The first of my double bill of visits to the Camden Fridge yesterday was a curious retelling of the tale of Electra and Orestes, depicted in Truth After Murder as twins parted for many years after their mother, Clymenestra, killed their father, Agamemnon.
We’re in psychological territory here, with Orestes touting his book on the case, and Electra displaying just the kind of vacant staring daddy-worship that has led a complex to be named after her.
In various retellings and interpretations of the myth, Electra’s motivation for revenge has varied: here, she has been abandoned in an asylum for fifteen years for reasons which seem to come down to money. It’s sometime after an apocalyptic 4th World War and the internet has broken down.
In an intense hour in which the two actors really do get as close to the front rows of the audience as possible, they draw us into their nightmare and bizarre relationship. Orestes with memories of abuse of all kinds, fixated sexually on both his mother and a voice on the other end of his mobile phone, at first seems to be on his sister’s side, but things change.
Powerful performances from Riccardo Carollo and Mariana Elicetche mitigate what is ultimately a confused piece by Arif Alfaraz (who also directs). I found myself curiously detached from this pair who remain locked in their own hell, he with his gay porn magazines, she with her child’s tea set and memories of dear dead dad.
Truth After Murder runs at the Etcetera Theatre until 25 August.
Beatrice Vincent’s show Before I Am Lost opens at the Etcetera Theatre on 16 August. It focuses on a specific point in the life of the poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D.
I asked Beatrice a few questions about the show.
Why has H.D. been such an inspiration for you?
Throwing me in at the deep end there! How long do you want this interview to be?
In all honesty I think there’s an element of her coming into my life at the perfect time; I studied English Literature at university, and we had one lecture on her in my second year, I think.
The main poem I remember looking at was The Master, written during her work with Sigmund Freud in the 1930s. It’s lengthy and complex and beautiful and essentially boils down to her saying, “shut up, Sigmund, I like women.”
Having only recently accepted that I, too, was somewhat less straight than I initially thought, her refusal to have herself and her sexuality dismissed was something that I had desperately needed.
Of course I went straight to the library, took out the fat volume of her selected poems, and set to reading. What really struck me about her work is how ahead of her time she was in her world views. I’m constantly harping on about how she was doing in 1918 what Carol Ann Duffy is praised for doing now – she described the experience of being a well-educated young woman as being in a bell jar before Sylvia Plath was born. This is the mother of women’s poetry as we know it today.
I could talk about her all day, about her intelligence and her artistry, but more than anything else there’s just something about her writing that makes me feel less alone. There’s that wonderful scene Alan Bennett wrote for The History Boys, where Hector says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.” H.D. really brings these words to life for me, so I want to bring her to life for other people who might benefit from knowing her and her poetry.
Female poets are often dismissed as odd, dark or disturbed. How do you bring your subject to life and avoid these stereotypes?
It’s a tricky subject, as most people’s first ports of call for female poets are figures like Plath and Sexton who are famous for their darkness.
What I love about H.D. is that she refuses to ever really descend into that kind of despair – of course there is pain and anger and deep sadness in her writing at times, but there’s always resilience as well.
In terms of bringing her to life and avoiding those female poet stereotypes, I think it’s as simple as giving voice to the woman herself. Because she’s so little known, a quick Google search and a read of her Wikipedia page will tell you almost nothing about the real woman she was.
I’ve been hugely frustrated in my research process for Before I am Lost, reading introductions and notes on her work and her life all written by men. It’s a subject I talk about in the show itself – the way men historicise women. They tend to focus on the despair, on the fragility, or completely erase these and make the woman into an infallible saint.
That’s why I’ve been hugely grateful to her for writing autobiographical novels. I read HERmione, Asphodel, and Bid Me To Live as research for the show, and they’ve been immeasurably helpful in painting a vivid picture of the woman she was. Obviously you have to take novelisations with a pinch of salt, especially her Hermione novels, but it’s generally accepted if she hadn’t changed the names in Bid Me To Live, she could have called it a straight-up autobiography.
I think very few writers just do all the research in one block and then all the writing, so I already a fair number of ideas and lines scribbled down when I read the novels. This meant I had a few wonderful moments where I would come across an image or a feeling she had written that I already had in my draft, and as corny as it sounds, those really felt like gifts saying “you’re doing okay, you’re getting this right”.
Of course we can never truly know everything a historical person would have said and felt, but I can say with certainty that the H.D. I’m presenting in Before I Am Lost is real and honest and human.
How is your show informed or influenced by the avant garde writing movement in which H.D. was a major participant?
It’s something I must admit I would struggle to pin down – writing her spoken voice is obviously a far cry from replicating her written voice, but I like to think there’s still a poetic quality to the text of Before I am Lost.
More overtly I think this influence is mostly felt in the presence of the other writers themselves in the play. For example, H.D. was heavily influenced by Pound in her early life, so his voice is one that the audience hears, and because of how well documented their relationship was, most of what he says in the play he said in real life.
H.D.’s life revolved around literature, whether contemporary or canonical, so that’s something I’ve tried to bring in as well. She’s constantly quoting – I’d be really impressed if an audience member caught all of the literary allusions that are in there!
H.D. had a long relationship with fellow creative Bryher, who was heavily involved in helping refugees escape from Nazi oppression. Although your play is set in 1919, does their relationship inform your work in any way?
This is an interesting question as it’s been something we’ve really battled with in the rehearsal room. As I was already a huge fan of H.D. when I began the writing process, I was aware of her relationship with Bryher and the things they achieved while together.
In doing the research for this particular show, I concentrated on the period before Bryher and H.D. meet, and their very early relationship, but I wasn’t quite able to rid myself of the knowledge of who H.D. would become in her later life.
When rehearsals started, Ross [McGregor, director] had to say to me, “you love her too much, she’s not as strong as you’re playing her” and he was absolutely right. I was playing the H.D. I had first fallen in love with – the woman who argued with Freud about lesbian love, who wrote, “woman is perfect” – but that woman hadn’t quite been born in 1919.
There’s still strength in her, of course, but she hasn’t completely embraced it yet. I think Bryher was a hugely positive influence on H.D. and is certainly a big presence in the show, but I’ve had to constantly keep in mind that their relationship is only just beginning, and the defiance that I think Bryher nurtured in H.D. is only just starting to take form.
On the surface the play is about the birth of H.D.’s daughter Perdita, but if we’ve pulled it off right then it’s just as much the birth of H.D. herself, and Bryher plays a big part in that.
What should Camden Fringe audiences expect from Before I Am Lost?
Turning up for a one person show is always a risk, I know. Putting yourself in one performer’s hands is a huge leap of faith, and I’m so grateful to all the people who will be putting their evenings in my hands over the next week.
Although now I’ve gone through the process it feels disingenuous to claim it’s just me that audience is trusting with their time: this show is the product of so many people’s hard work, not just my own. I’m really lucky to have friends who are incredibly talented and generous with their time, so I’ve never felt like I was on my own with this project.
So in as far as I can call it a one person show, I feel this is different to others I’ve seen, mostly because it’s not addressed to the audience.
The conversation is between mother and child, so it’s very intimate. But there’s also an immediacy to it – she’s in labour for the duration of the show, so there’s absolutely a sense of the clock ticking. And her belief that she’ll die in childbirth means that she’s more honest about her emotions and about her experiences than she would otherwise be.
I should probably note that we’re talking mid-stage labour, where a modern woman would think “maybe I should pack a bag and go to the hospital now,” so they don’t need to prepare themselves for an hour of blood and screaming (though my housemate insists this would be a selling point).
H.D. was a major force in the Imagist movement who is often overshadowed by the more showy Ezra Pound. Do you feel that female poets will ever find their rightful place in the canon?
I certainly hope so! That’s why I wrote this play, after all. It might just be because that’s my area of interest, but it seems like pulling brilliant women out of obscurity is something that’s really in vogue at the moment.
Obviously Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Emilia had been a revelation for a lot of people (and going to see it was actually a really important moment for me in the writing process for Before I am Lost). I’m hoping this trend continues as more than just a theatrical fad as I know there are so many works out there that deserve to be read.
For my part, I’m hoping that I can bring Hilda Doolittle out from the shadow of Pound or Lawrence to stand on her own two feet as she rightly deserves.
Now I’m thinking perhaps our next show will have to be about Felicia Hemans (she sold more books of poetry in the 19th century than Byron. He hated this, look her up).
What’s next for Cobalt Theatre?
The big question! I’m hoping that this won’t be Before I am Lost’s only outing. My aim with the show was to bring H.D. into the light, so I don’t think I’ll feel totally satisfied by a 5 day run in a 40 seater theatre, even if I end up selling out every night.
There’s no solid plans as yet, but I’m definitely keeping it in my back pocket for when the next opportunity arises. I’m not at all done with Hilda Doolittle – in twenty years I’ll be back with a two hander about her conversations with Freud, but as someone in my mid-twenties I don’t feel ready to write that yet.
In terms of the more immediate future, I’m trying to balance writing with keeping up acting work and the day job as well, but there are more than a few things I’d love to get off the ground properly. Now I just have to pick which one goes first!
Incidentally, I’m rather excited at the prospect of seeing a further play about Felicia Hemans, a very neglected voice among some fabulous female poets of the 18th and 19th centuries (and when I am in my late sixties, I’ll be there watching the two-hander between H.D, and Freud!).
Marc Blake’s tales of being a tour guide for brash and wealthy Americans becomes a show which mines those experiences for comedy potential in yesterday’s final visit to the Camden Fringe.
Utilising a table, laptop, presentation screen, and a chair, Blake’s show takes the form of telling a rather nice new tour group (us, the audience) about the perks of having a lanyard, the stress of no sleep, bad tippers, scrapping group leaders, and honesty bars, illustrating the trip from Ireland’s Shannon to Paris via Dublin, Wales, Scotland, and London (“they went to Wicked, I went to a bar”).
From airport pick-up to coach tours, boat trips, and the sleeper train, Blake’s charges – Jamie, macho and rather dumb: Gail, rather sweet; Michelle, dozy and tight-fisted – manoevere their groups to tourist hotspots which would bore the most steely of tour operators.
Funny, filled with character, and occasionally interactive, How Far is Lunch benefits from Blake’s engaging persona, honed from all those years on the road being nice to clients, matey with coach drivers and other tour guides, and occasionally having a spare hour of cursing and the occasional flicker of escape from those irritating Yanks!
I felt the show may benefit from a bit if a trim to tighten its focus, but there’s definite potential here for an hour will will resonate with anyone who has travelled with, or in close proximity to, a tour group like the one described, and Blake’s good humour throughout is infectious.
How Far is Lunch runs at the Etcetera Theatre until the 18th August.
Show two at the Camden Fringe was this short and immersive piece of physical theatre from the newly-graduated Bear Foot theatre company, who left the BRIT School of Performing Arts in Croydon in the spring.
The actors are Hannah, Olivia, Ruby and Eva. The setting is a police station. There’s a missing person, and a suggestion of foul play. A mother and wife, Ida. A daughter, Summer. A father and husband, Sam.
Opening to the four cast members with their backs to the audience, and the sound of Aretha Franklin’s A Little Prayer for You, we are pulled in to a story where all portray Ida, pulled in for questioning, then break out for flashbacks including Sam and Summer, sometimes true, sometimes false.
This is a very short show, roughly half the length of Nine, which I saw three weeks ago at the Drayton Arms in Gloucester Road. But every word, every action, every piece of physical and vocal synchronicity, every action is perfectly placed until the performers and their characters blend into one.
It’s a tale of domestic violence, of interpretation, of family, of premeditation, of violence – it’s probably not the one you imagine. It’s intense and accomplished and I look forward to seeing what these performers and their company develop next.
Together for Seven runs for the third and final time tomorrow, the 15 August, at the Etcetera Theatre.
This is my first year sampling the Camden Fringe, so I chose a few shows running in the daytime at the tiny Etcetera Theatre above the Oxford Arms on the colourful and characterful Camden High Street.
Be More Bee was an extra show, as I had already booked two later the same day. The premise of a comedy looking at Britain’s favourite insect, the bee, appealed to me.
Jenni Mackenzie-Jones, the delightful co-deviser, writer, co-producer and performer of this piece, let me know the day before that this was a play with audience interaction and was also the first performance before an audience, so I was very intrigued.
On arrival the stage was set with various props such as a paddling pool with plastic ducks, a stool, a pull-along suitcase, some vegetables, a crate, some sticks, a tombola. Under our seats are paper napkins, and our numbered ticket serves as a raffle entry.
Bea is already interacting with the audience, asking our names, making observations, putting us at ease. It becomes clear we are a group arriving into Britain, and we learn about Morris dancing, the social hierarchy of the bee, the vegetable contest, the eroticism of maypole dancing, and more.
This is our show as much as hers, and is never a bore. We bond, we laugh, we meditate, we form a paper chain, we can play games for prizes, and we learn a lot about bees, Bea and each other.
As graduates of the Acting for Collaborative and Devised Theatre course at Central, both Mackenzie-Jones and director Valentin Stoev (also co-devisor and co-producer), are at ease with audience participation (and manipulation, in the nicest way!).
Running slightly over the advertised time, I found Be More Bee paced just right, raising questions and awareness of self and others, and culminating in a surprising and evocative ending.
I very much enjoyed the chance to experience this sweet-centred and clever show, which ran at the Etcetera on 13-14 August.
Antigoni Spanou is bringing her solo show, Ophelia Rewound, to the Camden Fringe from 22-25 August at Camden People’s Theatre (which celebrates its 25th birthday this year).
I asked Antigoni to tell me a bit more about the show and herself as a performer.
Ophelia is one of the most complex female characters in the Shakespeare canon. What inspired you to use her character for your new solo piece?
I think for me it was a case of a happy accident, or to be more precise, an unhappy accident.
In 2009 a colleague of mine at the time, Flávio Rabelo, who is an amazing performance artist, invited me to participate as Ophelia in a presentation of his piece inspired by Hamlet from Muller’s Hamletmachine. In that performance Ophelia was a silent, faceless version of herself and by the end of it, I felt a very strong connection to the character and a plethora of questions arising. Who is Ophelia? Do we ever know who she really is? Why is it that mostly it’s other characters who speak of her or for her? Is the voice that comes out of her mouth during the madness scene, her true voice? Is her death a suicide or an accident?
The questions were too many, the connection that I had felt with Flávio’s Hamlet was too strong; I just couldn’t let her go. I wanted to give her her own agency. Myself and Flávio over the next 2 years or so, kept exploring that connection between the two characters by sending each other stimuli and materials to inspire/provoke one another.
And what happened next in my life, just cemented that route. I suffered from clinical depression and came very close to suicide. Through my personal struggle of trying to get better, I just couldn’t put my Ophelia out of my mind; life was imitating art for me, and the need for art was giving me a purpose during those dark days. The parallels and the similarities were too many and I now had even more questions.
There have been many stereotypes around women and mental health over the years, around weakness, hysteria, and stigma. How does Ophelia Rewound address and challenge this?
Yes, that is true. I always found it interesting how women who suffer with mental health are portrayed in theatre, literature and in the arts in general, and what happens to their story. And what makes it even more fascinating is when you start comparing with how men are portrayed.
For example, Victor Frankenstein is relentless in his mission to reanimate the dead; a mad yet ingenious figure that no one dares to obstruct. And yet the first Mrs Rochester, Bertha, is a mere ghost in Jane Eyre. She only comes out at night, escaping her prison, to torment Jane and ultimately commits suicide amongst the flames that she sets.
And even though Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost and is feared to be mad, he is free to roam and be part of the palace life. It is only with Ophelia that the other characters see a problem; she does not know what she is saying, she is to be pitied, and then she disappears “to muddy death”.
There seems to be a suggestion that madness in men is somehow a result of an immense talent too wild to tame, whilst in women the link has to do with genetics or “frailty”. I think it was this that I wanted to address; I wanted to take charge of her story. I wanted to hear about Ophelia from Ophelia.
What Ophelia Rewound set to do was to reverse this narrative, literally and metaphorically. During the performance you never hear Hamlet’s name, and that was a conscious choice. This wasn’t done because I’m wearing a “I hate men” badge; far from it. I chose to do that because we simply don’t need any more information on Hamlet. We heard everything he had to say.
This story is about Ophelia; what she feels, what she thinks, what she needs. But more importantly this story starts at the end and finds a new beginning. I’ve chosen to reverse the story, starting with her attempted suicide only to lead my Ophelia to a moment of realisation, of self-discovery.
In Ophelia Rewound, my Ophelia finds her voice and gets a happy beginning, one that doesn’t include Hamlet. Furthermore I personally wanted to give a reasoning behind her madness. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet she is heartbroken, abandoned and next time we see her she is completely mad. For me there were many steps missing in between. And that is where I found the correlation with my own personal story; a woman who is heartbroken and slowly falls into depression, that ultimately gets mistaken for madness.
There are autobiographical elements to the piece, which you perform on your own. Have you found this empowering, to share some of your own experiences, or were there challenges in incorporating your personal story?
I think that whenever you create autobiographical work, challenges are bound to follow.
As the tale that I wanted to express stemmed from a place of hurt and ache, there was the danger for myself as a person to get (re)lost inside those painful memories and the consequences that that would entail. And then there was the challenge as a theatre-maker that by making the story too personal, I wouldn’t allow the audience to “enter” and join in the journey.
Having said that though, what has been empowering was overcoming these challenges. Being able to take my own personal narrative and adapt it so it still bears real elements and rings true to the audience, but then also opening it up (by interweaving it with Ophelia’s narrative), and therefore making it more universal and recognisable and as a result more relatable to anyone that sees it.
How did Ophelia Rewound take shape? How have you benefitted from the support of those around you, including professional organisations?
So the journey has been long to say the least. As I mentioned this project started with an invitation in Brazil, in 2009. In the beginning it existed as a series of actions the nature of which were performance-art based. The research was always ongoing but for the next 2 years the “long night” set in, by which I mean my depression. But even during this time the search for Ophelia was ever-present as I took part in a theatre scratch competition in Athens, Greece with a highly theatrical version of the piece that even I wouldn’t recognise today.
Allowing myself the time to heal and trying to regain my confidence as a person and as an artist was mainly the reason why I kept pushing the project to the back of my mind for the next 6 years. But by 2017 the itch had become too great to not scratch anymore. I reached out to an incredible artist called Peader Kirk for guidance. I was lucky enough to have had him as a tutor when I was a student, and even luckier to have him as a mentor with this project.
At this point I really felt the need to reach out to the audience directly so Ophelia Rewound started making its first interactive steps and I decided to do a sharing of it in the ever-embracing environment of the Lighthouse event held by The Lab Collective. It was that very night and through feeling the support and encouragement of fellow artists and audience members, that I decided to go further.
I then performed a scratch version of it at the Bike Shed in Exeter in June 2017 which allowed me to get more feedback and test uncharted waters. And the next step in the saga was what gave birth to what Ophelia Rewound is today. I applied for an R&D period at Bathway Theatre Network (University of Greenwich) which was what I truly needed at that point; support, time and space. And whilst I was there, one day I asked if I could have a projector. And that simple request set in motion my collaboration with the talented Joseph Thorpe (one of the artistic directors of The Lab Collective).
Which brings us to today; Ophelia Rewound being an interactive, autobiographical piece that uses intricate projection-mapping to say things regarding mental health that words can’t express. I honestly have no words to describe how grateful I am to have (had) such a supporting network of friends and colleagues around me.
All of the organisations and people that I mentioned above, including other ever-present saviours, I owe so much to and one thing I know for sure; I wouldn’t be where I am today without them and Ophelia Rewound would simply not exist. So to say that I benefited or that I am thankful, is a huge understatement.
Does the piece address current political concerns around the underfunding of mental health support? Do you feel that anything is improving?
It doesn’t; but not because I don’t believe this is an important issue. The simple reason why is because this piece originated from a very personal place for me and it centres around that crucial moment in time when you reach out for help from that dark place. It addresses the stigma around mental health that is still alive today. It deals with being able to recognise the signs in someone who’s clearly suffering and offering your hand. It focuses on the fact that there is a way out.
I do believe that the underfunding of mental health is a real and huge concern and I myself have experienced being told to be put on a waiting list when I objectively needed immediate help. So there is definitely a political piece there; it’s just that I felt I had something else to say, and if I tried to say both at the same time, I wouldn’t do either justice.
I applaud you for dealing head-on with themes relating to depression and suicide in an “intimate, emotive and interactive” way. What might an audience coming along experience during the show?
The way I would describe it is like an emotional roller coaster; it takes you to the core of things which in this case is our emotions. We learn to control, suppress, push back, not talk about our feelings and that is where the problem starts.
The audience will experience rawness, truth, sadness but also laughter, reality and the sense of coming together. Every single flavour. And there is no pressure. I am extending an invitation for real interaction but the audience always has a choice. At the end of the day, it’s just us, a small group of people sharing our dreams and our fears. Oh…and there’s tea!
Tell me some more about The Lab Collective, and its past and future work. What’s next after Ophelia Rewound?
The Lab Collective is a group of creatives that all met during our studies at Rose Bruford. The work that we create is interactive, visceral live experiences that tread the line between theatre, game and installation. We strive to empower the audience to collaborate in our performances and we have worked in a variety of traditional and non-traditional performance spaces, exploring and playing across disciplines to generate an innovative theatrical experience.
Our work consists of three strands; interactive installations (like Between Us), socially relevant performance which explores current social questions (like Incoming/Exodus), and large scale immersive performance for festivals and alternative sites (like the work that we do at BoomTown Festival).
Much of our work is socially and politically engaged (like The Candidate) and asks questions about issues which impact us all, giving a voice to unheard stories – told not only by our performers – but by the audience themselves.
In October The Lab Collective will be presenting Vector (an interactive experience, which uses elements of performance, game and integrated technology to open up dialogue and shed light on the ethics that society faces when using animals as part of medical research) at Oxford’s Festival of Ideas.
In that same month we will also be launching our series of workshops for interactive performers and theatre-makers as we are committed in sharing our practice and creating connections and collaborations with artists.We are also hoping to book some time away as a group soon. We are keen to get away from the busy streets of London for a bit as we are looking into developing a new performance in the next 3 months.
Regarding Ophelia Rewound‘s future (which is my first full venture as a solo artist even though I’m collaborating with Joseph Thorpe), that is unclear at the moment; I can only see as far as The Camden Fringe! But what I am certain of, is that it will have a future.
What’s the best thing about the Camden Fringe, and the Camden People’s Theatre in particular?
Camden Fringe went from feeling like a community of artists to feeling like a family in a heartbeat. Just the sheer support that we’ve been offered by Michelle Flower and Zena Barrie, and also Natalie Beech, is unmeasurable.
Every question, every worry, every email; the response is immediate and reassuring. There is a real sense of solidarity with the other artists and the level of professionalism and quality of work is incredible.
I believe that for someone like me, an emerging artist who has never done the Edinburgh Fringe (as it used to scare me to my core) this experience right now, this festival baptism of fire, is just what I need to gain the confidence, center myself as a creative and take this beautiful platform and leap into the unknown with no fear.
Camden People’s Theatre is a dream come true for me. It’s one of those venues that you dream about performing in it since you are a drama student. In fact I think I have spent pretty much most of my income throughout the years watching shows at CPT.
It’s such an inclusive, open and supporting venue that puts on such innovative and ground-breaking work, and I am beyond happy to be presenting Ophelia Rewound there. All of the team at CPT has been so helpful and I can’t wait to get started. I do hope that this will be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”!
Finally, what’s been your biggest joy and your biggest frustration as a solo creative?
This is a loaded question! I guess if I had to pin it down to one thing, I would say that my biggest joy – or if I may rename it – my biggest relief is that I don’t have to explain myself.
It’s very convoluted in my head and also there are multiple voices who sometimes speak different languages, so my train of thought is very difficult to follow. I also find it very stressful to express myself when put on the spot. I prefer to go away, think, think again, write it down, erase it, write it again and by the end I will still not be happy with it (which I guess has to do with my scientific background). So being able to just run with something without taking 20 min to explain how in the hell my brain got to that point, is indeed a relief.
The biggest frustration as a solo creative is hitting that wall and not being able to bounce off of someone else in order to overcome it. Having said that though I consider myself extremely lucky to be surrounded by a community of people (friends, family, colleagues) who by now can read the panic and frustration signs a mile away and always come to my rescue.
My thanks to Antigoni for her thoughtful responses to my questions!