Theatre Critic and Journalist

9, West Yorkshire Playhouse

9, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Critics sometimes talk about the white heat of the playhouse, referring to the energy of a show carrying into the writing process that follows it. It’s sort of the holy grail of criticism. It involves pinning down the experience of watching a particular performance on a particular night in a particular theatre. It’s a phrase used to convey a review that seems to have been marinated in the atmosphere of the moment itself. It’s also used to excuse a heartfelt opinion solidified in print that has been cooled by the cold light of day.

More than any piece of theatre I can remember, 9 needs and exists in that white heat. Outside of the moment, at room temperature, its individual elements could be fairly inert, but in performance, with an audience to act as Bunsen burner, it erupts into the most tremendous chemical reaction.

That makes writing about 9 six days on rather difficult. It would have been difficult by the next day, because 9 doesn’t really work on paper. Judged as staged content, as one might an RSC production or even another of Chris Goode and Company’s shows, it could easily be dismissed as mediocre. It is not. Quite the opposite, in fact; it is extraordinary and watching it has completely changed my understanding of what theatre is capable of.

However, that will not come across in a witness statement of what happened onstage. Translating 9 into bald descriptive prose – and then, and then, and then – would be like serving a fondue after it has had time to cool. Served cold, it’s not really a fondue anymore; it’s just cheese.

(Actually, now I’ve come back to that line to edit this, I can see what was underneath that analogy. Like 9, a fondue is process as much as product. Judged as content alone, 9 looks naïve; but as an event or process that naivety is not only integral but, arguably, pivotal. As such, there is a degree of relativity in the mix. It’s quality hinges on the people involved. That’s not a usual state of affairs for criticism and the risk is that any praise looks patronising. However, no standards have been lowered in the making of this review; they have just had a wider scope.)

Nonetheless: 9 consists of nine solo performances* by nine members of the public. Nine non-professional performers. By nine participants drawn from the local community.

Actually, let’s just call them people. That’s what they are and that’s exactly how 9 treats them. Not, as so often in participation projects, as examples of a particular species of person. Not as charity cases or quota-ticking devices. But as people, in and of themselves.

Together, they do represent a species, but it is all-encompassing: people. Maybe ordinary people, but each one of them seems both extraordinary and extra ordinary at the same time.

So, 9 consists of nine solo performances by nine people. Each performance is a self-portrait of sorts. They are absolutely individual, ranging from a self-penned song sung to an abstract movement piece moved to an autobiographical monologue spoken. In each case, the verb is as integral as the noun; the performing is essential to the performance. Only one – the last, in which Emi Neilson performs a flamenco dance – attempts anything remotely virtuosic.

To skim through the individual performances from my notes made at the time, they are, in order:

Fabiana Kvam, an Italian mother, dressed in an Anne Boleyn-style dress, charting her life in shoes: youth’s carefree colourful heels; a bride’s dainty white heels; two toppled black shoes for a death; and a trail of gold and silver killer heels, a second youth, even more carefree than the first. Intermittently interrupted by recordings of her daughter on the phone, talking about events in her own life.

Oliver Scarth, 23, born with a hair lip cleft palate. Talks about the condition with honesty and humour, from his family’s initial reaction (Grandmother: ‘Oh my God, he’s got foot and mouth.’) to their support that gave him such self-confidence. Paints on a screen, removes a stencil, leaving the words: ‘Thank you Mum.’
Shelia Howarth

Sheila Howarth, whose parents arrived from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush in 1948. A nurse – ‘I remember the first time I saw a dead body’ – with a hearty sense of humour. Survived a heart attack and cancer. And tells us about it, intermittently interrupted by phone calls.

Benjamin Fisk, 27 (I think), a social worker armed with a soap box and a trombone. Talks passionate and levelly about the coalition and their cuts and emits angry squawks on the trombone. “It allows us to see one another. It allows us to really see one another and to think we’re not alone,” he says.

Marg Greenwood, sings a song with a verse for each of the five best bits of her life. The lyrics are tiny fragments, a list individual words, shards that piece together a time and a place.

Sahzia Ashraf, early thirties, dressed in a maestro’s tails. Bows and moves to grand piano. Gets up. “I was about to play Chopin” Opts for something edgier: Shostakovich. No Classical Indian to reflect roots. No, own composition: Nine Shades of Shazia. “I wish I could play piano,” she says, “then you’d understand how hard I’ve worked, how hard I’m still working.”

Natasha Canfer, walks towards a cot, but door shuts before she reaches it. There is recorded text – obscure but the fragments you grasp sound heartbreaking – that could be about a lost child or a failed donor conception process. When it repeats, you realises it’s the latter. She is surrounded by (projected) ticking clocks a sound she hates. There’s a Charles Darwin quotation: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive.”

Anne Cockrem, sits herself down on a bench and starts a meandering monologue about dumplings which weaves into childhood nostalgia and first homes. A chorus of young performers appear and mirror her hand actions – usually something mocking and derogatory, here playful and mischievous; a shared joke that exists in creeping smiles. Is the movement finely choreographed? “I came to Leeds when things went wrong, but then I meet my husband.”

Emi Neilson, in a grey trouser suit (bold green lining) at an oversized desk. Shreds paper, quietly answers the telephone (this time within the fiction), shreds more paper, folds paper airplane then erupts into throwing paper and emptying shredder before dancing a fierce, loud stomped flamenco.

On one level, you can watch 9 as a showcase. Nine individual pieces to be watched distinctly, each on its own particular terms. In between each one, as soothing music plays and sketches from the rehearsal room are projected onto the floor, you swipe the etch-a-sketch, cleanse the palette and start again. This is how reviews have tended to approach it, comparing one piece to another and selecting particular highlights within the whole. Seen like this, 9 becomes a variety show.

And it is. But it’s also not.

You can also watch 9 as a series of character studies. Each performance is, basically, a theatrical introduction by which we learn about the person onstage and their personal history. Take a visual art metaphor and it’s a gallery of (self-)portraits. Take one from theatre and it’s a postmodern, post-verbatim twist on Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, only with real people and without judgement.

And it is. But it’s also not.

But we’ll come back to all that in a bit.

****************

There is a film called Nine. I haven’t seen it, but at some point while writing this, I recalled seeing a trailer for it before some other film. As I remember, it was a showy, sexy trailer with lots of famous actresses dressed in suspenders. IMDB tells me Daniel Day-Lewis was in it. And Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz. Yes, I remember Penelope Cruz in the trailer. (How could anyone forget?)

Anyway, IMDB also tells me that Nine is about a world-famous film director called Guido Contini, who gets writer’s block and, when the time comes to start making his next film, doesn’t know what it’s going to be about. Eventually, after a lot of soul searching with a lot of beautiful women, he ends up making a film about himself.

This 9 is absolutely the opposite. The directors – Chris Goode, Jamie Wood and Kirsty Housley – are essentially invisible. I don’t even know – and we’re not told – who directed each individual piece. It’s not important. Their project is, at one level, not their project at all. It’s certainly not about them. They become facilitators, there for the sake of the performers. Their skills and expertise are not used for self-expression, but entirely to aid and abet the self-expression of others.

In fact, watching 9, you get the impression of an entire theatre doing likewise. All its facilities and equipment, its artists and administrators and technicians, possibly even its audience as well, have been placed at the disposal of and devoted to these nine individuals. That’s a major regional theatre with a £1.5 million annual government subsidy turned over for the sake and service of its constituents in a way I have never seen anywhere else ever. (Now go and read Alan Lane’s blog on why this is so important.)

This – and I know it sounds crass – is the magic ingredient. This is 9’s white heat. Because performing in 9 so obviously means an enormous amount to each of those nine people. And not only are they performing, they are performing something of their own making, for their own ends and expression. You can see the thrill, the relish, the mischief every one of them takes in holding an audience and in simply being heard. 9 is made by that spirit of joy and achievement and, second, by the spirit of generosity that made all of that possible.

In the stalls, tingle follows tingle and goosebumps grow on goosebumps. Frogs hop into throats, butterflies swarm in your stomach and your chest swells and swells like a hot air balloon inflating. At moments, you find yourself crying. At others, you just smile and nod. The ideal criticism would be that feeling; my sending you a pill that replicates those effects. The optimism, pride and admiration of it all. The empathy that makes 9 intensely human.

****************

There is more to it than that, however, because 9 hangs together as a constructed whole as well. That is, as a piece of theatre – without the qualification of participation or community or whatever. There are repeated motifs and patterns within that add up to a coherent, thoroughly uplifting dramaturgy, which is just as responsible for the above emotional response. Those taking part are both specific and abstract, individuals and members of the (whole) species: that is, they are people and they are ‘people.’

Here, it helps to return to the variety show model, because 9 is the antidote to Britain’s Got Talent. It is not, in itself, a variety show (though, as I say, it can be seen as such), but it borrows the form of variety.

At the start of each individual performance, two swing doors at the back of the stage rush open. (They are plain; the sort you see in public institutions or at swimming pools, only black and without portholes.) The stage itself is dark and the backstage, undressed and very much part of the real world, is lit, meaning the performers stands momentarily framed and silhouetted. It’s a ‘Tonight, Matthew…’ moment; an X-Factor entrance; almost a Jerry Springer moment. And it knows it.

And, moreover, it subverts it. 9 refuses to reduce people as such reality television does. It never defines them in terms of a single quality – be it a talent, a sob-story, a dispute, a perversion, whatever. It lets them be whoever they want to be and to be different things at the same time. In a single person. It celebrates them as individuals, as rounded individuals, and, in doing so, celebrates the species, all of us that don’t usually receive such celebration.

****************

It allows us to see one another. It allows us to really see one another and to think we’re not alone.

I wish I could play piano, then you’d understand how hard I’ve worked, how hard I’m still working.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive.

I came to Leeds when things went wrong, but then I meet my husband.

Thank you Mum.

****************

Really, the talent on show here is simply survival itself. Its offshoots are seen in many forms: motherhood, humour, overcoming illness and so on.That three of the pieces (Fabiana Kvam, Sheila Howarth and Emi Neilson) include telephone calls suggests the intrusion of real life into the sphere of performance. It seems to say that we can’t all live life on stage and, by extension, we can’t all do everything we might want to do. There simply isn’t enough time or money or opportunity or ‘talent’ (in the most conventional sense of the word) for that. For those lucky enough to do so, it’s a luxury, but it’s not a right over others. Neilson’s angry, trance-like flamenco, bursting out of a monotonous desk job, is proof that life is dictated by circumstance as much as anything. 9 is a passionate demonstration that, contrary to celebrity culture and ‘the way the world works™’, no one life, no one person, is more intrinsically worthy of celebration than any other.

This raised my one misgiving with 9, namely its own selection process. The nine performers were selected from 130 applicants on the back of an interview process. They were chosen for some reason by the artists responsible. I asked Chris Goode about this afterwards and he maintains that they could have picked any nine people and made the same – and simultaneously a completely different – piece. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that the process needs some degree of arbitrariness to wholly commit to its inherent utopian philosophy. Is that practical? I couldn’t say, but I imagine it would raise real challenges of its own in terms of the process and any final performances.

Each time the double doors swing open, they seem to pluck the particular performer out of the world outside the theatre. It’s like the human equivalent of one of those weak-gripped grabbing machines in arcades, stuffed with cuddly toys. It’s as if anyone could find themselves suddenly in the door framed, invited to step onto the stage.

That stage is a dream space of sorts. Its aquamarine floor and it’s single bulb with a white loop of wire like thought-bubbles give it an unworldly quality. It seems a space of possibility, a chance to re-imagine oneself away from the accumulations of day to day life. A moment to say: “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…”

…white heat.

*One of these involves a pianist playing an accompaniment, another involves a chorus of performers moving as an accompaniment, but they are nonetheless essentially solo performances.

Photographs:Richard Davenport

One Comment

  1. Thanks very much for this beautifully thought review, Matt. I know it will mean a lot to the 9 participants, too.

    I just wanted to respond to your very interesting question about the selection process, as I think the conversation you report us as having had — which we did have — may have been slightly at cross purposes.

    I *think* what you asked me — what I certainly understood you to mean — was whether the show could have been made with “another” nine, i.e. could we have picked another nine out of those 130 and worked with them? To which, my answer is yes, certainly; and possibly another nine beyond that. But with any nine plucked at random from the 130, I simply don't think you'd have seen as good a show.

    There are three levels of selectivity that I feel are really important here:

    Firstly, there were people we met at “audition” (I'm using scare quotes because there are obviously yucky connotations there, but it was essentially an audition process) who were strong and intriguing on paper but who were clearly not ready for the process given the constraints on it. Each of the three directors had six half-days (or equivalent) to work with each of our respective three collaborators: so, basically, three days' rehearsal from zero to finished article. This meant that the people we selected had to be “ready” — above all, emotionally — for the process. I remember one beautiful guy who sounded perfect in his application but who, when we met him, could hardly look at us or put a sentence together with any confidence. We all felt he had the potential to do amazing things, but we couldn't get him on stage in that context after six half-days, and it would have been recklessly hazardous to try.

    Equally, there were some people who we met who presented lots that was exciting but who were for various reasons simply too vulnerable, & who would have required a level of care and support that we had neither the expertise or, again, the time to provide. We felt we had to aim to choose people who seemed to have the necessary support structures around them to be able to withstand the pressures of the process when those pressures exceeded our capacity (as the directors) to — literally — be there for them.

    Finally, we were very clear from the outset that we wanted to be able to treat the 9 as collaborators, and work with them in as close a way as possible to how we'd work with professional artists. Which meant something very close to a professional audition process, in terms of wanting that spark of sympathy and curiosity and excitement between director and candidate. In the end we all chose the three people we most fell in love with or were most intrigued by, because that's how we'd cast anything else.

    I suppose in the end I don't agree that the premise of 9 is “inherent[ly] utopian”. Not everybody is presently ready for utopia, in that sense. (See also: “War is over / If you want it.”) We chose nine people who were telling us, very clearly (even if it wasn't clear to all of them), that they were ready for the experience. I do think everyone has the capacity to work in this way, but not everyone can access that capacity from a standing start, and in theatre as in anything else, you can only make positive change happen where there is readiness for change.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>