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Illusion of clarity

Thursday 20th March 2014

As part of a project on reviewing and arts criticism, The Wireless is featuring reviews of the shows of the New Zealand Festival. Uther Dean reviews Bullet Catch and My Stories Your Emails.

There is a lot more in common between Bullet Catch and My Stories Your Emails than you’d first think. There are the obvious, superficial similarities: they share the same venue; they are both solo performances; they’re both in the festival; they both make very clear promises as to their content in their titles. But the connections and comparisons go further than that.

Both shows had modest beginnings, with short initial runs in small co-op theatres; comparable to Wellington’s BATS or Auckland’s the Basement. They've been developed into the touring international works they are today, rather than simply having a big pile of money (and its associated pile of expectations) thrown at them, as is usually the way with the international festival circuit. As such, they’ve grown into their scale naturally, rather than desperately aspiring for it. Which makes it so interesting; while one is (to this critic) an unalloyed artistic success, the other is confused as to what it wants to do and how it can achieve it – even with all the perspective that time should have brought.

Rob Drummond  in Bullet Catch
Rob Drummond neither aspires to be nor presents himself as a magician in Bullet Catch – but that doesn’t mean it’s not without magic, writes Uther Dean.

New Zealand Festival

As with all good magic tricks, what was really going on remained hidden

In a festival where there were – at least in the cross-section I saw – as many misses as there were hits, Rob Drummond's Bullet Catch stood out as a shining example of what the live arts can do. Presented as a traditional magic show, it took the clear expectations of that form and twisted them into a palatte of dramatic tools that told a deep, dense and ultimately touching story. As with all good magic tricks, what was really going on remained hidden; Drummond weaved a work before your eyes that went way beyond the surface without you having really realised it.

Billed as a solo show, Bullet Catch is really a two-person play, with the second performer being an audience member who joins him onstage for the majority of the running length. They become much more than his glamourous assistant; giving as instrumental a performance as Drummond, and as such, the following hour takes place not despite the audience interaction (as so many shows that deign to include audience members do) but because of it. Even the process for selecting his volunteer for the evening becomes narrative, doubling as a way of introducing characters and plot.

The bulk of the show alternates between standard illusions and the volunteer’s reading aloud extracts from the diaries and letters of the aforementioned magician. Drummond plays cat-and-mouse with reality and truth and belief and disbelief. In one sequence, he reveals the mechanism by which a certain trick works but not before going to lengths to tell us that it is disappointing and that we shouldn’t look. Some audience members shut their eyes to not see, and once he’s demonstrated the mechanism of the trick, in a way that totally keeps it magical, he thanks them “for not looking”. And then to the rest of us: “Thank you for looking.”

Drummond ties the whole work to the dichotomy of knowing and not knowing. He spends so much running time revealing the artifice of what he is doing, the true magic of the show only becomes apparent at its climax, with the titular catching of a bullet – when you realise how tense and terrifying this is.

You know it’s not a real bullet in that gun. You know it’s just a trick; he’s spent an hour telling you so. Yet, the audience is still so terrified that when he asks them if they’d like to leave, some do. This is a testament to Drummond’s immaculate showmanship. He then follows that climax with one final, perfectly chosen diary extract that throws a whole new light on all the previous events; in one moment crystallising and revealing the whole show.

Bullet Catch worked so completely because of the totality of its vision. Every part of it was working on several levels towards a single goal and every moment of breathless delight and pathos lead towards those dual moments of revelation at the end. Boy, did this show make a statement.

“I won’t be getting my minge out,” she says, which would have been more effective had there not been a sign on the way in warning that the show contains nudity

On the surface, Ursula Martinez’s My Stories, Your Emails has just the same clarity as Bullet Catch. She starts by chatting to the audience about what they’re about to see. First she will tell us some stories from her life. Then she will read some of the emails she received after her video of a burlesque routine called ‘Hanky Panky’ was put online. She shows us the video of the routine, which largely concerns the disappearance and reappearance of a handkerchief; as she does this more and more of her clothes are removed to the point where it appears she is naked.

She also manufactures the audience demand for nudity in the show. “I won’t be getting my minge out,” she says, before driving an audience member to ask her to, she then acquiesces. This would have been more effective had there not been a sign on the way in warning that the show contains nudity. Her faux-reticence is so transparent that the whole contract with the audience is thrown into question.

The tension of the show should be apparent: the realities of her life as a complex, complete human being rubbing up against the idolised person, which the emails are addressed to. This is an interesting and dynamic conversation to have. The stories she tells of her own life range from funny anecdotes (how her sister once tricked her into eating cat shit) to heart-breaking details from a mixed-up home life (the story of her mother going into the kitchen for a cup of tea only to smash everything in there is particularly affecting). They present her as a complex human being, with as varied and contradictory an inner life as any of us.

But how they are presented works against this: she stands at a podium, reading them into a microphone. This segment resembled a lecture at uni, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, it works directly against the show’s intent. The podium, the microphone, the fact that she has not learnt the stories all act as barriers between us and her. We don’t feel let in, and it becomes harder than it should be to connect the stories with the woman reading them.

The true, ugly agression of the internet doesn’t feature, isn’t even really implied, in any way

The emails she shares, if I’m honest, are much less horrific than you’d think. She paints a portrait of an ocean of lonely men seeking companionship – yeah, mostly sexual companionship. But the true, ugly aggression of the internet doesn’t feature, isn’t even really implied, in any way. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that she sought the permission (and a photo) of every sender for their email to be included in the show, and that process becomes a large part of the narrative. I was really hard-pressed to find out why that is when the stories stood without a narrative arc – why do the emails need one? That these are also read at a (different) podium makes more sense than it does read with the stories, but still creates a barrier between her and her audience – such a personal work performed down or away from us makes it hard to connect with her.

It also makes it deeply un-theatrical. Is there a less cruel way to point out that very little work seems to have gone into it? That it feels like something thrown together in a day? As we were leaving the Hannah Playhouse, my friend and I discovered that we’d both independently reached the conclusion that it was “just not really a show”. That’s not to say that what Martinez is doing isn't commendable or interesting or vital, it’s clear that she knows what she wants the show to do. It is just puzzling that she’s chosen this way to do it.

At the show’s end, Martinez follows through on her promise of nudity, but strips everything off and dumps it on the floor with a heavily implied “Is this what you want? Are you not entertained?” The intended statement is clear: she’s given us everything. But the thing is, she hasn’t. It feels like the climax to a different show – a more interesting and dynamic show. In reality, it feels like another empty statement – especially since we knew it was going to happen anyway, whether or not we in the audience wanted it to. Martinez's show wants so much to say something, but just isn’t saying it in the right way.

Bullet Catch and My Stories, Your Emails are both shows with strong visions. The difference between the full-blast success of one and the damp-squib disappointment of the other is due to how well-crafted each vision is. Every aspect of Bullet Catch had been thought out, sculpted, considered. My Stories felt much more thrown together and there’s nothing wrong with that aesthetic, except when it is working against the key point you’re trying to communicate. If it’s simply because Bullet Catch has had more time in which to develop, maybe time will bring that clarity to My Stories. We can only hope so – because, at their core, they are both interesting works expressing incredibly important things that deserved to be expressed with clarity, not confusion.

Cover image courtesy of the New Zealand Festival.

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