By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Third Person Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Phoenix
Mark Gray, Lesley Ambler, Aliona Ladus, Samantha Wright and Afro Ghignoni
Bread and Roses
Sunday 7 April 2019
IT’S BEEN A good week for me, on the fringes of theatre-land. Last Sunday, I went to the Bread and Roses pub near Clapham Common to see the work of the Third Person Theatre Company, who perform on the pub’s small stage upstairs on the first Sunday of the month. Mark Phoenix, their director, describes what they do as “Theatre of the Moment”. Essentially, the company improvise a play for the audience. They prefer the term “Theatre of the Moment” now, as “word improvisation” (the term they’ve used before) has become synonymous with stand-up comedy.
On the night I went, the company consisted of the director, and Mark Gray, Lesley Ambler, Aliona Ladus, Samantha Wright and Afro Ghignoni with Alison Williams on lights (for even the lighting, which signals the start or conclusion of scenes, is improvised). Of differing ages, each is a powerful actor, brim-full of character and able to be inventive rather than merely interpretive. In the first half, in duos and trios, they demonstrated their method of going about improvising by delivering material to prompts from the director. A pair of actors were invited to work with the notion that one was immersed in trivia, the other overly caring. The next was a situation, ‘under a table’. Then came a passage through time, a dimming of the lights indicating ‘later’. There was also an improvisation in different languages. Finally five actors performed simultaneous monologues, each based on titles of the last books members of the audience had read. I enjoyed this very much. It gave me an insight into their style of working.
Phoenix informed me that this work grew out of Meisner technique, which focuses on the relationships between actors rather than the cultivation of personality which is popular today in drama schools grooming students for celebrity. The actor reacts instinctively to the environment, which includes other actors. An underlying emotion may be expressed in a variety of ways. Sanford Meisner’s approach develops out of Stanislavski, but is divergent from the ‘method’ acting that also grew out of Stanislavski’s preparations for dramatic interpretation. For me, it is still an ‘internalised’ approach, a mental readiness, whereas, with my own performance art I have been more interested in the actuality of one’s own being – “being, not acting” was a key-phrase in the Theatre of Mistakes which I founded in the seventies. Then, we focused on the physical reality of our actions. Could we reverse them? Repeat them? Copy them exactly?
But that was some fifty years ago, and I guess I have mellowed. Anyway, I am curious about ways of going about things that differ from my own habits of doing. In the second half, Third Person presented a play entitled ‘Three, Two, One’. All the actors knew about it was that there would be three actors in the first scene, two new actors in the second scene, and a solo actor, never previously on the stage, and this solo scene would conclude the drama. Very rapidly, the first actor to appear in the trio, a young person, set up a scene – underground, limestone pits, one’s clothes always damp and smelly, somewhere below a religious establishment. The second actor expanded on this notion, while the third, who had had a certain bossiness projected onto her, remained silent, traumatised, finally screaming in anguish. In the second scene, two actors, somewhere, it seemed, above ground, worried about the loss of a young person, and the loss of several persons who had vanished from their community.
I found the way the play was built utterly engrossing, because of course I was building it also, in my own mind. This seemed a new form of audience participation. Every member of the audience was a playwright, as was every member of the cast, and perhaps our versions of the narrative converged, perhaps they were widely divergent. We were still all engrossed in making a play unfold, and it was up to the last actor, the solo actor, to take us to some notion of a conclusion; but this proved a tricky business. I sensed that it would be all too easy simply to tie up as many of the loose ends as could be gathered together. Instead, the actor (Mark Phoenix, the director, in this case) chose to deepen into the character that he had gone for as he stepped onto the stage: a somewhat dubious, religious type, unctuous, possibly sinister.
The limitations, it occurred to me, were defined by the structure, since no actor appeared in more than one scene. Talking to me later, Phoenix explained that this was the structure the company had decided to explore that evening, and that they constantly sought for structures that could generate interesting results. I mentioned The Ancient Classical Drama: a Study in Literary Evolution, (Oxford 1890), by Richard G. Moulton which identifies four “Plots of Passion” and two “Plots of Action” which may take place within the strictures of the classical unities of time, space and action. Plots of Passion can be an “Opening Situation developed to a Climax”, a “Development of a Final Situation”, a “Development from one situation to another”, or an “Opening Situation developed to its reversal”. Plots of Action can involve “Complication and Resolution” and then there is “The Pendulum Plot, or Plot of Fortune Turns.”
How intrigued I have always been by the Pendulum Plot. Its ghost is always there in a trio: two may side together against one, but then one may always switch sides. It’s a plot that shapes the development of Iphigenia in Tauris, Hercules Mad and Philoctetes. In Philoctetes by Sophocles (the action concerns a man suffering from an evil-smelling foot!) the plot swings from complication to resolution and then back again to complication. With its interest in theatre of the moment, Third Person is well-equipped to work with such ideas, and I very much appreciate how they invite their audience into the creative process. You witness a play being made in front of your eyes.
by Jacqueline Saphra
Directed by Tamar Saphra,
featuring Amy McAllister as Luna
Old Red Lion Theatre
Angel, Islington — until 20 April 2019
ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, I watched a dog, for the length of the evening; a dog shut up and abandoned in a bare space, possibly a basement, below a family home. The poet Jacqueline Saphra has written a monologue for this dog: it often gets interrupted by noises from above, which the poor bitch, for it’s a she, interprets as best she can. There is nothing in her space but a cushion and a blanket. She’d like to be taken out for some exercise but there’s some sort of family row going on. Doors slam. It sounds as if a youngster has stormed out of the house. The dog’s name is Luna. Her language is doggy. She is bored and lonely, and she needs to pee, and she is hungry. To relieve herself, at least of her anxiety, she tells her own story to the walls.
Poets seem to have a penchant for dogs. Last year I went to the Jermyn Theatre to see Cressida Bonas in W.H. Auden’s The Dog beneath the Skin. It was intriguing to watch this lovely, and extremely talented actress, performing for all but the last few minutes of the play in a gas-mask muzzle as a very believable dog, and doing this within a stone’s throw of the Palace. Thank goodness she broke up with her prince and has been saved for theatre-land.
Then F.T. Prince has a wonderful poem called “His Dog and Pilgrim”. It concerns the dog that licked the buboes of Saint Rocque, curing him of the plague. Here is the opening of part two:
a wise dog
a nice dog
is twice dog:
—the good brave generous
and clever dog, bright boy!
—but oh you bagabond,
you poor old slavey chap
poor crackpot, addled
classical lost heart!
not fast and loose
but deep and douce,
but humbly liquefied
drop-eared and sorry-eyed
by foot or lap or
it will never do
—he asking fondly for
some kind or kin
or kindled godliness,
some goodly fondleness
not knowing that
it will not do, be
not be true
Jacqueline Saphra’s Luna is just as doggy as either of these precedents. She is certainly as loyal to her young mistress, Ellie, as Prince’s dog was to his saint. However, she is more down to earth. She gets into scraps. She comes on heat. She steals shoes. There is satirical intent here. A dog is a dog, after all. Hounds in a pack may be male or female. Beyond the specifically biological, there is no great division of roles. Luna provides us with a contrast to the differences that divide our sexes. She is played by Amy McAllister, a brilliant poet in her own right (I mention her in my article on satire). She has already triumphed in several “slam” competitions, and she possesses a phenomenal memory and holds the stage for a good eighty minutes or so: a bitch who has seen it all, had good and bad masters, can be loyal, can sink in the teeth when it’s called for. Luna wags her bum in a convincing way, hoping the door will open, and we can imagine her tail. The daughter having left the house, we hear from upstairs how the husband calms the wife of her apprehension about the girl’s departure – all done through very convincing placing of sound speakers above the ‘ceiling’. Since no one’s around, they make love, and Luna knows just what they’re doing. But then the play takes a dark turn. There are explosions. The wife’s fears resurface. Everyone has forgotten about poor Luna, locked away, desperate for a shit by now. The tumult grows louder and louder, enhanced, on the night I was there by the football crowd roaring its disgust and then its approval in the bar below the theatre! Perfect setting for a feminist drama!
As events take a turn for the worse, so Luna’s tale of her life and its vicissitudes grows more desolate. Amy McAllister holds our focus on how her isolated location crystallizes the surrounding situation. This is a technique pioneered by Tom Stoppard, whose plays often evolve through characters peripheral to some grander drama, or events at celebrations – observed through some room where the guests leave their coats. What makes The Noises riveting is undeniably the solo performance of McAllister. Well worth catching, if you can.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).
Note: Altered subsequent to publication to repair an editing error.