Monday, 15 March 2010


These notes form part of the tour programme for The Festival, the third part of Lone Twin Theatre's The Catastrophe Trilogy. It opened last week at the Barbican in London, and is currently on tour in England, then in Europe.

‘Quelle catastrophe!’
Notes on the making of Lone Twin Theatre's The Festival

‘Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off’ (Samuel Beckett, Catastrophe, 1982)

The task of devising is to try to locate the shapes of what it is you think you’re looking for while often being largely in the dark as to exactly what that is. At the very beginning of work on The Festival, we have only the barest of hunches as to what we are after. We know that we will continue to explore narrative forms and structures in a simple traverse staging, a presentational and relational performance space of proximity, encounter and exchange. Beyond that, we have little more than a broad sense of wanting to generate a narrative set in the present, in counterpoint to the ‘pasts’ of Alice Bell and Daniel Hit By A Train.

In addition, we want to modulate the notion of ‘catastrophe’, and explore something much smaller on the sliding scale of catastrophic possibilities. Something more everyday, domestic, familial, something more intimate than cataclysmic. Perhaps just the sense of something missing, or someone missing out on something or someone: like the quiet pulse of a ‘hungry heart’. Gregg talks of the ambiguity of ‘tragic fun’, and of ‘songs of everyday life and how the silent catastrophe of love seeps into each hour …’

On one of the very first days in the studio, as we grope our way towards a beginning, there are just four words on the flip-chart - NO DEATH. NO INSTRUMENTS – like the seeds of some new version of Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto. So, we will orient ourselves towards the ever more spartan and pared back in a further refinement of the company’s goal to employ minimal means to maximal effect. Gregg describes Dennis Potter’s creation of song-based conventions for ‘saying complex things in simple forms’, then wonders aloud: if Alice Bell was a ‘line drawing’ and the greater complexity of Daniel was ‘coloured in’, then what would be a third form that had the ‘elegant simplicity of the natural?’ He suggests our task will be to ‘do what’s required, don’t art it up, then get out as cleanly as possible without the performance mode getting in the way’.


As we work, we dance around the rhythms of the ordinary in our stories and in our lives: the weather forecast, the café, work, the kitchen table, traveling. At the same time we return again and again to instances of the extra-ordinary in the everyday: chance encounters, surprising visitations, as unforeseeable as Miles Davis’s sudden appearance with his band on the runway of an outback mining community in Rolf de Heer’s 1991 Australian film Dingo: “Hi, my name’s Billy Cross and I’d like to play for you …”

Throughout the work of Lone Twin Theatre, there has been a shared enthusiasm for music, song and dance, without any of us necessarily being ‘expert’ in these areas, and at times we have approached devising with the buoyant, untutored energies of a newly formed band. In our work on this new performance, songs in particular start to assume particular functions in the studio and in the emerging fictional world. Songs as meeting points, games, sites of imagination, desire, small epiphanic excursions and suspensions in the ongoingness of it all (an ‘interruption of the incessant’, Maurice Blanchot). Expressions of pleasures and fragile yearnings in the face of present absences. Fleeting mechanisms for reflection and immersive celebration. As with the solace of the radio in the kitchen or the car, songs can offer dreams and time machines in the everyday. As we proceed, the micro-festival of singing provides the soundtrack to our lives.


As has so often been the case in Lone Twin Theatre’s approach to devising, our frames of reference in initial discussions are rooted in music, film and contemporary fiction (rather than, say, theatre). At one point early on in this devising process, for example, we look closely at some of Alice Munro’s remarkable stories. In part as structural and textural case studies and possible triggers for our own fictions: resonant ‘shapes’ and ‘feels’. In part for their grace-ful anatomizing of everyday lives, their repressed yearnings, confusions, compromises and mysteries.

In Lives of Girls and Women, Munro writes: “People’s lives were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum”. Elsewhere in an interview, Munro suggests: “The complexity of things – the things within things – just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple”.

Perhaps above all, at this early stage we are drawn to Munro’s temporal weave in some of these stories: the braiding of the time of lived experience with the unpredictable time of memory and its ‘embroideries’; the juxtaposition of the time of waiting, anticipation and imagination with the linear time of sequential events in the everyday, and the cyclical time of recurrence and return. Out of these delicate temporal architectures, Munro elaborates compassionate cartographies of processes of change.

Perhaps that’s what we’re after: a story that tracks small changes in understanding over time?


In mathematics, ‘catastrophe theory’ attempts to model the dynamic systems at play when small shifts in circumstances of equilibrium provoke sudden changes in behaviour (e.g. the ‘tipping point’ in a landslide).

In classical tragedy, the ‘catastrophe’ is the final resolution or narrative unraveling that brings things to a close. Aristotle proposed a ruinous shock that would provoke terror and pity and enable the purgative effect of catharsis.

In Samuel Beckett’s short play Catastrophe, an irritable director conducts a final rehearsal of a minimalist play-within-the-play. On one level the ‘catastrophe’ here is the actor’s tiny act of defiance in the face of the authoritarian director. For at the very end of the play, when the director has left, he ruptures what has been imposed by the director (and by a mode of theatre) by looking up and out into the audience, and ‘the applause falters and dies’. He returns the audience’s gaze in what is now a space of encounter, and the audience is uncertain as to how to respond. So the ‘catastrophe’ seems to reside in part in a particular mode of theatre, in its coercive power relations and compromised economies of representation.

When Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, his wife Suzanne’s response after hearing the news by phone was: ‘Quelle catastrophe!’ She knew the changes this would entail for this most self-effacing and private of people; she knew that he wanted above all to be able ‘to be in his life’. I have always loved the honesty and compassion of this response to ‘success’. Reputedly, Beckett quickly dispersed the prize money amongst those of his friends most in need.

(Since their deaths in 1989, Sam and Suzanne have been buried together in the Montparnasse cemetery beneath a common gravestone that he had stipulated, with his characteristically mordant wit in the face of the inevitable catastrophe of mortality, could be ‘any colour, so long as it’s grey’).

As we proceed in rehearsals, the catastrophes in The Festival remain modest, related to small losses and a barely articulated sense of incompletion. The fiction hovers around a largely unspoken desire for ‘something more’ in a life that feels fine, but not quite ‘right’, ghosted by other imagined possibilities that seem to be somewhat compromised – and at the same time compromise one’s capacity fully to be where one is. So much is unspoken here; the dialogue often glosses over feeling, and moves on. Only occasionally do the emotions and perceptions that underlie these everyday exchanges breach the surface in small wishes and revelations. When they do emerge, they have a disarming economy and immediacy in this context, a joyous honesty that in itself may be both a micro–catastrophe and an illumination, an admission enabling integrative acceptance and change.


Ultimately all three performances in this Catastrophe Trilogy present differing conceptions and experiences of catastrophe in stories of love, conflict, failure, loss and compromise. However the ‘catastrophic’ here, whether epic or intimate, social or domestic, is always contoured with hope and the possibility of change. From these invitational and open-ended structures emerge playfully minimalist pieces of music-theatre, in form and tone suggesting a kind of proto-Brecht discovered by intelligent children with their hearts a-pumping on their sleeves.

And as we come to an end of devising this final part in a cycle of performances, and the ‘things within things’ unfold endlessly, our work feels unfinishable. For other stories and new songs insistently bubble up and out, and it seems as though this disparate ‘band’ of fellow travelers and accomplices has only just begun …

Extracts from rehearsal journal during the devising of
The Festival, January-February 2010

The Catastrophe Trilogy is on tour from March to May 2010. The tour includes dates in the Barbican London (The Pit, as part of BITE), Huddersfield, Manchester, Aberystwyth, Dartington, Lancaster, Brussels (Kunsten Festival des Arts), and Utrecht (Festival ad Werf). The Festival will also be performed separately in Bath, Plymouth, Colchester, Barnsley, Bristol and Brighton.

For some reviews of The Catastrophe Trilogy, see here, here, here, and here

For further details of Lone Twin Theatre and the current tour, see the Lone Twin website here

For earlier posts on Lone Twin Theatre, see here and here

Sunday, 7 March 2010

dad (4): chortle

From a phone conversation today:

DAD: So has your thing started yet?

ME: Which thing? The shows?

Yes, the thing at the Barbican - are you up and running yet?

Yes, it started last week. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, the three separate bits; then all of them on Saturday in a kind of marathon. With a forum in one of the gaps. It was great, if a bit exhausting ...

Oh a forum, you do one of those do you ... What's the play called again?

The Catastrophe Trilogy.

Oh yes. And there are four bits ...

No, Dad, three, it's a trilogy.

(Laughs): Yes, yes, of course, how stupid of me. The Catastrophe Trilogy. And what's it about?

Well, there are three shows about different kinds of catastrophe, small ones or large ones. They're really sort of playful stories told in different ways: dance, and music, and song ...

They're musicals.

Sort of ...

I see. Well, you've worked quite a bit with Lone Pine now ...

Lone Twin, Dad.

Oh yes yes, Lone Twin ... I always get them mixed up with that other lot you know, Goat Island, but they're the ones in America aren't they?

Yes, in Chicago. Very different kettle of fish, really. And Lone Twin is English - well, Gregg and Gary are.


The two directors. Although the others are from all over: France, Australia, Denmark, Germany ...

What others?

The performers in the group. The people in The Catastrophe Trilogy.

Oh I see.

Funnily enough one of the Goats was there at the show yesterday ...

Who was?

One of the people from Goat Island. She's moved to London.

Oh has she, very good. And what's the difference between a director and a dramaturg?

Well, I suppose they overlap at times. But I guess the dramaturg's primarily responsible for the composition, the structure of the thing, the weave of all the bits, how it's put together. Although in fact I do lots of things: working on movement stuff, helping write bits ...

So you wrote it?

No no, we all did, but I tend to work closely on that aspect with the directors.

Oh. Good. Any reviews yet?

Not yet, but there will be some next week I guess. Quite a few critics have been.

I wonder if Charles Spencer will write something.


Charles Spencer, from the Telegraph, you know.

Oh yes. Mmm, I'm not sure it'll be quite his cup of tea.

Ooh I don't know, he's very eclectic, he seems to to go and see pretty much everything. He may well go and see the Lonely Twins.

Right. I'm not sure he came, Dad. There was someone from the Guardian ...

Oh was there. Well, do send me a copy of the programme ... Anyway, we're all alright here. We've just been watching Dig [Nicholas Cooke, my step-sister's son] on the computer. What do you call the thing on the computer, you know, those pages you can visit?

The internet?

Yes, we've been watching a video of him on the internet. It's on something called Chortle. He won a prize for best young stand-up in Coventry! Very brave.

Really? Wow that is brave! That's great, good for him. He's a nice lad isn't he.

Yes yes ... actually it's it's it's - erm - it's rather rude. (Laughs): Apparently the little section of his act that they chose to show on the internet is the only rude bit in the whole act. And when he was given his prize, the judge - who's a stand-up comedian himself, can't remember his name - he praised the fact that his act was not at all rude. I suppose the others must have been really very rude.

Right. Well, I'll have a look for it in a bit. Chortle?

Yes, Chortle.

Brilliant. Good for him.

Yes ... And how's your job? Your university under threat yet?

For Nicholas Cooke's video on YouTube, see here

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


For the past couple of months, in the gaps in teaching, I've been working again with Lone Twin Theatre on The Festival, the final part of The Catastrophe Trilogy. Since early January we've moved around from studio to studio in the south-east of England - The Point in Eastleigh (semi-affectionately known as 'Beastleigh'), New Greenham Arts near Newbury, the Basement in Brighton, and finally the Pit in the Barbican, London. The last two locations have taken us ever further underground, currently in London into the ancient underbelly of the city.

The season at the Barbican (as part of BITE) opens tonight with Alice Bell, then tomorrow Daniel Hit By A Train, and Thursday the premiere of The Festival. All three parts in the trilogy are performed in a 'marathon' cycle on Saturday this week and next (2.00, 5.00, 8.00).

It's been a productive few weeks, involving a lot of talking, singing, writing, getting lost, aching limbs, and a great deal of keepy-uppy, the addictive deferral technique of so many devising companies. At one point we constructed a target for our shonky football skills, a paper Elvis mask taped to a broom; we called him 'Antoine'. After a week or so, his face was creased and worse for wear, as if he'd been up all night.

In retrospect the two weeks at Greenham were compellingly odd, uncanny, for New Greenham Arts is located at what was the Greenham Common air base. The studio in which we were rehearsing was apparently the room in which pilots were briefed. I spent most of one day in that room standing in for Nina who was away, learning her part in an evolving dance structure. The next day, I could barely walk. It seemed both surreal and fitting that we would dance and sing in such a ghosted context, with an awareness of its massively contested existence during the Reaganite '2nd Cold War': the Cruise and Pershing missiles, the 19 year period of the Greenham women's peace camp, not to mention the alleged nuclear accident at the base in 1958.

As Paul Virilio has suggested, every technology 'produces, provokes, programmes' its own accident: invent the car and you also invent the car crash. Ain't it the way.

When I came home from Greenham, Sue showed me a picture of her with her friend Rachel at the perimeter fence near the silos in 1981, with the word HOPE stitched in wool into the fence behind them.

A few hundred yards from the New Greenham Arts studio, the six missile shelters (the so-called GAMA - Ground Launched Cruise Missile Alert And Maintenance Area) are still intact, although the nuclear bomb proof steel doors have long since gone. Today, 19 years after the base closed, these 10 metre high, reinforced concrete silos covered in clay and grass are protected by seven layers of high security fencing, as if the shelters have been mothballed but remain ready, just in case ...

The former nuclear command and control centre at Greenham base, originally designed to withstand a thermonuclear airburst explosion, is currently used by a private company on the re-branded 'New Greenham Park Estate' as an 'ultra secure Data Bunker', its role to 'guard your systems and data from every potential threat that could compromise the availability of your business critical applications'. So, the redundant residuum of Cold War architecture has itself become a commodity in a neat bit of entrepreneurial recycling. And in truth its 'reinforced blast-proof walls', solid steel doors and 'military electro-magnetic pulse protection' look like serious shit in the commercial data protection business (see I feel mightily relieved I don't have any data that merits that sort of attention, and at the same time wonder quite who's availing themselves of The Bunker's services. Evidently the 'perpetual war' of an ongoing paranoid 'state of emergency' persists in other guises.

Meanwhile, just down the road the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston continues its insidious work, in collaboration with the US Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Nevada desert. Aldermaston's been at the epicentre of British weapons research and development from the earliest British atomic bomb, the 'Blue Danube', tested off Australia in 1952, to hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific in the 1950s, to the WE177 and Polaris in the 1960s, to the Trident warheads and current research into a new generation of nuclear weaponry in and around its its Warhead Assembly Facility and the Orion Laser Facility.

Makes you proud to be British.

Aldermaston remains the destination for the annual CND march from Trafalgar Square. And a women's peace camp holds monthly protests at Aldermaston. Keepy-uppy.