Over the last eight or nine months, I haven’t wanted to see any theatre. I’ve definitely not wanted to see any theatre about COVID. It felt too soon, or too close to the bone. Rationally, and to others, I argued that any theatre about what’s happening right now would be pointless, given that the experience of COVID is far from over. It would be like telling a story without an ending. Beneath all the thinking and talking, theatre about the present felt dangerous, as if holding up a mirror to how painful this time has been could lead to the roof falling in over my head. I craved a history play, the COVID biopic, with a start and end. Something to make sense of it all, with the distance and clarity that meant it wasn’t happening anymore.
Daniel Kitson’s Dot. Dot. Dot. is not the work I wanted. His solo performance, delivered via livestream from the expanded stage of Edinburgh’s Lyceum, has a start but no end. Kitson’s tale of one man’s episodic struggle of highs, lows and sourdoughs doesn’t make sense of everything, but in its small scale, its closeness, I did feel better – and also pretty bloody awful. Sitting hunched over my laptop in the kitchen, I was reminded why theatre (even the live-streamed, let’s chew on the ethics of this lower down the page, variety) is a particularly brilliant and unique thing. A rehearsal room for empathy – a place to feel, feel it out, feel lost, feel seen, feel a bit all over the shop.
The form is simple and effective. Kitson sits at a wooden table lined with coloured post-it notes. Each note has a word or phrase on it in thick black marker. Kitson picks up each note in turn, shows it to the camera and tells a corresponding anecdote, joke or story. We see him through a camera, in a framing familiar to anyone who has made a video-call during this time. Behind him is the empty Lyceum Theatre – with row after row of plush seats. On the table, between us and him, the post-it notes gradually disappear. Kitson jokes that if you hate the show then at least you can see the end coming. Yet the form also speaks to a reality for many people living through lockdown. Each individual day – each post-it note – passes by quickly; seeing all those days in a row, however, makes you realise how much time has passed.
Kitson is a relaxed, engaging presence, and the tale that he weaves from this collection of stories and gags will surely have resonant moments for most people. Recurrent tropes from the lockdown discourse feature heavily, including bread baking, walking, finding nature, Zoom calls and longing for people, for touch. For my part, I am caught by the intimacy of his language, much of which I don’t fully understand, but whose meaning I can feel. Dot. Dot. Dot. is a world of remembered names, a glimpse at the places, people and things which tell the story of someone’s life. Kitson’s frustration too, his deeply held anger and fear at being so out of control, is familiar. His and our exasperation is an undercurrent throughout, finding outlet in the usual targets: the government, Andrew Lloyd Webber and people who don’t wear masks.
While not a criticism of Dot. Dot. Dot., nor of Kitson himself, the particularity and personalness of the story can’t help but gesture to those whose stories are not represented within his. This is in part due to the scarcity of the landscape – very little work is being made right now, let alone shown. Yet watching this performance, brilliant as it is, it is noteworthy to reflect upon those whose stories don’t have access to the Lyceum stage – and if Kitson’s character were to take on the role of an emblematic everyman in the audiences’ minds, whose stories would possibly be erased. That other stories of lockdown emerge alongside Dot. Dot. Dot. is surely vital.
The power dynamics of which stories are told are in a direct relationship to who gets to hear them. Access to the show is through a live stream, for which you need to buy a ticket. Each show has a set capacity, set at the size of the venue to which Kitson tours. The show I saw was a sell-out and being on the inside of the tent, watching the live stream, and seeing that there are 270-odd others watching alongside me, was an oddly affirming experience. This quality of being with an audience, and a desire to replicate what it is like to be in a theatre, is surely the point. Yet it’s also true that the internet has a much larger capacity than the Lyceum, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to at least ask why the doors aren’t thrown open in the event of a sell-out, so that everyone who wants to buy a ticket, can.
It’s perhaps too early to have a firm position on whether charging and applying capacities to theatre livestreams is a good or bad thing. Both the Lyceum, and everyone involved in making Dot. Dot. Dot. do of course need to earn a living. The decision to tour shows from venue to venue in the first place was presumably done from a twin desire to reach larger audiences and generate more profit. If live streaming is going to be a part of theatre’s future, particularly in the long term, it will be interesting to see how the terms in which we access it, and who holds that power, is navigated.
Dot. Dot. Dot. continues its tour of empty theatres through lockdown, until 27th November. More info here.