Everybody Loves A Winner / It Felt Like A Kiss / Marina Abramovic Presents...

Various venues, Manchester
Opened 3 / 4 July, 2009
**** / *** / ***

I had never feelingly understood the phrase “hoping against hope” the way I did on seeing Neil Bartlett’s Everybody Loves A Winner, the first of three Manchester International Festival shows I saw within 24 hours. Bartlett’s portrait of the culture of bingo – the staff, the players, the rituals of the game – evokes an unsettling blend of optimism and desperation. Fifteen players chorically recite a kind of credo, affirming their belief in the possibility of, and the possibilities offered by, a win even after countless failures; the staff minister to their faith and see them through their crises. Those 15 players are members of the cast, but on the night there are more than 600, since the audience join in; this is not an outside-in “look at” its subject, it’s immersive. When an audience member excitedly shouts a win, even though it is a non-cash practice game, caller Frank is spot-on when he jocularly mocks, “And you thought this was a game for other people!” On the night I attended, 595 out of an audience of 700-750 bought tickets in the interval for the second-act game with a top cash prize of £200; and yes, a “civilian” won – there is no rigging of the games that matter, this is the experience itself. Ian Puleston-Davies is excellent as Frank, working the crowd affably even though we also see his private bitterness. The man sitting beside me was a bingo operator: he remarked that the aesthetic of the show was a few years out of date (the big chains have since tried to glitz up the business), but pronounced the show overall “scarily accurate”.
From chance and grim hope, a short taxi ride to determinism and engineered despair. Punchdrunk’s It Felt Like A Kiss is phenomenally well put together, but unsatisfyingly manipulative in impressing upon us its thesis that the United States has during the last 50 years attempted to impose its own narrative upon the world, but that the world’s resistance has led to fracture and fragmentation. Adam Curtis’s 35-minute montage-based film at the centre of the work is every bit as tendentious and marshalling as it claims the American agenda has been, all the while implicitly pretending that because it consists of archive footage (backed by pop songs of the period), its implications are also factual. Sometimes, as with repeated cuts from chimps to Rock Hudson via onscreen captions about HIV/AIDS, they are downright crass. The series of installations which one walks through before and after seeing the film are similarly directive. At one point visitors, proceeding through a disorienting labyrinth of nightmare scenarios, are pursued by Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the only real “performer” in the work). I stood my ground and bellowed in his face. He did nothing. It seemed emblematic of the piece as a whole: neutralised by a mere reluctance to buy into its package.
I felt a similar hollowness about many of the performance art pieces gathered together in the Whitworth Gallery and curated by Marina Abramovic. After an hour of drilling us through various exercises in an attempt to elicit new modes of watching and responding appropriate to durational work, Abramovic left us to wander at will through a dozen or so other works for a further three hours. I suspect that for a real breakthrough into different ways of seeing, something more like ten hours is required. In the current set-up, it seems to me that those works which speak most to their watchers are, simply, those that do actually deign to speak to us, to grant us a meaningful presence or even interact with us: Fedor Pavlov-Andreevich’s disembodied mouth requiring viewers to feed it or brush its teeth, Eunhye Hwang’s experiments with white noise from transistor radios when she begins to work with the bodies of the audience and we in turn respond in collective, unspoken physical improvisations. And we thought this was a piece by another person!
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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