Footnotes. A man, dressed in jeans, a black top and jacket (impressive moustache) sits and delivers an academic lecture. His paper is peppered with footnotes1, which he delivers into a microphone, in order to differentiate between the main body of the text and said footnotes2. It is a ‘parody3 of an academic lecture4’. The audience complete graphs by labelling an x and a y axis, and drawing a curve. The man uses these as his research5. The footnotes become more and more absurd – sometimes they are just sounds, kissing the microphone stand, dancing, getting undressed and putting on a dressing gown, flirting with an audience member6. There is also story about the man accidentally leaving his baby alone for 2 weeks and returning to find it malnourished, to which the baby says, ‘Daddy, nourish me’7. There is some in-depth discussion about the choice of word, ‘nourish’. The man is clearly overthinking it.
Phrases. A man, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt (impressive moustache8) is dancing9. He has a laptop linked up to a projector. The wallpaper image is of a seaside town. He spotlight searches for audio tracks, videos and a PowerPoint presentation10. He tells a story of going to the doctor’s, being told to come back the next day for surgery, coming back the next day, being told to come back the next day for surgery, having surgery, coming back for physiotherapy11. There is some in-depth discussion about the phrase, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. He’s clearly overthinking it12. There is a phone call in which the man requests a mysterious object be removed from his garden, which he attempts to describe – somewhat inadequately13. The PowerPoint presentation presents the inner monologue of the man14, and then a succession of images of places with ‘mouth’ in their name (Monmouth, Bournemouth, Exmouth). The dancer slaps himself15 and the lights fade……16
1 Footnote: a note printed at the bottom of a page that gives extra information about something that has been written on that page; OR an event, subject, or detail that is not important.
2 A well-known use of footnotes as a formal device in fiction is Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, in which the plot is conveyed through footnotes to the titular poem. These are additions, distractions and diversions which overtake the poem to become the core focus. Tangents which become the point.
3 This is in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre at Summerhall, by the way, which is definitely the most lecture theatre-y lecture theatre there. Blackboard and all. Nice.
4 Parody: writing, music, art, speech, etc. that intentionally copies the style of someone famous or copies a particular situation, making the features or qualities of the original more noticeable in a way that is humorous.
5 I don’t think it quite works as parody – it’s not pointed or specific enough. And the footnotes don’t illuminate the character of the academic, or the features or qualities of the lecture. They’re just, a bit random.
6 Hmm, this is… sort of uncomfortable (not the flirting specifically) – and I can’t tell if the discomfort is by design or not. The relationship between Holt and the audience is unclear. Suddenly I’m reminded of those tutorials with uni lecturers who seemed to exist in their own bubbles, even when you were sat opposite them in their office. What is it about some academics that makes them so hard to talk to?
7 I initially think this is being told from the perspective of a horse, but that turns out to be wrong. You know that type of absurd comedy sketch, all hyperactive cutaways and random shit thrown at the wall? This sort of feels one of those, slowed down to 0.25% speed.
8 The moustache feels important, somehow.
9 There’s more dancing in Phrases. Lewys Holt (maybe I should have mentioned his name earlier) is a very accomplished dancer, and it’s easy to just get lost watching him improvise. Each movement switching out, splitting off, wandering on from the last…
10 Well, looks like we’re still in the footnote-review format. I suppose this should now be a PowerPoint, strictly speaking. I’m not even sure if this footnote format is totally justified, dramaturgically. Weird that I’m thinking of a review in dramaturgical terms in the first place. I’m not sure why I’ve committed to doing this. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Write a normal review. A to B. 500 words. Arrive at the point. STAY FOCUSED, Ben.
11 Phrases has the same offbeat humour but has shed the awkward relationship with the audience. Its organising structure isn’t as formalised as Footnotes, so doesn’t bring with it the expectation of coherence.
12 There’s a drip on the lecture-theatre table bit right in front of me. Drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip…
13 It’s also calmer, sweeter. There is the melancholy riff of an electric guitar as Holt jerks and twists in improvised paroxysms of restlessness, the meaningless mumble of a phone call in the background. It’s suddenly, surprisingly, moving.
14 These are anxious pieces. Holt’s surreal streams of consciousness follow the flow of the overthinker, the worrier. Did I leave the oven on? What did the doctor really mean by that? What variety of apple were they referring to? What am I doing here? Am I a twat? The dancer and the academic are both, essentially, very lonely. When I realise that, it makes his relationship to the audience a little clearer.
15 Arrive at the point. Or a point, at least. Reason, research, sense, making sense, making an argument, getting a point across. Holt abandons these in favour of nonsense, distraction, stupidity, meaningless gestures, fidgeting, ironic existentialism. A point: in a performance culture which is very much (and very understandably) preoccupied with the capital-P Political (see also Arts Council England’s recent shift to prioritising ‘relevance’ over ‘excellence’), these performances make me wonder what it means to be making work which chases its own tail in the manner of Footnotes and Phrases. Footnote: an event, subject, or detail which is not important. And so what about the wilfully unimportant? Do we call it indulgent, or subversive? Irrelevant, or overlooked? A distraction, or a re-orientation? Inward-looking, or just looking in a different direction?
16 Or am I overthinking this?
Footnotes and Phrases are on at Summerhall at 8.45pm on alternating days, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe