To live and work among theatre-makers, among artists, without making theatre or art yourself is to feel a constant hum of inferiority. No matter how “creative” the writing in response, it’s still not theatre, is it? It’s still not art. To be obsessed with art, in whatever medium, without making it oneself is to live in a state of quiet disappointment at your own lack of facility and bravery.
The Castle Builder calls bullshit on that. Not unkindly. As an invitation.
This is the simplest way to describe it: there are two blokes on stage, one bald (Vic Llewellyn), one salt-and-pepper-haired (Kid Carpet, aka Ed Patrick), and both of them wear grubby clothes, and in one corner there’s a kid who has a bit of a smirk on his face (Llewellyn’s son, it turns out), and in another a man in blue overalls tinkering around with a cardboard box (a different guest performer each night). The bald one’s job is to chatter and tell stories and the other one sings. Sings is a generous word for it, because often the sound is kicking up the grass rather than following the path of melody, but there’s music behind it, simple tunes recorded on kiddy keyboards, and there are chorus lines and the whole thing feels punk in both the do-it-yourself and anti-establishment senses. There’s also a projection screen showing pictures of people who have built castles – some the size of garden sheds but others huge ornate buildings – using little more than rocks or detritus and their bare hands. If describing it this way makes it sound like an extended google search happening at the pub with Half Man, Half Biscuit playing in the background then yep, that’s pretty much the measure of it.
Except it isn’t, not by a long chalk. At the heart of it is a song full of questions, about life and art, people and things, and how each are valued and who by:
What have you done?
What are you leaving behind?
Does anyone care?
Are their hearts affected?
Is art only good if it’s being collected?
Are you leaving a mark?
Or are you leaving no trace?
The words and the sentiment are all the more impactful for being sung so guilelessly, because the subtext of every wonky note is: you can do this too.
This is the real measure of The Castle Builder: the extent to which it invites us to think about art’s place in society, and how art becomes a tool for judging people, and how it can feel as though permission to participate in both art and society is withheld. A castle in the air is a useless daydream, a plan that never comes true. It’s the songs you never wrote, the band you never formed, the canvases that sit unpainted, the scraps of writing that never joined up. It’s also the march you never joined because you thought it wouldn’t achieve anything, the strike you never supported, the community you kept a distance from, the cause you never championed. The castle that hovers above the stage here represents one Llewellyn saw on a tour in Norway: he was told that it was built centuries ago by a Viking warrior who blah blah blah violence blah blah blah oppression blah blah blah the history of masculinity ruling by force. I don’t need to fill in the details because it’s a story we all know, and a story so pervasive it seems no other way of living is possible. Recently I was part of an event in Scandinavia in which another participant told me that to dream of the utopia reached through revolution is childish. It was a white man who said this, of course.
We choose the narratives of how society can be organised, and how people should behave if in a “right” state of mind, and what constitutes art: and that means we can choose others – just like Llewellyn and Kid Carpet do in The Castle Builder. They seek out the stories of people who ignore the word impossible, who transform through reuse the discarded and dismissed as junk, who live out a dream without caring if they’re ridiculed. These people are sculptors and architects – more than one has created a building reminiscent of Antoni Gaudi’s key works – but they wouldn’t be recognised as such within the conventional structures of value pressed upon art and upon people. With customary lightness, Llewellyn tells another story: of the exhibition of “degenerate art” curated by Jospeh Goebbels at the height of the Nazi regime, putting work by renowned artists such as Chagall and Kandinsky alongside work by the in-patients of mental hospitals. His intention was to belittle, says Llewellyn, to demonstrate that these artists were all sick and their work worthless. Instead, he proved that “all of it was fucking amazing”.
That “all of it” is vital. This isn’t just about art, or about politics: it’s about how we treat each other, classify each other, condemn each other, human to human. And how we have to change. Be kinder, to each other, and to ourselves. Arguably, these castle builders don’t do any of that: they are myopic, obsessive, pouring all of their time and energy away from society and into their own project. Fine. The point is the possibility of difference – a possibility that seems minuscule within capitalist-democracy’s socio-economic constraints.
In many ways, the show reminded me of Emma Frankland/Keir Cooper’s brilliant punk puppet show Don Quixote, another celebration of people who refuse to abide by social convention that opened up the question of revolution. It reminded me of a speech made by Sheila Ghelani at the Residence Collective’s small-scale conference I’m Still Standing, also part of Mayfest: quiet and thoughtful, Ghelani wove another celebration of artistic folly, waste transformed, and the ability of art to shine a light on people just out of vision. It reminded me too of something else from the same event, theatre-maker Andy Smith’s reminder that only you can make the art that you make.
At the end of The Castle Builder, the person who has been tinkering away in the back corner brings forth their new creation: at this performance, a cardboard box with spindly limbs and solid heart and a lamp glowing at the top of it. It’s shonky, disjointed, random pieces bolted together, rough and ready – but it’s beautiful. And The Castle Builder is exactly like that. It bolts together song and story with political argument, understanding of neuro-diversity and invitation to make art. And it holds its audience, tenderly, in the palm of its hand, lifts us to the stars, then places us gently back down on earth, with a reminder that there’s always time to live better.
The Castle Builder was on as part of Mayfest 2016. Click here for more of their programme.