How did that happen? It’s a bit of a milestone today as I reach day 365 of my consecutive viewing and reviewing adventure. Just one more show to complete the year but before I get to that, time for something rather different. Those of you who have been following this strange obsession will know that my original idea was to cover off #30playsin30days during April 2020 and then things developed…. Uncannily echoing my chosen title for that initial mad notion is a group called Chronic Insanity from Nottingham who are three months into a commitment to produce 12 Plays In 12 Months; with a title like that how could I resist taking a look?
Chronic Insanity is a term taken from Sarah Kane’s posthumously produced play 4.48 Psychosis (“Embrace beautiful lies – the chronic insanity of the sane”) and it’s clear that, like the late playwright, the group do not take an easy route to market. Rather, they push at the boundaries of what it means to make a play using new technology to create stimulating material which challenges their online audience as part of what has come to be known as gig theatre. If you’re new to the group you might find an easier way in is the piece created for the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine strand called Hairy Hands FM which has also been made available recently and which, I think, is a piece in addition to the 12 Plays project…. You might almost think that company founders Nat Henderson and Joe Strickland didn’t already have enough to do.
January’s play is called Means of Production by the aforementioned Strickland and Rebecca Saw which, on the face of it, is a straightforward tale about workplace bullying. It’s set in a modern (futuristic?) high tech company where the workers are dressed in what seem to be biological hazard suits as they carry out their boringly mundane tasks. Their bickering is clearly born out of tedium but soon starts to develop a sinister edge – especially when one of their number doesn’t return from a toilet break. It paints a bleak picture of life in such a factory and comes across as footage from a security tape – the fact that each individual is being filmed as they carry out their tasks is sinister enough as it is. Eventually Camera 7, as he is known, is left making a direct address to the screen about the inequities of the system but it’s not long before the consequences of doing this become manifest. The last moments of the play are firmly left to the audience’s imagination.
There’s an immersive framing device used in that the viewer is set up as someone reviewing the tape in order to file a report about what has gone on which instantly suggests our complicity with the practices of such companies. This starts to make the watcher uncomfortable as well it might. The cast of four Helena Rimmer, Kate Spencer, Joe Matty and Harry Smith provide an engaging 20 minutes which is ample time to get the message across and the visuals are cleverly done and make good use of the now ubiquitous boxed format of many online plays. I must admit I chickened out and watched the straightforward account of the play on You Tube but if you’re feeling bolder than me there is a second version which can be simultaneously experienced on four different device screens (presumably one character per screen) which you can place around you to put you right in the centre of the action.
Bold is certainly the right word for the group’s February release 24, 23, 22 by Douglas Deans. You do need two devices for this one and the piece has to be started simultaneously on both in order for the experience to synchronise – don’t be concerned the instructions make it straightforward. There’s another intriguing twist to up the complexity levels even before the play begins. The viewer makes a choice of actors to play the roles – not being familiar with any of the performers, I chose at complete random – and that throws up the possibility of revisiting the piece and mixing and matching new versions. As the play is partly about subjective viewpoint, this makes complete sense but, of course, would require a great deal of time and investment.
The story line adds yet another dimension of intricacy. The two featured characters are not connected in any way apart from one moment which acts as a pivot to the construction. Fran (Helena Rimmer in my choice) is stuck in a routine job – her day progresses chronologically. Meanwhile Brandon (Joe Strickland) is first encountered bleeding on a pavement and his story unfolds in reverse. While this is at first very confusing the point where they meet – exactly in the middle – suddenly makes sense of what has gone before and what is still to come. It’s a clever device which from that moment had me hooked.
Not that the piece is perfect. Apart from the central brief extract of dialogue the rest of the fifty minutes is stream of consciousness dialogues which are not even spoken but played out as voice overs. This means the actors have to go in for quite a bit of face pulling to demonstrate the emotions at play and after a time this begins to pall. There’s also the issue of what goes onto the screen that isn’t “live” at any point. I quite liked the slowly scrolling pictures for Brandon but Fran’s Instagram like posts just seemed to be a way of filling the time. And I had to do quite a bit of jiggling to get things to marry up on the two screens (internet gremlins) but once that had been achieved it all seemed to flow well. Just one more thought; can somebody please explain the title or is it meant to be deliberately mystifying?
There is no doubt that Chronic Insanity is tapping into some unexplored avenues of potential for online theatre, and I look forward to following their development over the coming months. My original intention had been to also watch and review their just released March play Flavour Text but after the intense concentration required for 24, 23, 22 I thought better of it and will revisit this when my brain has recovered. After all, there’s only so much innovation a body can take.
12 Plays In 12 Months: Means Of Production/ 24, 23, 22 are available from the Chronic Insanity website – click here
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