I am old enough to remember when the tunnels off Leake Street were better known for raves than fringe theatre festivals. The opening tableau of performance collective All Good Artists Are Dead’s JOY recalls that time – you can almost smell the sweat, spilled beer and other, probably-best-not-to-think-about-it fluids dripping from the venue walls.
From behind her decks, Andrea Giordani fist pumps and undulates her body to the rhythms she creates from magical metal boxes. It’s noise that comes in pounding beats and waves, music that I wasn’t cool enough to discuss in any meaningful way in 2003, and certainly aren’t now. Dina Gordon looks cool enough, though, poised barefoot on a bar stool, watching the audience with the detached indifference I tried to foster throughout said early-noughties underground parties, before I just gave up and accepted that I like a wine list and being home by 1am.
This opening sets the tone for JOY, a production that brings back the screaming bums of last year’s critic- lampooning Wild Bore (I suspect a Hannibal Lecter voice haunts most reviewers: “You wake up in the dark don’t you Clarice? You awake to the screaming of the bums”). The central motif of that production rears its head as I try to write about Joy: there are shows that you just don’t like or understand, but you should avoid ever denying the makers the agency of having made. I don’t doubt that creatives Dina Gordon and Ella Gamble know exactly what they are doing, that the alienation of the audience is entirely purposeful and our uncomfortableness and occasional uneasy giggle carefully orchestrated, but like the music, it flies over my head.
Gordon addresses her fractured narrative to a faceless blow-up doll, who might be the man her post-coitus chat is directed to, or might be a prop from the S&M party’s aftermath. She reveals snippets of past lives, sings Aretha Franklin (sometimes well, sometimes not), falls to her knees in Catholic genuflexions so violent that the slappings of her making the sign of the cross reverberate across the space. Her energy is not infectious – she’s contained within some world I can’t access. Interviews and profiles given by the company point to JOY’s many inspirations: the aftermath of sex, the archaic recollections of a zeitgeist, the African Diaspora, Strindberg’s Miss Julie and the works of Soviet surrealist Daniil Kharms. Maybe the pallet is muddled by too many strong shades, or maybe I am just colour blind and can’t grasp the subtlety.
In the end, I gave up attempting to grasp any sense of meaning and tried to just go with the flow of images and words. Instances of clarity bubble to the surface as polished spoken word poetry. Gordon questions ‘John’ about her love rival: “Is she hungry, yet sexy, just 23, bare feet? She wants to move her hips, she hasn’t before but she wants too. But just tell me this, did she wear a banana skirt?” In these moments, Gordon’s vulnerability opens her, dangles the possibility of connection, but it always remains slippery, just beyond my grasp.
There’s a moment that anyone who has ever been to a rave or warehouse party will recognise: when you are sat around a hazardous fire-pit, or sunk into the cushions of some ‘chill’ area, and someone starts telling you a story. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to you because you’re fucked or because their fucked, and you can barely hear each other anyway over the music. But you know that it’s important to them. It might be the drugs talking, but isn’t that one of the reasons people take drugs? So, they can say all these things to strangers? So, you try and listen. You don’t get it, but you listen.
Joy was at VAULT Festival until February 11th. For more details, click here.