I was having a conversation with an actor earlier this week (I know, I know, I’m sounding more like Dominic Cavendish by the day) about how contemporary theatre was going down the drain: subject to the rigorous processes of development and commercialisation that have dogged film and TV to breaking point and that are now slowly but surely encroaching on theatre, running out of room to breathe, running out of money to support new talent, theatre is turning into a land of musicals, revivals and bugger-all else, the theory goes (not sure Dominic would have put it like that, but still).
So, it’s gratifying that in little under a month, I’ve seen *three* indescribable shows; three shows so much bigger than the sum of their parts that it seems facile to describe them in tortuous detail (I’m going to anyway – that’s what critics DO, dummy) but that expand as soon as you leave them, riddlingly open and broad. The first was Cock and Bull, the second This Beautiful Future, and now, at a second run after seeing its original iteration nearly a year ago, is Adam Scott-Rowley’s This Is Not Culturally Significant.
The show is a small miracle. Not just in its execution, which is breathtaking, but in the very fact that a show as formally disturbing as this exists at all.
I guess an accurate description (here we go) would be 55 minutes of breakneck bouffon clowning, performed in the nude: a sort of den of disturbing grotesque characters, with sort-of narratives and sort-of stuff to stay, splitting themselves in half in front of you in their attempts to get beyond their monadic, vituperative worlds; constructed to be seen, exploited, and then discarded.
But that gets you no further than the show as object– and that also suffers from making it sound horrible and shit, which it isn’t (I’m trying not to put you off, so let’s just say it’s a funny panto, yeah?)
The piece is humane and direct: narrative theatre is a violence; the world is a storm of damage and isolation; this violence is played out and explored, though without any explicit comment or explanation, through gender, sex, class, race, and violence.
Every other review I’ve read of this show– I don’t mean to be a wanker about this but it’s patently true– seem to want to turn this into something more coherent and, well, significant. I think I’ve rarely seen anything where “the show you wanted this to be” is less easily accommodated without damaging the object as such. The programme notes describe it as a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get show” and that seems so perfectly summative.
This is not a set of characters easily built into contingent existence. Their worlds do not fit easily together and searching for connection between them is a slippery game: the politics of this piece are not as simplistic as “people are a bit lonely, aren’t they?” or “the police are a bit nasty, aren’t they?”, rather it asks chimerical, mesmeric questions about what it actually means to believe in character and what the voyeur-spectator loses in the search to enjoy another person’s pain.
For the pain at the heart of the show, really, is the performer’s. There are moments where, under strobe lighting or repeating “I love you” over and over, Scott-Rowley pulls away from character and we are suddenly faced by a man, naked and vulnerable, waving at a roomful of people staring at him in the harsh light: like his trip has taken a terrifying turn and he is exhausted and desperate for us to let him return to the world, only to be submerged back into the torrid world he has created for us.
Basically, it’s just taken me six hundred words to explain that a show with the title “This Is Not Culturally Significant.” might be playing complicated ironic games with how culture signifies. So. Well. Done. Me.
There were a few niggling issues: the lighting design seemed not quite as subtle as the show it was serving; the heady heights of certain monologues (a particularly beautiful line about a grieving woman switching the organic eggs for the normal ones hit me right in the gut) left me wondering whether others were deliberately shoddily constructed and whether this was a formal choice or just a bit of a shame; and I think on reflection the show loses rather than gains in its transfer to a bigger space – the intimacy of the first time I saw this show in Edinburgh last year in a tiny room with twenty people, five of whom walked out, was a particular magic that’s hard to synthesize in a larger space.
But I think I'm willing to forgive these flaws because the show is so hugely ambitious and, here's the kicker, it offers such a riposte to the sorts of shows that Fringe venues are otherwise producing: narrative-based new writing about sellable, sexy, clickbait-y, young-speak-y subjects.
So, this fits securely into a year of some properly exciting, weird, wonky, misshapen treats, coming from places that could really be expected to be sticking to less experimental fare and you should all pop along and catch this latest one. Don’t worry, I’ll let Dom know.
P.S. Apologies for sarky annoyance here. I think it stems from a frustration with just how many of the critics, who really should no better, were interested in what performing in the buff might mean, rather than thinking about all the other good stuff about the show. Seems to me an insufferably lazy interest in the window-dressing rather that, well, the window, I guess. That’s all.
This Is Not Culturally Significant. is on at The Bunker until 3rd June.