Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre

Posted: April 17th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Battersea Arts Centre, March 15, 2024

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, The Last Supper
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: The Last Supper (photo © Rosie Powell)

There was an immediate incongruity on entering the Battersea Arts Centre Council Chamber of hearing Rosie Ridgeway’s sound design of a sacred a cappella voice and seeing Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s stage furniture of industrial ventilation ducting coiled in various lengths under Nao Nagai’s lighting. It is the setting for Figs in Wigs’ rather desolate opening scene – Chapter Zero – for Big Finish, an irreverent yet trenchant commentary in seven chapters (acts) on the links between the dire state of the arts in this country, the sinking of the Titanic and the extinction of the species. Like a good satirical cartoon, we are invited to consider in exaggerated detail the all-too-visible effects on the arts and the natural environment of an unspecified yet widely understood cause. And it felt as if the audience was there in the Council Chamber — itself the seat of a former political body that once had a key role in the birth of the suffragette and labour movements — to relish seeing on stage a reflection of what they already know exists so they could laugh at their own collective misfortune.

There are two parallel layers in Big Finish: one looks outwards at what the five performers — Ray Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots — call the ‘shit show’ that is our arts environment, while the other looks inwards at their colourfully irreverent ruminations. As each successive chapter unpeels their perceptions and frustrations, one self-deprecatory slur at a time, the two layers naturally merge.

Figs in Wigs come to the rather bleak conclusion in Chapter Zero that if the great ship of the arts in this country is sinking, any grants are little more than publicly funded life jackets. It may seem ungrateful to lambaste the state of the arts when a little logo on the program indicates that Big Finish was supported using public funding by Arts Council England. Figs in Wigs did indeed get some money from ACE for the R&D phase of Big Finish but their application for funding the show was turned down. It’s an odd way to use public funds to encourage artists to get to the starting line and then disqualify them for the race, especially when ACE’s printed logo on the performance program suggests otherwise. Fortunately, there are two other logos on the program — Wandsworth Council and Bloomberg Philanthropies — that hopefully represent some alleviation in the funding shortfall.*

Figs in Wigs, Big Finish, Chapter 1
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: Evolution (photo © Rosie Powell)

With its dogged determination that the show will still go on, Big Finish takes only two short opening chapters to offer a concise social and geological history of evolution, starting with a time when days had only four hours of light and ‘the earth was full of idiots’. A golf cart enters the stage driven by a dinosaur with four reptilian passengers. They deliver sand in bags and spread it neatly into a circle with rakes. With a heightened sense of mixed metaphor, we are reminded about our proclivity for burying our heads in the sand and that time is running out. Chapter Two segues effortlessly into what is called ‘The Survivors’, notably the crab’s ability to adapt to changing environments over millennia. It’s also an opportunity for the first dance, a hip-swinging crustacean side-step. In Chapter Three there’s an ode to human competitive practice as a game of musical towels on the beach, and a celebration of chance in a lottery game as a sly reminder that the Arts Council is part funded by the national lottery. The effects of water pollution on the manufacture of soft ice cream is parodied in a Mr. Whiffy portaloo, followed in Chapter Four by the Last Supper — the swansong, the big finish — with successive toasts to over-inflated egos, artistic mediocrity and analogies to predatorial insects. Chapter Five is a delightful last will and testament, before the apotheosis in Chapter 6 in which a string quintet sitting on their reinforced coattails plays on as the ship sinks in the soap suds.

Figs in Wigs, The String , Big Finish
Figs in Wigs in Big Finish: The String Quintet (photo © Rosie Powell)

The ideas in Big Finish may be expressed with blinding clarity but they are deliberately dressed in an aesthetic of amateur improvisation. It might look as if the production was pulled together using any and every available material, but there is a sophistication in this underhand aesthetic — thanks in part to Gammon’s costumes and Porter’s wigs and makeup — that belies the self-deprecatory tone of the texts. We are drawn into the ideas precisely because of Figs in Wigs’ deliciously performative improvisation. The aesthetic disrupts the message without masking the seething rage that produced it.

*Big Finish has been commissioned by BAC, Home, Cambridge Junction and Jerwood Arts.

Project O, Voodoo at The Art School, Glasgow

Posted: March 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Project O, Voodoo at The Art School, Glasgow

Project O, Voodoo, The Art School, Glasgow, March 7

Project O Voodoo

Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley in Voodoo (photo: Project O)

You have been having our rights so long, that you think, like a slave-holder, that you own us. I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife. It will feel all the better when it closes up again.” – Sojourner Truth

We… wait. We are…wait. We are ready…wait. We are ready for…wait. We are ready for you… wait.
Voodoo has a staged and staccato arrival with entry permitted in groups of five at a time. We are paused in the lobby, paused again midway up a staircase, paused again at the door to deposit all our time-keeping devices in a sealed black envelope and only then allowed to enter the performance arena. This is an example of power; power to disrupt and power to alter experience.

Project O is a collaboration between Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small and this is some of the text they offer on their website about the work: ‘Two brown women dance a dance to dance themselves out of the desire for and expectation of an aesthetic assimilation that upholds a system of white supremacy that is at once subtle, blatant and all pervasive. A dance as cartography, Project O map the movement of their memories and the gaps in their knowledge of what went on before, those histories that are repeatedly erased by being unspoken. Training their bodies to fall through time, communing with ghosts, conjuring new futures and describing a misremembered past, this dance is an ode to the present…Voodoo asks you to pay your respects, make peace with your dead and ours, lay down your defences and dance.’

As the audience enter and take their places on the benches or the floor, what looks like the end titles of a film — a continual projection of scrolling text — cites historical and contemporary examples of racism, control and power: when cocaine was removed from Coca Cola (1901), when Rosa Parks refused to switch seats (1955), when the Henry Ford Foundation purchased that same bus #2857 (2001), alongside incidents that Hemsley and Johnson-Small have encountered too.

As we are faced towards the projection Hemsley and Johnson-Small are static, seated on a raised stage about 20 metres away at the back of the room each with a pair of reflective sunglasses facing us. They are glacial. We have to crane our necks to turn and see them up high under a double spot as they watch us, their subjects, motionless. I could watch them like this all night.

Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” – Toni Morrison

Voodoo is a durational event in either three or four 2-hour performance cycles for which you purchase a ticket for a single two-hour timed entry; my slot is the second wave of the evening which has BSL interpretation from Amy Cheskin. With the haze mounting a seated Cheskin starts interpreting the lyrics to Nina Simone’s Feeling Good (and later to Whitney Houstoun) with gumption and delicious emotional flourishes as Hemsley and Johnson-Small begin their first journey — to a pair of white cotton body bags in which they encase themselves and return to a motionless state; until their bodies are dragged into the centre of the space by a number of assistants who were responsible for our initial entrances. When we deposited our time-keeping devices we were being asked to erase our own time and enter into Project O’s rulespace where they enforce gaps, pauses, instructions and make us wait — an exercise in play and power.

Dragging and slamming bin bags of bones as they scatter across the runway, my memories of their movement is a language that belongs in the social dance and party scene; responsive limbs echoing the intricacies of the hip hop and bashment lines on the soundtrack. Remnants of bones are everywhere (designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Charley Fone), threaded on thin wires overhead like an oversized guitar neck and running the length of the 15-metre space alongside singular panels at floor level; we are dancing in a sea of bones. Hemsley and Johnson-Small howl into the bodies of some audience members, uninvited but gentle touches with their mouths breathing and moaning into the bodies of others. The transference of energies begin.

It’s not about supplication, it’s about power. It’s not about asking, it’s about demanding. It’s not about convincing those who are currently in power, it’s about changing the very face of power itself.” – Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

For me the focus of Voodoo isn’t so much about what Hemsley and Johnson-Small do, what they present, how they dance and what they offer; it is about the audience and how we react to their provocation, to their power and to the aggregation of own experience. With pre-recorded instructions they control us as a mass, herding us around the space like sheep; “take off your shoes”, “lie down” “let it rise”. There is a clear delineation between solo/collective audience and performer; there are no instructions to build energies between us. We are focussed on our own bodies and on those of Hemsley and Johnson-Small; we are building a relationship between them and us. The second half of the cycle shifts the focus inward even further as it morphs into a club night where we can dance for ourselves, no longer watching others, and begin to “let it rise” in our bodies. There is an unresolved tension between the instructions, the control and our release. The patterned beats and the predictability of the music choices offers a crutch for the audience as we exist on a participatory spectrum from internalised sonic ecstasy to self-removed wallflower awkwardness to average floppy-limbed wedding dance as ankles tap side to side not knowing how to control and let the body respond to the possibilities that the music provides. We are left amongst the tension and power crackles throughout. We begin to see a consistency of invitation, but are we here for complicity or confrontation?