“Sometimes when you look at things that are really bleak and dark,” Jen Malarkey says, “they can become absurd. It’s like it gets so dark that it becomes light again.” The director neatly captures the tragi-camp, gritty wrongness that is I Heart Catherine Pistachio – a snort-out-loud funny, genuinely harrowing contemporary dance two-hander about child abuse, which memorably led blogger Megan Vaughan to brand Malarkey’s company Encounter “brilliant sick fucks”.
“I wanted to look at someone’s life that unravels, gets worse and worse and doesn’t get better,” Malarkey explains, “I don’t like redemption or happy endings.” After she put this to writer Lee Mattinson, and invited him into a room where she “set up choreographic structures” with dancers and actors and asked him to respond, Catherine Pistachio was born. Identically dressed in long wigs, pastel dresses and ballet shoes, Carl Harrison andNick Blakely gawkily leap and lunge about the stage as they slip in and out of playing Catherine and her sadistic swinger parents. A twisted coming of age tale in Northern working class suburbia, Catherine Pistachio charts one girl’s miserable existence, from the forbidden joy at spreading salad cream onher crotch for her dog to lick off – we’ve all been there – to the horror of her pony meeting a piñata-like end.
But Mattinson writes such affectionate, idiosyncratic characters that his audience end up oddly forgiving and complicit in Linda and Lionel’s abuse. The pair natter at each other like two Alan Bennett Talking Heads on acid, somehow benignly loveable even as their atrocities stack up: “it’s like, well of course you’d string up a horse from a tree and beat it to death,” I find myself enthusing across the cafe table at Malarkey, when we meet for a coffee in London. “Right! Of course you’d abuse your child like that.” I’m glad we’ve chosen to sit outside, so there’s no one around to hear us.
So is that absurdity, that darkness at the extremes of human behaviour, where dance comes in? “It’s in my background to be physical,” reflects Malarkey, who trained at the now closed experimental Dartington College of Arts, and then as a movement director at Central, “and I work as a director very instinctively.” Collaborating closely with Mattinson, with whom she’d previously created Choir – “a one man show about the reincarnation of Judy Garland, who gives birth to Judy’s aborted baby live onstage” – Malarkey was interested in formally “mashing things together that don’t necessarily work, and not knowing what the outcome will be.”
The result hasn’t been to everyone’s taste. After an early sharing in the North-East that she thought programmers hadn’t taken to, Malarkey felt “genuinely like – ‘shit.’ You know, ‘I’ve made something really wrong. I’ve done something really bad. They think we’re sex offenders,’” and almost put the project on the shelf, before the Soho Theatre called to offer her a run last April. Since then, Catherine Pistachio has played in London, Berlin and Edinburgh, and is about to set out on a regional tour. Malarkey has seen audiences leave the show “streaming with tears and finding it really emotional, and then other people coming out cackling” – and she’s yet to have a walkout. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Alongside the tour, Malarkey and Mattinson have Wonderland in the pipeline – a show that she thinks of as Catherine Pistachio‘s “older, darker and more complicated sister”, and which she describes as “Grey Gardens meets Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist”. Like its predecessor,Wonderland brings together actors and dancers to explore a fraught mother-daughter relationship – this one set in a former sex commune in Hampstead. The unwanted child of free-loving radical parents, Ruby Tuesday grows up in the debris of her parents’ utopian dreams, in a house long abandoned by its Bacchanalian residents. Malarkey motor-mouths through a synopsis of what is clearly an already pretty fully-formed world, created with her cast and Mattinson: neglected by her mother, Ruby Tuesday invites a stranger in to host “a posh sex party, like you’d see in a Channel 4 programme,” and, documented by a voyeuristic filmmaker, the revellers’ desires come spilling out. Some of the more visceral imagery from the show’s research and development clips spring to mind – “yeah, so there’s the sticking vegetables up the fanny and them rotting,” Malarkey cuts in without batting an eyelid, “and someone with a fantasy about crushing insects and small animals under their feet, then someone who gets off on large-scale natural disasters, like the death toll from earthquakes and terrorism … ”
Wonderland has been partly informed by conversations with a group of people in their sixties about politics and sex – although Malarkey stresses that none of the characters are directly inspired by those community members. What struck her and Mattinson was that the so-called sexual revolution “wasn’t all that wonderful – it’s been romanticised. One guy was really fixed on the idea that it was mostly the privilege of the middle classes, which we’ve picked up on – because implicitly me and Lee are both interested in class; what it meant then and means now.” As with Catherine Pistachio, themes and characters are growing out of a process that combines new writing, improvisation and dance – with Mattinson present in the room and feeding off the performers to rapidly “churn out” text and give it back to them to play with.
“I enjoy a lack of moderation,” Malarkey says of Encounter’s style, “and I lack moderation in some ways.” Her collaboration with Mattinson, Blakely and Harrison, who are joined by performers Patience Tomlinson and Nick Minns in Wonderland, has been inspired by the belief that if you push disparate styles and elements together “hard enough, then something might come out of it. And I think right now we’re only at the beginning of that journey.”
I Heart Catherine Pistachio is at the Axis Art Centre, Crewe, on 15th October 2015