I first met James Monaghan in August last year, when we were both presenting work at the Royal Exchange’s Co:LAB Festival. He performed a work-in-progress of Forest at HOME’s PUSH Festival last year. I didn’t see it but I heard about it from other people in the Manchester Live Performance Community. I’ve spoken to James a few times about Forest since then and as far as I’m aware what he is presenting at this year’s PUSH Festival is an entirely different creature. I’ve been party to some aspect of Forest for about a year, but this month I have been sitting in on James’s rehearsals, as Embedded Critic, and writing in response to the experience. I expect to write one more post about it all after this review, but the existing pieces you can read here, here, and here.
I’m not going to tell you if Forest is any good or not, sorry if that’s what you’re looking for. I don’t think reviews are much good for that. I’m writing more from inside the process of making the show than I usually would, but I still didn’t have much to do with it. I’ve just been writing about it for longer.
There’s a Michael DeForge comic, in his book Dressing, called All of my Friends, Up High, in a Jumbo Jet. It is a series of illustrations of what might be the Earth, miles below, accompanied by small pieces of text which tell a story. If you’ve ever been in a plane on a clear day you’ll know that the Earth looks strange, abstract. Clouds look like icebergs, miles of fields look like dirty cloth. In DeForge’s illustrations, mountains could be jawbones, roads and cities and distant fires could be neural networks, or dividing cells, or colours on a page.
The stage of Forest is littered with heads of broccoli. Monaghan has the audience standing, scattered about the space for the duration. From above, the broccoli looks like trees. He tells us ‘We are in a forest. We are in Forest.’ Forest feels like a collection of thoughts. It’s up to the audience to have faith in Monaghan that there is a connection between them all. Monaghan moves through the space as if mapping something out, and treats us as if we are as much his props as the broccoli are (is?) He speaks to us kindly, asks us to do things – and the results of our actions are the continuation of a show which is the expressing of something obscure inside its performer’s head.
There’s a performance language at work in Forest which is unlike any of the other shows I’ve been in the audience for at PUSH. Forest feels unlike a piece of prose, which is being performed in some formal way, as if it stems more from impulses than structure. There’s no narrative, no story, not really a journey from one point to the next so much as a changing of states. I almost feel Forest is yearning to be even messier, denser, impulsive, to have far too much going on. The moments of relative clarity are like a shower turning cold. Suddenly I am unable to forget where I am. These moments bite, and the show turns on and I want to see a more awful number of teeth.
Monaghan talks about compulsion, about porn consumption, about addiction and reward mechanisms in the brain and something snaps into place: the running he has been doing, mapping and remapping, moving us around, moving the broccoli around, trying to define, to catch the edges of something. At the top of the show he tells us ‘I’m trying to get out.’ He’s told us what he’s doing. Maybe the show isn’t a display, a piece of theatre for us to watch and think about but something James has to escape. Maybe he needs to break through some chain of thought mechanisms and he can’t get it done unless he is being watched.
I think there’s a part of Forest that could become durational, a show a few hours long, shifting and jumping from thought to thought. Some strange man in a room, figuring himself out. A little like that Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box piece. The performer doing something out of utility for themselves, and we can watch, if we like. I’ll have a chat about Forest with James soon. I’ll have a chat with him and the director, Leentje Van de Cruys, about the process of having me in the room writing reflections, we’ll chat about this review. There’s a few different scales of distance I’m looking at this piece from, we’ll have to talk it out, see if we can escape.
The forest (the broccoli) is rearranged. Broccoli doesn’t just look like trees. It makes me think of cells. You know, those close up images where the colours are electric and you can see how round the edges of things are. The scale at which everything looks like rubber balls. And I think broccoli looks like brains, a little. A thousand tiny green points at the end of a thick green spine. It depends at which scale you think about broccoli what it is.
Once you’re already invested in a piece, you are equipped to see the good in it, the wider picture. Forest is not a scattering of pieces of broccoli, a few anecdotes about trees, pornography, intimacy, relating. It is a part of my friendship with James; a part of Monaghan’s career; a show in the programme at PUSH; a moment in each of our lives.
(is James paying me to sit in his rehearsal room and write reflections on it the same as Exeunt paying me to write a review of it)
(i wonder at the moment when theatre festivals are going to stop stylising themselves in all caps)
(i didnt like having to stand up for an hour)
(when checking that ‘head of broccoli’ is the right term to use, i found this Produce Converter for heads of broccoli and thought it was the most charming thing: https://www.howmuchisin.com/