Lost in the Barbican

The site-specific play "Would Like to Meet" turns its audience into performers.

Fond as I am of London's Barbican Centre, I can never seem to find my way out, or indeed sometimes the way in. So it was with some misgivings that I signed up to non zero one's site-specific performance Would Like to Meet, which requires some guided wandering around the dreaded Labyrinth. In truth this is not, strictly speaking, the site-specific theatre that some might expect.

Would Like to Meet is really neither a specific response to the building's fabric nor a wild subversion of it. It is a much more pedestrian affair, in the literal sense, and a much more personal one. Participants are directed up anonymous stairways, past recycling bins, through doorways of what could have been Anywhere inc. What subversion there is, is of a gentler sort: there is a pleasing twist to the notion of such participatory drama - where the spectators are the performers - taking place in the marginal, public spaces of a theatre, outside the auditoria. Everything is playfully turned inside out.

The audience size is tiny, with only six punters allowed at any one time. Each is given a pair of headphones and an MP3 player and then follows a colour-coded, tailored itinerary, which at times intersects with other members of the group. The format does engender a certain amount of performance anxiety, which in my case was not entirely unjustified. Without giving too many specifics away, I was asked to dismantle a bit of kit, failed miserably, and consequently the chap in the adjacent booth did not get quite the experience he'd been led to expect. Who knows, maybe the muffled cursing behind the arras weaved its way into his narrative. It goes to show, however, that the finest of logistical tuning can be ballsed up by human error.

Our highly visible earphones were easily identifiable, a costume of sorts, which gave a bizarre legitimacy to our wanderings. I found the people swilling round the Barbican looking on intrigued at the participants, as we were scenically dotted about the place, or engaged in a mildly out of place transaction. And conversely everyone becomes a performer, a bit part in our own drama, as we gaze down at the foyer, not just the actor-plants that the theatre company have put in place.

It's a strangely comforting sensation, to be guided round a building by a disembodied voice, which is part audio tour-guide, part psychotherapist. Following the instructions confers a protective cocooning, as we take a mini break from decision-making.

More searching questions could have been asked here about the lengths we will go to when we are simply asked by an authoritative voice. But this would be to go beyond non zero one's remit, which concerns itself with a much quieter exploration of our interaction with strangers, our snap assessments, and the rich and varied biographies of those at whom we barely glance.

But the mind will wander, and some of the most innocuous suggestions can be met with stubbornness and even downright mutiny. One participant reflexively disliked his "voice" and so was ill disposed to do anything it asked. Consequently I'm not convinced we squarely tackled the agenda of these young Royal Holloway graduates, who earnestly ask "can you miss someone you've never met?" However it did become clear at the end of the forty-five minutes that there was a certain heterogeneity of experience amongst the participants, some of whom had been led down quite different routes. I found myself rather envious of their emotional, even haunting moments. If only I had picked a different colour!

Conceptual pieties about exploring "absence . . . memories and stories" aside, at least I now know my way round the Barbican.

Until 15 May

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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories