, and they had to leave him there.

Alzheimer’s! The word resonated with the kids, because they’d been chanting ‘Arsehammers’ to themselves for a while, believing it to be granddad’s secret trick for traveling, but no, he was only sick. The mood dims and dulls further, as does the light, to show the dawning night. It was hard to fall asleep that night because it was hard to not think of granddad and all they’d believed so far, but eventually sleep came.

So did granddad, jolting them awake with a loud bang and a crash, as he performed the silly dance, loudly exclaimed ‘arsehammers’ and vanished. The next morning was frightful and full of tears as mum told the kids granddad was dead, but their little hearts held onto the fantasy – he was only at home with grandma and the angels – as they silently played with their toys; a sharp contrast to the cheery attitude at the start.

Contributed by Arooba Shami, Year 1 LANS

pictures by E.C. Toescu

 

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Amédée – Madness at the REP!

contributed by Harriett Stothard, LANS Year 2 student

I went in to this play completely blind (and slightly late – oops!), aside from this very short description I skim-read:

‘Frustrated playwright Amédée (played by Trevor Fox) is still trying to finish the play he started writing  . . . 15 years ago! Meanwhile, his wife Madeleine (Josie Lawrence), works hard in telecommunications to keep them in their dilapidated London apartment. But the couple are keeping a secret. A big secret that seems to be getting bigger by the day. A terrifying secret that is now threatening to take over their lives. A secret that has grown into an unwelcome entity they can no longer hide. Now they urgently need a plan of how to get rid of it!’

Amedee_2

The wordy trailer….

I assumed that it would be a kitchen-sink comedy drama type thing, which I thought would be interesting if a little dry, but I was so wrong! Turns out, Amédée is a little known Theatre of the Absurd play from 1954, from one of the first voices in Absurdist theatre, Eugène Ionesco, who was in the forefront of this movement along with Samuel Beckett. It has been adapted by Sean Foley and produced by Roxanna Silbert, the Artistic Director of the REP (with this trailer).

It did have elements of the domestic/kitchen sink/sitcom drama style with a bickering couple, except with a mysterious growing… thing in the next room and mushrooms sprouting through the walls! One would be mistaken (as I was) for thinking at the beginning that the growing thing could be their child and that the play was reflecting the common parental anxiety of children growing up and flying the nest, as Madeleine had a sense of the maternal about her, but it ended up being a growing dead body that she accuses Amédée of killing because it was her young lover. This is never really agreed upon amongst all the weirdness in the play, for example Madeleine’s job as a switchboard operator in their apartment, fielding calls for and from various heads of state and often answering nonsensically, Amédée’s vision of himself and Madeleine when they were younger, and the absolutely mad ending, which I won’t spoil in case anyone who hasn’t seen it wants to!

It is very confusing to pick up on different themes from this play as I am no expert in the Theatre of the Absurd, but I found it interesting to witness the (non-physical) transformation of the body in the other room from unwelcome, mysterious house guest, to child, to feared, semi ridiculous growing body, to ex-lover, to Jesus/God (from the layout of his body on stage) to finally, and most bizarrely, a sail!

I mustn’t forget to mention the kind of police state they seem to live in, with Madeleine informing someone over the phone about it, although without having been outside in 15 years, and Alfred Hickling interprets it as an allegory to the emergence of far right politics at the moment.

All in all, it was a fantastic play to see, even if I left feeling not a little flabbergasted and confused, but it was an enjoyable and very intriguing experience, which I recommend to anyone if they get a chance to see it. Lucy and I talked about it all the way home!

Amedee-016

Diana Spencer‘s input:

I find the challenges of absurdist theatre refreshing as well as provocative. Living within a context where norms and values seem to shift daily, and within which the ability of anyone to say ‘I belong’ with any sense of confidence has diminished, the worlds of Beckett and Ionescu become increasingly relevant. Like a number of the LANS group, I had been guided by the blurb into expecting something like Look Back in Anger (and was a little bit ambivalent about how such an adaptation would work). Perhaps a better way to my mind of characterising what we experienced was Joe Orton crossed with Monty Python, with a dash of Antonin Artaud.

The play left us processing the challenges of variant and fragile versions of ‘reality’, and it prodded us to examine what constitutes a sense of self and how this reacts to but also models the various modes of existence available to us. We wondered, discussing the play afterwards, whether the growing corpse was symbolic of the ego and its destructive potential. We also wondered to what extent the incomplete play (and the incomplete/dynamic corpse) signalled a wider challenge to the idea of iterative self-fashioning as a way of coming to terms with the daily grind of life. Is it ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to acquiesce to these patterns and normalise them? Or should we seek to ‘resolve’ the irregularities and the mundane experiences that frame them by stepping outside?

I think we all marvelled at the play and the ideas it generated; it’s not necessarily a play to like but it is a play to come back to, and kept creeping into my thoughts all weekend.

And another, shorter, comment: I went along with no idea what to expect and left with just as many thoughts flying around my head! Absolutely bonkers, but also hilarious and thought provoking.Lucy Fellows, Y2

To be or not to be absurd: the existential question of Amedee

contributed by Emil Toescu, LANS team

Amédée, you are the artist: highfalutin with words, working with them, spontaneously. But unable to string them on paper when it matters, but you try.

She’s telling you – she will divorce! Amédée, in all this time, you did no do a thing about it! You just let it grow.

Oh, this antipathy, this pathetic antipathy, la-di-da, like corn is born when thrown, you see!

Amédée, you need to do something about it, you need to overcome these growths, they flourish everywhere, and they might be poisonous, they might be toxic, they might be delirious – they grow and it grows, its nails and hair, all certainly in geometric fashion. Bring on science, bring on numbers, so that we have an understanding: 6 cm in the last hour or so -we do have some control now!

Over Vitebsk Marc Chagall

Another flying man – this one depicted by Marc Chagall

It started in the bedroom: the lover, or the corpse, the baby?, a positive or a negative – depends on the point of view, but both and all expressions of a missing…

Amédée, she is going to divorce you, if you don’t do anything about it! – and if you do? Well, Amédée, then you are going to go, with it, with the relation, with the corpse. She had enough of cleaning and brushing, Amédée, and you’ll be floating, up and free, dead or alive – it’s all just a matter of a point of view.

Whatever you feel it is a right description for this case, Eugene! – we’ll drink to that, us all, la-di-da, with the patophysician on duty near the hatstand.

And the clock eventually stops, the moon shines – it don’t mean a thing even if it got that swing…

(it’s all about this Amedee)

Leviathan, you creature of the seas…

contributed by Cassidy Locke, LANS Y2

When I went to see Leviathan at the MAC last Friday, all I knew was that it was a contemporary dance piece based on the story of Moby Dick.  It sounded intriguing enough, despite the fact that I was having trouble remembering the basic storyline of Herman Melville’s classic novel, having never read it.  I had seen the film, years ago, but all I could remember was a vague impression of a crazed sea-captain of a whaling ship being absolutely determined to catch some particular whale at any cost.  Ahab, this captain was called, and the whale was Moby Dick.  Ahab sought revenge on the whale for biting his leg off at the knee on a previous expedition.  My lack of knowledge was not to be a problem, I was relieved to find. The performance was only loosely based on Moby Dick, picking up key themes rather than attempting a complete retelling.

Throughout, the performance evoked the theme of obsession and desperation that runs through Melville’s novel, poLeviathan-spouting-girl_1000rtrayed through a remarkable flow of capoeira, martial arts and stunningly athletic dance.  The result is hard to put into words.  The stark lighting, making use of black and white, with rare flashes of yellow, the arresting artistry and deft expression of the dancers, accompanied by a moving electro-rock soundtrack by the Polish prog band Lunatic Soul melded to create a remarkable show (check this trailer of the show).  The only prop was long lengths of heavy rope, skilfully used.  The rest of the time we were left to marvel at the dancers.  The female lead, dressed all in white as some embodiment of the whale that Ahab seeks, maintained her distance from the audience all evening.  We were never acknowledged, scarcely saw her face, were treated to long moments where she seemed to flex each individual muscle in her back.  She was completely ethereal, totally elusive, neatly giving us an insight into Ahab’s frustration that he cannot catch her. This is a frustration that we saw mounting all evening with Ahab’s vocal and dynamic performance evoking the chaos of his mind.

leviathan2Every dancer was perfectly poised, panther-like in their bounce and stealth, radiating strength and artistry in a way that I could never have expected when I settled into my seat that evening.   The performance was creative and innovative in every aspect.  There were times when they were all linked together and sailed over and under one another in a way that did not seem possible, even as they proved me wrong.  The James Wilton Dance company gave us something unique, something startling, something powerful.

Why Cirque Berserk wasn’t all just clowning around.

contributed by Helena (Chloe) Gooding, 1st LANS student

If I am to be honest, I signed up for Cirque Berserk because it was offered, it sounded entertaining and I was up for a free laugh at the Circus. But I left thinking I might actually have learnt something, or at least made a few interesting observations. It wasn’t until I found myself laughing at the ridiculous and perfectly choreographed antics of the clown that I realised how much I had needed that time to destress. At university I find that there isn’t constant pressure placed on me by others, like teachers and family, as was the case with school, but it is self inflicted pressure. Essays and exams loom over us like horrifying storm clouds, distant but always present. Have I read enough? Did I really spend those 7 hours in the library effectively?

And how do most of us cope?

We got out, we drink, we make poor life choices in the confines of a club or bar because that’s the only place we are allowed to fail, make fools out of ourselves, and by the next morning its forgotten. We get to forget the storm cloud for the night. Not that this is a health coping mechanism, but it’s the only one we are taught, by our siblings, our friends, even our parents.

award-winning-physical-comedian-tweedy-in-cirque-berserk

Tweedy from the Cirque Berserk troupe

You know what they don’t suggest you do to relieve stress? Going to the Circus. I felt a strange connection to the clown on stage. Like when he attempted to pick up one object but would drop another, comically lunging after his hat while his broom fell the floor. Repeating the same old silly mistake. Attempting to carry too many things at once. That is university, that is our life. Study for hours and we’ve dropped our responsibility to our friends, spend the evening watching a movie and instantly remember that chapter you had planned to finish two days ago. Life is a juggling contest, and the clown affords us the opportunity to laugh at this, to forget the storm cloud, to reflect on the storm cloud if we’re not too busy laughing. The trick where the gymnasts jumped through hoops was strangely cathartic. We jump through hoops daily, finish this assignment to get here, say this to that person to make that connection. When I imagine jumping through hoops I see myself more nervously lolloping towards my goals. Leaping with all the grace of a flying turnip and quite possibly falling on my face the other side, but at least I got through the hoop right? Does it really matter that I broke my leg in the process? But these gymnasts did it so beautifully, leaping and twirling and rolling, they jumped through their hoops in style. Maybe I should set myself the challenge of jumping through my hoops like them, with a bit of pizzas, that is if the exam officer doesn’t mind.

The Power of Cultural Events

by Jeevan

The recent study trip to see Cathy has had a more profound effect on me than any other of the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Cultural Programme’s events. I need not reiterate the version of events, but Forum Theatre’s approach of engaging the audience with the actors provided a new dimension to the performance. It was very easy for an onlooker to sit back and judge about the decisions Cathy made throughout the play and making a commentary about what she should and should not have done.  But the audience was also invited to contribute and participate.

When I summoned the courage to say “STOP!” and suggest a point in the story where one of the characters was asked to swap for a member of the audience to alter the course events, and provide a possible alternative development, I was in for a shock! I was of the opinion that Cathy should accept the council’s offer to move to Newcastle (which would take Cathy and Danielle away from London) and it was up to me to break the news to 16-year old Danielle and convince her that moving to Newcastle was the right thing. I pay a great testament to the actor playing Danielle for remaining steadfast in her opinion that she wanted to remain in London. My decision to play “I’m the adult card” backfired completely and resulted in Danielle storming off of the stage presumably leaving hers and her mum’s housing situation ‘in limbo’.

Perhaps for the first time in a cultural event I did feel the relevance and necessity of the “Next Generation of Leaders” motto attached to our course. The issues faced by Cathy and Danielle are not an isolated case and that is an incredibly scary and stark reality facing people around the U.K, and not just Londoners, and there homeless people in Birmingham.  The play certainly made me take a step back and think that in any transaction that takes place (in this case between a landlord and tenant) there is almost always a human dimension and perspective. If we forget this human aspect and obsess about the bottom line and profit, the strength of community will decline and factions will flourish, and with them tensions. In light of recent global changes, as a society, we need to reassess our positions and think about the world we want to shape. 

contributed by Jeevan – 2nd Year LANS student,  majoring in Chemistry

Cardboard Citizen’s Cathy

by Nelsen Durkee

Facts and figures related to Cardboard Citizens and their work were collated from their official website and related articles. If you are interested in reading more on them, click on the following link. https://cardboardcitizens.org.uk/

As one of the leading practitioners of the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology in the UK, Cardboard Citizens theatre company has worked to tackle the issues of homelessness for the last 25 years. Ali Taylor, writer of Cathy, said that “we need to recognize that homelessness can strip people of their self-respect and mental health.” This is precisely what Cardboard Citizen addresses.

The theatre company, exclusively consisting of members who have experienced homeless in one shape or form, empowers those affected by the issue to understand and change their situation. Those not directly affected by the UK housing crisis, gain a personal insight into the convoluted nature it.

“Cardboard Citizens tells stories that need to be told, through theatre performed on stage, in the streets, in hostels, centres and prisons”. The theatre company provides a format and space for individuals to develop their skills and confidence through projects, workshops but also forum theatre; the format that Cathy took.

The special thing about Cathy and the other forum theatres tours from Cardboard Citizens is that the audience doesn’t just need to sit back and let the story unfold. They get to act. The performance we saw at mac Birmingham (https://macbirmingham.co.uk/ )  was one of the stops on the UK wide tour of Cathy ending February 2017. Based off and inspired by Ken Loach’s Film Cathy Come Home, aired 50 years ago, Cathy reflects on the “social and personal impact of spirally housing costs”, “gentrification” and the “challenges of the forced relocation away from London”.

In the first half of the evening, we got to see the play itself. Fueled by real-life testimonies on the housing crisis, the play was an emotional downward spiral for Cathy and her 16-year-old daughter Dannielle. Following them from the conviction of their original home, all the way to couch and bus surfing, insecure, run-down, and temporary tenements, emotionally raw and desperate fights, it led to the eventual conciliation between the downtrodden, but hopeful mother and burdened yet coping daughter. Characterized by negative turn after negative turn, this was a truly hear-breaking play to watch.

After this emotional rollercoaster for the audience, there was an intermission, which was more than necessary after the events that we saw unfold, followed by the second half of evening: the forum. As I said earlier, this is where the audience got to act. After short round of feedback from individual audience members and resulting discussions, we were prompted to put our suggestions for the betterment of Cathy into action. The actors on stage let the story unfold again, but this time we could intervene with a determined “STOP!”, giving us a chance to get up on stage to enact our suggestions for an improved course of the story. This I think was the critical stage for these performances.

Engaged, Engaging = Forum Theatre (Photo: Emil Toescu)

To bring a personal note into this piece: even though the play’s progression fascinated me, with a desire to learn more about the situation and excited for the chance to intervene in a negative spiral, I still felt powerless and out of place. Here was a situation, from my perspective as an undergraduate Liberal Arts and Science student studying abroad with a privileged family background, where I felt I shouldn’t even pretend to know anything about the issue. I didn’t even know where to start to try and intervene. The thing was though, that wasn’t the point at all.

The point of Cathy was that we were given the chance to rehearse important life decisions that Cathy had to make. We got a chance to be somewhat of a think-tank for alternative courses of actions. We could set high standards for people and how they could improve their lives. We didn’t need to have the answers, but we did need to show initiative. Some ideas were received better than others, some people came from a more experienced background and could give more information than others, but in the end, viable alternatives to life choices were given. The audience made progress.

To bring in more of a Liberal Arts and Science perspective: here was a group of people from vastly different walks of life coming together to try and enact change for an issue that required more than one solution. It’s hard, but it’s possible. Here was a theatrical performance that affected and improved our perspective on a social, political, and economic issue. The forum theatre of Cathy was interdisciplinarity and cross-boundary problem solving at work and it was conducted in an emotionally vulnerable yet polished format. I’m glad that we got to see this performance and widen our horizons on issues for which we can realistically enact change. It was a truly gripping evening.

Contributed by Nelsen Durkee, 1st year LANS student majoring in Geography.

Here are some testimonials from other LANS students on the evening:

Richard William, 1st year LANS student majoring in Political Science.

Cardboard Citizens: Cathy’s tale I have never witnessed a format of theatre quite as engaging and enriching as this. A stimulating topic followed by active intervention in order to stimulate change, followed by discussion and law-making with the aim of proposing change is one of the most interesting forms of political movement that I’ve ever been exposed to. As someone who wishes to reform the political system and in doing so give people more of a voice, I felt that this experience unlocked a closed door behind which lay ideas on creative opportunity for listening to what the people want.[…]

Behind each person is a story, a story which is different, a story which carries with it human suffering at the hands of neglect.[…]

The set was simplistic and yet functional; each piece had its purpose […]

The evening left many feeling united behind the desire to see change, which, in a world of seemingly increased division and pain, is much needed. I would go back time and time again to this style of performance, for even if the script was the same, the response wouldn’t be, and I found the response almost more enriching and engaging than the performance, as it changed the theatre experience from one of passivity where one watches scenes unfold, to one of activeness, allowing for change to occur.

Lizzie Rowland, 2nd Year LANS student majoring in History

I first witnessed the uncontrollable spiral into desperation when I watched Cathy come home. However, I would never imagined the impact seeing the same thing in a modern day context (and on stage rather than screen) would have. I thought the message was more than powerful -scary and moving. The play made me seriously reassess my political understanding (something I thought up until that night I New quite well).

Alice Heaps , 1st LANS student majoring in Philosophy

for her blog, check at: https://justonesecondalice.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/cardboard-citizens-cathy/

“As a performance, this play was beautifully arranged and seamlessly executed with a multi-role cast who switched incredibly between situations and characters to make the story feel incredibly real.”

“As a usually helpless audience, the chance to get up on stage and take the places of the characters and fix things for Cathy had a great element of catharsis to it. It seems that Cathy had more options available to her than she realised at the time and, although heartbreaking to see so clearly where she made the mistakes that landed her into homelessness, the solutions provided by the audience highlighted a running theme of education and thorough-thinking as being necessary to preventing such difficult events occurring”

“Experiencing this play both as an individual situation and a representation of the struggles faced by so many people across the country and the world, it hit me just how ordinary the people in the story really were. I like to think of myself as somebody understanding to the situations of others and I make a point not to judge homeless people and help them if I think I can, but even I will admit that it becomes difficult to not assign stereotypes in some situations. Maybe the most important thing that this experience showed me was that something needs to be done from both within the system, to prevent people becoming homeless so easily, but also from outside the system – there needs to be a change in response towards homeless people.

Some of the responses from the audience were worded in a way that made it clear that views remain divided by ‘us’ and ‘them’ with the latter being people without a stable home, I think that there is something fundamentally wrong with this response and that, while changing legislation can be difficult failure-ridden, a change in attitude is something that everyone can do within themselves to help the situation: there is no us and them, we are all people and we all deserve shelter, food, water, warmth and most importantly compassion”