Review: Make Better Please, West Yorkshire Playhouse
On the afternoon of Saturday 8th May 2010 – almost exactly two years ago – I saw a scratch of Make Better Please at Battersea Arts Centre. Its final incarnation is largely as I remember it being then. It’s refined a bit, both as an event and in its production values, but, broadly speaking, nothing much has changed.
Except, at the same time, everything has changed, and Make Better Please is all the better for it. Not that it wasn’t impressive first time around: it has absolutely stayed with me since and retains its shuddering power even second time around. But now – given cuts and riots, given James Murdoch and Jeremy Hunt, given 2.6 million unemployed and a double dip recession, given Lybia and Syria and North Korea, given Osbourne, given Clegg, given fucking Cameron – now, it’s necessary.
If I didn’t know that they’d been busy touring Love Letters Straight From Your Heart – of which Make Better Please is very consciously the inverse; pitch where once was butter – I’d think that Uninvited Guests (Richard Dufty, Jessica Hoffmann and Paul Clarke; joined here by Lewis Gibson) had been watching and waiting for the right moment to unleash it. That is, for things to get this bad. I picture them peering conspiratorially over the Guardian each day: Not yet. Not quite yet. Ok, now. Go. Go. Go.
Make Better Please is a ritual intervention for a misguided society in a world of wrong turnings. It’s theatre as last resort; a show for end times.
It’s the scream you yell when words won’t cut it. It’s the ‘cunt’ when ‘fuck’ won’t do. It’s the glass you break in an emergency; the door you punch straight through.
And it is as beautifully constructed as it is conceived; elegant and visceral, not to mention fearless, hilarious, totally horrifying and immensely uplifting. At the same time, it’s performed with a level of commitment I’ve rarely seen equalled.
Essentially, Make Better Please is a purely cathartic cycle that, in the process, changes the way you look at the world. It starts civil and everyday, with a tea party or round-table discussion, but slowly brings itself – and us – to the boil. It builds from round-table to role-play, from role-play to ritual and from ritual to release.
(Warning: here be spoilers.)
We start sat around small coffee tables, on each of which is a spread of tea, biscuits and the day’s newspapers – both national and local. We’re asked to start reading, searching for a story, any story, that makes us (even a little bit) angry. Initially, you play along, as you might in a similar school exercise. Leafing through, thumbing the pages.
As you do, however, you realise that almost every other story might fit, be it about celebrity, class, corporations, war, politics and so on. Besides, it’s all so lightweight, so unquestioning, so skewed, even positively sick in places. By the time we come to share and discuss our findings, the frustration, if not even anger, has become genuine and heartfelt. Slowly, you start to simmer.
In itself, this first and longest section, seems fairly workaday as a result of its casualness. There’s not much of a break between non-show and show; it’s a gradual bleeding from one, a shift from one foot to the other. In this way, it can shape itself to fit both audience and moment. In the decompression from life to art, the framework itself gets revealed as well as the content. Standard terms and conditions, the mode of the media that we take for granted, appears suddenly constructed and contingent, the result of ulterior motives. (We know all this, yet still we accept it.) Even at this early stage, the seed is planted: ‘Things don’t have to be like this.’ Rather than dwelling on alternatives, however, Uninvited Guests keep your focus on that this, riling you up and stoking the fire.
“I am James Murdoch,” announces Dufty from the centre the circle, “Is there anything you want to ask me?” On the afternoon of Sunday 22nd April, he is also James Cameron, the film-director turned wannabe asteroid miner, and a doctor performing female circumcisions in the UK, he’s David Cameron and Anders Behring Breivik in court.
One by one, stand in for the cast of the international news. We are the hacked and the hackers, the judges and the media moguls. We are Panamanian fishermen adrift, passengers raising alarms and captains not taking action. We are Norwegian teenagers taking shelter or paralysed with fear. We are lawyers listening in and journalists silently weeping. We are Monica Bossei asking that he point the gun away from us.
We are, in other words, no longer just names in newsprint. As such, you see the images quite differently. They’re suddenly first person, films shot in POV. Not something that happened, but something somehow happening. You feel the echoes of fear and horror, the tremors of shame, and know they don’t even come close. Eye contact becomes uncomfortable. The room temperature rises. Pressure builds and builds.
Until something pops and Dufty starts screaming in short, sharp bursts: a piercing human car alarm. Gibson hammers at the piano. It’s absurd, it’s unexpected and it’s loud. And it’s extremely awkward. Eye contact is now impossible. You want to laugh, but know you shouldn’t; the sort of sensation that catches you in church, in minute silences, at funerals. Something runs down your spine. Until, as soon as all this started, it all stops.
This rupture is unnerving, but the sensation only grows as masks of the recently deceased – photocopied and blown up from the obituary pages – are calmly passed around. Gibson’s head is wrapped in newspaper, leaving only one ear free. He’s spun and gropes around. Eventually, he sits at the piano, which now has newspaper stuffed between hammers and strings. The notes he plays are like musical raindrops hitting the surface of puddles. They have an additional patter, a percussive quality. The image is of a typewriter. One by one, we whisper the name of our death mask into his ear. The sensation is the bristle of breaking taboo. Gibson’s playing grows louder and more discordant with each name, until he’s using his elbows to slam the whole keyboard. A gong is run around the outside of the circle. It feels like a head-swirl. Dizziness.
In the middle of the circle, Dufty starts chanting; letting his mouth lead, forming warped half-words out of sounds. D-d-d-day-day-d-d-d-dDayvid-Dayvid-DayvidCam-Cam-Cameron-Cameroon-d-d-DayvidCamerooon. Cl-Cl-Cle-Clar-Clar-Cleggi-Clegg-Clegg-Cleggi.
He struts about like a chicken, clucking these noises. His face contorts, lips pursed, sucking at the words toothlessly; at once, mocking those named and distorting himself. It’s hysterical but no-one’s laughing. It’s clear he’s trying to break out of rationality and into impulse, towards trance.
Gibson and Hoffman don newspaper versions of shamanic grass costumes. They wear photocopied masks of the queen’s face. Dufty takes off his clothes, throws tea over himself and implores us to do likewise. The lights dim and turn to red. The gong gets louder and faster. Bit by bit, Dufty becomes ‘Bad News.’ A newsprint phallus and pregnant belly are taped to him. Gibson is at the drums, smashing a cymbal repeatedly. Hoffman shouts throatily into a microphone, summoning ‘Bad News’, goading him, cheering him on. The volume on a bass guitar is turned up and we’re into a full-blown ritual cum rock-concert – the same conflation of properties as in Harminder Judge’s Do What Thou Wilt; entertainment and exorcism at once.
We’re wearing our death masks and the room feels positively dangerous. Now, we’re hardly playing. We’re toying with something, dicing with it. It’s charged and it’s taboo and you’re sat on the knife-edge of your seat, nervous and uncertain about what’s coming next. It’s crashing symbols, flashing lights and the whoosh of thick white stage smoke. And Dufty – simultaneously shaman and effigy, terrifying and ridiculous, completely unhuman and yet still just a man dressed up in newspapers, grunting – is taking on the world’s problems and absorbing them, inhaling them, digesting them. It’s completely disorientating. The gong is still going. A fire extinguisher is fired at his feet. There’s a rush of white steam; cold carbon dioxide, and Dufty is chased from the circle, from the stage and from the room – screaming as he goes.
And then there’s quiet. Uncomfortable, jittery, adrenaline-thumping silence. You’re holding your breath. You have been for a while. There’s a laugh caught in your throat, unsure whether to burst out or swallow itself.
Hoffman, panting, slowly walks back to the circle. Everyone waits and watches. She walks to a door at the back of the stage and throws it open, letting light and air rush in. The temperature drops. The dust settles and the stage smoke We exhale, almost collectively, and unclench. She invites us to sit in silence for a while, before offering up memories, stories and thoughts of hope. It’s moving and it’s calming and people listen with conscious intentness. What’s more, something feels newly possible.
We leave together, some softly wailing air-raid siren in the distance. Outside, the three performers read the headlines we’ve personally selected at the start and set them alight with the words: “Make better please.”
And at that point in time – despite knowing it absurd and recognising it’s preposterous pretence – you genuinely feel as if it might just work. There is a genuine transformation here. You enter in one state of mind, unexamined but entangled, and leave in another altogether. You’re more questioning, perhaps; (re)activated and (re)energised, ready to take on the world.
Not that you should relinquish your inner-sceptic. Make Better Please also functions in reverse; it revives empty ritual techniques, hollowed because detached from belief, and shows their power nonetheless. These actions, mystifying and terrifying as they are, retain their resonance and effectiveness. They are thoroughly convincing and charged, even though we are aware of their pretence and preposterousness. We are sceptics pushing at taboos; teenagers toying with a Ouija board, as terrified as we are disbelieving. There is a tension in the way we watch, a push and pull that is at once detached and thoroughly suckered in. And this duality is crucial.
After all, the figures the performers represent, even almost become – the shamans and witch-doctors – were the powerful elite of their time. The media moguls, oligarchs and politicians are no less manipulative and no less the beneficiaries of circumstance. The ground on which they stand is no less fragile; the terms they rely on no less solid. And by the end of Make Better Please, you feel we could just storm their safeguards.
Photograph: Ben Dowden