History

Joan // Milk Presents

Joan filters historical qualities of gender through a fourteenth century legend and a classic cabaret vibe. It’s centred around an almost music-hall central figure in the person of champion drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson, who takes on roles and costumes to reframe Joan of Arc through intimate connection and historical reflection. It says valuable things about ideas of gender and society’s relationship to the changing dynamics of its representation - Joan of Arc not just as a legend or symbol, but a real woman who put on armour at a time it was unheard of. Joan with short hair. Joan as a canvas for drawn-on moustaches and someone whose clothes change their movement. Joan as a peasant girl and as a saint, as a soldier and as a leader. 

Four corner mirrors form a cross in the centre of the performance space, with the audience positioned between them. They look across to each other throughout. It’s delivered in the round to facilitate this easy interaction, alongside the participation required at several key points. Two men are invited up to interact with Joan, teaching her their walk, or standing in for an imagined partner. There’s an implicit questioning of their behaviour in their laughter and conversation. The presence on stage of audience members encourages this examination and perhaps reveals some assumptions about gender that might otherwise never be actively considered. The audience laugh with them in their unsure stance and their self-consciousness as they are asked to perform their maleness. 

As funny as the show is, as good natured and enjoyable, there are also moments of loss and hope stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the easy monologue. Parkinson looks to heaven with the same wide-eyed hope as Renée Falconetti. Another Joan, represented in another form, but one as serious as any other, meditating on loss, identity and the burden of history. 

-    Lewis Church

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Joan - Milk Presents

Joan of Arc - Biography.com

Gender Identity - Young Stonewall

Gender Variance Around the World Over Time - Teen Vogue

Le Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Extract) - Starring Renée Falconetti, directed by Theodor Dreyer (1928)

Eve // Jo Clifford and National Theatre of Scotland

Eve represents one of a number of shows that documents trans experiences at the fringe in 2017, its monologue format flashing back through the life and thoughts of its writer and performer Jo Clifford. Upsettingly familiar narratives emerge over the course of its highly personal narrative. Of gender specialists as the gatekeepers to treatment. Of Inadequate provision for those seeking help, and shame and oppression preventing others from ever revealing who they are or would like to be.

There are multiple levels of history here, from 1950s boarding schools and 1960s adolescence to 1990s lectureships and parenthood. We are told that this is the ninety-first play Clifford has written, and the craft and the weight of this experience leave her personal narrative technically and theatrically precise and poised. The language is honed, every word, to reflect the odd moments that make up a life. The structure of Eve similarly avoids a linear chronology, living in the medium of ‘queer time’ referred to throughout. The space of the theatre, like the space of memory, is separate from the everyday progression through the world.

Whilst the content is deeply personal, Clifford’s biographical tracing gestures to larger debates around trans identities and the dissolution of old binaries and absolutes. As much as Trump, the governor of North Carolina and other forces of regression might try to beat back the tide, through continued work and determined sharing, artists like Clifford, audiences, and especially young people are working to ensure that trans identities continue to be acknowledged. It is a generational privilege and obligation to ensure that oppression lessens. As the old quote goes, from Theordore Parker through Martin Luther King Jr and Obama, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. But it must be bent, for justice and tolerance comes from hard work and determined engagement in a process of change.

- Lewis Church

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

EveJo Clifford

A Look at Trans Shows at the FringeThe List

A Vision for Change: Acceptance Without Exception for Trans People - Stonewall

Trans Mission: How to Tell Trans Stories on Stage and Screen – Fury, for the Guardian

A Comprehensive List of Trans Autobiographies – TG Forum

salt. // Selina Thompson

Watching, watching, watching as Selina Thompson roots herself and starts unfolding her insides. Her’s is a work of exhuming the dead. salt. traces their ghostly forms so that we might honour their meticulous, industrial decimation. In her hands, there are tools; a very big hammer, a pestle, a mic. She is pounding. Pounding salt and pounding her heart. These two masses linked; both formed over time and broken over time. 

The first time Selina used her passport was to undertake a task too great for her, too brutal to hold. But hold it her body does. She is holding the chain linking white colonial patriarchy, along to capitalism and down to her own terror on board a freight ship that is sailing the Atlantic Slave Trade route. Through all this, she pounds salt. The ocean, the bodies of slaves, the flinches of white liberal people confronted by racism, are all ‘swept up and shattered’ as hammer hits rock. And still Selina stands whole.

We are watching courage. The raw type. The courage that catches off guard. The courage that is not a choice but accompanies an imperative calling. A calling that draws Selina - like many who are part of the African diaspora - to find out and grieve both the documented presences and eroded absences of the slave trade. 

Selina tells the racist tale that a racist teacher told her grandmother. It is a story about how black people came to exist: There were two people. One day they were both soiled with dirt. One was hard working and went to wash away their stains in the sea. They became white. The other was lazy and only washed their palms and soles of their feet. They became black.

Of course, dirty stains are not on the bodies of black people but in the waters soiled by the dirt of white hands and minds. White slave traders stained the deceptively clear waters and yet, a black child hears her origin perversely twisted. History mishandles history. 

It is a history that although effortfully uncovered by many, can still be subjected to tidal denials that result in it feeling frustratingly ungraspable. In the UK today, there are only optional modules within the national curriculum where pupils from the african diaspora may learn of their traumas and their belonging. The ongoing impacts of slavery remain unfathomable, they are formless down to the depths of the ocean, right down to the watery, subatomic reckonings with grief.

Later, Selina speaks of something - will, hands, strength, current - bringing her out of this water and back into form. She finds language for the unspeakable. Through salty tears that prickle - having learnt as a teenager that it is not safe to cry about slavery in a majority white space - I see her. 

- Alexandrina Hemsley

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

salt. - Selina Thompson

National Curriculum England - History Programmes of Study 

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (excerpt) by Saidiya Hartman - NPR

In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (excerpt) by Christina Sharpe - Duke Press

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge   

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Black Cultural Archives

Fashionable Medicine: Syphilis, Spas and Melancholy // Sibbald Library Productions

How should art deal with science and medicine? Should it even try? It often does, ‘science plays’ have been around for centuries, and films have covered these topics since their inception. How should those working in science and medicine explain what they do and why it’s important in a non-condescending way?

There are many different initiatives, such as the Pint of Science events that take place in pubs across the UK, which represent new ways of making science accessible. Fashionable Medicine: Syphilis, Spas and Melancholy is more of traditional approach. I listen to the lecture, watch the PowerPoint presentation and take notes. We’re in a venerable old hall that in itself might be off-putting for some, surrounded by portraits of great men (yes, men). Iain Milne and Daisy Cunynghame provide a slick double act; their presentation is funny in places and neither stuffy nor condescending. It is accessible to a far wider audience than has been tempted here. 

The lecture focuses on four aspects of fashionable medicine: theories, cures, diseases and clothes, using the college archives as illustration. They introduce the theory of disease linked to the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm), which probably originated with Hippocrates nearly 2500 years ago, although it was later adapted by others, notably Galen. This nonsense wasn’t seriously challenged until the scientific and medical enlightenment that accelerated through the 18th and into the 19th century. Nevertheless, we still use concepts based on the humours, describing people as sanguine, phlegmatic and bilious. The fashionable cures involving spa waters at least did little harm, compared to other cures which were usually poisonous.

The main fashionable disease discussed was melancholy – a vague chronic disease, and thus ideal for doctors, who could prolong treatments and payment accordingly. Today’s fashionable disease is probably stress, a term that has been corrupted to cover everything from being very busy to suffering severe clinical depression. The syphilis of the title hardly gets a mention, but then concepts of contagion or infection were hazy and contentious until the mid-19th century. 

In contrast, Samantha Baines’ 1 Woman, A High-Flyer and A Flat Bottom, is a solo comedy act where she highlights 3 forgotten women of science. Its best example is Margaret E Knight, a 19th century inventor. Mattie lodged multiple patents and, amongst other inventions, came up with a machine to fold and glue the flat-bottomed paper bag that we all know. Baines' pun-laden informative comedy is a different way of making science accessible. Both ways are engaging and entertaining, but its important to engage if you are to be entertained. 

-       Alistair Lax

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Fashionable Medicine: Syphilis, Spas and Melancholy

Pint of Science

Science in Theatre

Royal College of Physicians Library Blog

Samantha Baines - 1 Woman, A High-Flyer and A Flat Bottom

Women Inventors 

Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler // Cotton Panic!

A dramatic soundscape that mixes enigmatic synth, eerie folk music and the percussive thunkings of factory machinery and cotton weavers’ clogs – Cotton Panic! is more of a narrative concert than traditional theatre – a concept album with integrity.

Cotton Panic! tells the story of the 1861 Cotton Famine that struck Manchester during the American Civil War. Manchester at the time was a major manufacturer of cotton garments, and the majority of the cotton came from American plantations. As slaves were emancipated and plantations in the northern states were shut down, Manchester began to starve.

Crucial to the show’s emotional power is the moment when the citizens of Manchester signed a declaration in support of the emancipated slaves, despite the famine. The declaration ends with the words “Onward, ye free men of the north and downward you southern men who want slavery.” In the current climate, there is a temptation to hear the chant as the cry of modern north of England against the Westminster powers that have ignored it for so long. The end of Cotton Panic! even draws parallels with the modern day Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Donald Trump.

But these comparisons should not be invested in too heavily. The inequalities in our country and our own time, though very much real, are hardly comparable with the Atlantic slave trade. In exemplifying Manchester’s “sacrifice” during the war we risk asserting a narrative about the abolition of slavery in which the white man is the hero.

The message of the show is more egalitarian than heroic though, and by showing the correspondence between the citizens of Manchester and key figures in the abolitionist movement in America, it demonstrates how interconnected the world was, even two hundred years ago. Overall, it demonstrates the need for collective effort in the face of international dilemmas. No country is ever really an island, and society is only bettered by the hard work of soft hands.

- Ciaran Grace

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

The Lancashire Cotton Famine

The Lancashire Cotton Famine - Radio 4

The Haitian Revolution:

http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcV6NTqoyAc

The Emancipation of Russian Serfs - History Today

Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler // Cotton Panic!

Billed as an industrial music drama, Cotton Panic! offers attendees an opportunity to consider the lives of the 19th-century working class in Lancashire. Building its narrative around electronic music that recalls Manchester’s respect for live arts and culture, the production leverages three projector screens to display larger-than-life images of actors portraying historical testimonies from the time. On stage, actor Jane Horrocks serves alternately as emcee, lead vocalist, and helpless child. She is tasked with carrying the entire 65-minute production, assisted on occasion by a backup dancer and three musicians. For the majority of the show, however, she is on her own. In its content, Cotton Panic! attempts to make a link between the chattel slavery of the southern United States and the lives of Lancashire’s white working class. Based on a decontextualized quote from socialist thinker Karl Marx, it suggests that both were based on capitalist exploitation.

In an effort to humanize narratives of the white working class, the show considers soft hands, the innocence of childhood, and other personal stories. It does this, however, without explicitly undertaking the same process in regard to the black slaves upon which white success was built. Rather, Blackness seemed to me to be represented as a voiceless fusion of features, in which one face becomes the next, as if all black people and their experiences are the same. 

Simultaneously, the show recasts and lionizes the working classes of the time as engaged in high culture, as in its description of a Lancashire family’s prized piano, rather than respecting these communities for their own experiences and cultural forms (the show’s use of clog dancing is a notable exception). In so doing, even as it tries to escape them, I worry that the show falls into two tired and damaging narratives: that white British people cannot consider race except in a sanitized and whitewashed version of history that turns them into heroes, and that one of the only ways black people can be represented in popular culture is as violent or angry slaves.

Cotton Panic! makes some mention of how the white working class (in Manchester, specifically) stood in solidarity with the emancipatory struggles of chattel slaves in the United States. The show framed US President Abraham Lincoln as having begun the US Civil War in a courageous attempt to end slavery, but the reality is that Lincoln wanted to keep the country together and limit the growth of slavery rather than abolish it entirely.

Audiences should be wary of the narrative that Lincoln was a hero who stood against slavery. Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ira Berlin, and Eric Foner have argued that Lincoln’s respect for the US Constitution, in which slavery was enshrined at the time, surpassed his moral belief that slavery was wrong. Indeed, it was only after slaves themselves escaped in large numbers from the South, and the North embraced their arrival, that Lincoln saw emancipation as a politically viable policy. These historical factors have contemporary ramifications for the relationship between black minority and white majority communities in the US today, reflecting Foner’s argument that 19th-century “hostility to slavery did not preclude deep prejudices against blacks.” 

Cotton Panic! could do better than focusing on supposed past heroics as an uncritical indication of contemporary progress. Instead, what British society needs is a historically rigorous, socially aware, and honest conversation about how its privileging of Whiteness is predicated on a longstanding and continued oppression of political, racial, and ethnic Blackness.

- Asif Majid

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

How British History is Whitewashed and Sanitised - Guardian 

On Hamstringing Working Classes - Open Democracy

Chattel Slavery and British Economies - Public Seminar

Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys - The Opportunity Agenda

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Britain - Revealing Histories

Abraham Lincoln’s Life and Presidential Administration: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7487969 http://www.npr.org/2010/10/11/130489804/lincolns-evolving-thoughts-on-slavery-and-freedom https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/12/27/how-the-slaves-freed-themselves/7d58b82c-3446-4f96-a07d-52fc868eb960/?utm_term=.9daccb73eb6a

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in A Multicultural Society 

The Good Immigrant