Theatre Critic and Journalist

Once and For All We’re Going to Tell You / That Night Follows Day

Once and For All We’re Going to Tell You / That Night Follows Day

Rarely have two pieces of theatre existed so tightly entwined as That Night Follows Day and Once and For All We’re Going to Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen. For the past six months they have been repeatedly conflated as part of a larger discussion about the role of children and young people in theatre. Lyn Gardner has blogged about it here and here, while Brian Logan wrote a terrific feature on the pair for The Times.

Though both are performed entirely and exclusively by people under the age of eighteen, neither fits the mould of “youth theatre” as we know it in Britain. For it is not simply the taking part that counts – i.e. as extra-curricular activity – but the process as a genuine collaboration towards a product. Indeed, both are products that reach far beyond mere parental pride: they are built entirely around their performers. These are not children playing amateurishly at and adrift in an adult art-form; they own that art-form. Rather than scaled-down shortcomings of adult performers – pale imitations of professionals, ill-fitting the demands of a text – the young performers are totally integral to the pieces. Neither could function if performed by adults. Moreover, both pieces exist in close proximity to one another formally and stylistically. That the two pieces should emerge entirely independently, not only at the same time, but from the same place (Ghent, Belgium) makes them the feature writer’s freebie.

Last week offered London audiences the unusual opportunity to see both pieces in quick succession. That Night Follows Day, a collaboration between Tim Etchells and Victoria, played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the SPILL Festival, while Ontroerend Goed (literally: Feel Estate) returned to the BAC with Once and For All….

On the criss-cross multi-coloured grid of a school gym, That Night Follows Day (TNFD) lines up sixteen Belgian children aged between eight and fourteen. They stand at the edge of the stage, arms dangling gawkily by their sides, addressing us with their eyes. Then they start to speak. They speak to us, at us and about us. Etchells’ text, characteristically inexuberant in its candidness, is a list of home-truths and half-truths about adult behaviour towards children. By turns accusatory and appreciative, spinning from melancholy to humour and back, it reflects us through their eyes:

“You feed us. You dress us. You choose clothes for us. You bathe us. You lay down the law. You sing to us. You watch us sleep. You make us promises and sometimes hope we will not remember them. You tell us stories you hope will frighten us, but not too much. You try to tell us about the world.”

Our words and actions bounce back at us like echoes, somehow ridiculous in this guise of objectivity. However, as a piece of text delivered, it stings even as it raises a smile. It blames us but it understands why we acted thus: that we could do no other; that all is done in reverend care of them; that we kill them with kindness. Yet the burning question remains: What gives us the right to impose our worldviews? How do we know? How did we even come to believe such things? Through this chorus of minors, we see ourselves but we also see how we became so and, in that, the real indictment is of the cycle of human behaviour unquestioningly accepted and inherited. TNFD seems a lament for what could have been had we not continually curtailed childish curiosity and stood in the way of possibilities, stamping on the what-ifs, why-nots and wouldn’t-if-be-greats.

Ontroerend Goed’s Once and For All… presents a similar parade, this time made up of Belgian teenagers between fourteen and eighteen. In some ways, it seems a sequel whereby placid acceptance has been supplanted by frustrated revolution.

On and around thirteen wooden chairs, mismatched and scarred, this chorus erupts into action. They flick one another with balloons, flirt, slap, nudge and wink. They scorch Barbies, snog, spit and skate. They whisper; they irritate; they observe; they hide; they go far, far too far. After about eight minutes of this, a buzzer sounds and they clear up. Then, they do it all again, exactly as before. This sequence of actions repeats in multiple styles – as ballet, as rave, as the remnants of a drug-fuelled party, as spoken text alone and entirely without performers. Each time, the soundtrack shifts – and it is this that truly draws you in – stoking up feelings of envy, of shared ebullience, of fear, of loathing, of nostalgia, of missed opportunities and of sympathy. Finally, after one of the most affecting and wholehearted texts I have heard in performance (see trailer), it doubles, even triples, in size. Plastic cups become water-cooler bottles, push-bikes become quad-bikes and commotion becomes complete, joyous pandemonium.

It is a piece that insists on tripping you up. Not once, but over and again. It forces you to look back and reconsider that which you have just seen. For while Once and For All… celebrates adolescence, it also fears for it. It revels in its recklessness and its uninhibited presence, without forgetting its insecurities and its anger; confirming clichés with one hand even as it bats them away with the other.

Curiously, both begin with offstage noise and unpeopled stages. TNFD transmits the generic sounds of a schoolyard over its speakers, while from the wings of Once and For All… scratched throats screech and balloons squeak. The effect is to conjure our own pre-existent idea of children as a starting point. We think of them as noisy inconviences, disturbances that have invaded our civilised leisure-time in a grown-up space where conventions rule and silence is golden. Yet, we are also confronted by our own willingness to group them together as an abstract idea according to age alone. Such presumptions then stand as precedent to be examined, shredded and subverted.

Indeed, when the performers traipse onto the stage – TNFD: with an attempted discipline; OAFA: untidily and unevenly – to form their respective line-ups, it is individuality that leaps to the fore. This is no surprise since, as form, the staged identity parade allows for, and even demands, comparison between performers, both as bodies presented and personalities revealed. Both casts are dressed to form a collage of colours – much like Castellucci’s masses in Inferno – that provides a certainty unity through divergence. They form a chorus of individuals; distinct yet bracketed together.

Though both casts contain the same mix of the plain, the slightly odd and the beautiful found amongst the everyday populace, as part of these collections they all seem somehow better-looking, somehow more perfect. Together, the children of TNFD – some squat, some gangly, most with clunky haircuts and asymmetrical features – seem cutesy and glowing, Aryan models of childhood, adorable for all their individual quirks and oddities. In Once and For All… the teenagers, as Iona Firouzabadi wrote for Culture Wars, “look like an ad campaign: they are uniformly thin, beautiful and well-groomed.” Except – when seen in isolation or offstage, when really examined and scrutinized – they don’t. In part, this beautification is due to the exoticism of their looks – all perfectly European – and also the transformative power of being onstage, being present and being framed. However, presented thus, the children and teenagers become objects of fascination. In addition to being particulars, both individuals and a group, they also stand in for (perhaps represent) children or teenagers as a whole, both as ‘species’ and as concept, and in this they are, in no uncertain terms, different from us, the watching adults. (Theron Smidt has written about this exquisitely here.) There is a certain element of transferral at play – we project this aesthetic appeal onto them on account of their energy and their youth. Youth presented onstage so directly cannot but take us back to our own younger days; it dredges up and makes us long for our own pasts. Our nostalgia, tinged with envy, somehow transforms their collective and individual appearance.

This element of nostalgia brings us on to the adult perspective contained within process. Being directed, written and sculpted by adult hands, both pieces have a level of consciousness about and distance from the subject of youth. Though this manifests itself differently in each piece, both Ethcells and Alexander Devrient have been accused of puppeteering rather than genuinely collaborating. TNFD places an adult’s script, albeit one written from a/the child’s perspective, into the mouths of children. Given that the text is entirely about the manipulation of children’s actions, thoughts and worldviews by adults, this adds further depth to the piece. Indeed, Etchells is too aware not to make use of it:

“You give us words to memorise. You make us stand in lines. You tell us that an actor is only a parrot saying words he cannot understand.”

“You tell us that sometimes things are not as simple as they seem.”

This layer is further heightened by the addition of surtitles, projected onto a blackboard above the stage, that translate the Dutch spoken by the children into English. For an English audience, meaning is further dislocated from the act of speaking. Equally, when they spring into action, they do not simply play, they embody an adult perspective on children’s play that seems somehow like an edited view of a generic playground. These children do not mean what they say and do. Instead, someone else means for them to say what they say and to do what they do. (For me, the most honest moment of TNFD is the final line of arms raised to acknowledge those involved offstage. Never has the expression meant so much.)

To a certain extent the same is true of Once and For All…, which also places a text written by an adult into the mouths of its performers, albeit more sporadically. As for their actions, Devrient insists the teenagers are the authors and he the editor. Arguably, however, it is in this very editing process that Once and For All’s meaning is fully created. The teenagers are told to play, to explore, to go too far when devising, from which the director harnesses actions and moments to shape into a whole that fits his own devices. Sure, the teenagers understand the piece and its aims, but they were not entirely complicit in its creation. Again, they act to convey the meaning of another.

Somehow this disruption of meaning and action adds the further problem of self-consciousness. Over the period of eight months in which I have seen Once And For All… three times, the teenagers have become more aware of their power over an audience. They have gained a higher degree of control over the piece: they understand how to manipulate it in relation to a reacting audience. They play moments for laughs, they use elements as direct confrontation. They seem to perform, even to act, where before they simply did and, in this, some of the piece’s power dissolves. The same can be noticed amongst the elder children of TNFD; fourteen year olds that have become aware of the piece’s workings to start to manipulate it for their own ends. With this in mind, I would suggest that manipulation is a key factor to the success of both, even that neither can function in the same way without some level of manipulation of their performers. Consciousness of self and of effect stifles the meaning of their actions.

Alongside this growth towards self-awareness is the presence of physical growth. Both pieces very consciously use a range of ages; they incorporate the crucial element of change in their view of childhood or adolescence. Thus, in TFND, there are a couple of breaking voices that could almost graduate to Once And For All…, which itself has hallmarks of childhood – braces and Barbies – in its midst. Furthermore, to see the pieces at different times is, thanks to the marks of time, a very different experience. These are pieces that can change quite shockingly as the performers seem entirely different. And, as pieces, they must reflect this. One girl in Once and For All… has gone from styling her Barbie to setting it alight – a direct rejection of her former, younger self. Indeed, arguably, the process of the piece has itself had a radical effect on those performers; it has allowed them, albeit sporadically, escape from the bounds they rail against. It has privileged them the treatment of adults, or perhaps, the teenagers that they long to be. Personally, in this, I find the teenager a more interesting species, for where the child sits between infant and adolescent, the teenager exists liminally between childhood and adulthood. They are neither one nor the other, yet – physically and mentally – they display qualities of both. The adolescent possesses a certain dynamic quality to the child’s more stagnant status.

This is, I think, reflected in the dimensionality of both pieces. While both TNFD and Once and For All… are structured around a central point allowing multiple permutations, the latter seems a denser mix. TNFD remains flat – a progression of time through, in the main part, a single game of language. Once and For All… has the same progression of one game, but within each segment there exist an array of mini-games. Each of the nine or ten recreations is itself packed with different elements and it is for precisely this reason that it can be re-watched and re-discovered. Each time I have seen it, I have become more conscious of the quieter moments that sit contented in the background. While the teenager as loud, as boisterous, as revolutionary steps to the front, behind it lurks a reflection of teenage sincerity and maturity, insecurity and care. For me, while both make their mark succinctly and effectively, it is this very dimensionality that make Once and For All… the more exciting viewing experience.

Photograph: Chad Balka

 

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