LIFT/IdeasTap Critical Writing Workshop

A collection of links, thoughts and writings that emerged from the IdeasTap Spa in writing about theatre and performance, which took place in May and June 2014, in association with LIFT:

For our first workshop, we looked at writing published in different contexts: mainstream, personal blogs and as part of another criticism workshop, in Cambridge. However, initially we looked at the writing without reference to its context, focusing on tone, style, address to the reader, analysis and argument. The six pieces were:
Laura Barnett (the Observer) and Andrew Haydon (Postcards from the Gods) on Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic
Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) and Megan Vaughan (Synonyms for Churlish) on Simon Stephen’s Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith
Matt Trueman (eponymous blog) and John Boursnell (critical workshop, Cambridge Junction) on GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN’S Number 1, the Plaza at Cambridge Junction

The questions I asked participants to keep in mind while reading (which ultimately proved not to be the right questions) were:
How engaged do you feel by the writing? Does it hold you all the way through, or are you tempted to give up before the end?
What does the content of the writing tell you about how the show was staged, or what it was like to watch?
How much does the way in which it’s written tell you about how the show was staged, or what it was like to watch?
Does what’s written make you want to see/wish you’d seen the show?

Between the first and second workshop, I sent the participants a list of additional reading: the blog addresses for Chris Goode, Andrew Haydon, Matt Trueman, Catherine Love, Dan Hutton and Megan Vaughan; two fascinating pieces of Australian criticism, one by Alison Croggon on a female Lear, the other by Jana Perkovic on an adaptation of Ibsen’s Wild Duck; and two book recommendations, John McGrath’s A Good Night Out and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

At the second workshop, we discussed the three LIFT shows we’d seen between us, responses in the mainstream press, and the reviews written by the participants (and myself: it seemed only fair to join them on this line). Among the issues that emerged were: the difficulties in reviewing work that doesn’t follow a linear narrative, or work that features participants who are not habitual or trained performers; how to manage expectations or anticipation before seeing a show; how to communicate knowledge about the art form in a way that illuminates without coming across as superior; the importance of research, but also the necessity sometimes of masking a lack of knowledge; the gap between honesty and diplomacy; how to write in a way that opens up debate.

Following are the reviews each writer produced, some unedited, some edited by the writers themselves. Versions edited by me can be read on the LIFT and IdeasMag sites.


By Rebecca Morris:

Crackz: an appropriate title. Most of the performance is in half light, or darkness. The unfathomable staccato, sprawling energy of dancers in couples, in gangs, bursting through the ‘crackz’ of strip lighting.

Looking over the notes made during the show I can detect the words: ‘falling’, ‘spinning’; varying forms of the verb ‘skitter’ feature heavily. The notes scrawled free hand in darkness along the pages. Visually, this summarises the performance style well. This is the soul of jazz cut through with balletic brutalism shaken up with free-style-heavy-beat street dance.

Aside from the physical movement, these are my favourite features of the production:

The blackouts –
The flickering strip lighting -
The bare bulb – glaring artificial neon -
The bare bulb – emulating a harsh yellow dawn -
To elucidate: the first two minutes of the show are almost entirely in darkness

// lights up and two male dancers skit-spin onto the stage then lights down //

a dissonant bass beat sound-score plays.

I enjoy the performance of not seeing the performance. I enjoy being in a space that allows me to sit in the dark and listen. There are a few similar blackout episodes throughout. At other times,

the dancers stop –

hanging around the back area of the stage,

leaning by the wall,

watching or ignoring the others.

Sometimes the dancers are purposefully obfuscated by half darkness on the stage. I find that these ‘inactive’ moments actually emphasise the breathtaking physical presentness of the dancers. My spectatorship is wondrous voyeurism rather than the vampiric lust to ingest all the meaning and soul of the piece. I don’t feel the need to chew over some debate or overarching moral question. This is a delight. It is why I like to see dance.
This is not because the piece is devoid of depth. I felt as if I had been invited to make my own story. On the notebook I had scrawled:

- ‘City of God’
– ‘The Brazilian West-side story’

No doubt prompted by the scrappy buoyancy of the almost all-male cast.

[On an aside note, I have quibbled inconclusively about the choice to have only one female on stage. Her slight frame is expert and awkward beside the other dancers; imitating their clumsy boyish grapple with masculinity and the unmistakeable edge of violence. Here is a short list of my reasons for why this might be:

i. Bruno Beltrão has made an artistic choice to focus specifically on the street hip-hop culture of young men, boys and gangs, and I don’t think this choice is sexist. The lone female dancer appears to be ‘one of the lads’ and the female to male ratio is perhaps an authentic imitation of this particular societal demographic.

ii. The cast was originally intended to be all male and Beltrão decided that she was just a great dancer, and therefore he couldn’t possibly exclude her because of her gender.

iii. Beltrão is a sexist pig. I think this argument is the least likely of the three.
Essentially, I don’t think a debate on gender is central to this piece.]

Other scribbles on my notebook included:

- ‘J Dilla’

A hip-hop artist famous for his minimalist beat base and expert sampling; this was a nod to the musical score. The Vladislav Delay Quartet’s soundtrack was cacophonous beats, percussive scores, saxophones, drone pipes and accordions, which complimented but did not distract. Indeed, the program states that CRACKz references a culture of ‘remix’, ‘mash-up’ and the digital age. This was expressed more in the form than the content. I wanted to understand more of what this piece was about, until I concluded that it had multiple contents, and that perhaps it was more about the way that the action unravelled than the unravelling itself.

I am still unsure about the directorial reasoning for the finale of Crackz. Yet it was quite brilliant.
After the applause, all lights were up and the dancers came to the forefront of the stage. Their rigidity and discipline dropped, and like tongues in church, bodies began to shake and move. This was genuine: the dancers grinned, looking shy as they free-styled and break-danced to the more formulaic beats now playing.
We were in Sadler’s Wells; the ornate auditorium swallowed the sound of our nervous claps to the beat. We were the wrong audience, but really the right one too.

By Sian Davila:

Bruno Beltrão’s choreography provokes us to question our own expectations of dance. The audience isn’t given a polished hip-hop routine of expectation and reward, but instead a choreographed juxtaposition of capoeira, contact-improvisation, street-dance and random gestures sourced from the internet by the dancers themselves. The choreography of CRACKz has similarities to a remixed song, as the dancers perform with the process of mixing, remixing, mash-up and overlapping. Various dances co-exist on the stage at once and ultimately, Beltrão’s choreography provides choice: the audience can choose what to look at, because there is so much happening at once. Attention is attracted, diverted, re-directed from one dance to another as the performers push their bodies with expressive, unrelenting energy. Gestures are repeatedly overlapped and they are as random, incoherent, and diverse as the internet from which they were sourced.

The 45-minute piece with no intermission begins immersed in darkness. The music, composed by the Vladislav Delay Quartet, builds throughout the piece in a cacophony of percussion and electronic noises. Grupo de Rua de Niteroi, the 13-member dance crew, twist and turn their bodies across the stage, illuminated under white spotlights. This spinning is one of many recurring motifs. The noise fades into periods of silence where the audience can hear the frantic squeaking of trainer soles – a microcosm for the whole piece: something innovative and unafraid to break convention. The dancers push the boundaries of stage space by dancing on the edge of it, especially towards the end when they move towards the audience, staring intently as the white spotlights change into a neon red glow.

Despite the originality of Beltrão’s avant-garde choreography, a frustrating question remains: What is the point? The audience is welcomed, if not forced, to make their own narratives, but the 45 minutes begins to feel too long. There are fleeting moments of a refreshing sense of clarity, but the piece quickly returns to its disjointed mixture of Brazilian street dance and repeated motif. However, “CRACKz” doesn’t really need to be understood to be felt. As Clement Crisp accurately states in his review, the dancers perform with one resounding message: “I dance therefore I am!” When they stand in the background and watch each other perform, the stage replicates the street; the original place where dancing is, and always will be, a medium of self-expression.

By Adam Foster:

We’ve all heard of verbatim theatre, but what about verbatim dance? For his new show, CRACKz, the Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrão asked his dancers to scour the internet for movement material, an amalgamation of which has formed the basis of his choreography. By placing the body-popping dexterity of this movement within a formal choreographic structure, Beltrão establishes a synthesis of sensibilities which brilliantly conveys the process of cultural bastardisation brought about by the internet age. But for all its heady promise, CRACKz is ultimately ruined by a headache-inducing score.

Beltrão has stripped Sadler’s Wells down to its carcass, exposing the bare mechanics of its vast, open interior. The scale of the space is thematically useful in that it mirrors the impossible vastness of the network of global connectivity made possible by the internet. When all thirteen dancers come together, each dancing different material, it is similarly difficult to comprehend the combined scope and complexity of their movement. There’s a sublime dissonance between the general and the particular.

It begins with the particular. Out of the darkness, two jeans and T-shirt clad dancers sprawl dizzyingly across the stage. They’re performing a sequence of hyperactive half turns, with rapid exchanges between the tip and heel. Like spinning tops on speed. Despite its spinning, Beltrão’s choreography never loses control, finding a compelling tension between the apparent freedom of the street dancing and the formal precision of his choreography.
While The Vladislav Delay Quartet’s groaning score succeeds in establishing an unnerving atmospheric backdrop, it is devoid of musicality and soon becomes overpowering. In the occasional moments when it subsides and we’re left with the sound of heavy breathing and squeaking sneakers, we’re reminded of the raw authenticity of the enterprise. As it is, much of the nuance falls through the cracks.

By Lydia Thomson: a short review

CRACKz, choreographed by Bruno Beltrão, is described as seeking to deconstruct hip-hop. It is blended with contemporary dance so that it transfers to the theatrical stage in a refreshing way. This is clear in the music, composed by the Vladislav Delay Quartet, mixing a light jazz beat with a gritty, humming undertone. The piece begins with the music playing in absolute darkness, before a spot of light falls on a corner of the stage. Dancers whirl into it, bent at the waist and spinning quickly across the stage on one hand.

Initially, the flurry of activity in these spots of light is an interesting device. But the motif continues, and the audience is constantly left waiting in the darkness for the dancing to properly begin. Thankfully, this irritating first section comes to an end and all of the lights come up, the music stops and the dancers continue to move in the silence, as an ensemble, with chilling effect. When the music returns for the rest of the piece, their movement is no longer constrained to the spotlights, and they defy convention by dancing on the peripheries.

In this way, the piece not only challenges the conventions of hip hop, but it also challenges the format of dance on a theatrical stage. It is a question most interestingly placed in this world of street dance, because the piece has been brought from an organic state on the streets of Brazil, through choreography inspired by videos on the internet, to a dance theatre in an affluent corner of Islington.

This contrast was most clear at the end of the piece. After the curtain call, we clapped along to a freestyle dance section that carried all the joy, skill and atmosphere of traditional street dance. This was the true highlight of the piece, and was a declaration that hip hop doesn’t need the deconstruction, blending or fancy lighting of the previous melange to thrive.

…and a long review:

Somewhere, sometime, I read an article discussing what an audience actually gets in return for their theatre ticket. A playwright was quoted in the article for saying he made an active decision not to put ‘silence’ into his stage directions, because an audience is paying to hear words, not watch actors standing around on stage.


Anyway, this came to mind while I was watching Grupo de Rua perform CRACKz as part of LIFT at Sadler’s Wells. It is a dance piece, blending hip hop with contemporary dance to ‘deconstruct’ hip hop, to ‘challenge the stereotype’ and ‘question the status of art in a digital era’. (Sounds like a pretty good funding application, right? Tick tick tick.) Regardless of what it was about, I was expecting to see some dance. So, imagine my dismay when the lights dimmed, the music started, and we waited in pitch black for something to happen….

And we waited some more…

And more…

Until finally I realised that the point was to actually listen to the music. So I did. And it was great music, composed by the Vladislav Delay Quartet with a gritty, dirty, humming undertone and a lilting jazz beat on top. Except, now I had made the decision to listen to it, I was no longer really listening to it, I was listening to myself telling myself to listen to it.

Utter. Chaos.

At last I escaped this reverie, and a spot of light fell upon a corner of the stage and dancers whirled into it, bent at the waist and spinning across the stage. They looked like insects, appearing and disappearing out of the ground. The lights dimmed. Another spot of light came up, and this little routine continued…

And continued…

And I wondered if the point was for us to get so bored of seeing the same thing over and over again that we, as an audience, became numb to it and achieved a heightened state of mind, within which we had a unanimous epiphany and recognised the deeper meaning of the piece.

For me, at least, this didn’t happen.

Thankfully, the movement changed. The dancers stood up, held out their arms, but DEAR GOD they were spinning again. This time faster, more stomach churning, and still with the same infuriating lights-up-lights-down routine. I was begging for them to stop spinning, stop stopping, and breathe into a neat little ensemble piece that would be so charming and well-choreographed and slick and clever in the way that hip hop normally is. I know Bruno Beltrão was seeking to deconstruct hip hop, but I didn’t realise he was taking out what was fundamentally good about it. To mark the end of this section, the music stopped, all of the lights came up and the dancers continued to dance, (as an ensemble, yay!) but the only sound was of their breath and their trainers squeaking on the stage floor. This made me feel weird, and a little insecure, in a really brilliant way. Where did the music go? Here, I did have a minor epiphany: “What is dance without music? This is clearly a deconstruction of hip hop. It’s clearly challenging the stereotype. I wonder what the status of art is in a digital era?”

…I’m being facetious. But apart from this moment, throughout most of the piece, I just had no idea what was going on. There was a section where they were chasing each other with ‘guns’, another when they were all backed up against the wall, and many where they walked slowly – but purposefully – towards each other. I know dance is interpretive, and its meaning is largely in the eye of the beholder, but you have to give an audience enough physical dialogue for them to find their own narrative. But, actually, ‘physical dialogue’ is a phrase that popped into my head a number of times while watching CRACKz, because in duets there seemed to be a really powerful conversation happening between the dancers, charged with intent. And I didn’t know what that intent was, but I was desperate to see the conversation unfold.

At the end of the piece, after the curtain call, the music returned and we clapped along while the dancers freestyled. First thought? “Oh, this is cheesy.” Second thought? “Oh, they can actually dance! That choreography did them a disservice.” Third thought: “I am clapping along to the music while super-cool Brazilian street dancers stand on their heads. I have probably never felt more white/British/middle class in my life. Well done, Sadler’s Wells. This is why I love you.”

Final thought. When I pay to see dance, I pay to see well-trained dancers do amazing things, to see a ‘story’ unfold and to feel/think slightly differently about how I move through life as a human being. CRACKz made me feel perhaps 50% of each thing, most of which was after the curtain call. But it didn’t help that we spent 50% of the production either in stillness or blackout.

More matter, less art.


By Hannah Tookey:

Freedom, determinism and the meaning of life. They’re the age-old debates that have rocked minds for centuries and been explored from virtually every angle. So it’s easy to see why directors Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg thought a video game concept would be the perfect vehicle for a piece that addresses these ideas. Yet Fuel’s production didn’t quite justify its need for the live performance model.

On the surface, The Roof is everything you might possibly want out of experimental theatre: it has an original large-scale set, an edgy video game aesthetic and all sound played through headphones so you can lose yourself in the piece (although this unfortunately seemed to encourage the less self-aware audience members to chat throughout).

So why was it so disappointing?

Player 611 steps through an ominous red hatch to enter the grey-scale arena of blocks, ledges and slopes that have taken over the Doon Street Car Park. It’s the semblance of the rooftops of a city, and it surrounds the audience as we stand bunched together in the middle, necks craned upwards, our eyes glued to 611. Already down to his last remaining life, he darts around, leaping over 2 metre gaps and hanging off poles. He knocks monsters with oversized cauliflower heads over the edge, shoots at girls in bright pink marching band outfits and collects giant inflatable ducks – rewards for each injury he inflicts.

The trouble is that the features that would make an idea like this worthy of a theatrical experience on such a grand scale just aren’t there. Although the leaping and free-running make The Roof a vivid replica of a video game, each step was executed with such rigid precision that the excitement of whether they’d make a big jump was often lost, leaving us unfazed. There’s no danger, no sense of anticipation – and a complete lack of audience interaction. As a result, The Roof feels forced into the live format. Could we glean the same ideas from a film or even a real video game? Yes. The notion about breaking past boundaries and negating what’s expected of you comes into play in the final moments, but even then it doesn’t shift up a gear to do so. It’s repetitive and constrained – 611 running round and round in circles and the audience spinning round and round to watch him.

This is a concept that’s bursting with potential, yet the result feels aimless, tediously monotonous. With no sense of 611’s purpose and little plot driving the piece forward, it’s difficult for the ideas it posits to have any lasting impact.

By Symone Keisha:

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
The Getaway: Black Monday
The Sims
The Warriors

These are just some of my favourite video games… and now The Roof? Unfortunately, it doesn’t even come close. On paper, Fuel’s ‘game without the inconvenience of interaction or choice’, has all the qualities to make it a hit. Computer game concept? YES! Parkour? YESS! Outdoor performance? Even more yesses! So why did I leave last night’s performance with a disappointed no running through my head? I’ll try and break it down for you.

The bad seems to override the good. I’ll start off with the set. Absolutely brilliant! A car park is converted into some sort of gladiator style arena with the pit occupied by excited spectators. Encircling the audience is a mock-up set of a video game. Sloping ramps, ladders and hidden crash mats litter the set, and to add to the creativity, it’s placed several feet above the ground. The end result? Audience members shuffle around themselves, focus skyward.

Different, I like it.

Identical sets of headphones sit on the heads of the audience as all speech, sound effects and music is relayed through them.

Sort of like a silent disco…okay this is interesting.

But then it all goes downhill a few levels into the production. An elaborate set plus the promise of a video game concept should equal something pretty spectacular right? I’m thinking a mix of Super Mario and Crash Bandicoot? I thought wrong. As elaborate as the set is, the action that takes place on it is inadequate. The leaps from A to B, the slides down each ramp and the fight scenes become predictable, repetitive and safe. Baffling, as the cast share reputable experience in their field. Some have worked with Jasmin Vardimon, a woman who definitely knows how to make her company hurl themselves around the stage. Another is training to be a professional wrestler with a black belt in karate. Surely the tricks and stunts should have been remarkable, but unfortunately the expertise of the cast and the material fail to match the intricate set that they were performing on.

Next is the plot. On the surface it seems very obvious. To complete the game, the boy must save the girl. He then becomes the hero.

Yeah yeah, nothing new there. How come it’s never the girl who saves the boy?

Anyway, lingering amidst the piece is an underlying message about life I assume. Something about not simply abiding by the rules, going beyond limitations that are set in place. Perfectly good standards to live by, but Fuel take the long way round to deliver their message. How? So much repetition! Repetition made worse by the circular set – round and round player 611 goes, audience members turning with him. So much repetition! Each level, although titled differently, shares the same difficulties as the one before – don’t fall into the gap, evade the monsters (and your mother) and meet the girl in the box. So much repetition! After the completion of each level, a short dream – like sequence involving clothed bunny rabbits arrives from nowhere to cast confusion over the piece.
So much repetition that sneaking glances at my watch, I admit that I switched off towards the end. And to be honest, if I was playing this video game, I’d switch it off pretty quickly too.

By Lauren Moreau:

I’m not a gamer. The closest I’ve ever come to my generation’s preferred sport was being forced to play Mario Kart with my friend’s brother: I drove into a wall and stayed there spinning my wheels while I frantically hunted for a reverse button. I may not be a dab hand with a controller, but I still found Fuel’s production of The Roof worth playing. The references to Space Invaders and Donkey Kong didn’t mean much to me, but this dance/movement piece’s commentary on the isolation, selfishness, and confusion of the gamer generation is certainly relatable, and fun to watch. Unlike any game, though, it leaves you wondering just why and what you wanted to win. What, in the end, was the point of all those points?

Rosenberg’s creative work focuses on “referring to audience members until they become the subjects of the piece.” Here and in his earlier work Ring, he does this through clever use of soundscapes. Audience members are herded, like sheep being prepared for gladiatorial combat, into a standing-room-only circular arena and handed headphones. The show’s soundtrack provides music, narration, and much-needed context as the performers navigate the high-rise scaffolding built to suggest a stylized city skyline and the horizontal playing-space of an arcade game. The clunks, thuds, and electronic monster beeps are meant to make the action feel immediate and first-hand. At times, the sound design gives the impression that the narrator is speaking directly in your ear—people standing near me actually turned to look behind them. Sometimes, it sounds as though other members of the audience are shouting instructions to the players, leaving you wondering if you should join in.

While audience members may not feel as deeply involved as directors Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg intend, the gamer’s identification with pixels on a screen is at the heart of The Roof. When we play video games, we are the protagonist. Gaming is the ultimate technological isolation—something that The Roof explores through our hero’s tense, baffled interactions with Players 1 and 53. The score is listenable, but the real beauty is in Rosenberg’s lyrics: “What if all the mobile phones burst into flames…what then?” In an age of instant communication, sometimes it’s hard to say what you mean.

The show’s choreography and design are strong—particularly costume design by Hannah Clarke, which greatly contributes to the dreamlike, cartoon aesthetic. The chorus of game monsters at one point dress as a trio of vaguely menacing rabbits wearing business-suits. This and other humorous touches keep the experience fun and lives up to one of the narrator’s opening promises: “This is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland.” Doubt and isolation aside, this is still a game. The choreography is excellent overall, but the more traditional dance elements work better than some of the stylized combat. I wanted to see more of the Majorettes’ chorus line dance—ever so slightly out-of-sync, like a malfunctioning game—and less of the repetition of air punches and kicks. The second showdown between Players 1 and 611 felt particularly predictable and a little over-long. Requardt’s choreography uses repetition successfully when Player 1 moves along the rooftops in a series of robotic parkour moves. We memorize the steps needed to successfully complete each jump and defeat the baddies. This, more than the narration, contributes to the impression that you are controlling the players. After levels 1 and 2 are complete, The Roof moves into more unsettling territory, and the players’ actions become unpredictable. Our hero is beset by a monster called “Your Mother,” who never beats him up but instead repeats, “You’ll never make that jump,” and “You’ll break your leg.” He is distracted by the Majorettes, and once he does rescue the Princess from Radio Supermoon he isn’t sure how to proceed. Should he put his arm around her? How does one score points when there aren’t any monsters left to shoot?

There are sections that could do with cutting or clarifying, but really The Roof’s one major stumbling point is its brief use of a chorus of “ordinary people,” who appear during one of the “between levels” dream sequences. These volunteers were not credited in the program, and the reason behind using them was never fully clear. Were they meant to suggest audience participation, or the “disposal” of other protagonists who’d run out of lives and failed at the game? I also had a minor design quibble with the set: it’s meant to integrate with the surrounding London cityscape and the night sky, but the dull paint job looks rather cheap, and not in the pleasantly cartoonish manner of the costumes. However, when airplanes fly over London and cross your sightline like some strange new monster, the effect is beautiful.

“Life is a game, but what’s the ultimate reward?” may be a slightly cliché premise, but The Roof is so innovative, and well, fun, that it just about gets away with it. There’s enough thought behind the music, choreography and narration that it has more maturity than your average arcade game. If you don’t mind being occasionally baffled, and you enjoy unusual performances in unusual settings, this is the show for you—gaming experience not necessary.

By Annegret Martin:

Someday you will die. And you can’t escape. So, you go out and find stuff. You attach meaning to the stuff. You keep the stuff. You need more stuff. You meet people. You get to know them. They’re weird. You like them. You give them your stuff or share it with them. You have a misunderstanding. You break up. Some idiot might beat you up for your stuff. You’re not quite sure why but you’re sure it wasn’t your fault. Basically, you’ve got one go at figuring out the messy thing that is life, answer the big questions (Beatles or Stones, anyone?) and then you’re gone again. What I’m trying to say: metaphysical scope isn’t really the problem of Fuel’s new show The Roof. The show uses the metaphorical detour of “life is like a computer game” although it’s neither as creaky nor as straightforward as that might make it sound.

In a purpose-built arena on the Doon Car Park behind the National Theatre, an earphone-clad audience is welcomed to a kind of nerdy live version of the board game LIFE only with more rubber ducks and Space Invaders on the walls. The audience on the ground is surrounded by a kitsch city scape reminiscent of the 90s computer game Commander Keen, which is to say, slightly non-menacing but very whacky. Player 611, after struggling with what looks like a broccoli monster which has had an unfortunate encounter with a shaver, only has one life left to fulfil the mission: get the girl, save the princess, hit an overgrown mothball suit wearer personifying your mother – the usual. One life left. Off you go.

Directors Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg have assembled a cast of eight experienced movement performers and free runners who jump, slide and dance around the stage area. The set by Jon Bausor has lots of hidden doors, visual gags, and a plexiglas box with a woman who delivers a different service every time the player makes it to the end of a level. Guns, medi packs, a kiss and somewhere in between a point that our relationship to technology might make us loose our sense of urgency about life.

There’s a hint of well-placed irony of inviting people to witness a videogame-style play they can’t actually influence themselves. The production somewhat struggles to extend its insights to the audience of what exactly there might be beyond the rat race of life. If it is “we know the structure, we can only guess the rules”, it would be a bit of a wispy outcome. The solution to not giving and not wanting to give an answer is design, design, design, and playing with reiterations. Visuals and audio have absorbed the repetitive level logic of the piece and have turned them into an exercise in theatrical obfuscation. Hannah Clark’s costumes are as distorted as they are stylish while Dave Pricey’s pristine sound accompanies every step of the characters feeding it directly into the eardrums of the audience. Although attempts at instigating audience participation through audio cues remain at the level of causing mildly interesting confusion.

It’s generally a lose/lose situation if you watch a play that has the universal question after the meaning of life at its core. If it’s sometimes a bit shit and you don’t quite understand what’s going on, then you might argue that, actually, the artists have captured the point rather well. For example, it can seem quite disappointing that these free runners are constrained by the walls of the set. It’s all wonderfully choreographed throughout but they don’t do really do the expected risky, breath-taking jumps. They’re not free at all and their movement potential is in contrast with the 2D strip-like set around the audience. After 35 minutes of mulling this over my mind begins to drift and I start to imagine Nietzsche having fisticuffs with Kant about free will while dancers in zentai rabbit suits dance soothingly to the beat. Sorry if you just had a disturbing experience googling “zentai rabbit suit”.

Someday you will die. And you will still have all your stuff and some guy will have punched you and you still think it wasn’t your fault. Obviously all because this show you once saw, The Roof, didn’t make you care enough about not breaking out of the rat race. Or it did, and you still rather sat down to play Flappy Bird on your phone, at least you could play it yourself.

By Maddy Costa

Level 1: The Look. Industrial. Rooftops, grey, a great jagged wave that circles the audience. Light gleams from windows that never open. There is a billboard, tattered and scrawled with graffiti; beside it a retro-fitted DJ booth, where a chic scarlet woman, French perhaps, leans over a turntable. Across the rooftops comes a man, body encased in red leather, like a formula-one driver. He’s accosted by a monster, face banana-yellow, swollen obscenely above a trim Mod suit. More villains, heads angular and absurd, brightly coloured prisms and blocks. Someone in the crowd afterwards talks about the video for New Order’s Blue Monday: bonus points to him for spotting the reference. Paisley shirts, a 1950s cleaning lady wearing oversized rollers, pixelated images copied from 1980s Atari games: a garish, tacky mish-mash that’s easy to navigate. Extra energy falls from a chute in the shape of oversized rubber ducks: that’s fun. Play on.

Level 2: The Language. Wearing headphones focuses our perspective, positions us inside the mind of the hero of this computer game (let’s call it life), the man encased in red leather. He’s essentially neanderthal, grunting, mechanical in thought and movement. Is this a commentary on the limited masculinity played out in computer games, and in society? Male violence and single-mindedness? The pointless repetition, in games and in life? I’m not convinced it’s (trying to be) that intellectual. This is quickly problematic: in an early level, the hero learns “the value of things”. The phrase sits ill: the value of things in a capitalist sense? In which objects, money, profit, are valued more than people or the environment they inhabit? It’s wavers like these that lose lives.

But let’s play on. In the hero’s head, too, is the silken whisper of the radio DJ, a siren luring him (us) onwards with her visions of the fantastical. Intermittently she delivers weather reports from around the globe, time checks from across the universe, philosophy from the copybooks of surrealists. She traverses space as though intimate with the infinite, and brings us her radio show from “out of the shitpipe of unicorns”. Now that’s brilliant. Play on.

Level 3: The Sound. The crunch of feet landing on concrete. The grunt of testosterone. The rush of air as people run, spin, fall. The squeak of rubber ducks. Nothing to hold the attention there. But then there’s the music. Slinky, cheeky, indebted to Library music, drawing on jazz and soul and funk but bearing no specific relation to any of these. It’s wonderful. The composer, Dave Price, was in Gecko’s first show, Taylor’s Dummies, and therefore is the stuff that gods are made of. Play on.

Level 4: The Moves. There is parkour, and there is dance. The men are mostly responsible for the parkour. Round and round the rooftops they race, leap, roll, jump, skip, hop, fly; and OK, it’s impressively acrobatic, but the construction of the space, with the performance area encircling the audience, means too often they look like hamsters on a wheel. The women, or people of amorphous gender, are mostly responsible for the dance. Their moves are smaller, more intricate; where the men tend to operate individually, they often group in threes. Shoulders click and ripple in unison, hands rise in a wave. Bodies sidle, hips thrust, knees flick. The relationship between the two – parkour and dance – feels schematic rather than considered, neither seem fully exploited or developed. Wavering again. But play on.

Level 5: The Women. Aesthetically, The Roof is good fun. But ethically? That’s another story. The DJ is trapped in her radio booth, waiting for a man to save her. The words “princess in the tower” litter the text like so much pink confetti. Where is her agency, her power, other than as muse (or, arguably, siren)? That’s one life lost. Early in the show, there’s an entire level in which the monsters with which the hero does battle are Mothers: generic creatures who nag and criticise and generally obstruct the hero’s every attempt to progress. Even the high-pitched sound of them was annoying. That’s life number two gone. Among the dancers are bunny girls, albeit properly dressed, and sugar-candy majorettes, twirling their toy-sized batons, and that cleaning lady in the oversized rollers, mouth curled in boredom around an ever-present cigarette, all exquisitely styled, all more or less decorative features, redundant except as adjuncts to the men. Is this commentary, or re-enactment? That’s the third life gone. Game over.


By Billy Barrett:

“You don’t see us,” a young woman says during Turfed, Renato Rocha’s take on youth homelessness for LIFT. In the Brazilian director’s sprawling piece, staged in Hackney Downs Studios’ enormous, echoing hangar, the stories of young homeless people are placed visibly – if not always coherently – centre stage. Turfed is a guided collage of spoken word, dance, film and music; performed in part by people who have experienced homelessness, at its best this is passionate, promenade, total-theatre of the oppressed.

The piece opens as an installation, with performers scattered about the industrial space in a series of disparate images; one actor plants flowers in an earth-filled bathtub, another chalks an enormous sketch of a pregnant woman. There’s a sense of voyeurism, of encroachment into private space as we move uncertainly among these people engaged in their personal tasks. Once the show gets going, the dynamics of this relationship shift; the politics of who exactly is allowed to occupy which space, and who dictates the terms of our interactions, come into vital play as we’re herded about, instructed where to stand and occasionally barged straight past.

These moments of conflict make for a compelling social subversion, as well as a palpable performance of today’s urban landscapes – where rough sleepers are cleared from view and “anti-homeless” spikes sprout up in their place. But the tension in these very physical exchanges between audience (broadly cosmopolitan, middle-class) and cast (some of whom have been homeless) speak far more than the slightly feeble disarray of the actual choreography – a series of uninspiring motifs repeated in unison – or the easy sentiment of some of the poetry. Huddled on the floor gazing up at a projection of the night sky, we could have done without the Wildeism about being in the gutter but looking at the stars.

The piece deals us some striking images – a pile of plates constantly tumbling and crashing on a screen embedded in a suitcase, conjuring some unknown domestic disharmony; a mountainous bundle of clothes strewn across a football pitch – but often the ordering of these interwoven scraps is disorienting, and we move from one to the next at such breakneck pace that there’s little time to piece them together. It’s also – heartless alert – a little bit earnest, with Rocha’s direction feeling the weight of the issues at hand to such a degree that there’s little tonal variation; you can tell the audience is angling for some comic relief when lone giggles blurt out at unexpected, unintended moments.

A co-production with the charity Street Child World Cup, the narrative fragments of Turfed are forced into the visually pleasing but thematically perplexing framework of an overworked football metaphor, in which it bounces around uncomfortably. Since collaboration with homeless performers is integral to its practice, separating the company’s process from the work on show on the night misses the point of the exercise, but it’s a shame that some of these powerful testimonies are confusingly curated, and many of the words are swallowed up in the acoustics of the space. Giving a voice to the dispossessed is a noble intention, but what’s the point if no one can actually hear it?

By Jessie Thompson

As I watched Turfed at the Hackney Downs Studios, I couldn’t help but think about that Baudelaire quote, ‘An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom’.

As the cast carefully placed bright pink flowers around the stage, with their stalks abruptly shorn, I wondered if they wanted to demonstrate the pain of lacking roots by reproducing the monotony of that a life on the streets. I thought this because, despite the noble subject matter, Turfed never feels totally and utterly engaging until a brief moment at the end. In forty-five minutes, we see snatches of things, which always seem to be building up to an explosion, but are always cut short before they go anywhere.

I like my theatre to hit me in the face with its politics, so I mustn’t punish Turfed for not being the work I want it to be. This is a piece about youth homelessness, so on a week that we found out that apparently ‘anti-homeless studs’ really are a thing, I expected to be dragged through the hedge backwards. And it’s also about football, and we’re about to have a World Cup, and we’re all about to stand in pubs drinking and shouting (well, not me, as I’m far more civilised, obviously) – but definitely probably not thinking about street children in Brazil and the Philippines. I wanted Turfed to kick my arse in twelve different ways, but instead, I was aimlessly ambling around grasping to understand it all.

There are some powerful touches to Turfed, if you look for them. As the actors invade our space (or are we invading theirs?), you start to question whether we are encroaching on the homes of the homeless whenever we walk down the street. Who owns public space? And what is a home?

It’s startling, also, to watch the young cast escape from their life of poverty to be consumed in a game of football, putting on the football kits that have been hanging up across their street. Because who makes those football shirts that get sold for £50 each but earn the person that made them a mere pittance? What and who is sustaining the privileged lifestyles of the rich and the famous? It’s a bittersweet realisation that football acts as both an escape and an oppressor.

I want to find theatre that challenges me in new ways, but Turfed ended up making me feel like that person in a seminar who just says really embarrassing things to cover up the fact that they don’t know what’s going on. It clearly possesses an extremely talented, energetic young cast, and it deals with an extremely fertile and urgent issue – so why did it never feel like quite the sum of its parts?

Without a real narrative or any insights into the characters, it was difficult to really engage with the piece. Perhaps this was the point – perhaps we were supposed to be the ones feeling alienated this time. But the energy I saw as one of the cast angrily kicked football after football at the wall intrigued me – I wanted to know how streetkids felt about being homeless and how they ended up there.
Sorry to do this, but I can’t think how else to sum it up, and it seems so obvious. So, right, imagine me doing a football commentator voice and going, ‘Oooooh what an opportunity – but he’s missed his chance’. That’s how I feel about Turfed.

By Nicolas Kyprianou:

‘I got my hair
I got my head
I got my brains
I got my ears
I got my eyes
I got my nose
I got my mouth
I got my teeth’
— Lyrics from I got life, from Hair the Musical (1967)

Turfed explores youth homelessness using football as a metaphor for winning and losing the game of life. The two ideas sit side-by-side in Brazil, where the 2014 World Cup is taking place: a billion-pound industry taking to the streets of Rio, where poverty and youth homelessness are at atrocious levels. And yes, the above lyrics and more were spoken, from the infamous 1960s rock musical Hair, a reassuring affirmation of being thankful for the little things.

There also seemed to be choreography reminiscent of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s, Rosas Danst Rosas (1983): the performers sit on benches, sequentially crossing and unfolding their arms and legs, and perform other gestures with their bodies. A parallel can be drawn between the feminist rage and oppression felt by the all-female cast of Rosas and the anger that those in Turfed feel when being downtrodden by society.

Besides these instantly noticed references, Rocha’s piece displays theatre in a very postmodern and interdisciplinary medium. The space constantly transforms, so that I no longer felt that I was in a warehouse in Hackney, especially at the end of the work when I lay on a cold ‘football pitch’ looking up at the ceiling, which was lit with flecks of light, like stars.

Entering the industrial hangar at the beginning of the performance, the ten performers presented images of loneliness, frustration and solitude, and I found myself expecting a lot more than what was to follow. Spread across the room, an actor skipped with a rope and an actress drew a mother holding her baby, using a piece of white chalk on the floor. The images were beautiful but didn’t seem to cohere. Monologues immediately told me to feel empathy for these people, but this was lost when a well-spoken and articulate stage-trained actress told me of their misfortune. Presumably this actress was one who hadn’t experienced homelessness, like others in the cast that the programme note kindly mentioned. It seemed to ruin the world that the actors and actresses from Tanzania, the Philippines and Brazil had created – real emotion appearing behind their eyes, reliving some of the scars cut deep into their bodies and souls as children.

I was waiting for a dramatic build but the energy and intention of the work fell flat. The performers were simply telling us to value what we have in terms of love, happiness, family and other first-world luxuries: a pretty presumptuous statement when looking around at the diverse audience. How do they know that I am happy and surrounded by love or that I even have a mother figure?

I was excited by the ‘slick choreography’ that the programme advertised. However, as the performers changed into football kits, they began a unison routine which was all over the place, often out of time and definitely not ‘slick’.

I left more excited by the versatility of the space, the use of lighting, projection and props, than by the performers’ presence in Turfed. I would encourage you to see this work and tell me what it made you feel… Did it make you feel differently about your own life? I know that youth homelessness exists and it is a disgusting problem that needs to be addressed, but I was hoping for something a little more uncomfortable to watch. The strong opening of the work disintegrated into loosely connected metaphors and anecdotes. I couldn’t help leaving Hackney Downs with the lyrics of Hair in my head.

By Maddy Costa

Authenticity is such a taxing concept in theatre. No matter how naturalistic the performers or production, no matter how careful or accurate the mimesis of a world beyond the stage, theatre is an eruption of artificiality, a temporary disturbance of time and space that melts into thin air. Even verbatim theatre, which prides itself on the unmediated presentation of “real” words, “real” people, has to be edited, designed, staged in a particular way. Any show that hopes to present an authenticity of experience has to contend with that. But I’m not sure Turfed does.

Directed by Renato Rocha, a Brazilian director who talks beguilingly in his programme notes of his desire to “change things, and change people’s lives”, to “turn the invisible visible” and encourage the unheard to “express themselves”, Turfed gives young people who have known homelessness the chance to talk about their experience, opening a window to a largely hidden world. I came to it with the usual questionable white liberal credentials: I donate to Shelter because I believe they do important work; I give a friendly smile to the young man selling the Big Issue near my home (but never buy the magazine); I talk to my kids about the rough sleepers we occasionally see, about what might have happened in their lives to leave them with no option but the streets. Arm’s length empathy, essentially. I’m aware that, in looking for authenticity from Turfed, I’m looking for a “safe” way to contemplate a social problem that distresses me but that I do little to change. A “safe” way to hear rough sleepers tell the stories I invite my children to imagine, that doesn’t involve me actually speaking to the young man selling the Big Issue, or the young woman crouched beneath a bridge begging for money in the rain.

Gentle in imagery, language and most particularly in its treatment of its participants, Turfed excels at safety. The room we are in is huge, concrete, almost entirely lacking in humanity, but Rocha has filled it with flowers, orange gerberas that flame in the dark. One boy wears a hat constructed of them; a girl buries herself beneath them, is carried high as though in a coffin, placed on another small square of earth where she begins the sequence again. Another girl strews the ground with them, like Ophelia casting herbs into the river. Their movements are earnest, because invested with personal history; the mood is romantic, but avoids romanticising. Groups cluster on benches that might be bus stops, performing a choreography of loneliness, boredom, waiting for an impossible miracle. When people speak, it is passionately, so that even though I don’t understand the language (the performers come from Tanzania, the Philippines and Brazil, as well as London), emotion vibrates through the air.

And suddenly there is a blast of a whistle, the flowers are swept away and the floor covered with the sharp green of a football turf. From isolation the young people swarm into a team: a team that supports each other, that celebrates when one of them achieves a goal. They are reconnected with society, and once they find each other, they beckon to us, their audience, to join them on the turf. We lie down together and contemplate twinkling stars above; I barely heard a word the performers said, because the scene was so transporting. I thought of holidays in the countryside, drinking in constellations invisible in London, huddling beneath blankets on the lawn, always having a room, a bed, warmth to return to. I thought of metal spikes in the spaces outside buildings, and the slope of bus benches, and how I’d obtusely failed to notice they’re there to prevent rough sleepers. I thought of the day my six-year-old threatened to run away, and the primal terror that gripped me.

Turfed has the power to raise strong feelings, and finds intriguing ways – aside from direct testimony – of giving its young people a voice. In one mesmerising sequence, three performers rummage through bags of discarded clothes, throwing garments up high in a dance of lost souls. In another, a girl cries that she has nothing, no home, no money, no one to care for her – but she has her hair, her eyes, her tongue, her words coalescing into Nina Simone’s I’ve Got Life. You can feel the choreography, the direction, and sometimes this is fine, but sometimes it isn’t. A surprising amount of Turfed is dominated by a well-spoken, middle-class young white woman who projects a profoundly different energy from many of the other performers. When she speaks, it is in neat rhymes and composed poetry (spoken-word artist Polar Bear has contributed to the text); in one discombobulating scene, she sits in a bathtub and has mud rubbed into her tracksuit bottoms, as though to demonstrate her access to the dirty, dismal realm of homelessness. Of course nice, well-bred, middle-class white girls become homeless too; my discomfort at her apparent inauthenticity is in itself problematic, as is my assumption that I know who in the cast has and hasn’t had this experience. But the disjunction between her performance – the fact that she is so evidently performing – and the more raw, gawky, guileless presence of the people who do seem to talk from direct experience is marked, and troubling. That Turfed neither addresses nor even seems to acknowledge this as an issue feels inappropriate; much as I felt affected and heartened by it, I couldn’t feel wholly convinced.

By Tim Bano: a long review

Maid In Manhattan is one of those films that sounds like they came up with the pun title first, then sort of forced a plot around it. It feels a little bit like that with Turfed – playing on the double meaning of being kicked out of a home and the pitch on which football is played. But in Renato Rocha’s 45 minute brainstorm on the connections between football and youth homelessness – expressed through spoken word, dance, drawing and a small amount of audience interactivity – many moments hit upon something touching or profound or beautiful, especially as several of the performers are former street children (‘Turfed will include an international cast of artists, including Crystal from the Philippines who was born in a cemetery’ says the trailer).

I walk into a huge warehouse, casting my eyes quickly around at the various activities going on inside. “How does this relate to homelessness,” I think, “how does this relate to football, and where do the two themes intersect?” Immediately the football theme is obvious: it feels like a school gym, nets full of footballs strewn around, two locker room benches lit by neon banners saying ‘Home’ and ‘Away’, one guy is skipping. The homelessness theme emerges: a girl lies curled next to a suitcase. There are more cryptic things happening, too, like a girl drawing something on the floor with chalk, another piercing big red flowers into a bath full of turf. We wander around, familiarise ourselves, then someone speaks.

These installations and various choreographed routines are punctured by segments of spoken word. One of the performers, kicked out by his dad, says “I’m not learning to appreciate home; I’m learning simply not to need it.” The analogy, that both being in a football team and being out on the streets require some sort of rigorous training, features throughout, as does the notion of teamwork and unity. I’m not convinced.

True, homelessness and football are explored at different levels:
1. the tangible – suitcases, bags of second hand clothing; football kits and goalposts.
2. the emotional – spoken word sections on loneliness and helplessness; on the unity and rigour of a football team.
3. the symbolic – a girl draws a chalk outline of a woman on the floor and curls up foetally in its embrace; through unified dance the cast represents a football team.

But the links between football and homelessness are never quite forged fully, they always exist as disparate themes. I’m wondering whether they’ve only stuck the football focus in to coincide with the World Cup. Then I realize: of course they have. Football and homelessness sit together uncomfortably not only in this piece, but also in Brazil at the moment. Hordes of raucous, loud-mouthed football fans already have their flights booked to sit in brand new stadiums and drink beer and reap the dubious benefits of 11 billion dollars worth of investment by the Brazilian government while 20 million in the country remain homeless. The two themes don’t just go together uncomfortably on stage, but in real life too.

Still, at any given moment, when I disengage from the performance, step back and take in the whole room, it always looks beautiful. The audience is forced into its own choreography by trying to avoid the performers. The cast makes use of the space in many different ways and every configuration they are in forces us into a corresponding one of our own – we are lined up along the walls, as if waiting to be picked for a team, or dotted about among the installations.

For 30 minutes I’m absorbed, I’m enjoying it. It is admirably performed by a cast of youngsters with first-hand experience of what they’re drawing attention to. But there is nothing there to stir the soul, induce some kind of deep feeling, until the last 10 minutes.

A huge roll of felt turf is rolled out, we are pushed against the walls, goalposts erected at each end. The lights dim. Led by the hand we are invited to lie down on the turf. Stars appear on the hangar roof. Silence. Then “what do you think of when you look at the stars?” The young performers respond, they trot out the Oscar Wilde quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” These thoughts, to my cynical, middle class, theatre-going mind, are trite and sentimental. I think again: these are children speaking, revealing genuine responses to something they have experienced and I have not. Cynicism has to yield to empathy. As they’re talking the sound of rain hitting the hangar roof gets heavier and I start to think: I’m not getting wet. I’m not lying on grass. I’m watching a play. The harshness of street life is thrown into stark contrast with my own situation. This feels like a photo negative of reality: I am inside, in warmth, in safety and enjoyment; millions of children are outside, in the cold, in danger, alone and frightened.

Turfed is seeking to do nothing more than provoke this awareness in its audience. And amid the choreography, the poetry, the deconstructed Nina Simone lyrics, the projections and the cast’s exuberance razor-sharp moments stand out: Polarbear’s lyrical insight, memories of being shouted at by PE teachers on Thursday afternoons, and a girl in the middle of a hangar screaming “mama” as her desperate voice trails off into nothing.

…and a short one:

What do a homeless child and a football pitch have in common? They are both Turfed. Drawing analogies between football and homelessness director Renato Rocha tries to draw attention to both.

The audience walks into a warehouse. The football theme is obvious: nets full of footballs are strewn around, locker-room benches are lit by ‘Home’ and ‘Away’ signs. The homelessness theme emerges: a girl curled next to a suitcase. We wander around, familiarise ourselves, then someone speaks.

Installations and choreographed routines are punctured by spoken word. One of the performers, kicked out by his dad, says “I’m not learning to appreciate home; I’m learning simply not to need it.” The analogy, that both being in a football team and being out on the streets require training, features throughout.

The two themes are explored in different ways: the tangible (suitcases, footballs), the emotional (reflections on loneliness) and the symbolic (a girl draws a chalk outline of a woman on the floor and curls up foetally in its embrace). But the links between football and homelessness are never quite forged fully, they sit uncomfortably side by side – as do the 20 million homeless in Brazil and the 11 billion dollars spent on hosting the World Cup.
At any given moment the room looks beautiful. The cast’s varied use of the space forces the audience into its own configurations. It is absorbing, but not stirring until the last 10 minutes. The audience is invited to lie down, stars appear on the hangar roof. Silence. Then ‘what do you think of when you look at the stars?’ The young performers respond. Their thoughts are trite and sentimental. But these are children speaking, revealing genuine responses to something they have experienced. Cynicism has to yield to empathy. We are inside, warm, safe; millions of children are outside, cold, in danger, alone and frightened.

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