Features Festivals Published 17 June 2013

PULSE: The Suitcase Prize

A grand don’t come for free.

Catherine Love

Image: Timothy Packer

For the touring artist, the suitcase no doubt has a sort of weary resonance. It’s a symbol of travel, of a nomadic lifestyle; that phrase “living out of a suitcase” suggesting an existence that can be packed away and safely stowed in the luggage racks of another train to another town. For the inaugural Suitcase Prize, however, PULSE have transformed this simple, familiar object into a challenge. In a bid to get artists thinking in environmentally and economically sustainable terms – both considerations that look set to loom ever larger on the horizon – the Prize asks theatremakers to present a 20 minute scratch or extract that can travel by public transport, all neatly fitting into just one case. The award is £1,000 – presented, naturally, in a suitcase.

While this super-small-scale thinking is in marked contrast with concerns about the lack of opportunities for theatremakers to stretch their ambition, it recalls that belief – attested to by many artists – that constraints are inherently creative. Put in place limitations or barriers and ingenuity naturally comes to meet them. Necessity is the mother of invention. It also makes an implicit comment about the difficulties faced by theatremakers attempting to take their work around the country, particularly in times of ever more limited resources. Perhaps they usually have a bit more than one suitcase to work with, but this question of making work that thinks big on an increasingly small scale is a very real challenge for artists today.

This challenge is approached in a distinctly varied set of ways. Anthropoetry, a full music and poetry-infused tour of the body of which we see only a short extract, is nominally about anatomy but is irresistibly drawn towards emotion. The vital functioning of the respiratory system becomes a hymn to life; the heart, long identified as the seat of sentiment, prompts dystopian musing on what might happen if love were to run dry; the spleen naturally asks to be vented, channelling a particularly timely anger. Ben Mellor’s poetry and satirical humour is fused with music from Dan Steele, whose use of now trendily ubiquitous live-looping technology is gorgeously vindicated in a sequence that overlaps and interweaves the various different sounds of breathing into an aural cacophony of life. Along with the ordinary yet extraordinary functioning of our bodies, Anthropoetry is careful not to ignore the inescapable messiness of being human.

Meanwhile, there’s something charmingly yet perhaps a little naively homespun about The Flying Roast Goose, a delicate little slice of theatre that makes the somewhat unlikely promise of exploring one of the more violent chapters of Hong Kong’s history using “playfulness and kitchen utensils”. Grasping at optimism in the midst of horror, the piece examines the 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong through the small, focused lens of one local chef and her pet goose, realised as a basic but surprisingly animated puppet. The heroine is one of many civilians caught in the crossfire, the device of her story feeling vaguely familiar from a long tradition of humanising historical events. What adds the interest here, other than some appealingly inventive shadow puppetry, is the centrality of food and of cooking. Against the surrounding destruction, it offers life and human ritual, which ultimately seem to be what this piece wants to hold onto.

Annie Siddons brings a similar tender simplicity to her offering, Raymondo, which is essentially just a piece of vivid storytelling about abused brothers Raymondo and Sparky and their escape from the cellar where their mother has been holding them captive. This is placed, however, within an enjoyably knowing framing device, displaying an arch self-awareness for the piece’s theatrical as well as its narrative context. This is a story, Siddons grinningly tells us, that was deposited with nothing more than an instruction to perform it for us; authorial intention and the “point” of a story immediately and effortlessly shaped into questions. With hints of magical realism and a light playfulness with the structures of language and narrative – love metaphors, for instance, jostle as ridiculous physical presences – Siddons’ story teasingly leads us right to the point of emotional investment and, like all the best storytellers, leaves us hanging.

Narrative is also left frustrated by Two Destination Language’s winning piece Near Gone, an attempt to deal with the impossibility and urgency of accessing traumatic memories and facing the inexorable approach of death. Katherina Radeva, speaking in Bulgarian throughout, has a story to share with us, a story involving her sister. It’s a difficult story to tell, her co-performer and translator Alister Lownie relays to the audience. Translated line by line – a device that functions as another layer of distance from the memories at play, as well as generating frequent moments of tension-releasing humour – Radeva slowly builds the scene through an accumulation of superfluous details, each slightly delaying the inevitable.

Repeatedly, as the story approaches its sharp, painful point, this gathering narrative is broken, the agonising struggle with memory instead becoming startlingly embodied. Radeva extends an excruciating pause, holds out a hand, expels Lownie from a performance space she can no longer share. Upon each repetition of this action, Lownie then hands Radeva two handfuls of the flowers that line either side of the stage, which are swirled around Radeva’s body in the furious dance that follows. Foliage sprays out around Radeva’s writhing form, white petals scattering in a violent shower. It’s a beautiful and somehow devastating sequence, illustrating perfectly how scant resources can transform into expansive theatrical images. Compact though the Suitcase Prize entries might be, they do not necessarily sacrifice ambition.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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