Features Published 25 August 2015

Daniel Kitson: Polyphony

Nicole Serratore and John Murphy dissect Daniel Kitson's latest theatrical experiment at Summerhall.
Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore: My fear that this was just going to be Analogue 2: Electric Boogaloo were thankfully unfounded. Daniel Kitson is again using pre-recorded material but rather than just leave it to the machines he’s front and center here in this work he refers to as meta-theatrical. He’s written a play that involves him speaking in dialogue with pre-recorded voices.

Without saying too much about exactly what unfolds (lest we spoil it for others) I did want talk about where Kitson is at in his work.

I probably think about Kitson‘s “legacy” far more than anyone who is not Daniel Kitson should. But since he performs exclusively live and doesn’t publish his scripts or make many recordings available I think about how his work will be remembered in the future.

I suspect some of my musings about this come largely from the fact that I’m getting older (landmark birthday on the horizon…gray hairs springing up on my head…ugh and chin! Fuck aging). And so generally I’ve started thinking about what survives us.

And don’t say kids. Don’t want one. Don’t need one. And who the fuck knows how they will represent you once you’re gone.

But in an ever increasingly vast internet I can’t even imagine yesterday’s theater I review I wrote will mean much to anyone tomorrow. Unless I really hurt someone’s feelings. Which seems unlikely. This week anyway.

But back to the point. Polyphony seems to be about Kitson looking at his legacy. It reminded me most closely of As of 1.52pm which has for me remained a certain turning point in his writing.

I’m still shaken by the image of him wiping Its Always Right Now, Until It’s Later off a chalkboard in that show and him (or some iteration of a Daniel Kitson character) angrily lashing out at an audience that seems to keep asking him to do the same kind of work.

And with Polyphony he seems to be back to probing his fame, his work, whether he’s fallen into a pattern (or is it just a “reoccurring motif”) and he cracks headlong into some criticism lobbed at him–inconvenient start times, cheap ticket prices, overly worshipful acolytes, writing about men and for male voices, and maybe he’s kind of a dickhead.

But as much as he has a lot of fun at his own expense I thought underlying the whole piece was a serious inquiry into what he is doing and whether what he’s doing matters.

Have I overthought this?

He also joyously explores what is live performance and what makes a “play” which beyond the meta aspects of that is a fair question after seeing 21 shows this week. Are we making sure the umbrella for what makes a play is broad enough to capture performance like this?

Though most enjoyably at this last show one of the recordings had a bit of a breakdown. It was the voice of the feminist who likes sandwiches. Which goes to show…you can write female characters but you still can’t control them.

What was your reaction John?

John Murphy: It struck me when I was watching Polyphony that “Portrait of the artist as a (mildly) tortured young(ish) man” could have easily been a sub-title for Daniel Kitson‘s most self-referential show to date.

Like Nicole said, this is ultimately a show about creeping mortality and the idea of a legacy. I’m around Kitson‘s age (well, maybe slightly older) and I think it’s pretty common in most people on the cusp of their 40s to start thinking about how many years we have left, and whether people will remember us when we’re gone. Like Nicole, I don’t have children and I’m not arrogant enough to assume that people will be pouring over my writings after my death to try and work out my “real” mindset.

Daniel Kitson doesn’t have that luxury though – everything he produces is eagerly awaited, consumed and then analysed (most of all, by people like us: see, this is almost as meta as a Kitson show already). As Nicole said, I’m loath to go too deeply into Polyphony for fear of spoilers, but as I was watching I started to wonder whether Kitson did indeed start off this process by genuinely trying to write a play, and then the fears and insecurities in his own head took over and he thought “you know what? Fuck you, I’m going to make you guys the stars of the play”.So those voices in his head, telling him that he’s repeating old tropes and is running out of ideas, become the voices of the audience – an audience which, in typically Kitson fashion, it’s difficult to decide if he actually likes (there’s one ‘character’ in particular, the ‘overly worshipful acolyte’ as mentioned by Nicole, that will have regular audience members, like me, shifting uneasily in their seats). There are also some disparaging callbacks to some trademarks of his act (wistful memories of a lonely old man) and the celebrated way he shuns promotion.

I also found it interesting how some of the recorded voices are recognisable – to a comedy geek such as myself, it was disconcerting to hear the disembodied voices of Tim Key, Diana Morgan (aka Charlie Brooker’s Philomena Cunk), stand-up Elis James and, in her third consecutive vocal appearance in a Kitson show, Isy Suttie. I think most of the voices are personal friends of Kitson and I started to ponder whether he’s viewing himself through an imaginary, laceratingly self-crtitical prism of how he thinks those friends see his work. Of course, I’m probably reading far too much into this, and he just thought it would be a laugh to get his mates involved.

Above all though, I found Polyphony the most moving of all of Kitson‘s show – even more so that It’s Always Right Now Till It’s Later. While there have always been references to loneliness and the inexorable passage of time, this is the first time he’s most explicitly turned that spotlight on himself. It’s as if he’s railing against his own self-perceived limitations – he’d love to do a full 180 and write a huge, epic play, but is condemned to wistful experiments about old men and their recorded memories instead. Which, incidentally, is just fine by me.

Nicole Serratore: Well you have always had a better ear than I have for the voices and music Kitson uses in his shows. Besides Tim Key the recorded voices were strangers to my ears. Though Kitson was wearing a Last Week Tonight T-shirt the first time I saw the show. So keeping it all in the Kitson friend universe.


 I do think these voices are certain archetypes of “Kitsonians.”  If you got uncomfortable over the devoted acolyte, I shifted in my seat over the feminist who likes sandwiches (I mean not really but maybe…I do like sandwiches). Joking aside, it made me think about whether I had given enough thought to his female characters. But I always thought the woman in It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later was a well-written character.

I think in light of his work in the post As of 1.52pm world he has been branching out in a variety of ways.  I don’t think he’s been repeating himself in a problematic way. I see him as sort of like rolling out the dough in baking. Incrementally he’s pushing out from a solid middle and he’s generating work that is evolving and changing even if it shares some of the same ingredients as his earlier work. And sure occasionally the dough gets a little thin (Analogue 1.0 as I refer to the NY production needed some more ingredients). But I think Tree was a bigger departure than we give him credit for.  He wrote a proper play for actors and the paradoxical nature of that story still boggles my mind.  And it was not just some meta-wanking. I think it worked dramatically and be something other people could perform. If he’d ever allow it.

Polyphony also deals with his own understanding of his changing performance. I thought it was interesting that he chose to confront his Late N Live years. I’ve listened to some of his earlier stand-up and I wonder if he wouldn’t put some distance between what he wrote then and now. And of course we are all changing people. Lately I’ve been thinking about how much the Tumblr generation has impacted my understanding of social issues. And it’s a wonderful thing. But if I had to live with a version of my public persona from 10 years ago, eeek.

Frankly with Kitson‘s modus operandi he doesn’t have past performances haunting him in the same way as most artists. It’s not like with Trevor Noah and those old tweets which when dug up caused a furor. So curious why Kitson took the time to do engage in that here.

John Murphy:  That’s true actually, weirdly I forgot about Tree (maybe because it was a two-hander, it seems to sit outside of Kitson‘s usual oeuvre. God, I’ve used the word ‘oeuvre’. I do apologise).

I remember in Kitson‘s early stand-up days there was a recurrent theme of not wanting to become too popular – hence the Late N Live berating of audiences, his disowning of his only TV appearance Phoenix Nights, and so on. There was one story I remember him telling about going to see a Ben Folds gig, and looking around at the audience and thinking they were all awful, and he never went to see Ben Folds again. It’s not so much a case of ‘not wanting to be a member of a club that would have me as a member’ as the old Groucho Marx gag would have it, but not wanting to step into that club in the first place.

I think it’s worth remembering though, that outside of our little echo-chamber, Kitson remains very much on the fringes. I was out with some friends this weekend – not big theatre goers, nor comedy nerds – and they’d never heard of him. When I explained Polyphony to them, they were intrigued and really wanted to see it. Probably proof positive that word of mouth, which has always been Kitson‘s best marketing tool, is always going to send new audience members flocking his way.


Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore writes about theater for The Village Voice, The Stage, American Theatre magazine, TDF Stages, and Flavorpill. She was a co-host and co-producer of the Maxamoo theater podcast. She blogs at Mildly Bitter's Musings.



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