Traverse Theatre@Lyceum Rehearsal Room (Venue 151)
4 stars ****
The Golden Dragon
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
3 stars ***
Man Of Valour
Travere Theatre (Venue 15)
3 stars ***
DON’T BE OLD, DON’T BE ILL, DON’T BE ORDINARY. It was back in 1983 that Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, made his famous speech about the harsh imperatives of a society based on the survival of the fittest, rather than on liberty, equality, and fraternity; and if you want to see that society made flesh, in all its cold-eyed reality, then you could do a lot worse than head along to bluemouth inc. of Canada’s Dance Marathon, presented by the Traverse at the Lyceum Rehearsal Room in Grindlay Street.
This is a show that largely presents itself as a bit of fun; and for most of the hundred or so participants each night, it probably stays that way. You turn up at the Traverse, you’re given a bib with your number on it, and in no time at all you find a man with a megaphone walking you round the corner in an excited crowd, to take your allotted place on the dancefloor, opposite an unknown partner of any gender.
It’s at this point, though – if you’re a little bit older, a little bit creakier, or not much of a dancer – that the chilly truth begins to dawn. For this is not They Shoot Horses Don’t They. It’s not a show about a Dance Marathon. It’s a show that actually is a Dance Marathon, in which all comers – except those who opt out from the start – must be willing and able to dance for three solid hours, so long as they can avoid some pretty arbitrary forms of elimination.
So there’s a hard-looking female Master of Ceremonies in tight circus gear, who brooks no argument; there’s a referee on roller-blades, who whizzes round enforcing eliminations. There’s music, both live and recorded, from Michael Jackson to a brief minuet. And it soon becomes apparent that some of the crowd – about 20 in all – are actually professional dancers; during brief breaks in the competition, they gather on the floor, and perform low-key dance routines or comic interviews.
The show lacks any strong explicit reflection on the history or meaning of the Dance Marathon phenomenon. The interludes of comedy are not funny, the choreographed dance is poor, and the bursts of poetry about death and raindrops that begin to feature later in the evening are downright embarrassing.
What it has in abundance, though, is a the sheer rigour of its format; a steady separation of winners and losers, without even the consolation of art. For me – eliminated in the first round, forced to take the “walk of shame” on live video, and conscious anyway that my dodgy knees would never have lasted the pace – it was an evening of unmitigated misery, a long confrontation first with the facts of age and physical decline, then with a series of nightmare flashbacks to my years as a school-dance wallflower, and then with the way in which, over the years, I have used more conventional and yielding forms of theatre – which try, however feebly, to give some shape and meaning to human pain – as a way of papering over emotional cracks.
At Dance Marathon, there is no such comforting lie; not even a final hoe-down in which everyone can join. And it’s a measure of the force of this show that like our society itself, in the end it enforces a savage division of experience. Some leave triumphant, many are exhilarated, most are OK; and some are just losers, shattered, excluded, and lost.
All of which has the effect of making the other shows in this year’s first round of visiting premieres at the Traverse look a shade conventional, even when they, too, try to confront the ruthlessness of a society that no longer believes in humanity. The Golden Dragon – written by German dramatist Roland Schimmelpfennig, and presented by ATC of London – is a neat, passionate 90-minute drama about the plight of illegal migrant workers brought from the east to work in western cities, for people so damaged by their own forms of alienation that the newcomers often become victims of astonishing rage and cruelty.
Set in and around a restaurant called The Golden Dragon – Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese – the play adopts a resolutely 1980’s non-naturalistic style, with action first narrated to the audience by the five-strong cast, and then re-enacted, in what at first seems a slightly tiresome style. As the story moves towards its conclusion, though, it shifts up a gear, in dramatic, poetic and visual energy. And by the end, it’s difficult to deny the power of a tale that takes some time in the telling, but that finally faces some fierce, unpalatable truths about a global economy in which people are so often trafficked like animals; but often with less concern for their welfare, their well-being, and their rights.
As for Mark Thomson’s Wondrous Flitting – presented at the Traverse under the banner of the neighbouring Lyceum, of which Thomson is director – this show boasts one of the great comic opening scenes of the decade, as 24-year-old unemployed Sam finds his usual slouch in front of the telly interrupted by the sudden arrival, bursting through the wall in front of him, of what appears to be holy House of Loreto, said to have flown from the Holy Land to Italy in the 13th century, and now apparently on the move again.
After this brilliant opening, though, Thomson’s play rapidly loses the plot, not least because it seems uncertain how seriously to take the supernatural dimension of its own story. Leaving the holy house in situ, Sam sets off on a doomed odyssey through the rancid underbelly of modern urban life, convinced that the miraculous event in his living-room is bound to transform everything. In fact, though, his day goes from bad to worse; and Sam is left howling for the moon, or weeping like a large baby for the lost possibilty of a world with some beauty, or meaning, or light.
Thomson’s play has some exquisite moments of poetry; and it features three terrific performances from Molly Innes, Liam Brennan, and a magnificent Grant O’Rourke, as Sam. In the end, though, it just fails to focus clearly enough on the possibilities unleashed by the brilliant idea around which it is built; and never quite lives up to its astonishing early promise.
Michael West’s Man Of Valour is also set in a society where blank-faced alienation is rife; but the narrative arc of this ferociouly energetic solo show is a sentimental one, about a youngish office-worker’s quest to bury his father’s ashes, and, in so doing, to discover his own manhood. Played by Paul Reid in semi-white-face, like some wordless Kafkaesque clown, our hero proceeds through a storm-tossed world brilliantly evoked in Jack Phelan’s backdrop of monochrome video images, and by a soundscape partly composed of his own boom-box-style sounds, amplified through a head microphone.
In his quest, he is dogged by modern nightmares of unemployment and loneliness. He’s also pursued, though, by the demons of an inner life shaped, it seems, by a thousand trashy video games and horror-movies. And although the audience loves all this horror spoofery, in the end the story seems overloaded with jokey cultural references, more energetic than precise in the detail of performance, and unsure how to bring itself to a close. It has at least three viable endings; and if it were to choose just one of them, it would be ten minutes shorter, and twice as strong.
Dance Marathon and Man Of Valour until 14 August, pp.169, 278
The Golden Dragon and Wondrous Flitting until 28 August, pp. 267, 312.