Monday, 15 August 2016

Kieran Hurley, Julia Taudevin and Jenna Watt - Making the Personal Political in Heads Up, Blow Off and Faslane

In what Orwellian Newspeak might describe as a lively year in politics and pretty much everything besides, one could be forgiven for presuming that the world is about to cave in on us any second. Fret not, however, because while some of the more recent events in a post Brexit climate have yet to trickle down to the Fringe, a younger generation of artists are applying an altogether singular worldview on things. Rather than beat the audience across the head with hardcore polemic, these artists have created a loose-knit set of shows that tap into their concerns with a radicalism that applies to their mix of forms as much as content.

Three very different shows seem to embody this approach. Jenna Watt's solo piece, Faslane, focuses on a personal response to the UK government's housing of nuclear submarines on the River Clyde. Kieran Hurley's Heads Up weaves together the lives of four people living in a city on the brink of collapse. In Blow Off, meanwhile, Julia Taudevin combines live music and text to look at extremism in an explosive piece of guerilla-gig-theatre.

“I've been working on it for years,” Taudevin says of Blow Off, which draws inspiration from the actions of radical feminists Ann Hansen and Julie Belmas. In their guise as the Wimmins Fire Brigade, Hansen and Belmas firebombed several video shops in Vancouver, Canada, that were selling pirated tapes of hard-core pornography.

“The show doesn't really refer to them anymore,” says Taudevin, “but they were both punks who were sentenced as domestic terrorists, and who were described as normal people with nothing to be angry about. For me, that is the experience of a white woman living in a patriarchal world. The punk element stayed with me, and I very quickly realised I was writing a show for a band.”

Hurley's piece sounds similarly incendiary.

“It's about the end of the world,” he says. “It's four stories about four people living in a fictional city that could be a stand-in for any city you like, but it feels like everyone is on the edge of catastrophe. It's an apocalyptic story, and like anything I do it has politics, but they're perhaps more oblique here than in my previous work.”

If Hurley's politics are less pronounced than in previous shows like Beats, Watt is exploring the effects of politics on individuals in a way that similarly avoids certainties.

“My family work at Faslane,” Watt explains of the roots of her follow up to How You Gonna Live Your Dash, “and when I was younger we used to visit the base and play five a side football there, so it was a significant part of my life. Then to be told that my family might lose their jobs, or that Trident should never have been their in the first place,that became both very personal and very political, and I felt quite conflicted.”

Out of this came a period of research, with Watt dividing her time between workers at the military base and the pro-disarmament peace campers to develop a show she presented at Contact Theatre in Manchester earlier this year.

“I felt like a pendulum between the two camps,” she says. “For me, nuclear war isn't a tangible threat, but the reality of what nuclear war means has been forgotten down the generations, and it's taken for granted that the next generation will know their stuff when they really need to be told.”

Some of the connections between the shows are obvious. Hurley and Taudevin are regular collaborators as well as life partners, and music is an integral part of their shows. While Heads Up utilises a soundscape by Michael John McCarthy, Taudevin is joined onstage by Susan Bear and Julie Eisenstein, aka nouveau punk duo Tuff Love. Augmenting the group will be composer Kim Moore, who will also provide the soundscape for Faslane. Squaring the circle, Moore used to be a member of Zoey van Goey, the baroque pop trio which also featured McCarthy.

All three artists have a pedigree making solo works, with Hurley citing Rob Drummond and Gary McNair, both of whom will be performing new works in Edinburgh, as fellow travellers. There is something too about the way each show crosses boundaries between stand-up, gig and live art, albeit rooted in formal narrative.

“I wonder how much that is to do with the world we're living in as much as the form,” posits Hurley. “There's an immediacy to storytelling that's maybe right for now in the way that the rise of the spoken word scene is, which as well seems to relate to people doing DIY solo gigs. But there's nothing new here. Theatre makers working with musicians was happening with Wildcat, who were doing political theatre in a way that was absolutely right for their time, and things go in cycles. It feels like orthodoxies are shifting. You can still sit in your garret with your ideas and write your play, and I feel fully of that, but things seem much more open now.”

This openness is something Taudevin in particular has embraced with abandon. With only two performances of Blow Off scheduled rather than a full Fringe run, Taudevin expresses a desire to create something immediate. She quotes John Lydon's line in Public Image Limited's song, Rise, 'anger is an energy', and talks of the storyteller as a shamanic figure. There are links too with a previous piece of guerilla theatre, inspired by imprisoned Russian punk provocateurs, Pussy Riot.

“From the word go we've been working from the place of punk being a spirit rather than a sound,” she says. “That's been really freeing, and has allowed us to rejoice in what we're exploring. There's a desire I had to go beyond words to try and get into the mind of someone who would go to that extreme, and there comes a moment where words can't do that justice.

“There's lots of ranting in it,” she admits. “I think it would be difficult to sit through it and not see it having an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal agenda, but polemical? I'm not sure.”

Taudevin also cites the wave of Riot Grrrl bands in the 1990s, singling out Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill in particular.

“You see those early Bikini kill videos, and you can see how they had to claim a safe space for women, holding onto it and doing something amazing.

In a climate of political turmoil, all three shows take oppositional stances of one form or another. As Trident looks set to remain on the Clyde for the time being at least following the recent Westminster vote, Watt, like the characters in Hurley and Taudevin's work, is still trying to make sense of things.

“This is the first piece I've done that's as political as it is,” she says. “It's still complex and conflicted, but I don't really have any answers, and the EU referendum totally threw me again. I thought I knew what I wanted, but now I don't.”

Heads Up, Summerhall, until August 28, 7.05-8.05pm; Faslane, Summerhall, until August 28, 7.15-8.15pm; Blow Off, Traverse Theatre, August 22, 4pm and 7.30pm.

The Herald, August 15th 2016


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