Tuesday, 8 August 2017


This is a show about Palmyra. The devastated ancient temple that was taken by Isis, then ceremoniously recaptured by the Russians, having been turned to rubble. It’s about the big complex problem of cultural destruction. It’s about terrorism and geopolitics. It’s about the world we live in now and the past year and symbolic importance and aggression and gaslighting and blame.

So, how do you show that?

Two blokes smashing plates and being horrible to each other.

I think the awe at the heart of the show – which I think has real integrity at its heart – is the fact that the performers claim Palmyra as a starting point and end up performing this show. As with so much of this sort of work, the joy is in having faith that these people are serious and thoughtful, and trying to figure out how they ended up doing this with their time.

One performer smashes a plate, then says he didn’t know how it happened. One performer shoves a box towards the other one, the other retaliates. It escalates like that. There aren’t any big reveals. There aren’t any moments of payoff. Beethoven (??) occasionally plays, one of them is more cultured and charmingly French than the other and uses that to mock the other, but you never really get anywhere. There isn’t a point to be had.

One could just as easily walk out thinking it was a terrible clown show as an important political work.

But I think it’s exactly both those things. It reconstructs how one does documentary, how one explores an event, how theatre engages with the big world, by placing the world within the room and then ignoring the weight of every gesture. When at the end, one performer is left to clean up the mess they both and neither of them made, my heart felt the sort of visceral pang of emotion that only comes about when you least expect it: contemplating that the events had some wider significance was too hard to bear but to imagine I’d just wasted an hour watching two blokes just mess about was a deadening unpleasantness. You are left with your own choice: confront a disappointment at the locus of the real or the theatrical.

I worry that the show doesn’t do very much. It’s outcome is very head not heart in the end – or at least it was for me, but that really might just be because I was aware I needed to formulate something to say – but ultimately I would take this, huge broken piles of this, in place of all the po-faced documentary theatre that this year has to offer.


Palmyra is on at Summerhall until the end of the month. 

The Shape of Pain

Woolf wrote in “On Being Ill” of pain’s relation to language. ‘Let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry”. In making the body an object made of objects, ones simultaneously alien to and congruent with the whole, pain destroys language. How does one put into words the colour, weight and definition of a stubbed toe or a migraine or a broken bone? Pointing is fine. Moaning is fine. Try finding a way to allow another to feel with you in language, and you can’t help but fall short.

So, The Shape of the Pain has at its heart a worthwhile and interesting premise: find a way to explore theatrically what pain can feel like.

And what does pain feel like? Well, my experience – because this play is about what you experience apparently, because they tell you that at the beginning that you are going to go “into” the pain, which sounds stupid but will probably pay off, right, with this set and this team and the Summerhall badge? – was one of a strong desire to nap; a bit of a headache; an occasional confusion as to why people were laughing so much; an overwhelming greyness; some projection; lot of nice words spoken quite nicely.

A monologue plays out, a story about a woman in pain – a well-written monologue but still just a monologue – and they surtitle all of it – but not in a complicated way where the surtitling tells you something. Occasionally the words are a bit bigger but mainly they are just there, distracting you and making you focus fifty per cent on the speaking and fifty per cent on the reading, which really makes you focus one hundred per cent on not nodding off. There’s some sound design that sounds quite screechy and occasionally loud and did nothing for me. There’s some lighting on some grilles that doesn’t really mean very much but looks nice and grey and serious.

I really cannot understand why people are getting so het up. It’s not fun, it’s not witty, it’s not saying anything new or really all that interesting, it doesn’t get over itself and start doing anything because they’ve decided how they are going to do it this way with this form (Chris Thorpe being a really good writer of beautiful lines helps) and then they do it.

It seems like the show would have been so much more interesting if the people making it had realised that their project is doomed to failure – “we said at the beginning you can’t communicate pain, at least not through ordinary language, so why an hour later are we still trying using a lot of words” – if they had been brave enough to let the thing feel less finished, less constructed, less thetic, they might have had a shot at at least saying something, or at the very least being less serious about it all. What they really needed to do was to create a new sort of language with which to try to describe pain – also an impossible task – but one that might at the very least have been funny to try to observe. And you can imagine a Breach version of this show that recognises all its limitations and that becomes the point and you might not get somewhere, but at least you would not get anywhere together.

This, however, is paper over so many cracks: all bluster. It bored and disappointed in equal measure.

The Shape of the Pain is on at Summerhall (who should know better) until the end of the month.


Two young, female performers set out to document how women relate to their bodies. The interviewed loads of women: from nine to ninety-seven and they made shows based on those recordings. It’s that verbatim thing that David Hare said had nothing useful to say.

But they do it with songs and dancing and sketchy bits and speechy bits and jiggling bits and  lipsyncing and jokes (good ones) and a proper relishing of the way their own place in the thing they are making complicates and informs their work.

You start off thinking it’s probably going to be straight verbatim – lipsyncing to a cast of voices – but as the piece progresses it gets variously sillier and more expressive. The lines blur between these women, until the uniqueness of one becomes the uniqueness of another, until the pleasures and disturbances of a disabled woman living in their body are counterpointed with those of a trans woman or a black woman or a woman with a different sort of body to those we normally hear – the hearing is important – in culture.

It’s a really striking and sort of miraculous thing – these disembodied voices, recorporealised by two young performers, are subjects in the most free and generous way possible. They describe their bodies because their bodies, for once, are not the object. Their bodies are absented and freed to speak in ways they never can in the open.

And the difficulties with describing their bodies and what their bodies do is at times funny, at times hollowing – there’s a beautiful bit where they dance an orgasm, describing it through any word that seems to fit (pink, lightning, yellow, rushing), and though you get the sense of what it is, there is always an exclusion as well as an inclusion at play. The private-language being made is between the performers and those with whom they spoke, being translated and reencoded without an attempt at transparent language, in order to convey how tricky the body is to talk about, particularly when it is gendered and constructed around a culture as misogynistic as ours.

Some of the movement sequences are remarkable. There’s a particular section where they very simply thank all the people to whom they spoke in turn, while offering words they wish they had said to them at the time, but for us now in the room. It’s quiet and serene and the bravery with which the two performers wear their selves  – not, in fact, their bodies (though they do take their clothes off and twerk defiantly) – but their real selves, incommunicable and difficult and messy, really hurt and awed me.

At times – *times* – the sketchiness seems to underly a lack of dramaturgical rigour and the force behind the piece is quite hard to figure out. One wonders why they don’t tell the story of making the show more openly and clearly in order to lend a useful frame to their work – I think you really want to know more about what the process taught them about the embedded complications of the process, probably, and this isn’t really touched upon.

But all of that is so eminently forgiveable because I walked out, no word of a lie, beaming with tears in my eyes.


Hotter by Mary Higgins and Ell Potter is on at Paradise Augustines until the end of the month.

5 Encounters On A Site Called Craigslist

Here are some things to know about me before we begin:

I know Sam, the maker who made this show.

I’ve seen this work at various stages.

I have an interest in making Sam happy.

I really liked this show.

And I am really proud of my friend.

And those three things are, I believe, coincidental but also necessarily related.

So, that’s worth bearing in mind.

My perfect day would be by the seaside eating trifle with everyone I know. Oh, and there would be dancing.


This show took my breath away.

It is stunningly small and simple. Sam is going to tell you the story of five sexual encounters he had with five different strangers, all men, on a site called Craigslist. That’s it. It’s all true and it’s all going to be told with a breathtakingly straightforward honesty.

Over these stories, volunteers from the audience “play” the parts of the men. Here “play” doesn’t mean “act” it means “be”. Because although the story “out there in the past” is the site of the narrative, it is also in the room.

As the encounters are described in detail by Sam, the audience member synthesizes some part of what these experiences might mean. (synthesize is too clear but it’s as close as I can get – GOD THIS SHOW IS SO HARD TO TALK ABOUT), When the first encounter is described, they make sound effects through a microphone, instructed by Sam, that aren’t really quite what is happening in the story, but sort of fit in your mind anyway, and build pictures of another room somewhere else where the sound of a peeling carrot really does sound like giving a blowjob.

In this way, these moments become messy and unclear: the relation between the theatrical action and the narrative action distort one another. This form is innovative and playful and exciting. It’s part Barrel Organ part Tim Crouch part… Well, there’s a lot of stuff here. But it’s also completely its own thing.

On top of this, Sam tries to get to know his audience. Not like in other shows you’ve seen – like in stand-up where they have a rehearsed line for every job someone says they have – in this show Sam just talks to audience members and they talk to him. And so a show about his time on Craigslist trying to make connections with strangers is played out in the form – a show where Sam meets strangers in the audience and tries to find ways to explain himself to them as openly and transparently and meaningfully as possible – to attempt to lay himself bare.

And in its creation of its own semiotics – one that is noisy and obfuscatory but never cruel or exclusive (Sam takes great pains to make us aware there is nothing to miss, nothing we are going to get wrong: there is no grand point we are supposed to reach where the show will unlock itself: you know how it is working, you can see all the strings but this process is the point of the show) – it matches its form to its content in a way that sort of takes your breath away.

This is a piece which at its heart is searching for a way out of the “ideology of communicational transparency” which Lyotard describes as an aberrant fallacy. It’s engaging with questions about how we know each other, why what we know might or might not matter, and how emotional intimacy is as much an act of wilful blindness to falsehoods as casual sex acts might be.

And when one thinks about what it takes to make a show like this one is bruised emotionally and theoretically. Think for a moment about the openness of that subject-matter: having sex with strangers is not something we talk about that much. Men who call themselves straight having sex with men is not something we talk about that much. People talking about their complicated sexualities is not something we talk about that much. People talking about how we hide bits of ourselves from those who know us best is not something we talk about. We just don’t have a language for it that isn’t censorious or fetishistic. This show finds new languages for the incommunicable stuff we can’t and won’t communicate.

And the languages resonate and reveal themselves into something magnetic and raw and cogent and heartfelt. You’ll want to give Sam a hug after. And everyone in the room.  And yourself.


Things I was thinking about afterwards:

I hope Sam is ok.

I hope the audience are ok.

I hope I’m ok.

Balloons are cool.

I’ve seen three shows in which people take their clothes off just today.

I don’t think I want to go on Craigslist any time soon.

The show’s ambitions being small, its resonance within the world is also necessarily small.

I wonder how it might relate to bigger stories and issues.

I can’t wait to see what’s next.


5 Encounters On A Site Called Craigslist is by YESYESNONOTHEATRE and is on at Zoo Monkey House (they *need* to change that name) until the end of the month.

The Secret Life of Humans

There’s a lot to really admire about Secret Life of Humans – the main one being that it is implausibly good-looking for an Edinburgh show and that it contains BIG ideas about BIG stuff. In a Fringe format ambition is often not rewarded – the programme is full of shows tackling a particular thing or event – sometimes really well, often very very badly – essentially, an hour ain’t long, so trying to get at the universal through the specific means that even if you fail, the specific has at least been approached and dealt with. But this show doesn’t do that.

This show, directed by David Byrne and made by New Diorama (there's my bias right there) attempts to work through the arc of human progress. All of it. Thinking about how that progress is to be measured and how we deal with the violent results of all that progressing (that might or might not be happening in a straight line or a downward spiral).

So, there’s big stuff going on but you wouldn’t know it to see the audience. People ho-ing and humming out of the theatre at the end looking engaged and pretty pleased. I liked that it catered to a wide age-range – something shows with stuff to say don’t do all that well in Edinburgh – and that it found a neat impressionistic language through which to tell its story. People walked on walls in the past – properly walked on the actual proper walls, like they were just so distinctly not of this period that they couldn’t even fit on the floor – it made a point viscerally but it also just made me really happy and I gasped and so did the bloke next to me.

It’s form is, I guess, fairly ordinary: the grandfather Jacob Bronowski is an important figure with a thesis on sociology and his grandson goes on a date with an inquisitive sociologist  *clunk* – but it works to get you into the story double-quick (and every playwright people laud has done that – I’m looking at you effin Constellations with your quantum physicist and beekeeper lovestory) and the first half is really sprightly and sweet and interesting and this then earns the second-half where the proper meat of the thing are but where you have still got enough interesting stuff to look at that if you’re not feeling like listening that carefully you can still just admire how nice a big chalkboard looks when Bertrand Russell’s face is talking on it.

There aren’t enough gestures towards complicating the relationship between the storytelling and its content, I guess. The grandson’s actual plot (the date is less datey than he at first thinks) doesn’t seem to have that much to say to the wider story and I wonder whether there’s something interesting about how generations past, so concerned with grand visions of humanity, cannot possibly accord with the present postmordern condition, which disbelieves in totalising in favour of the idea of the now and the here and, well, the specific.

But it speaks volumes that I came out thinking about this stuff in a show that ran for an hour and started with a quite funny tinder date. I liked it a lot.


The Secret Life of Humans is at Pleasance Two for the whole month and then is coming to The New Diorama to do some more brilliance next year.