Thursday, 7 February 2013

gifts from the gods, or god i love taylor mac

Because sometimes the stars align

and fate is kind

and good things happen in a small, quiet way

I was in New York for the first preview of The Good Person of Szechwan, the one with Taylor Mac, whom I've hero-worshipped-from-afar since seeing Comparison is Violence or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook on my 35th birthday, which made stumbling into the wrong half of my 30s a considerably more gaudy and delightful experience than it had any right to be. I travelled to New York with a suitcase brimming with guilt, and didn't tell anyone I was seeing this, not even Chris Goode, whom I hero-worship-from-nearby, who asked me the day before I flew out what I'm up to at the moment and I bit my lip and obfuscated. I'm not even sure I should be writing this, because it feels like so much showing off, but Chris, I know, would love to see this production and the chances of him doing so are, I believe, non-existent. Reading about it is no kind of substitute (can you tell I'm going through yet another life crisis? Why do I do what I do? What is the point of writing about theatre?), but none the less, I hope Chris sees this as I intend it, as a kind of gift. A warning: what follows is really gushy. I recommend George Hunka for a similarly enthusiastic but more considered view.

You walk through backstage to get into the auditorium, and how magical that is, because before it even starts you feel as though you're walking through the landscape of the play, an inhabitant within it, especially because the backstage space is scattered with little cardboard houses piled higgledy-piggledy, like in a painting by Klimt. The stage is curtained (stop it, Mark Lawson nemeses) and out front sit three ruffians playing a washboard, a double bass and a silver guitar (although already I have to confess I didn't take notes, so this could have been a banjo or a mandolin: so many details), later joined by a woman in an emerald evening dress. They are the Lisps, and their music is a roughshod-but-glittering skiffle-folk – immediately setting up dichotomies to be explored through the play. On stage there's a steep stepped rake, mirroring the rake of the seating, each ledge with its own trim row of houses, and at the top of the mountain sit the band, as though among the gods, although they're not the gods at all – the Illustrious Ones are played by three wizened women in confirmation dresses, who hobble and creep yet seem as fluttery and fleet as the good fairies in the Disney Sleeping Beauty. Wang, the waterseller, bounds down our side of the mountain to look for them; played by David Turner, he is a cherub with dirt-smudged cheeks and eyes that lie, despite his longing to be good. What Turner conveys brilliantly is the boyishness of Wang's conniving, the innocence beneath his experience of poverty. There is a girlishness, too, about his performance, in the lifts of his heels, the flicks of his ankles, the soft yearning of his voice, that aligns Wang with Shen Tei: the prostitute with the heart of gold, played, oh so perfectly, by Taylor Mac.

No, wait: Taylor Mac didn't seem perfect right away. There was a touch of irony in the performance, a minute distancing of self from character, felt not in the costume – shaved head and gold high heels and a red embroidered floaty gown cut so low that his hairy chest was always exposed: a jarring combination that encouraged you to believe in the character from the inside out, not the outside in – but somewhere in the tone of things. There were moments when he didn't seem to be taking Shen Tei entirely seriously – but then, there were moments early on when the director, Lear deBessonet, didn't seem to be taking the entire play seriously, encouraging her actors towards stiltedness, cartoon excess, the grotesque. About 30 minutes in, however, something in me clicked: this is a play of diametric extremes, and in embracing that deBessonet is better able to illuminate the subtlety, complexity and pain that exists between them.

And that's where Taylor Mac becomes perfect: in the switching back and forth from soft-as-silk Shen Tei, crushed by the demands of the people around her, by her own needs and desires, by the impossibility of always giving to a world that only takes, and Shen Tei's imaginary cousin, Shui Ta, rigid as a pole in a pinstriped suit, arriving on stage with a yelp from the band that sounds like the thwack of a whip and a leap in the air that puts you in mind of Rowan Atkinson playing a kick-boxing Hitler. There's an extraordinary scene – singing the Song of the Defencelessness of the Good and the Gods – where he changes from the costume of her to him before our eyes, and every note and gesture conveys furious disappointment, or perhaps disillusioned fury, that the merciless, ruthless Shui Ta should be necessary. Even more wonderful is the song that closes the first half: it's not in my John Willett translation, and could have been written by the Lisps, so I can't quote the lyrics, but it's a declaration of love (for Yang Sun, deliciously played by Clifton Duncan, as an erotic promise wrapped around an adolescent tantrum) sinuous with soul rhythm, mellifluous with doo-wop harmony sung by the rest of the cast, with not a trace of sentimentality about it. 

Playing Shen Tei sentimentally would be so easy. As embodied by Taylor Mac, she is throughout a creature of electric contradiction. After all, Shui Ta is her own invention. On paper, Shen Tei's myriad direct addresses to the audience make her look like a mouthpiece for ideology; in the flesh, Taylor Mac injects her tenderness with desperation – the desperation that makes Shui Ta's embrace of capitalism, and Shen Tei's dissolution of self beneath his ice-pick cruelty, possible. The moment of confessing this split personality to the gods is riveting, because Shen Tei's humanity, with all its flaws, is absolute – and that makes the inhumanity of the gods more glaring and cruel.

So yes, Taylor Mac is exquisite. But really, I found the whole thing exquisite, and not just because being there felt like my own gift from the gods. Once I'd adjusted to the performance style I found the cast uniformly terrific, vulgar, messy and oddly lovable. I shivered at the simple beauty of staging: the three little puppet gods going to sleep in Shen Tei's house; the tiny windows of the houses glowing in the dark; Shen Tei's wedding dress, pastel silk with a bush of frou-frou netting for a bridal veil; the gnarled tree from which Yang Sun tries to hang himself, which Shen Tei – or was it Shui Ta? – wrenches down, an act of destruction signalling the imminent wreck of her own soul. Most of all, I loved that it did that cliched thing: it made this 70-year-old play, by Brecht's own admission (at least, according to this other extremely useful piece by George Hunka) a bit of a shambles, feel like a coherent attack on the world directly outside the theatre, a world as riven by inequality as the one on stage. And because the play felt so vital, the epilogue felt like a gauntlet:

Should men be better? Should the world be changed?
Or just the gods? Or ought there to be none?
We for our part feel well and truly done.
There's only one solution that we know:
That you should now consider as you go
What sort of measures you would recommend
To help good people to a happy end.

Just good people? Of course not. Because if The Good Person of Szechwan teaches us nothing else (and it remains didactic, if winningly, entertainingly so), it's that there are no “good” people or “bad” people, just people who exist within a certain set of circumstances, following its rules, sometimes with a sense of power and self-determination, more often helplessly and without choice. It's not happy endings that are needed, but a comprehensive attack on the rules that make the circumstances. This production, vibrant with wild spirit, glinting with transgression, feels itself like an attack on the rules. That, too, makes it magical.

vanity project 7: feast

I haven't done one of these for a while, but I overwrote my piece about Feast considerably – of course I did, it's a play written by five people, all of whom had smart and interesting things to say, plus it's directed by Rufus Norris, who is so many kinds of brilliant I lost count years ago – so here's the original version. I really enjoyed the show, although I saw it two nights before press night, at which point the multiple feasts of the second half still felt disjointed and confusing, but the first-half sweep across history was absorbing, particularly the scenes set in Brazil (is freedom a gift or a penance for an aged slave?) and Cuba (what can a communist prostitute understand about a capitalist financial crisis?), the singing and dance was gorgeous, and that small crush I've been harbouring on Kobna Holdbrook-Smith became a pretty big crush by the end. Plus it's got a live chicken on stage, and a Nigerian email scam, which you could barely hear for the collective shout of laughter – and what better feeling can you get in the theatre than that?

*

 In a warehouse in west London there's a party going on. Sola Akingbola, the drummer from Jamiroquai, is playing a bright, joyful shuffle on a shekere – a large maraca strung with beads. Amid a buzz of chatter in Spanish and English, Cuban dancer Yanet Fuentes shivers her hips to the rhythm. Damon Albarn of Blur, who has a studio nearby, pops in to say hello, and is irresistibly drawn to the musicians' corner, where he starts improvising on a thumb piano. Actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith whoops as he masters a jittery Latin dance sequence. And at the heart of the hubbub sits theatre director Rufus Norris – the man responsible for harnessing this vibrant atmosphere and putting it on to the stage of London's Young Vic.

This is a typical morning in the rehearsal room for Feast, a new play tracing the spread of Yoruba culture from its home in Nigeria to Cuba, Brazil, the US and UK. Since he began directing in the late-1990s, Norris has always sought out difficult projects – such as London Road, a jaggedly modern musical dealing with the aftermath of serial killings in Ipswich, and Dr Dee, Damon Albarn's first opera, about a 16th-century alchemist – and Feast is no exception. It has five writers, who live in four continents, and between them cover 300 years of Yoruba experience, taking in slavery, liberation, family and social politics, and the struggle to live up to one's ancestors. But Feast isn't a history lesson, says Norris, and if it's going to feel authentic to the Yoruba belief system, in which everything from a table to a sheet of corrugated plastic is infused with its own spirit, “you can't just have a load of blah-blah on stage”. Which is why he's spending a lot of this morning gently arguing with his Cuban choreographer, George Cespedes, about the need for actors to perform the intricate dance moves, to invigorate the production.

Feast was dreamed up by Elyse Dodgson, who runs the international department at London's Royal Court (who are co-producing the show with the Young Vic). In the mid-2000s, Dodgson happened to be working simultaneously with playwrights in Nigeria and Latin America and was struck by how the orishas, or spirits, of Yoruba belief had travelled across the Atlantic through slavery and fused with Catholicism to form the basis of related religions, Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil. “It's such an amazing story of survival,” says Dodgson. The trouble was, how to tell it. It took two years of workshops, involving as many as 10 playwrights, to reach the form that Feast is in now. Those workshops, says Gbolahan Obisesan, who lives in London but was born to a Yoruba family in Nigeria, were full of robust argument, as he and the other writers struggled to “agree on something that links all of us together”.

Norris insisted from the beginning that he didn't want the show to feel like a string of bitty, unconnected vignettes, and that influenced the decision to make Feast consolidate around four figures in the complex Yoruba cosmology: Yemoja, the mother goddess; Oshun, goddess of love; Oya, the spirit of change; and Eshu, the trickster, who causes chaos wherever he goes. These archetypal characters are reincarnated across the show, taking the form of sisters separated by slave traders, civil rights protesters in 1960s America, and athletes in modern London discussing whether black people should have white partners, personal or professional. Each of the five writers – American Tanya Barfield, Cuban Yunior García Aguilera, Nigerian Rotimi Babatunde, Brazilian Marcos Barbosa, and Obisesan, who moved to the UK when he was nine – is responsible for the segments of story set in their own country.

Clearly this isn't an easy way to work: even trying to interview the five writers proves almost impossible. So why not settle on a single writer and allow him or her to get on with it? Babatunde speaks for all of them when he says: “The dynamics of the story of Nigerian diaspora can only properly be reflected by the changing tones of each section. Having a straight narrative would undermine the richness and diversity of the historical experience.” What makes this more exciting, argues Barfield, is that: “It's rare to have the structure and the theme [of a play] work so much in tandem. The weaving of the stories mirrors the weaving of belief systems, the syncretism of Yoruba culture.” Or, as Barbosa puts it: “Only a multi-authored piece can reveal multiple contrasts and extra layers of meaning that will make complexity the core of the play, not just an adjective for it.”

There's another, practical reason, says Norris: “There are details in the Cuba scene that nobody who wasn't from there would come up with. Similarly, nobody can really write the Nigerian scene unless they have a deep understanding of the women there. Tiny details are the things that give it authenticity.” Those details have to be found in the staging, too – which is why it's so useful to Norris that one of the dancers, Alexander Varona, is a santeria believer: the staging includes a shrine to Babalu Aye (the earth spirit), and Varona has been giving advice on how to interact with it.

The five writers have met only once, when they came together for a workshop in London in spring 2012, but discovered links between them both expected and unforeseen. For instance, Babatunde knew that the orishas had travelled to Latin America with slavery, but hadn't realised how openly they are worshipped in Brazil and Cuba: appreciation of the cosmology is “engrained in the fabric of life” for the Yoruba of Nigeria, he says, but worship tends to happen furtively. García Aguilera confirms that the orishas inform a lot of day-to-day rituals in Cuba – the spilling of the first drop from a bottle of rum to appease them, for instance – yet it was while he was in London that he went to his first santeria ceremony.

Obisesan says that one of the key beliefs his Yoruba parents instilled in him was that: “when you step out of the household, you're not just a representation of yourself as a human being in the world, you represent the whole family, the house you were brought up in. You represent your ancestors.” And this is something that Tanya Barfield, raised in Oregon, recognises from her own upbringing. “Many black Americans have no knowledge of our ancestors whatsoever, yet the belief system of ancestral heritage is fundamental to the black community,” she argues. And although she was brought up Christian, the Yoruba belief in pervasive spirits felt familiar, too: “The idea of God being everywhere is very much a part of African-American belief.”

This idea of pervasive spirits was key to Norris' staging of Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King'sHorseman at the National Theatre in 2009: because the audience could see that the stage furniture and props were “alive”, but the white colonial characters couldn't, the audience felt more connected to the Yoruba on stage. Norris himself lived in Nigeria for the first three years of his life, while his father taught in a university there; to him, belief in spirits makes perfect sense. “It's not romantic. There's an energy to things, and the people there have a deep understanding of that.” He remembers reading an interview with a babalawo – a Yoruba priest – who, at the suggestion that his beliefs were mere superstition, replied along the lines of: “If somebody is blind, you cannot talk to them about sight. You can't see it: I can. I'll just have to allow you to remain in ignorance.”

Norris not only admires this attitude, but argues that it helps to explain the tenacity of Yoruba culture, its survival of slavery, its permeation into other lands. That, and the idea of asese – an acceptance of mistake as a part of everyday life and fuel for growth. In a prominent position in his rehearsal room is a whiteboard with an invocation to asese written on it: it's his way of saying “bring it on” to the spirit of chaos that hovers in any rehearsal room.

That dauntlessness will stand him in good stead as Feast opens to the public. Not only do multi-authored plays tend not to go down well with critics, but this is the latest production to emerge from World Stages London, a collaborative project between eight London theatres whose work last year – including Babel, Three Kingdoms and Wah!Wah! Girls – received very mixed reviews. “If I'm honest with you, I'm bracing myself,” says Norris of next week's press night. “But this is a celebration of an amazing culture – you can't deliver that in a lecture form. And our theatre needs to open up. It's no good, this boring literary constriction that we sit within a lot of the time.” And with that, he goes back to the Latin dancers, the beaming rhythms, the orishas hidden in his actors' souls.