Double Bill: Where We Live & What We Live For
Kings of England & Sylvia Rimat
Camden Peoples Theatre
These shows were on this occasion presented as a double bill as part of CPT's SPRINT Festival.
Where We Live & What We Live For
In Where We Live & What We Live For Simon Bowes uses the format of an academic presenting an illustrated lecture to recapture some of his own family history. It is a very clever performance if not always entirely comprehensible. He has beautifully captured the unskilled speaker giving a paper for which, through lack of confidence or sheer over-familiarity, he fails to transmit any real enthusiasm, showing difficult-to-see images on an overhead projector and delivering his sometimes haltingly read text in muffled tones muddied by poor microphone technique. Bowes doesn't overdo it: he resists getting the pictures in the wrong order as so often happens. This is not caricature but has its own sincerity. At the same time the fact that this is a very personal story that reaches back through three generations and that the images themselves, however blurred, have a direct link into a past and private world ensures that it holds the audience's attention.
As well as producing photographs, among the numbered articles of evidence the lecturer presents he also exhibits the living evidence of his father, replicating the evidence on screen or recreating a series of other moments. The lecturer's manner has the effect of greatly increasing the dramatic effect of 74-year old Peter Bowles who in the flesh gives us what seems a much more polished and well-turned out performance than his son has chosen to present, though some of that assurance comes, actually or dramatically I am not sure, from the presence of what I take to be his real wife in the front row - there to assist at one moment in the performance. A gently choreographed memory of youthful dance is given, by contrast with lecturer, the impact of a production number. He talks to us of style: 'Dogs don't have it, cats have it with knobs on' - and so does he.
As a man's life is traced from little boy on seaside holiday prewar, through young manhood with a studio portrait at 21, and particular moments such as jump from rocks into the sea and then a minor stroke while cycling that left him with a memory gap. It is given added poignancy by the feeling that it is a real story - though that, of course, could be a dramatic illusion, though the performers appear to show a family resemblance. Would it matter if they were not the real people? No, for if they aren't, these are performers who make us think they are and that surely is what theatre is about. If they are, does it stop being theatre? No, for they are very definitely performing, though personally I could have done with a mite more clarity and projection at one point: I did not catch what I suspect was some important detail in a scene with the stricken father on the ground.
This is a relatively short piece and I do not think it would be so effective were it greatly extended. If only people would revive old style variety bills mixing different kinds of performance from dance acts and singers to dramatic sketches and speciality acts, this would make a refreshingly different act. It would gain by being set in contrast to more traditional forms of entertainment.
Being Here While Not Being Here
When you enter the performance space for Sylvia Rimat's Being Here While Not Being Here you find a youngish woman, crouched on the floor, flesh bulging above her tight jeans, chalking geometric shapes with a blackboard ruler. We later discover that they represent pieces of furniture and microphones. The woman then addresses us, using a microphone despite the smallness of the venue, whether consciously to distort her voice or not I am unsure, though certainly the few sentences delivered without it were much clearer on the ear, but perhaps the intention is to mark the opening as not part of a play or narrative performance.
The audience is asked to imagine the first part of the action for themselves. That she isn't there; that there are curtains, closed then open, that she is there but that it is the stage of a German theatre some years ago. It is seldom these days that I see a British show and find the production using house tabs - indeed, as at CPT they often have no curtain. Is this the avant garde recreating some very traditional theatre?
The performer writes phrases on a blackboard that seem to title sections of the work but have no clear connection with other material presented. There is more measuring and marking out of object positions on the floor which still seem to relate to this German stage event of which Rimat tells us (despite the fact that she seems to have been a part of it) 'I could not quite understand what the performer was doing there.' I felt the same about her own work but perhaps more strongly.
What is this theatre event that we are being asked to create for ourselves, consisting of a table with two chairs, two cinema seats and a cluster of microphones in which the actress apparently made herself faint by a technique she shows us? It sounds like the kind of non-theatre that I would run a mile from: indeed, when we get a video snippet it looks like some German dramaturge's nightmare. However, the video may not be a real show, the memories may not be real either. Perhaps the fragments of description and explanation that we are given are intended to demonstrate how inadequate memory can be: but that is not implicit in the work and would never have occurred to me if this piece had had a different title. Perhaps we are simply being shown how gullible audiences can be in taking this stuff seriously.
I have to admit that, if this was intended as an intellectual challenge, I failed to meet it. Perhaps it was devised to send up our own pretensions. It started promisingly in apparently setting out to involve its audience in making a piece of theatre but then seemed to turn into a pointless ego-trip for the performer. What started as intriguing left me more bored thanI have been in a theatre for a long time.
24th and 25th June only
Reviewer: Howard Loxton