In a car driving up to Manchester for a show this weekend, myself and the two other women in the car spoke about being women in theatre. The drive was long – longer than expected – and as it grew darker and sleet started whipping against the windshield, our tongues got freer. Just three women talking, and expelling, and listening to each other. It was a gradual thing, an inevitable thing, maybe. We talked about failure. About how white cis men are allowed to fail. About how they are instilled with a sense of quiet, solid superiority from a young age. What that does to a person and their self-worth and the way they present themselves. About how they are able to bounce back from failure easily. How they don’t internalise shame and guilt the way we do – the way anyone who isn’t them does.
These are all Basic Feminism 101 points, for sure, but what was extraordinary was the way that vocalising and really spending time talking about it made it feel real and honest and open. I felt like a muscle in my body was being stretched out. It was a sort of group therapy. The power of speaking things into existence, the way that legitimises a collective experience.
Brian Lobel’s 24 Italian Songs and Arias does a similar thing. It’s a brutally sincere piece. I feel like I don’t expect sincerity from theatre and performance art anymore. That’s something to do with my formative experiences with theatre and performance, I think. Actually, it’s something to do with everything I consumed as I was growing up and developing my taste. Plays by Martin Crimp, TV shows like Arrested Development and Always Sunny in Philadelphia – that sort of thing. I’m a product of pop culture cynicism. Sitting in Lobel’s piece, watching his wide smile and the way he gesticulates enthusiastically with his hands – I felt increasingly uneasy. When would the horrible thing happen? When would the smile crack?
It never does. Or it does, but it’s right at the beginning, and it’s not actually that horrible, but it’s just that Lobel’s didn’t get into State Choir as a young man, and he’s using that first disappointment as a way of talking about how we process and comprehend the idea of failure. And it’s interesting – how we laugh at failure, how we mythologise our own failures as being part of our life’s narrative, the moment before we get that fundamental, life-changing success. The fact that failure, more often than not, is followed by failure. That the life-changing success rarely comes. Mamoru Iriguchi’s banners fall from the ceiling, crystallising and spotlighting the specific failure each performer brings to the table – the one that really sticks in the psyche, that holds them back even now.
(Halfway through, when I was still wondering if something terrible was going to happen, a glib thought passed through my head: Nothing makes me feel like more of a failure than when I’m watching performance art and I don’t know what’s going on. Except maybe writing about performance art. My review will probably be a failure. That’s fine, I can pass it off as being a responsive piece. A continuation of the performance.)
Gweneth-Ann Rand, the soprano singer who created the show alongside Lobel, provides that destabilising edge I was yearning for. She’s wonderful. Rolling her eyes at Lobel, tsk-ing. She sings and her voice cuts to the heart. What’s implicit onstage but never discussed is that Rand, as a black woman in the opera industry, has probably had to work twice as hard as Lobel, and her failures will have been twice as hard to come back from.
It’s an interesting choice, to not discuss it. Failure is a human thing, an inevitable thing for us all – absolutely. But the vocalisation of any so-called shared experiences inevitably runs into issues. There isn’t any truly collective experience, is there? And if there is, there’s no real way to express it across lanes. Language isn’t enough – it obscures and reaches but doesn’t hit the crux of the thing itself. The literal translations of the songs which are projected onscreen, undercutting the delicacy and beauty of the music, prove this.
I wanted more from 24 Italian Songs and Arias, I think. Needed more. Needed more mess, more ugliness – something those pristinely beautiful arias won’t give us. The final moments were precisely measured – not so messy that I can call it too neat an ending – but not messy enough to really make me feel something. Because I was with Lobel and Rand by the end. This was intended to be a warm show, one I could trust. And so I put my heart out towards them, trying to reach theirs with mine, but it still didn’t quite reach.
That thing I thought was going to happen in Brian Lobel’s piece? Yeah, it happened in FK Alexander’s Diana is Dead.
If they have one thing in common (and they do), it’s that both Lobel and Alexander’s pieces wear their hearts on their sleeve. There is no subtlety to Alexander’s piece. It is exactly what it says it is, just as Lobel’s is exactly what it says on the programme. She is a zombie-fied Diana, clad in a white meringue wedding dress, with a rictus smile and clownish makeup and holding a garish bouquet of flowers, and she is here to fuck shit up.
The lights make her blonde hair look green. You could almost believe her eyes are glowing red. Andy Brown’s totalising sound instantly bombards and overwhelms. The wall behind Alexander projects increasingly distorted videos of the people’s princess. Her voice, eerie and echoing, genuinely starts to sound like it’s coming from beyond the grave. Like it’s pouring out of the cracks in the walls.
It’s odd. She died the year before I was born. I have no concept of Diana, really. She is only image to me. Something about a revenge dress? Didn’t she dress up in drag and go clubbing with Freddie Mercury? This Diana, one who has been so warped out of shape by public perception and mythology, smashes things – a lot. She smashes glasses, chews and spits out pieces of apple, cracks plates with a hammer under a Union Jack tablecloth. Once you become acclimatised to the sound design, it feels a little toothless. She doesn’t feel like a threat. For the first half, at least, if she makes a mess, then she tidies it up. Broken glass swept into a bin, shattered cassette tapes brushed to the back of the space. Some remnant of her desire to play nice.
Then she stops playing nice, because of course she does, and that’s when it becomes really exciting. Fragmented bits of her psyche pop up around The Yard space. Lots of different Dianas, all with the same intensely creepy mask of her face. There’s something in here about trauma, about how someone so intensely famous can psychologically handle herself. Compartmentalise, separate bits of yourself out from each other. The self begins to splinter. If you’re famous, do you really know what you look like, or do you just know yourself from your paparazzi photos?
They are her and they aren’t her, but they answer to her regardless. When they start to smash TVs and cassettes and brandish hammers at the audience – then it starts to feel dangerous. This is weaponised femininity, with an emphasis on weapon. And under the fury, there’s a core of sadness to Diana is Dead which I wish was drawn out more. She causes chaos on The Yard stage, yes. The audience have to pick over the debris on their way to the exit. But then that’s it. She’s still trapped there. Maybe that’s the real tragedy.
NOW Festival is on at the Yard Theatre until 16th February, with a different programme of live art every week. More info here.