Featuring false eyelashes, fishnet tights and a circus horse, Rose English’s My Mathematics promises to befuddle as it entertains. Mark Fisher speaks to the performance artist who likes old-fashioned theatres.
Performance art normally contents itself with playing to coterie audiences in small, black studios. if it ever does break out ofthe art centre circuit. it is to play in unusual ‘found’ spaces not associated with theatre. There are exceptions. of course. Neil Bartlett comes to mind as someone who has straddled the worlds of culture-sussed audiences at the CCA and of popular crowds at Blackpool Grand — and now he’s even running his own regular theatre in London. Another example is Rose English. a fine art graduate and ex- dancer who earned a performance art pedigree in the 70s creating installations with filmmaker Sally Potter and working with Lumiere and Son, but after going solo in the 80s. took to thinking big, producing extravagant shows in odd places like swimming pools and ice-rinks. And these days, there’s nothing Rose English likes better than a well-proportioned traditional theatre.
‘lt’s not an inevitability that some work has to remain in a gallery space,’ says English, ‘it depends on what the artist aspires to. i love those old pros- arch stages. they’re a complete pleasure to perform on. The very first time i did. it was completely different to what I’d imagined. l thought the audience
My Mathematics: horse-powered entertainment
would feel much tnore far away and alienated, but it was the opposite. It was as if the grand, pros-arch theatre allowed the audience to be more relaxed. That was a revelation and a pleasure and l’ve never wanted to get off one since.‘
in My Mathematics, English plays a showgirl whose overbearing personality has led to the desertion of the orchestra and troupe of horses that once backed her on stage. One ofthe show’s themes is about the way art often makes people feel baffled and humiliated. as though some information has been withheld from them, leaving them feeling like children puzzling
over the bewildering comers of their maths books. But My Mathematics is not just about being bewildered. it is bewildering itself. and Mathematics is also the name of the real horse that interrupts the showgirl‘s philosophical musings. bringing with him a comically unpredictable edge. ‘My experience of working with animals.’ says English, fully used to being upstaged, ‘is sometimes they go all out to take the whole thing over and sometimes they just want to be low key. l’ve presented the show with three different horses: Duke, who’s the one l’m working with here, is an old trouper; Charlie, the one I worked with in Australia, was a real rascal who was used to
‘I love large spectacular shows, with
chorus lines and costumes, but I also
really love philosophy, so why not put the two together?’
doing a double-act with his trainer and liked biting and nipping and was out for fun; and the one in New York was very sensual and gentle and allowed tne to be very intimate with him.’
My Mathematics, then, sits somewhere between the showbiz razzmatazz of circus, the self-consciousness of performance art, the excesses of camp and the honesty of straight-forward entertainment. ‘Traditionally, in the realm of art you’re not supposed to be interested in entertainment. So if you’re interested in both, as i am. you just have to get on with it and insist that you can be interested in all
these different things. People’s experience of being
alive means that they don’t view things in compartments. That’s what it is to be a human being — you have a diversity of interests and a diversity of loves. l happen to love large spectacular shows, with chorus lines and costumes, but i also really love philosophy. so why not put the two together?’
My Mathematics, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Fri 11
mm- Will in a China shop
Hot on the heels of The Touring Partnership’s The Provoked Wife, comes Twelfth Night, a co-production between the Royal Lyceum and Salisbury Playhouse. The aim is much the same: both theatres decided to pool their )oint resources to share a larger scale production. Twelfth Night is the result of the teams’ combined skills. On its way from Salisbury to Edinburgh, the production took a detour . . . to China.
Invited to appear in Shanghai’s Shakespeare Festival (which featured groups from Australia, Germany and Leeds), company members undertook a four-city, three-week tour of China. None of them were prepared for their audience’s unrivalled enthusiasm for,
and knowledge of, Shakespeare. ‘They were just thrilled to have a British company performing Shakespeare,’ says veteran theatre, television and film actor Peter Kelly, who plays Malvolio. Such acclamation may maintain Shakespeare’s claim to universality, yet Kelly fears it also
as Malvolio: ‘one-way traffic’
epitomises a common rarefied attitude to the West. ‘lt’s all one-way traffic,’ says Kelly. ‘Thelr big cities are very, very Western. They seem to be destroying their own culture. My heart sank when I arrived in Beijing and saw
Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken
identities is perhaps a very apt choice for China now: within both the country and the play there is a great changing of roles, both in outward appearances, and in psychological outlook. Amidst the turbulence of change, for example, Malvolio’s prudishness struggles with an overwhelming desire to break free. ‘He’s never experienced love,’ says Kelly, ‘and when he has the chance, he goes a little mad. It’s rather moving.’
Much the same could be said of the unusual set. ‘Yes, there’s lots of movement involved,’ admits Kelly, referring to the very large, (12ft high by 16ft across) box, from which scenes unfold, and into which so much tech time was poured. ‘They were amazed at the set,’ says Kelly of the Chinese, ‘and loved the production, but said they would have liked it to have a happier ending.’ I expect China’s hoping for a happy ending too. (Gabe Stewart)
Twelfth Night, Royal lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Thurs 10 Nov—Sat 3 Dec.
The List 4—17 November 1994 57