Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The image of the owl in a tree has been dancing around my head for a week now after seeing this show. When is an owl not just an owl? When it's part of a meta-theatrical extravaganza hosted by Daniel Kitson and it possibly represents the illusive nature of truth...or it's just a literal fucking owl (or a paper bag). It's safe to say this play presents more questions than answers. This is a work that seems to be dividing audiences between those that found it a waste of the audience's time versus those that have found it astonishingly virtuoso. (See additional reviews here).
For me it was a pleasurable but dizzying wander into the "usual" Kitson verbal gymnastics and razor-sharp humor but also an unexpected exploration of how you get there from here--an artistic rendering of process, audience, creativity, truth, fiction, and love. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s discovery of this piece. So you might to stop reading if you don't want to know too much about the play.
Imagine you're watching a film. The camera is pushed in too closely on
the out of focus image and you cannot see exactly what you are looking at. You
think you know what you are looking at. The filmmaker is showing
you small pieces of information and you're putting
together in your mind the larger picture of what you think you see. Slowly the camera pulls back, then more rapidly, and
nothing is as it seemed. Everything you thought you saw was misfiled,
misinterpreted, misunderstood. Your mind is reeling. You
see that all the pieces of information you were taking in would never have
added up to the image you were thinking of. The filmmaker was telling
you that all along. Or was he. This is what As of 1.52pm will make you feel. Imperceptibly the oxygen has slowly been sucked out of the room and in the end you might be gasping for breath.
As of 1.52pm is Daniel Kitson the storytelling artist deconstructing Daniel Kitson
"the legend" in rebellion to his audience, expectations, and
assumptions. Wholly self-aware of his reputation as a critically
acclaimed theater artist, of his audience's rapturous adulation of his
delicate stories of unexamined lives, of the pretentious idea of theater turned in
on itself, and the wankiness of making a show about his own creative
process, he proceeds anyway to make a show about all of those things. I have said it before: Daniel Kitson has very large testicles indeed.
In Kitson’s hands such a melange of meta-wanking
makes for a giddy and unnerving whirlwind. Focused on an
artist sloughing off an identity he has outgrown or wishes to leave
behind, the play's most successful aspect is a subtextual engagement
between storyteller and audience.
As of 1.52pm is structured around four overlapping stories:
Story One: A Man played by Daniel Kitson is reading from a script. He says it’s a work of collaboration between himself and his friend Jennifer Stott. It was only finished August 5th so that they were unable to stage it properly. But it was to have a cast of six (someone on twitter made the Pirandello reference to which I bow down to you), rotating stages and they were going to make it rain on stage. But because they delivered it so late, they did not have time to build the sets or audition actors, so he’s just going to read the play to you. But no worries, you'll get what you paid for.
Story Two: The Man reads the script of the play in which he describes scenes of Daniel Kitson (which would have been played by Daniel Kitson) struggling to write a new show and talking about it on the phone with a friend.
Story Three: The Man reads the script which also contains the story of Dan, “a fictionalized version” of Daniel Kitson to be “played by an actor,” and his co-creator of the show Jen (“She's American. No big deal.”),* who are dating and through their dates end up collaborating on the show. What show? The same show you are watching now.
Story Four: The story everyone is trying to write is about an old man in the hospital named Maximillian Cathcart and
his nurse Cornelia. Max starts to tell Connie the story of his life and his unique way of living.
At times Daniel is talking about scenes of Dan and Jen, Max and Connie. Other times Dan and Jen are talking about scenes of Daniel and Max and Connie. All the while, the Man sitting in front of you reading from a script is reading the names and the stage directions and it’s shifting between these three other plot lines. Occasionally the Man breaks from the script to give an aside, an explanation, or to comment on the proceedings. Sometimes he stops to censure audience members for talking through the show, or to give Boggle tips or to encourage you to expand your culinary exploits.
Some have suggested that the play is just an attempt to emulate other
works such as Inception, Adaptation, or The Truman Show. But what sets
this apart from cinema is that Kitson doesn't have the luxury of a
camera to explicate the layers, the worlds, the revelations of his
play. All he has are his words and it's a far more challenging project
to take on when you don't have a green screen and visual effects artists
on call. But his reputation is well-earned as he is a phenomenal
storyteller. Kitson's words go further than most.
One of the strongest elements of Kitson’s show The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church was that Kitson himself was a character in it. Here we get several variations of that character (the cantankerous, the loveable, the “dickhead”) and he’s compelling, funny and engaging. Daniel Kitson, as the Man, is very good at keeping the voices straight, the conversations clear and the trajectory of the story on track.
But what is the story here? It's about the act of storytelling, it's about story audiences and what they want, need, and do with the narrative given to them, it's about Daniel Kitson's audience to his stories, it's about a man paralyzed by his principles and struggling with the challenges of living out his principled life in way he cannot change. And it is funny. Very funny.
There is true joy in the Dan and Jen sequences. It’s a delightful journey of a couple falling in love. The mere presence in one another’s life gives way to new ideas and the birth of this project. The character of Jen becomes the voice that challenges Dan, pushes him and yet supports him.** It is through Dan that we hear the skepticism over the project. He presents every argument against the piece and delineates the various ways in which it can be attacked by critics (preemptively taking the sting out of any actual criticism received on these grounds perhaps). Kitson’s self-awareness is a constant presence in the work. He’s first to make fun of himself before anyone else can do it and he’s far better at it than lay people.
Meanwhile, the Daniel scenes involve conversations with a friend over the phone where he gives context to Dan and Jen’s relationship and to his own creative process on this play. He is also presented as a bumbling Chaplin-esque figure involved in physical mishaps (the creative genius literally falling on his face or with every risk there is a chance of falling). He's convinced he's seen an owl but his friend does not believe him. Jen calls Daniel an “idiot.” Dan chides her, “Hey now. He is based on me,” he says. It is in this segment of the play within a play Kitson buries one of the most emotionally striking lines of the show. Some critics have argued the show is missing a heart and though it is definitely not like his prior works this piece of the story grabbed my heart.
The Max/Connie story in some ways feels like a MacGuffin. I found the telling of it to be less interesting than the themes it espouses.
I haven’t seen any UK critics connect this play with the Mike Daisey affair but I could not help but think about it (interestingly enough someone is staging Daisey's The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Fringe this year). One of the things that made this play stand out for me was the focus on the delicate balance of truth and fiction in storytelling. Kitson's characters expressly address it and certainly you have to wonder about it when you are confronted with the Man, Daniel and Dan and whether they bear a distant or close resemblance to the "real" Daniel Kitson. If L'Affair du Daisey taught us anything it's that the contract with the audience is precious and fragile. It tears easily if you jerk people around too much. For some, Kitson may have pushed too far with this contract, for others it may be jarring but enlightening nevertheless.
Kitson explores the dialogue between the artist and his work and the work and the audience. Through the character of Dan he vociferously argues that he will not
just keep being the celebratory voice of the unexamined lives of
ordinary people just because audiences want that (similarly he said in
his stand-up show, doing anything by public opinion is the exactly wrong
way to go about things as the public is “a cunt. Collectively.
Individually, the public are dicks.”) To make his point, he quite
literally wipes his last show, It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later
from Daniel’s chalkboard in this play. He then, through the voice of
Dan, proceeds to mock his critical acclaim, the frustrating tendency for
all his works to be about loneliness, and profess he’s tired of his
shows being all about him where he espouses his opinions and view of the
world through young women, old men and talking dogs. Admitting the last
one was just there for making his point.
It takes a certain kind of confidence in your own voice to demand your current audience (which might be there based on your prior works) to listen to a character attack the prior works to make room for new ones. For me, there was definitely a moment of sadness letting go of them perhaps before I was ready to. But Kitson, or one of his alter egos at least, does not appear to be on the fence about this.
Having now seen his new stand-up work Where Once Was Wonder, I am convinced that these two pieces work as companions (if you can see both I think starting with the stand-up would prime you more for the play). They are completely different styles but together they act as a primal Kitson scream of don't fence me in. An unfenced Kitson is a danger-dog indeed.
This play feels like a major transition point for Kitson with its ambitious structure, meta design and new subject matter. However, if he’s the unreliable narrator*** he tells us he is, then maybe this is all just a bit of fun. This is nothing more than just an artist stretching some muscles, playing around with a concept, and being a mischievous imp. If so, what a lark it is.
Either way I found myself enjoying the uncertainty, the choices he made with the play, and exploring the intimate, emotional space between storyteller and audience. Days later the words, characters, images and structure are still lolling about in my head, making me think, wonder, dream, and smile.
* As always I must note that the quotes are my best approximation. Lights were up on the audience for the show and I was not going to take out my notepad and incur the wrath of the artist.
**I will say I was delighted that the voice challenging and pushing "Dan" throughout the show was an opinionated American woman who affectionately calls him "dickhead"…a lot.
***I followed this play with Oh the Humanity and Other Good Intentions at the Northern Stage at St. Stephens. It is a collection of Will Eno plays where each narrator seemed even more unreliable than the next. There's just something about Will Eno and Daniel Kitson that go hand in hand. Highly recommended.