MB 3 a me
Hats off or Andrew O’Connor
Andrew O'Connor has never been one to let criticism stand in his way. Even being seen as an ephemeral game-show host doesn‘t bother the 32»year-old. who arrives in Edinburgh this fortnight to star in the circus musical Barnum.
‘l‘d care if people came to see me in Barnum and thought I couldn‘t do it. bttt I don't care if they see me as a guy who‘s just done loads of garne- shows.‘ he claims emphatically. 'l've been really lucky in that from the age of 2i I‘ve done a series every year. but it's not that it‘s come easy to me. l‘ve had to work hard for everything. I‘m not like Shane Ritchie or Bobby Davro. just doing the act. l get more involved in the production side of things. and l have a sort of catholic knowledge of all sides of the business.‘
He may have an overactive ego. but then wouldn't you? Starting on the club circuit as a magician, ()‘Connor broke through to garne- shows and set up his own production company. before being approached to do Barnum. He turned it down. feeling he wouldn‘t be allowed to improve on the original. Finally this year. O‘Connor was ready to tackle the show that starred Jim Dale on Broadway and helped make a West End star of Michael Crawford.
‘lt has all the same songs and scripts that the old show used to have. but there‘s lots more new effects and tricks.‘ O'Connor enthuses. ‘i do things that no one‘s ever done before. like a strait- jacket escape. juggling with fire and walking backwards on a tightrope. Even if you're not into musicals. you‘ll still enjoy the spectacle and the physical dexterity of it.‘ (Philip Dorward) Barnum. K ing Zr Theatre,
Edinburgh. Tue 7—Sat I8 November.
As Tom Stoppard’s latest work reaches Scotland, director Gemma Bodinetz talks grey matter with David Harris.
in his polemical essay. ‘The Two Cultures'. C.P. Snow bemoaned the fact that while a scientist would be thought philistine if he knew nothing of Proust. literary intellectuals feel secure in their ignorance of basic scientific facts such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. At the risk of scaring off potential audiences. Tom Stoppard's latest play Arcadia combines the law (roughly. ‘the universe is decaying') with literary detection and chaos theory (‘tiny events can trigger huge consequences') to comment on the transitoriness of human life and learning.
Alternating scene by scene between the early l9th and 20th centuries. the play tells the story of a tnathematical prodigy and her tutor. in 1809. the young Thomasina is making great advances in applied maths. advances which surface only in the light of contemporary literary—historical research. As the action shuttles hack and forth from one time frame to another, the dramatic irony is heightened by the audience‘s awareness that the present-day characters are deluded in their interpretations of the past.
Underlying what director Gemma
Arcadia: exploring the ‘Two Cultures’
Bodinetx. accepts is ‘an extremely
complex play' is the idea of lost
wisdom and frustrated genius. Despite
Stoppard‘s technical facility. she insists
that Arcadia is more than a theatrical gloss on Big Science. ‘I was never that
big a fan of Tom Stoppard‘s before i did this.‘ she admits. ‘I admired him.
but I didn‘t like sitting in an audience
where people were patting themselves on the back for getting the last classical allusion. The wonderful thing about this play is that there is a huge emotional story running through it; the rest is there for the taking.‘
The obvious question is that if it's not essential. why is it there? is it just a case of second-hand ideas flattering the pretensions of Snow‘s Establishment snobs? ‘I sat here the first night terrified that 90 per cent ofthe audience were switching off whenever science was mentioned.‘ says the director ta phrase like ‘iterated algorithms‘ is likely to generate panic in people who equate algebra with dreary winter afternoons spent gazing
out of classroom windows). ‘But I think they catch up by the end.’ she adds. ‘Tom is the first to admit that his science is amateur - he's a brilliant man. so what he calls amateur is probably undergraduate — but it's as much as an average audience can take. What he does is make it emotive. and I think that‘s a skill in itself.‘
The ‘Two Cultures‘ debate is itself explored through the communication difficulties of a contemporary literary author and a scientist. a breakdown which also mirrors that between past and present. For Bodinetz — who has revived the show after assisting Trevor Nunn on the original Royal National Theatre production — the interplay between the eventual death of everything and the chaotic unpredictabilty ofevents adds gravitas to the tale ofthe ill-fated girl genius. ‘What Thomasina and her tutor stumble upon is this idea that the world will end; but if we imagine a universe where there isjust one butterﬂy that flaps its dying wings. that could trigger off the whole process again.‘
Of course. that’s grist to the sneering scientist‘s mill. but on a short-term metaphorical level. the message is more robust. ‘lt‘s an extremely moving play.’ says Bodinetz. ‘insofar as we see how nothing is lost. Those things that we drop will be picked up by those behind us; the lost plays in the library at Alexandria that were burnt will be written again by another hand.‘ One wonders who would have the temerity in some future age to rewrite the Stoppard oeuvre.
Arcadia. Royal National Theatre Company. K ing Ir Theatre. Glasgow. until Man 6 November; Edinburgh Festival Thea/re. Tue 7—Sai / I November:
True confessions are something to die for. They happen every day. In Speak Bitterness, seven people line up and tell their worst. Genocide. Child- battering. flicking the last biscuit. The lot.
‘l feel really conscious that we’re, making this piece in a culture that’s obsessed with confessing,’ says Tim Etchell, who directed the show for Forced Entertainment. ‘On chat-shows and in the media generally there’s an awful lot of soul baring. In Speak Bitterness you listen to confessions of a whole lot of stuff these people clearly haven’t done, but you still think they sound like they could’ve done it, or at least fantasised about it.’
In their eleven-year existence, Forced Entertainment have been on the cutting edge of British performance art, confounding and bewildering as often as they dazzle and entice with their sense-maiming ‘collage aesthetic’ fusions of form. ‘We’ve always been more influenced by other mediums — cinema, literature, music - so we’ve never been a theatre company with a capital T,’ comments Etchell. Perhaps this is why funding bodies fail to comprehend how
Forgive me, father. . . Forced Entertainment confesses
something labelled ‘theatre’ can break through its own definitions to play galleries, create site-specific work in Manchester Central Library, and even set up a coach trip around their home base of Sheffield.
Speak Bitterness first appeared in a marathon, five-hour ‘instaliational’ version at Glasgow’s CCA last year, and the current honed-down version marks something of a departure from their usual ‘channel-hopping’ approach. ‘lt’s more intimate, calmer,’ Etchells explains. ‘lt’s quite an extreme show in that way, very single- minded and demanding because it doesn’t have the thrills or the camouflage of the other pieces.’
flot even the camouflage has previously been exposed to Edinburgh audiences, which is all the more
reason to take advantage of the Decade of Forced Entertainment retrospective, a collage of colleges if you like, which receives a rare and possiny final airing as part of the Assembly Alive! season of experimental arts.
One thing all the shows have is a sense of the ridiculous. ‘Speak Bitterness works out of juxtaposing the heinous with the banal, so the more cowed the performers are to the trivial, the more absurd things become,’ says Etchells. ‘As a performer you’re constantly measuring yourself against roles. This piece is a microcosm of that, because every time someone confesses, they’re measuring themselves against an entire catalogue of human weaknesses.’
Etchells sums up the piece by quoting from Vietnam war correspondent Michael Ilerr’s book Dispatches. ‘Maybe we’re as responsible for everything we see as we are for everything we do.” You’re witness to so many things in this world, whether by direct experience or second or third-hand through the media. This piece is saying we’ve lived through these times.’ (ffeil Cooper)
Speak Bitterness, Forced Entertainment, Assemny Booms, Edinburgh, Thurs 9-Sat 11 November. A Decade of Forced Entertainment, same venue, Sat 11 November.
58 The List 3-16 Nov I995