Festivals should be ring-fenced from the routine and programmed with an eye towards the exceptional. Life and Times: Episodes 1-5 by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma is perfect festival fare. Whether it was perfect for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, where its UK premiere played to a half-full theatre between 21 and 25 May, is a different question.
Life and Times spins the everyday into something extraordinary: a 12-hour performance marathon dedicated to an unremarkable life. Ten episodes are planned; when finished, it will last a full 24 hours.
The life belongs to the company member Kristin Worrall. In 2007, the husband-andwife artistic directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper asked Worrall to tell her entire personal history over the phone. The resulting ten conversations, spanning 16 hours in total, have become an unedited verbatim libretto. Every “like”, “um” and “ah” remains intact.
By the end of episode five, Worrall is 18 years old. We’ve been privy to everything from her first birthday to her first kiss, through puberty to prom night. There are ever-changing best friends, playground rivalries and – swoon – endless crushes. We’ve seen dance classes, haircuts, egg muffins and the unbridled humiliation of public urination; a bucketload of banalities given undue significance onstage and in song but all played with sincerity.
At least, they are initially. In episode one, three women and three bearded men in school uniform sing in harmony to a cute folk ukulele and glockenspiel score. They perform simple dance moves – a mix of show-made-for-mum, gym class and communist conformity.
In episode two, Worrall’s early teens become a 1980s music video, staged by a garish chorus line in coloured shell suits. While the best (and worst) bits of Worrall’s life play out, so, too, do your own, whirring away somewhere at the back of your brain. The two connect like static electricity flashing through a van de Graaff generator.
The experience leaves you beaming but puzzled. Why, after all, would anyone commit to this? Why expend so much time and energy on something so utterly inconsequential? By leaving nothing out, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma achieves a rare honesty about the process of telling stories. What’s true? What’s embellished? What’s left out? Moments of particular rawness are followed by frazzled searching for a new subject. The aim of comprehensiveness is doomed to fail. Memory is an unstoppable chain reaction. Each recollection spawns another. Chronology crumbles. All the audience can do is hold on for the ride.
Life and Times increasingly flags up its failings. Worrall’s teenage years become a codmurder mystery in episodes three and four – all bulging eyes and raised eyebrows – played on a crude replica of the set of The Mousetrap. It shows up her self-censorship, the performance of testimony. We get the edited highlights of adolescence: periods, cigarettes, booze, snogs, depression. But what, you wonder, really happened?
Episode five – never seen before – extends that question. We get a book and a reading light. An organ plays abrasively. Worrall’s words are written calligraphically. Handdrawn illustrations show the directors, Liska and Copper, having sex. As she recounts her first sexual experience, our voyeurism becomes manifest. Does the story even belong to Worrall any more? Hasn’t the story of the company and the work taken over?
Critics in the US have pronounced Life and Times a masterpiece. It’s certainly unique but “masterpiece” is going too far. The piece, by turns infuriating and exhilarating, is too often content to stop at generic performance styles rather than building precise, honed moments. Steven Atkinson, the artistic director of the HighTide Festival, which runs for ten days each May in the small Suffolk town of Halesworth, is also aiming for the exceptional. The new writing on offer is resolutely unconventional. There’s not a fourth wall in sight. Naturalism is a no-no.
Nature is another matter. In Thomas Eccleshare’s Pastoral, it’s invading our cities. England’s green and pleasant land has turned nasty. Trees are bursting through high-rise buildings. Critters are nesting in supermarket shelves. Paperchase is overrun with voles. Habitat has been inhabited.
Pastoral is, in essence, an apocalyptic disaster narrative with a twisted force majeure. Moll (Anna Calder-Marshall), a belligerent old woman, must leave her flat and flee. A six-strong group of nature-fearing refugees wind up in a woodland clearing. They’re used to ready meals, milk cartons and convenience stores. Now, they must fend for themselves. The hunter-gatherer instinct has dwindled to extinction.
Eccleshare writes with flair. There are shades of Beckett and Pinter and he has a keen eye for a dazzling image. The Ocado man battles through the hedgerow like an ancient-Greek messenger. A dishevelled bride-to-be staggers in from an abandoned hen do: a deus ex machina for our times. Steve Marmion’s production makes the most of such gifts but they don’t cohere into a compelling plot. The overused joke about animals in chain stores is symptomatic of images and ideas in search of a narrative. For all its confidence and swagger, Pastoral isn’t quite a full play.
Declan Greene’s Moth is less successful. A pair of teenage misfits – the fantasy fan Sebastian (Jordan Mifsúd) and emo outsider Claryssa (Stacey Gregg) – wake up after a fight in some undefined limbo. It’s beautifully designed by James Cotterill and snappily directed by Prasanna Puwanarajah but Greene never makes the situation or his purposes clear. It could be about schizophrenia or about youthful radicalism – or simply teenage angst. Who knows?
“Pastoral” and “Moth” run until 8 June