Saturday, 31 August 2013

White Male Feminists: shut up.


It seems like most of my Facebook friends are either left wing anti-imperialists or young men discovering the
importance of gender equality. Thanks to Nick Cohen, I have an ambivalent attitude towards socialists who would stand silent in the face of a dictator who gasses his populace. And while I am mindful that the point of Facebook, beyond making money for the people who run it, is to ensure that I always have a stream of irrelevant opinions at my fingertips, I am as concerned at the way that the feminist revival is being championed by a bunch of men in their twenties.

Don't get me wrong: the return of feminisms is wonderful. After a decade in which the very idea of arguing that women were oppressed would lead to awkward silences, the revival of discussion around rape culture, male privilege and the general inequality hidden beneath the lazy assumptions of society is welcome. That the Tron  is hosting an event called Fuck The Patriarchy is significant. The rise of the TYCI collective is beautiful. Lock Up Your Daughters continues to evolve. Because feminism cuts across class and racial boundaries, it is a rare example of an ideology that can move beyond specific injustices towards a broader vision of social justice.

It is also incredibly diverse, thanks to its long gestation: unlike Marxism, which is guilty of cleaving to dogma and connecting everything  back to its own goal of political revolution, feminism has blossomed into a diverse series of strains and flavour. It can be both pro-pornography (Anna Span makes pornography and claims both f-words as liberating) and anti-pornography (hello, Andrea Dworkin). Under the name, opposing varieties can bloom. And if ideas move forward through chatting with their opposites, feminism is a fertile ground for breeding new futures.

Besides, a feminist analysis of my language in that last paragraph would be able to identify a great many gendered words and provide a run-down of my lazy assumptions.

However, I don't want to hear much more from male feminists, especially on Facebook. There have been a series of flashpoints recently.

An important male author commented that feminism's most important task is to engage with men. Another artist apologised (on behalf of feminist men) for that video with the nude ladies. A Facebook group set up  to encourage discussion of rape has been posting apologetic articles by men (who seem to be lauded for admitting that they had been a bit obnoxious on dates).

Quick note: feminism's most important task is to advance the freedom of women - whether men get on board is irrelevant. They can just get out of the way. I had never heard of Robin Prick before feminist men started apologising  for him - making them part of the idiot's marketing. And realising that, like, women aren't impressed by 'nice guy' attitudes and repositioning your value system isn't the same as throwing yourself under a horse: it's a dating  strategy.

I haven't mentioned the people in question by name,  because they are people I respect: and perhaps any attempt to grapple with feminism is better than none. I am sure that the reposting of that article about the clitoris will change somebody's life -  even if it does suggest, oddly that the clitoris was discovered in the 1990s. I remember Robert Yates drawing a picture of one for me in the back row of an English class in 1986. Not having even kissed a woman with passion at that point, I was suitably impressed. I didn't realise he was a pioneer in biological science as well.

But I can never forget the conversation I had with Jane Shagstamp at Glasgow Ladyfest at the turn of the century. She was sceptical about whether a man could be a feminist  - working as a stripper in Europe might have coloured her opinion - but suggested the best a man could do as a feminist is listen.

This might justify the men who are reposting feminist articles - and I have appreciated being connected to some passionate writing - but it challenges those men who are taking on feminist ideals and boasting about holding them. First of all, men getting praised for performing feminist ideas is applauding them for co-opting beliefs. While it's admirable for men to get on board with a  movement that is concerned with social justice, the fact that they are getting on stage with these concepts is a reminder that the arts, like most spheres, are still male dominated. A more radical action might be sharing the stage with a woman,  eh?

There's also an aura of masculine navel gazing around the whole process. Men are constantly making theatre about 'being a man.' In dance, this  is especially common. It's also more than slightly predictable. Throwing in a feminist consciousness treats the struggle for female equality as a male concern: step aside, ladies, we men have got this covered.

Part of my irritation is the preachiness of the tone: the assumption of  a moral high ground. Arguing about the inherent sexism of the media furore surrounding Miley Cyrus is translated into a sermon. Robin Prick, instead of being ignored as a minor pop-culture irritant, becomes an embodiment of a slide backwards to 1970s' attitudes. The best responses are, admittedly, more sophisticated and do address the moral ambiguities of the person's own behaviour. Yet far too much of the male feminist campaigning in the social media equivalent of wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt and thinking that's going to beat the man.

I suppose I had better do the same myself - I was one of these WMFs in the 1990s. I  ran a disco called Love Thy Cunt, misquoting Germaine Greer before she embarrassed herself as a TV pundit and apologist for page 3. At least one girlfriend complained that I thought I could be a better woman than she could - until one of my co-DJs reminded me of an eternal  feminist truth. 'The Master's Tools Cannot Dismantle The Master's House.' She went on to become a social worker, engaging with the hard edge of inequality (not complaining about it from a podium or a stage), while I kept on being a Tool.

What the new wave of WMFs fails to grasp is the complexity of feminism, and that their celebrations of feminism aren't unambiguous. It is a classic strategy of any hegemony to appear to embrace revolutionary ideas, to divide and conquer, to give the appearance of reforming by mouthing the words. I am not accusing the WMFs of anything more than good intentions, but I am encouraging them to consider more carefully how they enter the public domain with their opinions.


Friday, 30 August 2013

A Bit of A Diversion from Ben Walters (2)

It seems unfair on Ben Walters to use his intelligent provocation on 'class war' in cabaret to address concerns about the direction and development of British burlesque - he is clearly more concerned with examining an internal conflict within cabaret, and pointing out a possible resolution. However, when he replies to some short-sighted critiques of burlesque by asserting that there are 'legitimate political and aesthetic critiques to be levelled at certain aspects of burlesque, as there are critiques to be levelled at certain aspects of drag or circus or any other form of performance,' he is missing a crucial point. Burlesque has a particular history, and a particular set of concerns, some of which are not shared by circus or any other form of performance. 

The really big argument around burlesque is whether it is a post-modern form of feminism or a return to the golden age of exploitation and objectification of women. Individual circus shows might be accused of sexism. but there is no play in the idea that circus acrobatics are fundamentally sexist. Burlesque deals with the erotic, in the way that drag deals with gender identity. Simply making different art forms share similar values is avoiding the issue. 

Walters isn't worried about this issue within the remit of his speech, and that's fine. However, it's worth examining a few burlesque shows to see whether there is any basis for the criticisms that Walters dismisses.

The main complaint seems to be that the burlesque routine is purely about striptease: Armstrong refers to 'old strippers,' and the unnamed cabaret show has a song that mocks the burlesque as being fodder for sexual fantasy and nothing more. Two shows in this year's Fringe - In Flagrante and Ballesque made an effort to advertise themselves as being about more than mere titillation. In Flagrante claimed to be subverted ideas about women in uniform, and Ballesque made much of its cast's dance training (they conform perfectly to Walters' idea of artists who come from 'above' cabaret).

 photo - Kaveh Kardan
In Flagrante has the most to defend in this regard: the various routines involved a fair amount of BDSM paraphernalia, and most of the dancers spent most of the time with their breast on display. Having a poster that featured a massive bum - an icon shared with Chas Royal's Best of Burlesque - did little to suggest that their Fringe blurb, which promised subversion and feminism, was anything more than a gloss on what Broadway Baby called 'the sexiest show on the Fringe.'

Ballesque, ironically, had far more depth than its posters suggested: instead of a non-stop erotic cabaret as promised, it had a plot and characterisations and everything. There was little nudity: the topless scenes were limited to a cheeky parody of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake (and so it was guys, not gals baring breasts), and the most explicitly erotic routine was in the style of Bob Fosse. Aside from the setting - a nightclub that was the afterlife - and the format (each scene had the shape of an act) - there was little here that connected to burlesque. 

What both of these shows did share was a limited interest in pushing the boundaries of choreography. Whether the In Flagrante troupe were posing as pony-girls, or the Ballesque girls (and they were young) were doing their Fosse number, there was no sense of originality or pushing the dancers. Like the burlesque acts in Royal's Best of Burlesque, the routines were predictable and familiar. In Flagrante  may have claimed contemporary dance as an influence, and Ballesque had a cast of trained dancers, but neither show had the hallmark of the experimental or challenging physicality.

They also lacked depth: and this is where In Flagrante  entered into dangerous territory. Having claimed to be subverting stereotypes, the obviousness of the routines is all the more disappointing. One number mocked 1950s' housewife stereotypes by sexing them up: another parodied the  'food pornography' of modern cookery programmes. Yet neither went beyond the simple concept, and could be consumed as simple erotica. It's not accurate to call it sexist - an analysis of the creative process would be necessary for that. But it falls short of 'subversion' and certainly does not represent a feminist burlesque.

Ballesque did rather a little better due to its surface glamour. Some fairly weak performances - the male lead did not convince as a lusty heterosexual chasing the female lead, although their tango was passionate to the same measure that their dialogues were limp - prevented the production from grappling with the implications of the plot. Calling one character Sadisto and packing the stage with stereotypes suggests that the plot was an excuse for the routines. 

However, in both cases, the use of burlesque tropes (corsets, tassels, vintage fashion, comedy combined
with nudity) was mirrored by the presence of exactly those problems that burlesque has come to attract. Limited choreographic imagination; titillation over the use of eroticism to provoke questions (a half-naked traffic cop is not a smart satire, it's a fantasy routine); the costume being more important than the idea and the slight humour, or pay-off, excusing a routine that lacks structure or cohesion. 

Stripped of its pretensions, In Flagrante is a solid erotic show in the tradition of the French nightclubs like The Crazy Horse. Ballesque  is a not too bad production by young performers. But neither can make any claim to being ground-breaking, unless the very idea of erotic entertainment lasting more than two minutes is subversive. 

In both cases, and this also applies to The Best of Burlesque, the erotic elements become uncomfortable because they point to nothing more than themselves. Going back to the nastily phrased accusations of Walters' anecdotal performers, this is the problem: much burlesque is preoccupied with the sexual, but not in transforming it into aesthetic quality.

This is not the same problem as circus - and it is not the same problem as Live Art (which has a much bigger issue with self-indulgence). And it is unfair to label one art form as 'worse' because it deals with a particular area.

Of course, The Wau Wau Sisters were at The Fringe this year, with their 'sequel' to The Last Supper. While it might lack the scatter-shot ferocity of The Last Supper, Naked As The Day... retains that particular energy and attitude that defines what feminist burlesque would look like. 






A Response to Ben Walters (1)

Over at Time Out - London's free arts and listings magazine, which educated me in the ways of performance and clubbing during my teenage years, Ben Walters has posted a transcript of his talk given at Edinburgh's Fringe Central on August 21, 2013. It's intriguing stuff: the deliberately provocative title (Is Cabaret Heading for a Class War), the obvious insider knowledge he displays and the generous attitude towards an art form that is often marginalised combine to make it a bold step forward, both for thinking about cabaret and the role of the critic.

Looking over Walters' reviews of the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, it's pretty clear that he has adopted a position: he is a defender of cabaret, burlesque and neo-vaudeville (or whatever name the revival is calling itself in what must be its second decade). He has a detailed knowledge of the acts, and his star ratings are consistent. It's easy to understand why, in the context of his other reviews, he gave Dusty Limits five stars and Titty Bar Ha Ha one. Alongside his sensitivity to the audience response, this makes Walters one of the most useful critics in the UK - that he is working in cabaret ought to be a matter of pride to the genre.

Walters deals with several issues that are crucial within cabaret. First of all, he argues for its importance as an art form. This is not a given ('I've defended grass-roots cabaret against misconceived criticism that it is cheap and vulgar,' he notes). He surveys the influx of performers from a more 'conventional cultural establishment' (that is, artists coming in from outside the traditional cabaret community). He also addresses the common assumption that cabaret is dogged by vast amounts of 'bad burlesque.'

The strength of Walters' article is that he is both generous and honest in his assessment of cabaret's current state. While he acknowledges his subjectivity - 'You’ll notice a London bias to my observations, I'm afraid,' he confesses, he clarifies his terms of reference before drawing a broad optimistic conclusion. It's exciting stuff, showing how a critic can bring far more to the arts than a series of short reviews and providing star ratings to cover posters. 

He begins with a few anecdotal observations, coming from artists who are entering the cabaret scene from a different background. Walters names this background as 'above, if you’ll pardon the somewhat loaded term.' That is, artists 'enjoying a level of mainstream celebrity, or having connections to widely respected institutions and the financial support and professional credibility that can come with that... recent drama graduates, ballet performers, trained opera singers and so on.' They reveal an attitude that he sees as popular - and wrong. 

What started me thinking in these terms was actually a couple of comments ... from classically trained performers. One of them said she wanted “to make a difference of asserting cabaret as a good art form …not nipple tassels, bad burlesque.


There’s another début show by performers from ‘above’... which opens with a song that invites burlesque performers to 'see yourself for what you are – you’re just a pretty piece of meat parading round in your bra. Yes yes, you shake those tassels, yes yes, go on – yawn. Well done you, up on stage, giving desperos the horn.'

Former sketch comedian, now quiz show host 
And this in turn reminded me of the comments Alexander Armstrong, the TV comedian. 'I'm convinced that cabaret is set to return,' Armstrong told the Evening Standard. “People said it about burlesque and they weren't wrong. A whole load of old strippers bought themselves pompoms and souped up their sets and are calling themselves burlesque.' [Armstrong later apologised for the comments.]

If anything, Walters is too moderate in his response to these comments: these kinds of attack on burlesque are often couched in terms that are possibly sexist - the assumption that any display of female sexuality is necessarily pornographic - while Armstrong's recent comedy output gives him little foundation to be nasty about anyone relying on old glories. His suggestion that cabaret is about to return suggests he hasn't spent the last decade noticing anything outside of his limited TV world (a hypothesis that can be supported by a look at the diminishing returns of his sketch shows). 

Walters does admit that there are problems with some burlesque - he says they are the same problems faced by other art forms, like circus - and makes a lively defence of the medium. He points out that it created the audience that now enjoy cabaret. His final enjoinder ('they’re patronising attacks that are rooted in ignorance, intended to belittle, and suggestive of hypocrisy and insecurity) is spot on. What he doesn't do is consider why burlesque has this reputation, or whether the words of a hypocrite can contain a measure of truth...



Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A further repeat: Dark, delicious cabaret

FEATURE BY GARETH K VILE.
PUBLISHED 23 AUGUST 2011
"Cabaret is an umberella term," says Amanda Palmer, half of the siamese twin duo Evelyn Evelyn. "You've got all these perfomers making music and totally unafraid of being theatrical. Even Lady Gaga draws her inspiration from theatre. It's a reaction to the music of the 1990s, which stripped everything back. Now the pendulum has swung the other way."
Cabaret is learning to live in the spotlight. Camille O'Sullivan, longtime darling of the Spiegeltent, has grown to fill the largest Pleasance space. Scottee's queer Live Art special Eat Your Heart Out has been promoted to the Assembly. And Amanda Palmer, who threatened to ascend to stadium rock godhead with The Dresden Dolls, has become a standard bearer for the meeting of punk and cabaret. Last year saw the stand up comedians and critics square up to burlesque. This year, cabaret has to find a way to retain its intimacy in the face of popularity.
Camille has scaled back her band to a three piece and wanders through her set, confounding expectations by revealing her idiosyncratic preoccupations and perfecting songs by Jacque Brel, Nick Cave and Gillian Welch. Retreating from the rockier treatments of last year, she delivers a five star show and balances surreal humour and intimate confessional.
Undermining her intensity by unnerving clowning, Camille prevents her show from being self-important: the gradual shift of mood sees her abandon her welcoming warmth for something uncanny and deep. Unlike many who claim the excluded and heart-broken as inspiration, Camille brings an authentic compassion to her tales of the dispossessed and marginalised.
Eat Your Heart Out is a liminal travesty. Scottee, a gracious, self-deprecating and cutting host, guides his audience through wild acts: From Figs in Wigs - an Yvonne Rainer vision of a Lady Gaga video - to Myra Dubois - her children's show is a viciously funny attack on decency and drag's acerbic edge - EYHO is a taut lesson on non-conformist queer cabaret. Their allegiance to Live Art is clear, their relationship to cabaret like the couple that can't help getting back together despite the heart-break. Just when cabaret is becoming mainstream again, Scottee thankfully drags it back to the margins.
Meanwhile Amanda Palmer's Evelyn Evelyn is a cunning strategy to avoid the inevitable obsolescence built into the career of rock musicians. Creating a parody of a freak show turn, her Siamese twin act with Jason Webley takes her through honky-tonk and bluegrass pastiches, hilarious yet retaining her trademark skill at finding the universal in the peculiar. As a songwriter, she is far from Camille's brilliance as an interpreter of classic tunes, but adds a vaudeville bite to her passionate songs of love and alienation. She admits that she has a fan base who "get and appreciate the injoke of my life," allowing her to do "what I feel like doing, even if it is dangerous, business-wise."
Cabaret may be popular, but as all of these artists prove, and as Amanda Palmer makes explicit, it has the spirit of reaction against the dull 1990s' seriousness and can still be deliciously subversive.

Giants in the Forest: Interlude to Chapter 5

From Wat Phra Kaew
It is with a sense of melancholy that I know look back on my adventures across Scotland in search of Giants in the Forest. Not just that the summer is twisting slowly back down into the autumn: they have already become memories of a healthier Vile, one who could cycle for a good hour, all the time meditating on the nature of national identity.

In the aftermath of the Fringe, I am not able to walk for more than ten minutes: I have taken to digging out old articles to put on-line, since typing encourages shooting pains along my arms. When I stand, I am stiff and bent. My sole pleasures in life are lying very still and thinking. Like a character in a Beckett play, I remember and re-dismember, and the joys of the past only emphasises the misery of the future. In the click of my knee, I hear an oracle of my demise.

Much better times were had on the open road. The brief bursts of hitching made me think I was a beat poet (a delusion I had had during my early twenties, when I worked in a hospital and read Foucault on the wards). Cycling was beautiful, the fields and the rivers rising up to welcome me - the sheer pleasure of beating the 'suggested time' given for the distance between Aberdeen and Drum Castle on Google Maps rushed me back to childhood games. And trains, and buses: no longer the weary prisons for the commute to work, but chariots of flame that split the road open to reveal the vistas beneath and beyond...

And for three glorious weeks, the stage was not the place I looked upon to provide respite from a life of quiet desperation. The clouds and breezes, the ache of my thighs as I marched into the drive of Bowhill Country Estate, Selkirk, the car that stopped and picked me up from the side of the road (and me in my suit and carrying a rucksack thinking this combination of smart and loose would have its own symbolism): to travel was the destination, and every other cliché that I can steal.

I have explained that I am a critic because I have seen in theatre (especially dance, especially dance that comes from Belgian or has Iona Kewney in it) an intensity that seems to break the veil of illusion, that cracks open the truth hidden behind the mundane. And those moments still happen: Red Bastard did it... but what I found out in the countryside was different. It was a serene awareness, tiring, but not a sentimental rush...

Perhaps it was... perhaps it fades... perhaps the ghost of post-modern cleverness absorbs me again and I slip back into the quest for spiritual pleasure in an essentially spirit-less, urban world... do you know, by the time I got to Drum Castle, I had got into the habit of talking to the Giants (only this time I was given a tour and had to be rational or else they'd wonder about me...)


An excuse for the repeats

The sudden appearance of old articles on this blog isn't just a sardonic response to the number of performances that seem to come around again and again during the Fringe. It is also an expression of my laziness, and coasting on work that I completed years ago.

It is also interesting to look back on my predictions. I am gearing up to write a piece about cabaret again, reflecting on how it has changed - or not - in the last three years. This has been prompted by Ben Walters' comments on how cabaret might cope as it goes mainstream. My first feeling on reading his provocation was that he had made it three years too late: the high water mark of the cabaret revival was just before it received its own section in the Fringe brochure.

Then I remembered, Walters works in London, and I probably ought to shut my mouth and check out what is happening down there before I make fatuous comments.

My last week of the Fringe was supposed to be all about checking out cabaret acts (and youth theatre, but that's the other article I need to write). Perhaps some anti-burlesque protester attacked my knee as I slept - I didn't get around to seeing as much as I would have liked. But a post-match survey of the Fringe brochure, and a great many of the names that I mentioned in 2011 are still doing shows, at about the same scale. A few names had a year off (Des O'Connor is very low profile these days, given that he was doing three shows a day a few years back). But I don't get the impression that a great deal has changed since I was an enthusiast for cabaret.

Anyway - here's to the joy of being a critic: if my article is ill-informed, we'll call it a provocation.

Another Repeat: The Glasgow Cabaret Festival 2011

FEATURE BY GARETH K VILE.
PUBLISHED 29 SEPTEMBER 2011
The surprise at cabaret's revival seems to have lasted a decade: newspapers were still talking about it in 2010, even though its earliest manifestation had been in the late twentieth century, and artists like Dusty Limits had refined their work into a sophisticated fusion of styles and influences. The much-heralded new Cabaret section in the Fringe brochure was not so much a sign of resurgence but a statement of maturity: the shifting fashions of Edinburgh’s annual cultural blow-out saw one artist, Miaow Miaow, graduate to the International Festival while the growth came from artists like Limits, Camille O’Sullivan or Le Gateau Chocolat, who stepped out from the variety line-ups to develop solo shows of powerful theatricality.
 At the same time, burlesque was no longer the ultimate definition of cabaret. While shows like Comic Strip or Kitty Cointreau’s Brahahaaffirmed that there was still an audience for striptease, more inclusive formats, as in Itsy’s Kabarett or Blonde Ambition’s Vive Le Cabaret flourished. Against this context, Rhymes with Purple’s decision to stage the second Glasgow Cabaret Festival this October is both timely and visionary.
 “We had a very strong curatorial vision, the cornerstone of that being a commitment to quality and the desire to present something diverse and different,” affirms director Louise Oliver. “Because cabaret is starting to embrace its inherent theatricality, and more high quality artists define themselves using the term cabaret, the industry is starting to sit up and take notice.”
The Glasgow Cabaret Festival itself has captured some of those artists: Scotland’s own Creative Martyrs reprise their Free Fringe hit,Tales From a Cabaret, and pop iconoclasts Frisky and Mannish are heading north to wow audiences with their ironic take on pop celebrity. The Pavilion hosts an all-star touring cabaret, hosted by burlesque radical Kiki KaBoom – her chavette striptease is intelligent and provocative. If the term cabaret is itself hard to define – it is often conflated with vaudeville and variety, or even burlesque – it gives artists a creative freedom to mix and match genres.
“One thing we wanted to achieve was a selection of shows with narrative, that were theatrical in their approach but by preferred definition are cabaret,” Oliver continues.  “I think we have achieved that with The Creative Martyrs, Once Bitten and After Hours at the End of Time, which all use overlapping disciplines in their creation. These shows mix music, comedy, storytelling and elements of variety to create a finished theatrical product.”  
Across the GCF, the full range of possibilities is explored. Des O’Connor, best known as a cheeky, ukulele-wielding compere, is bringing his new, more experimental work Once Bitten; Piff the Magic Dragon has an hour long show of his self-deprecating magic. Since Rhymes with Purple are as much a theatre company as a cabaret promoter – they staged the disturbing study of water-boarding in 2010’s Mayfesto at the Tron – they are in the perfect position to identify and advocate the new wave of acts.
“From the Tron including Dr Sketchy (the burlesque art session) as a regular feature in its programme to the Soho Theatre in London opening up a dedicated cabaret space, cabaret is carving out a legitimate space for itself in the more 'high brow' cultural landscape,” Oliver says.  “I hope that the Cabaret Festival can be a spearhead for that attitude in Scotland: this time next year there will be a Creative Scotland logo on our promotional material!”
Blonde Ambition, who were crucial in the reinvention of cabaret as a glamorous, high quality variety bill, have two entries in this year’s festival. A reprise of Vive Le Cabaret gives the West Coast a chance to sample the show that has, for two years, been a flagship of the Fringe.
Vive takes its cues both from the British vaudeville movement and the French tradition of polished erotica. Dance company Hustle provide a touch of jazz sensuality, while the introduction of classical showgirls round out host Des O’Connor’s ironic schmaltz. During the Fringe, Blonde Ambition scoured Edinburgh to discover comedians, acrobats and burlesque performers to match the brilliance of their core cast, which included Edinburgh’s Gypsy Charms and Viva Misadventure, who are often credited with beginning the burlesque rival north of the border.
O’Connor has been crucial to Vive’s success. Equally capable of singing the most obscene lyric with a carefree charm and sudden dark satire, his vision of cabaret is both subversive and innocent: he acts as the boy spotting the Emperor’s New Clothes and deftly cuts beneath prudery and decadence with ease. As compere, he pulls together the hidden connections between the turns, be they Amanda Palmer in her downbeat mode or the spectacular Ed Muir, a Diet Coke advert given life.
Rhymes with Purple are not the only company to have noticed the cultural shift. When Dusty Limits first started making the connection between the Weimar Republic and contemporary politics, the link between the political and the theatrical was affirmed. Recently, 7:84 and Wildcat, two vociferously engaged old school Glasgow crews, made a comeback in a variety format and former members of Benchtours have evolved into The Occasional Cabaret, touring theirApocalypse around Scotland. And Glasgay! is offering the Best of Jonny Woo – his stripping guerilla routine has an uncanny soulfulness – Amy Lame’s birthday party for Morrisey and Bourgeois and Maurice. Lame’s Ducky has trod the thin line between Live Art mayhem and kitsch cabaret charm for years in London: the presence of Scottee, Time Out’s performer of the year and a performer who defines the cutting edge, is a reminder of how neo-cabaret is far more than just a gentle reinvention of the old TV variety format. 
Across in Edinburgh Missy Malone and Friends Burlesque Review’s Halloween special is a strong example of how neo-burlesque is increasingly standing alone beyond variety bills. Malone herself is one of the scene’s most dynamic performers. “Burlesque is my passion and my life,” she says. “I put a lot of time, effort and money into my performances and I am very self critical. I think the quality of your performances is the only thing that will sustain your success.”   
One night that undoubtedly fuelled Scotland’s home scene was Kabarett. Curated by the Itsy Collective, it has lined a typically idiosyncratic bill to celebrate its third birthday at the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh’s spiritual home of cabaret. Matching local acrobats with a street brass band and a headline turn from Fusion belly dancer and sword swinger Leah Debrincat, Kabarett is always an unpredictable, dynamic fusion of forms. The inclusion of the Creative Martyrs – who also turn up in the Cabaret Festival edition of The Gatsby Club – reminds how Kabarett has always walked on the darker side of the street. 
The Glasgow Cabaret Festival is all-embracing, and provides a sure snapshot of the state of the art. From sexy glamour to the dark corners of satire, the idea of cabaret being the poor cousin of performance is already an outdated and facile notion, just like the next article on the revival.
FIVE FACETS OF CABARET
Tease Art Exhibition (The Virginia Galleries) Fiona Wilson and Friends paint, photograph and sculpt responses to the business of the show, featuring images both erotic and confrontational.
Rayguns Look Real Enough (Art Club) Unhinged rock'n'roll duo try to piece together what went so wrong that they lost the flunkies and ended up on the variety circuit. Like Amanda Palmer, they might be looking for something in cabaret that a world stadium tour just can't provide.
After Hours at the End of Time (Tron, Victoria Bar) Tribute to Tom Waits, both through his songs and the atmosphere that he conjures through them. 
The Best of Jonny Woo (The Arches) Proving drag can be a great deal more than ironic posing, Woo goes wild with his favourite characters. A one many show of far too many dangerous personalities.
Matsuda Cabaret (Rio Cafe) Regulars from Spangled Cabaret, including Scunner and Leggy Pee team up with Thomas Truax to reveal how musical variety need not mean Perry Como. 

From the past: Scottee at the Fringe

Look, the Fringe was full of repeats this year: Beats came back  - albeit with a new master on the wheels of steel, as DJ Hushpuppy took over from DJ Whoop - and The Trench lost out on a review when I checked the archives. The Tron took Ulysses east, the NTS restaged Claire Cunningham's Ménage
So I am reprinting a few of my old pieces. This one is to get everyone in the mood for Glasgay! It is about Scottee... formerly published in The Skinny.
Would you like a side order of Live Art with your vaudeville?
FEATURE BY GARETH K VILE.
PUBLISHED 15 AUGUST 2010
Like cabaret's wilful younger sister, Eat Your Heart out is determined to reject the trappings of the neo-burlesque revival - or whatever we are calling that this week. Host Scottee kicks off by mocking Edinburgh's apparent ukulele obsession, rotating through a series of increasingly absurd and glamorous costume changes. Veering from acerbic stand up to taut contemporary dance, Eat is late night feast of off-kilter vaudeville.
The adverts may claim no burlesque, but the show has the awkwardly hewn satirical edge of the best burlesque. Scottee is an amiable host, seeming to know his audience by name, offering prizes and wandering on and off stage at will. Co-host Myra Dubois is a little stereotypical, rocking the aging northern drag queen look and condemning racism in a rather too worthy monologue. The token striptease is superb: Queen Elizabeth strips down to a modern football hooligan in a routine that remembers burlesque is actually about making a funny point.
The atmosphere is uneven, and Scottee's shout outs to Live Art are not misplaced. When a man eats an onion and leaps into the audience, or Dubois manages an incoherent and improvised sing-along, the slip into incoherence is reminiscent of performance artists trying their hand at vaudeville. There's also a slightly hectoring tone - Miss Annabel Sings forces the crowd on stage. It's a change from pandering, even if it can be uncomfortable.
This is, at least, a real alternative cabaret. Never quite going full tilt at the politics, moments of brilliance - Masumi Tipsy is astonishing, and Helen Noir's introverted opera is elegant and disturbing -alternate with shambolic self-indulgence, Eat Your Heart Out is a guilty, mixed pleasure for anyone who finds the cabaret scene too polished and respectable.

If you have been missing me...

Argghh.

If I can just move this...

Hang on, sitting down might be better... no, that doesn't help.

It is the time of year... let me just adjust my leg... when every email I receive begins with a cheerful... I am going to stretch it out, see if that helps... with a cheerful 'hope you are recovered from the fringe.'

I am not. The image for this page is both a shout out to an artist who is doing an event with Screen Bandita this month and a clue as to why... I don't think I ought to have walked into the office today...

I have so much to say on matters relating to the Fringe: the sharp pains shooting up my right arm are encouraging an especially bitter perspective. In brief, I was disappointed. I saw plenty of interesting work, but very little that deserved extravagant praise. Certain venues seemed to be presenting an idea of themselves - all very curated and considered - without remembering that they were part of a performance festival, not a university lecture programme.

I won't name names until the injury has healed. Sometimes, perspective is important.

I am sorry that nothing came close to Red Bastard, especially since he was in the comedy section. But I could only accept his lack of awards at the end of the Fringe because one of the Wau Wau sisters won something.

I did enjoy the play about swearing.

I think I might be doing a bit of that... I thought that freezing the leg was the right thing to do?


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Fringe Fever

I am writing this from a room with no windows on the top floor of an Edinburgh flat. My knee appears to have decided that I have had enough theatre, and is shooting messages of pain up my thighs and into my arms. Even my beloved codeine cannot help, and  audience participation, for the first time ever, terrifies me, since I can barely stand, let alone get involved in on-stage hilarity.

The Fringe is outside, calling me like a child who wants to play and can't understand why I am not moving. Last night, I went to see That Bin Laden Show, and it deserves comment. Too much to type,  just let me say it is worth a punt. More than... socio-political intelligence, wit, not what you expect...

I am as uninspired as a Daily Telegraph columnist. A top five? Bin Laden, Dark Matter, a couple of Summerall (presuming you avoid the various lectures that are pretending to be theatre), and obviously Red Bastard.

A burlesque show that is oddly old fashioned? In Flangrante.

What do star ratings mean? How do we approach the work of young people in the Fringe?

Can anyone help me with advice for bad knees? This is the tuning up. Expect more when the painkillers kick in...

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Giants in the Forest (Interlude, 5.4)

In From Hell, not the cheeriest of comparisons, comic book genius Alan Moore talks about how it is possible, by selecting locations on a map, to find the secret lines of power that surge through the landscape. Although there are better ways to look at a map then by drawing silly occult symbols connecting random places, I am intrigued by the pattern of the Giant locations.

In teaching my young critics, I encourage them to find their own voices, and not worry overly about the importance of detailed knowledge of a particular genre. The emotional impact of an act or event on an innocent mind can be as exciting as the considered response of a seasoned professional.

I mention both of these things as they form the foundation of the following thoughts - and plead for some patience if my contemplation is ridiculous.

It's the half-way mark in my adventure. I am at the beginning of a cycle route from Drum Castle to Aberdeen, as suggested by Laura the NTS expert. I sit on the remains of the platform, pondering how my father would love this bit - a cycle ride along an old railway line. Of course, he'd like it more if there were a steam train...

To distract me from realising how I am, indeed, turning into my father, I take out the dog-eared map of the Giants. I roll out the map I printed from google, and start to reflect.

Five places so far: two in the south, one in the central belt, another in Fife and the latest - Aberdeen and environs. My felt tip can't join them up into a big smiling face - my journey has been rather lineal, in all honesty. But I feel as if I have covered some extreme terrain.

When I noticed that the heads remained static, unbothered by gentle breeze or the slow bobbing of branches and bush around them, I tried to explain this in terms of a symbolic meaning. The basic structure of each head is similar - I am starting to recognise certain templates - while they have all been decorated in different ways. Yet their surroundings are the real difference: the glade of Bowhill, the action adventure treetops of Glentrees, the foot of the Royal Mile...

The project was not conceived to attract clowns like me who rush about the countryside, staring at everything through the filter of urban alienation. It is all about the local community making something together. As one of my contacts put it - 'it's kind of a trick to get them into nature,' to get them to engage with the surrounding. Then another contact put it another way 'it makes the connection between art and nature, between the national and the local.'

I had been playing a little game in my head - I ask each set of heads whether they had a message to pass onto the next set of heads. The Bowhill Heads said simply 'how are you?' At Glentrees, they replied that they were looking forward to the big event in the autumn. At Yellowcraig they were all about boasting of their fine location ('our guests walk up a small hill and can see across the bay, out to North Berwick').

There's another trick here - by being the same, they highlight the difference around them. The imaginery conversations that I made up to relay from one set to another were really about how objects are defined by their context. There was a self-contained air to the Edinburgh heads, sitting lower in the trees than others but sending out a message of warmth and comfort. The Glentress heads, although in a perfectly discreet location, had a more demanding presence.

Drumming Up The Past (Giants in the Forest 5.3)

Drum Castle is the first home of the Giants in which I spend as much time wandering around the location as I do communing with the Grand Heads. It might be the effort of the cycle (only an hour, but I have learnt something about my levels of fitness), or the attraction of being in a place that looks like it has seen a fair slice of history.

It's more likely that I am charmed by the discovery of a secret room. The romance of a hidden chamber gets my sentimental view of the past, and the possibility that it has its own guarderobe appeals to my grubby sense of humour. 

I am greeted by Laura Paterson, my contact and a senior assistant for the National Trust. We have a lovely cup of tea in the old kitchen (The National Trust are good at hospitality, as I noticed when my mother insisted no summer holiday was complete with a visit to a stately home), and Laura talked with enthusiasm about the impact of the Giants. The full interview will be online soon - including my typical radio voice and shout outs to The Vile Arts - but the impression is that Drum Castle is a centre for all sorts of intriguing projects.

The Giants have been evolving thanks to the ministrations of local groups - not just children - and when Laura guides me along the path to the Might Three, the evidence surrounds us. An artist has been weaving - the wonderful recursive shape that makes up shells and spiral galaxies is very much in evidence - and there are a selection of wood and wool works that are part obscure ritual objects and part playtime fun with craft.

The most striking feature is that these Giants are not in a circle, or a glade, but on a lineal path and are ripe for being the final point of a procession. Laura confides in me some of the details for the Dark Wood event, and I won't spoil them - except to say they piqued my anticipation for an awesome event.

And when I say awesome, I am not being gnarly, dude. Drum Castle is opening me up to the old school idea of awe. The sense of scale hinted at by the Giants is matched by the beauty of the location, and the history contained in the house. I am starting to understand why I am on this trail, and what the Giants might be hinting at, what stories they bring and how their locations embody a certain mystery...

Frankly, the NTS website can do a better job of explaining the castle's history than I can. I shall admit that the possibility of hiring it for a wedding did make me wonder whether my unmarried state was fortuitous, as now I know where I want my marriage to happen, and I might have come across rather childishly to the helpful museum guide when I started banging on about the iconography of Greek Gods on a reproduction of a porcelain tray (it's a blue willow style copy of a tray cast in metal by a Roman emperor)...

I was quietly reverential when I read about the history of the family who had once owned the estate, before bequeathing it to the trust. For all my egalitarianism and wild eyed anarchism, I am fascinated by the apth of the aristocratic families, who have been involved in wars and great events and all added to the history of the country.

Still seeking, still excited, I unlock my bike and ease on down the road back towards Aberdeen.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Are You Calling Me Soft?

Over at The Guardian, Lyn Gardner has got a new idea. I would say something about how it seems to take a
trip to Scotland for English critics to get new material, but since I copy most of my Big Concepts from them, I can't. I might even add a general disparaging remark about The Guardian's liberalism - although I'll have to see whether that fits in with my theme.

The original post that had me fuming was a suggestion that Scottish critics were 'soft' on Scottish work. Apart from revealing her lack of knowledge of Glasgow vernacular (on the West Coast, calling someone soft translates as 'I would like to engage you in a duel of fisticuffs to protect my impugned honour'), her conclusions are rightly corrected by various responses on the site. The slightly patronising tone suggests that it is 'nice' for the locals to have critics who understand their work - no doubt performed in a dialect, and about issues that only matter north of the border, like poverty and social exclusion.

Knowing most of the critics that Gardner alludes to, I doubt 'soft' is quite the right word for them. As a group, Scottish critics are pugnacious, and have distinctive tastes to the point that finding any other adjective that fits all of them is difficult. Admittedly, the size of Scotland's theatre community ensures that every critic's profile is well known, which has the advantage of allowing the artists and audience to put a review in  a wider context. But the Scottish critics have demonstrated, in their reviews of the EIF's Leaving Planet Earth, that they rarely speak with a single voice.

I actually take offence at the idea of 'Scottish critics': nothing links us except our nationality, which, like gender or race or religion, doesn't shed much light on the individual's identity. I'm reading Nick Cohen again, and somewhere in his arguments against liberalism, he points out that the kind of thinking that groups people by national identity is either patronising or racist. I might not go that far - not least because Cohen's latest book is all about how the libel laws in  the UK are easily marshalled. But I don't think that grouping critics is helpful.

This also plugs into the debate about star rating...

Unfortunately, I can't discuss that because I died of boredom typing the words.

Anyway, all these things fail to recognise that criticism is subjective. It's part of a dialogue... while I usually like a bit of banter on this, I am going to move on: the job of the critic is to talk about theatre, not get too self-referential about their process.

Insert appropriate ironic exclamation at the audacity of that statement on this blog...

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Giants in the Forest Chapter 5.2: Getting to Drum

The idea for this post was to follow the map route, courtesy of Google, and describe the road from Aberdeen to Drum Castle.

It took me a while to find the right road out of the city - I don't like cycling in urban areas, mainly because I worry about jumping traffic lights or turning up into one way streets. I try to orientate myself by checking the number of pubs along the side of the road, although once I get onto the A93, it is all too easy. Although there is enough traffic to remind me that I am not in the wilds - and the odd truck to blow me into the pavement - it is surprisingly safe.


View Larger Map

I alternate between rather pleasant streaks of housing and more undeveloped patches of land. A closed hotel intrigues me enough for a tiny detour, and I coast up to the boarded-up entrance. There's a poster for a Circus on the window, Zippo's, which I have seen in Glasgow. I like the routines with the budgies the best.

Back when I was teaching at St Aloysius, I considered writing a response to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that would be about Jesuit philosophy and bicycle rides. At the time, I though that the pedal bike was a more suitable vehicle for spiritual contemplation than the petrol-driven fiend. The latter might have more of a rock'n'roll edge, all very American and fast: a push bike struck me as more British, more environmentally friendly, very 'vicars arriving at evensong.' I think I can see a few wind farms in the distance. Or was that from the train, where they excited comment, both positive and negative?

I flick between gears to listen to the rotating repetition of the chain against the cogs. It all seems fine. I couldn't ever work out a good title - Zen being so cool and concise, words like 'desolation' or 'consolation' felt too vague. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the Art of Riding a Bicycle Around The Western Isles seemed both verbose and pretentious.

There's a warm breeze moving east to west. I duck my head down to prevent it blowing me into the traffic and hug the curb. It's a pleasure to be on a road that hasn't been pot-holed by frost. Verbose and pretentious might be a good description of me, but I wanted people to read it, not laugh and walk away.

Like jesting Pilate... I think that comparison can be left, thank you... truth, if you must know, is a gentle ride to a castle on a sunny day. Drum Castle is a real castle, too - started off in the 1200s, when there was a chance that knights might turn up and start a siege. And after seeing the Giants in Edinburgh, I am looking forward to meeting this new set - the first ones who are in a location that conjures up chivalry and those windows in the shape of crosses that you can shoot bows and arrows through.

There's what appears to be a large Garden Centre on my right - and beyond, one of those special brown signposts. This took less time than the map suggested. I swing into the final stretch, and jump off the bike to walk into the Estate.

TS DRAMA THEATRE COMPANY PRESENTS ‘JOURNEY TO X’


Regular followers of my blog (that is to say, hello mum and yes, I am still alive) may be aware that I often wax sentimental about the West Country. Those who are aware of my work as a teacher will know that I can bore for the United Kingdom about the problems of assessing theatre made by young people.

The TS Drama Theatre Company allow me to do both. Next week, they return to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the third year running with Journey to X. Not only are they are a sixth form group of drama students (young people's theatre is my enthusiasm, after his Majesty RB and my time at the NFYT in Falkland), they come from Taunton. Taunton is one of my favourite towns in the world, up there with parts of Arran (more villages, I guess)... but anyway...

TS have done pretty well without a Vile shout out before - they had  a Sell Out Fringe run in 2011 and did Patrick Marber’s The Musicians in 2012. I'm impressed to see a young company take on Maber - he's one of those neo-brutalists that I love, and he was on Alan Partridge in the old days.

Here's some plot, press release and details. They did have some good quotes from previous years, but I cut them on the grounds that they came from rival publications. Petty? Me?


In Journey to X, a group of friends have formed a new band. Now all they have to do is raise the money to get to London to audition for the world’s biggest talent contest. However, not everything is a glamorous as it seems, as their journey for fame and fortune is really for something far less dazzling.

In a culture of instant fame and talent show stories, we see the importance of life and friendship. A tale about companionship, a journey and the risks that teenagers take when plunged into an adult world.

Journey to X was written by Nancy Harris as a brand new play for young actors and was commissioned by The National Theatre Connections and was premiered at the National Theatre by MorePies Productions in June 2012.

The TS Drama Theatre Company are derived from Taunton School’s sixth form drama students (aged 17-19) and perform primarily in Somerset. At the Edinburgh Festival, this is our third year performing, after 2011’s Sold Out ‘Dial H! for Hitchcock’ and last years ‘The Musicians’. In Somerset, we performed the English premier of 'Phantom of the Opera' licensed for amateur groups. Recently, we also won the NDFA British All Winners Final 2013 with Derek Bowskill’s ‘Burnup’, becoming British Champions in the category of One Act play.

 TheSpaceUK (TheSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall) Venue 53
19th-24th August, 13:10 (45 minutes)

Giants in the Forest (Chapter 5.1): To The North!

Please, someone, rescue me. The Fringe is rising like a river approaching flood: I can hear the crunch of ruined relationships and broken, temporary trysts beneath my feet when I enter the bar. Red Bastard told me what my problem is, Boris and Sergey made me laugh even in the jaws of hell and yet, and yet...


I'd like to say that it was dark when I set out, my bike not quite fully fixed and the chain still clunking whenever I change out of bottom gear. This is dawn for me, although the sun is up and woke me before my alarm. It's six-thirty and the hottest July I can remember. After the gentle trip around the Borders, and the ironic problems I had getting back from Edinburgh, I am hitting the part of my Giant Quest that excites, and worries, me most.

The Aberdeen train is so early, but will get me into the north before the working day begins. Being the go-getting, dynamic blogger, I fall asleep as soon as it leaves Queen Street station. Given the length of the journey, it's a mouldy old train, the stock more ancient than that which plies the line between the twin capitals. No internet connection, and I feel justified in sleeping off the three hours.

When I wake up, it is as if the line has narrowed and the forest is surrounding us.

The next time, I looking over an abyss that is green and glistens with sunlight.

There are real hills here, the ones that climbers get aroused by and tramp up and down and tick off of their extended lists.

The reflection of the hills and trees in the water is the sort of thing that would make a good photograph, if only my reflection on on the window was not so jarring.

I wake up to a text from a beautiful woman. It is half past eight. We are entering the city, the Granite city.

I take it slowly, wheeling my bike into the town and onto the High Street. Locking up, I oil the chain again, wipe it clean with a yellow cloth which then stains my yellow water-proof. I am self-conscious, that I look like a tourist. I try to destroy this impression by going into Oxfam and buying a book about Matthew Bourne. I figure that the sort of person who buys a thick paperback is not going to be seen as a day-tripper.

The huge pannier I have to lug into the shop does not help.

The tourist information point is helpful: they give me a map of the road out to Drum Castle. I realise that the trip will be all on the main artery across the top of the country. I never break free of the settlements, the commuter villages of Aberdeen. Aside from my disappointment at not getting big swathes of open countryside to sigh and swoon over, I'm intrigued by the way that Aberdeen has a different model of urban sprawl to Glasgow. While the West Coast Wonder incorporated all the settlements within its mass, Aberdeen is more like a series of outposts, with short passages of countryside between them. No need for the parks that are the lungs of The Dear Green Place...

It's brief, but sudden: a tremendous sense of love for this country. Not in any nationalistic sense, or even patriotic. I enjoy the grandeur of Aberdeen's city centre: on a sunny day like this, the granite winks and glimmers. As I make my way towards Drum Castle, my bike chain settles and I feel more at home when I am on the road.

Discuss.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Red Bastard (1)



I am pinning my colours to the mast, and they are the colour of blood and desire. Red Bastard is the most important artist working in the Fringe this year. That's not to say that there aren't shows other people would enjoy more, or are as good. But as someone who spends his life in the business of criticism, a performance that is a critique of laziness and fear is going to press my buttons. And I don't usually take pleasure in being the submissive.

I've mentioned in the past how I like the Fringe because it is a rare chance for a review to actually make a difference - I think that is naive, as the success of a performance depends more on word of mouth, or celebrity, or the weather than my star rating. I really like the Fringe because it might start off some interesting conversations. There was a half-way decent effort last year with a Facebook group about star ratings - although the hypocrisy of those who bemoaned it while plastering their posters with ratings was hilarious. Now that we have twitter and bulletin boards, the conversations are littering the internet like bacon sandwich wrappers around the Royal Mile.

Red Bastard is going to be the foundation of any conversations I have. He points out, pretty clearly, that the worth of the show is not what goes on in the front, but what happens in the mind of the audience. It's the commitment of the spectator that makes the quality shine. Other factors - like whether the guy leaping about in the big suit has any talent - are secondary. No screaming - just remember: it's all in your head.

The conversation he provokes is something about... where does theatre happen, and how does it relate to reality. He has a great sequence where he asks whether the audience would prefer it if he pretended that they weren't there - and perhaps he ought to pretend to be someone he isn't. The idea of playing is repulsive to him - although he toys with emotions, and the persona is hardly the man who came on my radio show and spoke so movingly of his art.

There are many actors in the Fringe: if they'd like to see what their craft is capable of doing, check him out (before he checks you out. You don't want a six foot eight man in a jumpsuit watching from the wings). If you want to change your life, see him (although last time this didn't end so well for me...).






The only reason not to indulge Red Bastard is if you are not feeling brave enough.

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