A tough act to follow

skagenI’m on the e-mailing list for various London venues, and sometimes I book on a whim for something that just catches my eye. Last night’s double-bill of Big Mouth and Small War at the Barbican’s Pit was just such an occasion. I have been involved in writing and producing one-woman shows for myself and I am especially interested in experiencing how other artists use this intimate format.

If one person is to keep the attention of the audience for an evening, the performance and the content need to be pretty interesting. Technology (and budget) can make a huge difference: video duplication of the single performer in Small War gave us four ‘extra’ actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way – in Big Mouth, the sheer virtuosity of the performer’s delivery persuades the audience that they are in the company of many individuals. Simple live-looping of text and song (see also Complicite’s The Encounter) is a pleasing way to share the ‘technique’ of the show with the audience and create the impression of a crowd.

For me, thinking about what I could programme with my own Vivienne, the challenge of a double-bill is to ensure that the two halves complement and balance each other. This isn’t an issue with two parts of the same piece but two separate works inevitably invite comparison. The first half last night (Big Mouth) was also the first piece to be made and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012 [review]. It is a tour-de-force for Valentijn Dhaenens who, at the end of it, might reasonably not fancy doing any more work for the day. However, at some point a pendant work, Small War, was made for him, addressing more directly the issues of war and human damage implicit in Big Mouth.

Both works make use of found texts, and this is where the imbalance lay for me. Big Mouth is an ingenious weaving-together of bits of public speech, often made famous or notorious because of who spoke them. Consequently the oratory is knowingly crafted – the speaker is always addressing an audience. Small War mines private testimonies, which turns out to be less interesting, because the content and delivery are inevitably more introvert. For me, the most interesting text came from a serviceman articulating the energy and thrill of killing someone in the line of duty, but it wasn’t enough to keep my interest in the way Big Mouth had gripped me. Having started the evening with an amazing show, the follow-up piece couldn’t really compete, despite everyone’s best efforts.

Arguably, shorter-length evenings are becoming common and a strong show lasting just over an hour doesn’t seem to leave audiences feeling short-changed. However anything less than an hour is unlikely to work for financial reasons – you can’t charge a high enough ticket price to cover your overheads unless you have a decent-length programme. So, while last night’s programme was a useful confirmation of my view that Vivienne needs a partner, it didn’t help me to decide who or what that might be.

The answer will come at some point – it always does. In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying other peoples’ solo shows until I have sorted out my own.