'Some People Talk About Violence' review or 'My connection's really bad.'
Some People Talk About Violence, Lulu Raczka and Barrel Organ
Camden People’s Theatre, 8th December 2015
This is company that fundamentally *gets* theatre. All too often, theatre feels like a depressingly flat experience – as if the stage were merely something on which to plonk a play. Not so with ‘Barrel Organ’, who have created an exceptionally textured, teasing and restless show in ‘Some People Talk about Violence’ (written by Lulu Raczka). Sometimes the show feels a tad too knowing for my liking – with one too many cruel winks out to the audience - but I suspect that is on purpose: this is a deeply cynical look at a world in which we have all become passive observers and connection, purpose, meaning and tenderness feel like a hazy dream from another time.
There’s a fairly straightforward story rumbling beneath ‘Some People’ - only it has been torn to shreds and patched up into a hole-ridden mess, through which the company ducks and dives. A girl (Bryony Davies) has been found in another person’s bathroom and has been arrested. Her brother (Joe Boylan) has left his lover to return home to his despairing mother (Ellis Stevens) and troubled sister. A narrator (Craig Hamilton) is on hand to ‘help’ the characters out with their story, only he’s really there to prod and provoke and generally cause trouble.
The show kicks off with a disjointed prologue, during which the actors stumble over each other’s lines. This is a company that is exceptionally in tune which each other but that refuses togetherness – there’s barely a moment of unity throughout the whole night and the rare moments in which the company coalesce are frighteningly fucked up. So, the company tussle with each other and then random members of the audience, who have been given envelopes at the beginning of the show, assign the actors their roles. This is the first of many moments in which the audience is unwillingly – or at least unknowingly – folded into the fabric of the show. These instances will escalate as the show continues. A couple in the crowd will be asked to read out a section of seemingly harmless dialogue, which we will later realise effectively casts them as the victims in this tale. Another spectator will be tasked with timing a punishing role play game. Throughout the night, the lights will come up on the audience, highlighting both our involvement in the show but also our absolute separation from the events on stage. All these moments taunt and tease us, reminding us our culpability whilst also rendering us powerless, unable to step in and influence the events on stage.
The show is flooded with dramatic exercises, which are warm and comforting on one level and distancing and quite cruel on another. Relatively early on, the company play ‘When You Grow Up’, during which the company bounce up and down on stage and blare out bleak predictions to their fellow performers: ‘You will apologise to your children!’, ‘You will be stop being such a bitch!’ The future isn’t exactly bright but there are smiles on the performers’ faces and they are working together. Just as we all begin to sink into this game, the predictions are drowned out by loud music and the spark the performers seemed to share – for just a moment – is instantly shut down.
In another scene, two actors try to eat as many crackers as possible whilst reciting one line to each other, over and over again. They get closer and closer to each other but the words disappear and, instead, they simply shower each other in crumbs. In another scene, the narrator – prompted by the sound of two people having sex – orders two of the actors to describe this distant couple. Again, the actors bounce about on stage and let rip with a flurry of images. They’re happy and buzzing but every other suggestion is shut down by Craig Hamilton’s relaxed but sly narrator: ‘No, that’s not right, that’s not it.’ There’s a weird tension gradually generated in this show, in which imagination is encouraged but constantly shut down, as if it is no longer a legitimate part of the world on stage (which, incidentally, is bare and black and almost completely prop free).
This idea of a fundamental disconnect in today’s society – a strange deadening or short-circuiting of the lives we lead – is also teased out through the constant use of mobile phones. Phones have become a fundamental part of the way we connect with others and, yet, these phones have also helped us to withdraw (the girl in our story continually texts her friends but never actually sees them). In one scene, the actors carry out phone conversations that feel real – we can hear people on the other end of the line – but are somehow not part of the world on stage. We readily dismiss those phone calls – they can’t be ‘live’ - and yet, later, when we leave the theatre the pizza, which we heard being ordered on stage, will be waiting for us outside. It’s such a weird jolt, a reminder of the eerie way that our mobile phones can set us back from a life that is still hot, steaming and real.
There are just a few moments which genuinely feel alive – as if the characters’ imaginations have finally been released - and they are devastating. At one point, the girl (played with a drooping malaise by Bryony Davies) – who spends most of her day sitting in front of the TV and stupefying her mind – heads off to the job centre and imagines the thoughts of her careers advisor. Suddenly the girl becomes energized and eloquent, as she imagines this advisor fucking her husband’s brains out or spitting resentful venom at her ‘clients’. The girl stands rooted to the spot and blasts out a silent scream, whilst the other actors – music blaring – dance around her. There’s the music again, always drowning out real-life. There are the actors again, always set apart from each other.
Throughout most of the show the actors trip over their lines, as if their vivid imaginations and lazy mouths are somehow always out of synch. There are only a few isolated moments of fluency and they sound like something magical, given the cold and stuttering context of this show. The brother’s boyfriend writes him a love letter and it is read in one heart-felt and warming sweep. In the letter, the boyfriend describes the wonder of having the spit of the ‘brother’, who he loves very much, dry on his chest. It’s pretty much the only moment of physical intimacy in the whole of the show (other than those two off-stage lovers) and it is written in a letter (and who the hell writes letters these days?) by a chap we have not seen, about a love that has had absolutely no impact on this show filled with lonely, angry absences.