Saturday, August 13, 2016

Callisto: A Queer Epic (The Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Fringe)

There's one scene in Callisto: A Queer Epic which works so well, and is so funny and enjoyable to watch, that it makes the bits that don't work stick out more. Three actors are filming a porno about a straight couple who engage their wannabe nanny to try and spice up their sex life. But while the female actors are ready and willing to go, the male actor is more interested in contextualising the film's spurious narrative, wondering if the couple's imaginary children are safely tucked up in bed so they won't accidentally happen across this scene of carnality in the living room.

The children are not real, but in the actor's head, he needs to know it all makes sense. It makes for genuinely funny material, and it's written and performed so beautifully that it casts something of a shadow over the rest of the "epic".

Callisto (be it a film studio, a nymph of Artemis or Jupiter's moon) is the running theme in this quartet of stories by young writer Howard Coase, who has taken inspiration (intentionally or not) from David Mitchell's bestselling novel Cloud Atlas, which tells a series of stories across time and space, and weaves them together. It's the 21st century version of the anthology.

Coase's tales do not really interconnect as Mitchell's do, however. They play out separately but are performed in parallel, the actors skipping from story to story, costume to costume, wig to wig, and back again, but never really joining any dots.

There's a visit to 17th century London and a muddled retelling of the true story of Arabella Hunt, who married what she thought was a man, only to discover he was actually a woman. Their marriage was annulled, as two women couldn't possibly be married (well, not in 1675 anyway), and the case became the first recorded instance of a lesbian marriage. Coase has obviously done his homework, but the story is told through the prism of 21st century gender fluidity, and while it has some interesting points to make, it lacks a certain clarity.

Then there's the story of Alan Turing in 1939, who converses in a series of tense and verbose exchanges with the mother of what was perhaps his "first love", Christopher Morcom. However, Morcom is dead (he contracted bovine TB from cow's milk) and the quietly grieving Turing is confronted by Morcom's mother, who has turned to Catholicism to try and make sense of her loss. The mathematically minded Turing does not believe in God, and Isobel Morcom struggles to accept what she suspects Turing is (and her son was). There's an awful lot of prolix dialogue (prolix being one of the words employed) but, aside from some barbed humour from the pretentious Isobel, no real characterful depth until the duo's final confrontation over the real nub of the matter: love and sexuality. But by this point, far too many dictionaries have been swallowed and the moment is lost.

Porno in rehearsal... Emma
D'Arcy, James Watterson
and Georgia Bruce
On the West coast of the United States some time in the 1970s, Tammy becomes a performer at a seedy porn studio. This tale is the strongest of the four by far, with broader but better drawn characters full of heartache and bluster. There's sex and violence, death by golf club (has Coase been watching Russell T Davies's Cucumber perchance?), and a subtle mention of milk (both soya and cow) which is one of very few batons connecting the stories.

And then there's a story set on the moon in the 23rd century, when Mankind has evolved/ regressed into a bland, sterile, soulless species that attempts to describe feelings as colours, and when language has become a reduced patois reminiscent of Anthony Burgess's Nadsat or George Orwell's Newspeak. It's difficult for the audience to latch onto, and so trickier for them to care about the characters and their world. There's obviously some kind of unrequited love at work, and something about artificial intelligence, and numerous viewings of The Wizard of Oz, but it's sadly mangled and obscured by dense dialogue and under-cooked characters.

Performances are fine all round, with particular mentions for Dominic Applewhite (his blustering film director is great value) and James Watterson (as the aforementioned porn actor in search of motivation), while Phoebe Hames's dinner-party prig Isobel is a particular delight.

There's a lot of potential in Callisto. There are some interesting ideas, vignettes which work well, but more that don't. The good sketches need expansion, and the weaker ones should be weeded out or given more thought. The fact the tales are told in a mixing bowl of narratives is not rewarded by a final, combining moment. They are simply four tales with Callisto as their theme, and while they address issues of gender identity, same-sex love and the changing attitude toward sexuality, the piece as a whole is by no means epic.

Forward Arena aims to make theatre which is "culturally and politically awake", which is an "impressive and stimulating feast of liveness", and their success in that is undeniable. The energy is sometimes overzealous, but it's certainly "live" and "awake". It just needs a little more focus too.

The stats
Writer: Howard Coase
Director: Thomas Bailey
Cast: Georgia Bruce (Amy Poulter, and others); Grainne O'Mahoney (Arabella Hunt, and others); James Watterson (Alan Turing, and others); Phoebe Hames (Isobel Morcom, and others); Emma D'Arcy (Tammy Frazer, and others); Mary Higgins (Lola, and others); Nicholas Finerty (Cal, and others); Dominic Applewhite (Lorn, and others)
Performed at Jack Dome, The Pleasance, Edinburgh, August 3rd to 29th (not 15th), 2016. Performance reviewed: August 12th 2016

Forward Arena website (retrieved Aug 12 2016)
Callisto trailer (retrieved Aug 12 2016)

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