Posts tagged ‘james wilkes’

26 October, 2010

Lorca is Dead (and behind the scenes, I thought I was too)

I don’t particularly want to relive this, but I think it’s important to get it out in the open.

My review of Belt Up‘s Lorca is Dead for The List, which you can find on, here on my blog or in issue 664 of The List magazine, is not the first review I wrote of that show. Compare and contrast the version I originally submitted to The List:

I admit it: I wanted Lorca is Dead to be a repeat of Belt Up’s five-star masterpiece The Tartuffe, and that was very wrong of me. Earlier this year at the York Theatre Royal, the company permanently retired The Tartuffe by killing off its protagonist, Orgon Poquelin; but Lorca is Dead sounded similar enough on paper that I dared hope for another zany laugh-a-minute anarch-o-thon to fill the void.

The two plays share a writer, Dominic J Allen, and both centre around a group of artists with a loose grip on reality (in this case the Paris Surrealists). The larger-than-life characters, plays within plays within plays, and stream-of-consciousness storytelling style that characterise Allen’s writing are all present in both cases. In Lorca is Dead, however, he uses those tools to create, not wacky hijinks, but unease, unrest and melancholy. Someone has, after all, died.

That isn’t to say there are no hijinks at all; there are, courtesy of a dangerously egomaniacal Salvador Dalí, but they’re denounced by all as disrespectful, and cause much of the aforementioned unease. Dalí’s plot to rewrite the history of the Surrealist movement with himself at the centre, using the time machine Antonin Artaud created to help tell Lorca’s life story, is just one of the play’s many parallel threads. The Surrealists re-enact Lorca’s life story, passing him like a baton amongst themselves and the audience; meanwhile the movement is succumbing to infighting caused by political, philosophical and personal differences, exacerbated by Dalí.

So much happens, and continues happening, all at once, throughout the play, that not everything gets a sufficient airing, and the pace drops occasionally when two threads intersect and the ensemble can’t change direction fast enough. But whatever the play’s flaws, at least it isn’t what I wanted: more of the same.

Shortly after this review appeared on – but thankfully well before it was due to appear in print – I received the following email from James Wilkes, one of Belt Up’s artistic directors.

from James Wilkes
to Matt Boothman
date 12 August 2010 16:08
subject Re: Preview

Hi Matt

Just caught your review of Lorca. Could you retract the statement about the two plays having the same writer, this is factually inaccurate. I wrote The Tartuffe, Dominic J Allen wrote Lorca. We are two very different writers aiming for different ends.

Thankyou very much for your support for The Tartuffe but as a company, we appreciate reviewers commenting more on what the plays are, not what they’re not. I hope you can find the time to return to the play with a more open mind.

James Wilkes
Co-Artistic Director
Belt Up Theatre

Which was like a kick to the solar plexus, for a number of reasons: realisation I’d screwed up professionally in a way that didn’t affect only me; realisation I’d done an injustice to a company whose work I’ve always enjoyed (and with whom I’d had, I think, as cordial a relationship as a reviewer can have with artists); realisation that I’d have to re-review the show that night, which happened to be my busiest night of the Fringe so far (including the Lorca is Dead re-review, I wrote six reviews that night – or rather, the next morning, as I was reviewing comedy and typically arriving back at my flat around 1:30am).

Once I’d caught my breath I sent this email back:

from Matt Boothman
to James Wilkes
date 12 August 2010 19:23
subject Re: Preview

Dear James,

I’ve contacted my editor about the offending review and it should be removed from the site soon. I will be rewriting it in its entirety tonight. I hope you’ll accept my sincere and unreserved apologies for the error.

Upon leaving Lorca is Dead, I realised I had approached the play with certain preconceptions, and felt that it was important to disclose this and address the effect it had on my reaction to the piece. I realised that in taking this approach I ran the risk of failing to discuss the piece on its own merits; clearly I allowed that risk to get the better of me, and as you’ve pointed out, the preconceptions I identified were based on wrongful assumptions from the start. The review was a near-total failure on my part.

I’m sorry once again for failing your show, and I hope my second attempt to review it will do it justice in a way we can all be satisfied with.

Best wishes,

Matt Boothman
Freelance Arts Journalist

To my relief, James responded not long afterwards with this:

from James Wilkes
to Matt Boothman
date 12 August 2010 20:47
subject Re: Preview

Hi Matt

Cheers for this. The ensemble really appreciate it.

Let me know if you’d like to come see the show again.

Once again, we really appreciate your response.


James Wilkes
Co-Artistic Director
Belt Up Theatre

I was going to write some kind of homily off the back of this: something about the damaging effect of preconceptions on theatre reviews; or about reviewer hubris (“I know this company’s work really well,” I thought; “I don’t need to double-check who wrote what before basing a whole argument around it”); or about artists’ right to reply to reviews.

But I don’t think anyone needs me to spell out the lessons to be learned from this incident. Just don’t do what I did.

27 July, 2010

Belt Up

Written for The List (662)

Remember that unruly rabble that spent last August squatting in C Soco? The ones that kept partying and fighting the nights away with hordes of strangers? Well, they’re back, and this time they’re really making themselves at home.

The rabble in question could only be Belt Up, whose jam-packed programmes of audience-centric work at the last two Fringes converted critics and the public alike.

The company’s MO is to take over some remote corner of C Venues to serve as the setting for all their shows; this year, a section of C Soco becomes The House Above, a kitsch and cosy domicile complete with garden. It’s in the company’s interests to make the place feel like home. With an incredible nine shows on the bill, plus their usual array of secret late-night events, they’ll be near-permanent residents there.

‘We have a knack for casting people with superhuman strength and infinite energy,’ shrugs James Wilkes, one of Belt Up’s founding writer-director-performers, as if such übermensch are ten a penny on CastingCallPro. ‘And nothing’s more energising than a good audience.’

The audience is the backbone of every Belt Up show. Every day in The House Above, audiences will become figments of a narcissistic artist’s imagination (in Wilkes’ brand new Atrium), mourners at princess Antigone’s wake (in Alexander Wright’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone), houseguests of the Samsa family (in an updated version of Metamorphosis, the production that launched the company at the NSDF in 2008) – and in Dominic J Allen’s Lorca Is Dead, the entire audience, as a collective, will become the Surrealist poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

If that sounds exhausting, take heart: Wilkes is prepared to reveal the true source of Belt Up’s superhuman endurance. He admits: ‘A lot of us consume a lot of Berocca…’

7 November, 2009

Plus One Podcast: Belt Up at Southwark Playhouse

In which I discuss York-based immersive theatre company Belt Up’s double bill at Southwark Playhouse with one of its co-directors, James Wilkes.

Unfortunately, because my podcast host only gives me limited storage space, I’ve had to take this episode down to make room for new ones. If you’d like to listen to it, send an email to mail at mattboothman dot com with PLUS ONE 001 as the subject line, and I’ll SendSpace it to you direct.

You can also click here to subscribe to the podcast using iTunes.

Creative Commons License
The Plus One Podcast by Matt Boothman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

28 August, 2009

Un/Familiar Fringe: Un/Seated

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 27 August 2009

Like waiting tables, participatory theatre would be significantly easier without the customers. Even more so than usual, participatory productions can’t exist without an audience; but many punters run away screaming at the mere mention of getting involved, and the majority of those that do turn up will be either a) secretly hoping they won’t be singled out or b) planning to take advantage of the altered audience-performer relationship to bring out some killer heckles.

Participatory companies not only have to tell a story or make an artistic statement; they’re also responsible for crowd control. As the style becomes more popular, more methods of crowd control emerge. From what I’ve seen so far, they fall into two broad categories: the carrot and the stick.

Belt Up (Nothing to see/hear), who remain my stand-out favourite company from Fringe 2008, lead the carrot-danglers. The cast of The Tartuffe – a revamped version of last year’s Red Room highlight – greet the audience while they’re still queueing and begin gently immersing them into the world of the play, in character but without getting too in-yer-face. At this point I was handed a hi-vis jacket and designated Health and Safety Officer, which was a set-up for a joke much further down the line, but which also began blurring the distinction between audience and performer.

The cast remain scattered throughout the audience as we enter the space and take up positions on a jumble of mattresses, armchairs and bedsteads. There’s a comfortable sense of being amongst friends. The raucous comedy of the play relaxes everyone further; the company’s infiltrators whisper conspiratorial asides to their closest neighbours; and by the time Orgon begins demanding volunteers it seems churlish not to leap obligingly up and play his first wife, or his daughter’s suitor.

The sticky end of the spectrum is characterised by a technique I think of as the Embarrassment Spotlight. I experienced it last year in the hands of Three’s Company, in Auditorium. Companies using it this year include double Fringe First award winners Ontroerend Goed, with Internal, and the slightly lower-profile Tickled Pig Productions, with Parents’ Evening.

The Embarrassment Spotlight harnesses the natural inclination of the audience not to take part, and turns it against one unfortunate individual. For example: the staff of Tickled Pig’s fictional jolly-hockey-sticks institution Aultyme High (billed as “the teachers you wish you’d had”) need a volunteer to take part in a dressing-up competition. After a brief and awkward period of optimistically waiting for genuine volunteers, the cast pick a likely individual themselves and exhort him or her to join in. The combined relief of every other audience member at not being picked on themselves then prevents the nominee from refusing. If they resist, their party (and even complete strangers) will urge them to “go on” or “live a little,” safe in the knowledge that if the nominee lives a little they won’t have to (at least not in this scene).

Ontroerend Goed combine participatory with one-on-one performance, using a speed-dating format to isolate each participant with one performer, which removes the usual recourse (hoping a more gregarious audience member will volunteer first) and forces them to play ball or completely derail the performance.

Provided the company knows what they’re doing, both techniques are actually equally effective at persuading the audience onto their feet. People seem to enjoy themselves more chasing Belt Up’s carrot than avoiding Tickled Pig’s stick, but the two companies tailor their techniques to their dramatic aims. Belt Up aim to foster a sense of relaxed camaraderie, while Tickled Pig aim to recreate the terror and humiliation of a real parents’ evening. No one technique is empirically the best way of using an audience; the whole crowd control spectrum is a toolbox for participatory dramatists.

11 August, 2009

The Tartuffe *****

C Soco, 5 – 31 August 2009

Reviewed for The List (issue 636)

Belt Up’s immersive Red Room programme was among the most exciting events at last year’s Fringe. Even sharing a line-up with six other highly praised productions, The Tartuffe managed to stand out. The 2009 version is even better.

The great (and immodest) French actor Orgon Poquelin and his company have left behind the plush decadence of the Red Room for a squat in a dilapidated wing of C Soco. The audience joins them, seated on a motley assortment of mattresses, bedsteads and sofas. Here, the players – actors playing actors playing characters, like meta-theatrical Russian dolls – perform the story of Orgon’s humiliation at the hands of the conman Tartuffe. Or rather, they skip, stutter and scrape through the story, interrupted at every turn by missed cues, prima donna mime artists and Orgon’s titanic ego.

The production – and the production within the production – runs on glorious, unfettered anarchy. Orgon’s company are as much at war with one another as the family they’re meant to be playing, indulging in playground one-upmanship that climaxes in the most elaborate postmodern mime battle royale ever seen on stage. Gratuitous violence, foul language and near-pornographic filth abound. Mime, straight acting, kabuki and street performance are brought out, dusted off, tried on, sent up and discarded again. Crimes against the fourth wall include offstage players commentating from the audience and constant pop culture references to everything from the Fringe to American Beauty via The Lion King and The Matrix.

But most impressive of all, the audience at The Tartuffe appears willing – even eager – to take part, practically leaping off their sofas to join the cast, beaming all over their faces. Crossing the fourth wall into the audience is one thing. Getting the audience to volunteer to cross back? Now that’s unprecedented.

Written by James Wilkes after Moliere

Crew includes Orgon Poquelin (director)

Cast includes Orgon Poquelin (himself)

Need a second opinion?

7 August, 2008

Women of Troy ***

C Central, 1 – 25 August 2008

Reviewed for The List, issue 609

Belt Up’s production casts its audience as Trojan POWs. Being manhandled into a darkened room by Greek officials promises an immersive, Punchdrunk-style experience, but inside the audience returns to its typical spectator role. While the constant blackout makes Cassandra’s prophecies all the more chilling, the only noteworthy performance comes from Queen Hecuba, who is commanding even in her admissions of defeat.

Written by James Wilkes after Euripides

Need a second opinion?