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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Friday, May 21, 2010

Behaviour, Arches theatre review

Published in The Scotsman

Behaviour festival review





IT'S SATURDAY afternoon and I bump into a friend in the bar of Glasgow's Arches. She's talking animatedly to another woman whom I assume to be a friend of hers. I should have known better. The two have only just met, but it has been in an extraordinary circumstance. They have been part of the audience of Internal, a phenomenal production by the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed.

Ever since this show played on the Edinburgh Fringe last year, I have been observing the odd effect it has on people. Even those who haven't enjoyed this cross between a speed-dating encounter and group-therapy session seem compelled to discuss it with strangers. On Saturday afternoon, a passing Arches usher comes over and tells us how much she has enjoyed it.

Meanwhile my friend is talking with as much irritation and bewilderment as she is enthusiasm. It is clear, however, that the show has got right under her skin. That doesn't surprise me. Nine months after seeing it, I'm still processing this half-hour show, trying to figure out whether it offers genuine interaction between spectator and actor or whether it is just a clever script in which the performers, as usual, have all the power.

This is the kind of question the Arches is asking this month during its Behaviour festival. In a 21st-century world mediated by computers, TV monitors and smartphones, we have started to put a premium on theatre's capacity to explore the personal, the intimate and the spontaneous. Whether it makes you feel alarmed or alive, the experience of an actor looking you in the eye and asking your opinion is something you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Certainly, it would make no sense for Adrian Howells to make a movie version of Won't Somebody Dance With Me? The whole purpose of the event (to call it a performance would be stretching a point) is for each of us to have a close encounter with a man who, in previous shows, has massaged his audience's feet and washed their hair. The room is set out with purple balloons and party poppers as if for a rather depressing wedding reception. When the spirit takes you, you leave your table and approach the solitary Howells to ask for a dance, supposedly the last smoochie number of the evening.

I can't complain about my twirl with him, the two of us embracing to the sounds of Dusty Springfield, but neither does it reveal some missing intimacy in my life or say anything I don't already know about the mixture of sadness and longing that characterises the last dance. For the rest of the 50 minutes, I end up in yet more conversation about Internal.

In How Soon Is Nigh? actor Gary McNair isn't trying anything so transgressive, although he does give me his ice-cream to finish, and that never happens at the pictures. One of the winners of Platform 18, the renamed Arches new work award, McNair performs a wry illustrated lecture on the theme of the apocalypse and his obsession with the end of the world. In a genial, offbeat show, he gets us to contribute our own ideas about what we would do if we had only minutes to live. Despite this, the show doesn't make the full leap between McNair's long-standing personal interest in the subject and existential questions of our own.

Back in more unsettling territory, Marlene Dandy One-to-One is the show my late mother warned me about. A seductive figure in corset and suspenders, gorgeous except for the soft fur of a beard confounding the feminine body language, greets you at the top of the stairs and leads you into her dressing room.

She is all fluttering eyelashes and sweeping black feathers, with the forbidden sexual charisma of a Marlene Dietrich. She is about to go on stage and wants to run through her lines – it's hard to take them all in, but there is a lot of stuff about her being a curiosity and living in a transitional place, the dressing room becoming a metaphor for subversive change and transformation. It lasts only 15 minutes, which is about as much as a poor boy can take.

Not that it's all about intimidation. Hand Me Down is a life-enhancing show by Glas(s) Performance – the other Platform 18 winner – with a very simple idea at its heart.

Directors Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore have brought together ten women from an extended family in Port Glasgow. They are sisters and cousins, granddaughters and aunties, and their stories are of childhood and parents, memories and mementoes, affectionate anecdotes about one another and of other matriarchal figures long since passed.

There is no great drama underscoring the lives of these women. Unlike the work of German company Rimini Protokoll, which has worked with real policemen and real muezzins who call the faithful to prayer in Cairo, there is no big issue to be discussed.

Yet what quickly emerges, as the women talk in their own words in a series of beautifully directed vignettes, is an overwhelming sense of life as it is lived, the emotional value of community and the power of family bonds. The six-year-olds play, draw and sometimes join in; the older ones show the cakes they've baked; one plays the bagpipes and they all have a bit of a dance.

Their conversation is affectionate, never more than gently teasing, generally unsentimental and made up of details that are significant only to the women themselves. Yet somehow, this collage of everyday experience is tremendously nourishing, heart-warming and affecting. Like life itself, you want it to go on for ever.

Hand Me Down and How Soon is Nigh? are at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight until Sunday; Won't Somebody Dance With Me? and Marlene Dandy One-to-One have both ended their runs. The Behaviour festival is at the Arches, Glasgow until 29 May.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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