In 21cc’s show The Ballad of the Apathetic Son and his Narcissistic Mother, a real-life mother and her teenage son sit side by side and disclose how they really feel about each other. Over the course of an hour they swap clothes and attempt to see the world through the other’s eyes. Initially dressed in identical leotards and blonde wigs like Sia, Lucy Gaizely and her 14-year-old son Raedie Gaizely-Gardiner dissect their relationship through a shared passion for the Australian singer. He thinks that if Sia was his mum she wouldn’t keep asking him to do things. She thinks that if her son was Maddie Ziegler she’d never need to ask because the things would already have been done.
In a wordless scene in El Conde de Torrefiel’s Guerrilla, we find ourselves watching a tai chi class. The movements are simple and soothing, but the words projected above speak of war and conflict. The longer it goes on the less relaxing it becomes: the tension builds until it feels as if we are waiting for a bomb to go off. In #Negrophobia, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko considers the way black masculinity is viewed and sometimes feared, in a performance that offers us several kinds of double vision. We see it unfolding live on stage and also through the projected lens of a smartphone wielded by Imma, the performance artist and drag queen who offers a different image of black sexuality. When the camera catches the (largely white) audience in its eye, it watches us watching.
What is said and what is meant, and how something appears compared with what is really going on, are the currency of theatre and performance. These ideas were evident during the opening weekend of Take Me Somewhere, Glasgow’s new celebration of contemporary performance, which continues in the city until 11 March. If it gets the necessary funding it could, and should, become an annual event.
Nothing quite fills the vacuum left by the closure of the Arches in 2015. But this festival, led by Jackie Wylie (who next month takes up the reins as new artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland) offers a re-energising moment of reflection on the significant impact that international work has had in Glasgow since it was European capital of culture in 1990. Perhaps more than any other UK city, Glasgow has always embraced the international scene, understanding the importance of the exchange that goes on when theatre-makers from around the world see each other’s work.
The Glasgow Review of International Performance (Grip), published by Live Art UK to accompany the festival, demonstrates the effect that seeing something strange and new can have on theatre-makers. John Tiffany talks about falling in love with Robert Lepage’s Tectonic Plates at Tramway in 1990 and knowing that he wanted to spend his life trying to create that kind of theatrical magic. There’s David Leddy talking about his encounter with Annie Sprinkle at the City’s Centre for Contemporary Arts in 1994. And there’s Jo Clifford writing about how she finds Peter Brook’s Mahabharata very dull, but is inspired by the Tramway space to write bigger, more epic plays with a global perspective. Perhaps some of the many shows at Take Me Somewhere will let new performance-makers see the world differently.
Maybe they will take inspiration from the strange, hallucinatory tone and rage and pain of #Negrophobia, a piece inspired by the death of Kosoko’s brother and which draws on texts from Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, and uses music from Nina Simone and Rihanna. The stage bobs with black balloons like a party gone bad and images of a man being beaten by the police play on the walls as Kosoko uses poetry, performance and ritual to unshackle himself from the past and attempt to imagine a different future. We catch Kosoko in the act of change, but the question is whether we can change, too.
Or will we simply dance towards oblivion? That appears to be what is happening in Guerrilla, a darkly humorous satire set in the near future. The world is in an increasing state of rising chaos fuelled by terrorist incidents in Europe, geopolitical tensions and instability and the discovery by Chinese geologists that the Earth is hollow. But in this age of anxiety, the people – played in each of the three wordless scenes by local volunteers whose biographical details are incorporated into the unfolding scenario – carry on as normal. They attend lectures, go to tai chi classes or dance at a rave.
It’s cleverly staged, but Guerrilla resists emotional connection, operating within the realm of philosophical pessimism as it turns the participants into puppets dancing to its own tune. What may once have seemed absurd and improbable in the piece now is less funny and more urgent in the age of Trump.
The Ballad of the Apathetic Son and his Narcissistic Mother is a more personal, but no less political show. A brave one, too. “My son lacks empathy,” remarks Gaizely, then reminds us that her 14-year-old self did, too. Self-absorption is part of growing up; learning to let go of the child you have brought into the world is part of being a mother. In Ballad, we see this happening on stage as if, in the act of performing, mother and son are reframing the past and forging a future. It is painful and funny to watch but full of tentative, graceful optimism.
• Take Me Somewhere is on at various Glasgow venues, until 11 March.
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