Sunday, August 15, 2010
Surrealism in Docklands: Hotel Medea
I very rarely go to the theatre; I have been twice this year, both times to see Oliver!, because I love the music so much. All I know about acting is that the person who played Nancy was the best actor in the whole thing, and that the first Oliver was great and the second one wasn't, which made me realise how important that central part is.
What comes next is of course wildly biased, because I know two of the people involved and I did the comic that appears in Act Two, but then again, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I never review crap things unless they are mainstream and Should Know Better because I don't want to criticise nervous beginners or experimenters, as I have been there myself and will go there again.
But this night was absolutely amazing and I am so glad I went: it was utterly magical!
I had arranged to meet Jorge at Trinity Buoy Wharf, after my previous jettisoning of the idea of seeing the show due to drunken rowdiness at Stratford. So I got to meet the cast and was charmed by their friendliness and also to be introduced to them at a point when they must have wanted to just psych themselves up and be alone, together.
A lovely woman who I later discovered was Nwando Ebizie, the composer of part of the electronic soundtrack (DJ Dolores also contributed), gave us a lift to the tube station and we headed over to North Greenwich where a crowd was gathering ready to catch the boat over to the show. Jorge immediately got into character and I found some friends to sit with. The air was, as they say, buzzing with anticipation, and we embarked, crossed the dark and silently menacing Thames, and were led off by mysterious helpers in long coats and with torches, grouped together, and went from helper to helper, learning a simple dance, some chants (which I immediately forgot, double philistinely), the art of moving quickly from place to place, and then a rhyme game.
We entered the huge space and were offered coffee; gently persuasive gentlemen gently persuaded us to have our photographs taken, wearing Medea eye masks with disconcertingly tiny eye-holes.
I have long prided myself on not being a joiner-inner, hating workshops where people touch each other and trust each other: my theory has always been that London is a crowded place full of compulsory squashing-up on Tubes and buses, so why do any more touching than is necessary?
But this was not like that: the situation was so magical and unfamiliar that I found it easy to just go along with everything, and soon found myself chatting to complete strangers in the audience.
Gigantic doors opened, and in spun men dressed in many-coloured beribboned carnival booths, which were propped on their waists, and which towered above their heads. We were encouraged by the mysterious helpers to circulate, and enter the booths, where the men tried to persuade us to buy things we weren't supposed to buy- manufactured from the Golden Fleece. The mysterious helpers checked up on them with their torches, market inspectors, and the market traders protested their innocence with all the sincerity of Del-boy and his ilk.
Just as suddenly as they had appeared, they drifted out on the blow of a whistle, and the doors banged open at the other end of the warehouse.
In trotted six nasty little argonauts in their sinister black strappy garb, machine guns in hand; their horrid little dance was perfectly synchronised, and they formed a military line at the back of the hall; a car swept in and a tall man got out and opened the passenger door, and there was Jason, in his motorcycle helmet and holding his big black truncheon erect between his legs, swearing like a trouper and just generally being a thug.
We had already met Medea, and her helpers: gradually the proceedings erupted into a hilarious football match, ended at the point where Medea's helpers all fell to the ground with fake injuries, closely followed by the argonauts. You could literally see the light-bulbs above their respective heads as they hit on the plan to cheat their way out of conflict.
So much, so much... Nwando Ebizie was up there, playing the decks as we dressed Medea for her wedding; a real tear rolled down Medea's face as the women in the audience bathed her and sprinkled rose petals upon her head. Jason was being similarly prepared by the men behind a large drape, and finally they confronted each other and we celebrated their wedding by making rhyming couplets, helped and encouraged by the mysterious helpers. When we forgot things (oh, all right then, when I forgot things, having three left feet, although only two feet), a helper would come and tactfully demonstrate it just in front of you before floating off somewhere else. Medea was warned by her maid of the destruction to come...
The dancing was huge fun; I never thought I would enjoy joining in as much as this! In the dark, we shouted and sang and, blindfolded, Medea and Jason tried to find each other to consummate their marriage.
I remembered many years of attending the Perth Pantomime, where you were allowed to shout and join in and generally feel that you were part of things. This felt like that! You started to like the mysterious helpers and depend on them a bit; as it got later, the whole experience became more and more surreal, until you found yourself laughing at a pile of men that Medea had kissed with her sorceress's kiss; they died spectacular, noisy and frantic deaths and lay with blood seeping from their mouths, as Jason and Medea escaped with the Fleece in a battered suitcase.
'That is the end', declared the master of ceremonies, who had been directing us all subtly by blowing a whistle.
So those who had arranged to just see the first part took the minibus off the Stratford to catch the night bus; many people begged to stay on and see the rest, and I abandoned my intention to leave early and decided to stay for part of the second half, although my body was begging me to take it to the land of nod.
As the audience sat and finished their coffee, scary nursemaids dressed in white glided in silently, and took chains of bewildered people off through a door. Some looked understandably nervous. Others were lined up in a queue by men in black with cameras, and they too filed through the door.
'You have been chosen', the rest of us were told, and we were taught how to shake hands with Jason: not too much pressure, not too little, look into his eyes and smile; we walked through a room in a diagonal line, and he swept in behind us in a clamour of self-importance.
We were instructed to shake hands and then pose in groups, looking happy, or triumphant, or impressed, according to the orders were were given. Jason matched our amateurish expressions with a triumph of insincerity for the camera every time. The flashbulbs popped, the groups of audience members were ushered away and his facial expression fell back to naked ambition. Next we went into a room where we put on headphones and watched a bank of TVs, where Jason's election campaign was being broadcast...
At this point, Jorge took me to see what was happening to the others. They were in a massive but cosy room that was suffused with a pinkish glow, floor strewn with hundreds of teddies, lying tucked up in bunk beds and comforted by the scary nursemaids who all had red knitting, which they stopped doing from time to time to fussily adjust the blankets on their charges. They had had the comic read to them just beforehand. It actually looked as though one or two people had really gone to sleep ( it was probably about 2 a.m. by now)
In the middle of the room, Jason was bedding Medea, except his multiple mobiles kept going off in a disjointed cacophony of ugly ringtones; she gave up and started singing a lullaby to the people in the bunk beds, who represented her children; the scary nursemaids joined in, in harmony.....
Oh, I was so tired! I had to go home! But this was such a fantastic experience and I am so glad I went. It was a completely colourful, bizarre and entrancing performance but it had its own inner logic and meaning, and it gave me so much food for thought that although I got home at three, I lay awake till five thinking about it all: the links between fascism and sexual perversion, the persuadability of groups of people; and also, of course, the multiple skills and stamina of the fantastic cast; the powerful performance of Persis Jade Maravala as Medea, the way the actor who played Jason (I will tell you his name) morphed his character from thug to sleazy and ambitious politician, Jorge's genial and humorous hosting; the supporting cast who never lost concentration or attention to detail throughout, the fantastic music, the volunteers who made us coffee or took as through the twinkling dark of the Docklands night to the loo....
One final surreal thing happened, just as I came off the motorway on the way home. A car had stopped next to mine at the traffic lights, in the middle lane, and a guffawing young man got out and relieved himself into the fast lane oblivious to the alarmed hootings from passing cars that were missing him by a hair's breadth as they sped past when the lights changed.
Was he part of it all?