Reviewed: Orpheus and Forest Fringe

Limitation so often breeds invention, except in this case, when it doesn't.

Orpheus; Forest Fringe
Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11;
Gate Theatre, London W11

Jean “Django” Reinhardt, the virtuosic, Belgian- born jazz guitarist, lost the use of two fingers on his left hand when his caravan caught fire. Doctors believed he’d never play again but the 18-year-old retrained and, using only two fingers for solos, developed a unique technique that revolutionised guitar-playing. Limitation so often breeds invention.

The touring company Little Bulb Theatre has always held that principle dear. Its work is homespun, ramshackle and delicately whimsical but it has more pluck than Reinhardt’s left hand. What sort of emerging company, a year out of university, throws together “an epic folk opera” in a fortnight? Or teaches itself new musical instruments from scratch to tour a village fete around rural England? It has always fostered a gleeful, untutored amateurism that is utterly infectious.

For its retelling of the Orpheus myth, Little Bulb has taken over the Grand Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre. The problem is, without its former limitations, it ends up trying to fake its ragbag appeal. To do so, it uses the old play-within-a-play trick; the one that Shakespeare pops on to the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We’re in 1930s Paris, in a music hall, and Reinhardt is starring as the eponymous muso-poet alongside Yvette Pépin – a Piaf-style proprietress – as his lost love Eurydice.

Cue an overdose of overacting. Dominic Conway’s Reinhardt smoulders and postures as the romantic lead. Eugenie Pastor’s Pépin, so desperate to please her audience, plants her feet, waves her arms and faces front, a nervous smile fixed on her face. All the knowingly naive stage devices are there, as well: painted scenic backdrops, scene-stealing choruses and clumsy puppetry. It’s pretty much Peter Quince’s Pyramus and Thisbe but that comic coda here lasts the entire evening and it runs out of steam.

The whole thing feels contrived. The backdrops are carefully designed to look elegantly shoddy. Every awkward exit that gets tangled in the velvet curtain clearly sets off with the intention of entangling itself. In short, the clowning just doesn’t cut it.

Little Bulb wants to send theatre up and uphold its beauty at the same time. Occasionally, the latter breaks through, often musically. There’s a glorious aria from Tom Penn, sung in a spine-tingling falsetto, which retells the Persephone myth; a blast on the room’s vast, inbuilt organ; and a lot of awesome, tub-thumping gypsy jazz. Conway’s solos are particularly astounding. He sits front-curtain and stares at his audience like a cobra hypnotising its prey.

Orpheus is undone by his gaze: the look back that condemns Eurydice to death. However, that aside, there seems no real reason to frame the myth in this way. It’s not clear why Reinhardt is an Orphic figure and his presence does little to illuminate Orpheus. Rather, the decision justifies the musical style in much the same way as Shakespeare gets plonked in arbitrary time-space settings.

If Little Bulb fakes failure, Glen Neath and Ant Hampton have woven it deep into the fabric of Romcom, which headlines the first week of the Forest Fringe residency at the Gate. Two completely unrehearsed performers stand onstage, obeying instructions fed to them through headphones. Sometimes, their lines race ahead of them or they’re given the wrong words. At other times, the instructions aim to humiliate, demanding nosepicking, bum-scratching and long stretches of dancing in silence.

They’re acting out a distorted romance. Boy meets girl. A string of awkward dates breeds love. The relationship disintegrates. In this, form meets content. It catches the fluster of early courtship and the self-absorption that unravels relationships. “We’re incompatible,” she says to him. Yet they relax into it and into each other. After all, romance – and romcoms, in particular – follows a set script.

But Romcom also shows its age. First seen in 2003, it doesn’t go far enough with its chal lenges. It flirts with danger where later audio-instruction work has thrown performers and, subsequently, audience members in at the deep end. Then there’s the wilful obscurity of the text. Experimental theatre has got a lot better at communicating in the past decade. It has recognised the benefits of neatness.

Part of the pleasure lies in revisiting the piece with different performers. Neil Callaghan, in a too-small Brazil shirt, seems borderline autistic, while Christopher Brett Bailey, in an oversized Arsenal top, is sardonic, petulant and immature. Opposite Callaghan, Karen Christopher seems younger than her years; Ira Brand, older than hers. Casting comes to seem like a form of matchmaking. In the second half, these performers show their own work. It’s unfair to criticise works-inprogress but Callaghan’s deserves a special mention. A Certain Shaft of Light, a movement piece hymning the North Star, has a rare, hold-your-breath, world-stopping beauty.

He recalls Bernard Moitessier, the French yachtsman, who, seven months into a roundthe- world race, deliberately veered off-course and just kept going. His was not the fastest solo voyage but the longest. In front of a makeshift constellation, the Big Dipper in tea lights, pointing up to a candlelit North Star, Callaghan goes through a series of exhausting, exertive movements. He flings his arms and slaps his back. He scuffles backwards. Other performers would show how hard they’re working. Callaghan just carries on, neither failing nor succeeding, and it’s all the more moving and profound for that.

“Orpheus” runs until 11 May “Forest Fringe” runs until 4 May

Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: littlebulbtheatre.com
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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