Every tragedy needs its satyr play. After drama welcome relief is needed. After a hard day watching humans wrestle with the gods of Olympus, what the good people of ancient Greece needed was massive phalluses, the clangour of drums and horns, and actors in ridiculous goatish masks to ease the holy terror they had experienced over a whole day (usually three plays’ worth) of drama.
Fast forward two thousand years. When Peter Hall and John Barton brought their nine-hour Trojan War epic Tantalus to The Barbican in 2001, it came with no such final treat. The 12-hour original had been trimmed after its première in Denver the year before, the two titans of classical theatre had roundly fallen out over the changes, and there was no space left for a theatrical joke to lighten the atmosphere.
Famously, in 1968, the celebrated theatre director Peter Brook tried to honour the original practice of ending with a song and a dance. At the end of his production of Seneca’s Oedipus (a Roman play) at the National Theatre, a New Orleans-style jazz band processed into the auditorium along with the dancing cast, and a giant golden phallus was unveiled onstage as the final chapter of the entertainment. The purists (historically wrong as they may have been) hated it.
But undeterred by this historical precedent, The Barbican in 2001 decided that something was required to accompany Tantalus; not in the actual auditorium, perhaps, but at least in the building. A programme of additional events which they called ‘Myths and Monsters’. Enter Ken Campbell, theatrical master of the provoking and unexpected, to provide a suitable event. Fresh from his revival of the 24-hour play-cycle The Warp (Tantalus was only ten hours? Virtually a sketch) and at The Barbican a few years earlier, the legendary KLF’s century-topping show 1997 (What The F***’s Going On?), Campbell gladly accepted the challenge. The only problem was that he found the old Greek plays a bit, well… boring.
Campbell was not the man to call on if you wanted the obvious solution. When Mark Rylance invited him to host the celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday at The Globe in 2005, he accepted on condition that he didn’t have to do any actual Shakespeare. Not that he was deliberately contrary, as some thought — he’d just ‘read different books’. His bottom line was always that it had to be exciting, something special, a ‘thing’. For the Barbican, he was inspired by an American performance he’d seen in Central Park in which all the parts were played by Barbie dolls, and by the noble tradition of flea circuses. So he developed a few simple rules for his team. Each actor would have an identical tabletop (schoolroom standard, 110 cm by 55) as a performance space, and no more than fifteen minutes to tell the story on it of a classic drama of their choice. How they did that was completely up to them.
The collection of performers, as ever with Campbell, was eclectic, a mixture of the professional and the divinely inspired. Claudia Boulton, veteran of the original Warp and founder member of feminist mischief makers Beryl and the Perils delivered The After-Dinner Agamemnon, the Greek leader as wine bottle being savaged by a corkscrew Clytemnestra; Jacqueline Haigh, screenwriter and self-appointed goddess-in-training, channelled Romeo and Juliet through her knees, including a tiny penis keyring attached to her shin that fell out of Romeo’s breeches when the lovers’ lips met; Uke Bosse, now a professor of game design in Berlin, explored Antigone, mostly with fishfingers and a lot of ketchup (it got bloody), and had a Pokémon figure standing by in case audiences lost focus. Delighted children and confused cultural tourists, gathered beneath the mighty pillars of the Barbican foyer, could wander from table to table and spend an afternoon watching a feast of free mini-spectaculars. I was one of them, and the glorious once-in-a-lifetime anarchy of it is with me still.
Michael Mantus, aka Iggy Shark (he now runs a boarding house on a Greek island) & Firak di Bello, an Italian fire dancer and Butoh specialist, started in chefs’ hats, with a blindfolded speech in ancient Greek to draw a crowd, then silently chopped their way through the Oedipus story, the characters (Oedipus as a bunch of cherry tomatoes, his wife-mother Jocasta a block of feta) ending as a full Greek salad which they served to the onlookers. Jonny Benzimra, American political campaigner and fixer to the stars, chose The Trojan Women, with a shaving foam Menelaus, a hairspray Helen and Ribena-carton soldiers squirting juice through their straws. It got messy; a post-show handshake was often politely declined. Michelle Watson, performer and poetess, a papier-mâché amphitheatre framing her face, chose Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Greek-set Shakespeare), and told the story through the brushes and make-up of the dressing table. And Niall McDevitt, flâneur and poetopographer, delivered a new version of the Orpheus myth: in rhyming couplets of Bislama pidgin (official language of the Pacific island of Vanuatu), his face painted blue, with Orpheus himself as a golden guitar-wielding proto-Hendrix.
Neville Hawkins, the last of the line-up, had only come to London six months earlier, fresh from a radical arts training at Dartington college. He, along with Iggy and Firak, was pulled into Campbell’s orbit after a pitch meeting in a deserted cinema in Chalk Farm. Ken had just taken on the Barbican gig, and offered fifty quid that night for the best idea for a tabletop play. Knowing nothing of Greek tragedy, Nev pitched a Subbuteo match with football commentary, the story of Posh ‘Jocasta’ Spice and David ‘Oedipus’ Bex, with the title character played by a Becks bottle. He and Jonny Benzimra shared the prize money in the pub next door. At the Barbican, the winner each time, twice daily, was the play the audience clapped loudest for. Memories are hazy as to who won the champagne bottle prizes.
Tabletop theatre may sound like a niche genre. But flea circuses were popular from the 1820s for a century and a half (and may have existed up to two hundred and fifty years before that). Toy theatres and shadow play boomed in the nineteenth century, for children and families alike, but though they were championed by artists from Lewis Carroll to Orson Welles, the rude rise of ‘realism’ (whatever that may be) led to their decline. But fashions go, and sometimes come again. In 1998, Andrew Dawson & Gavin Robertson brought a show to Edinburgh called Space Panorama, re-enacting the whole Apollo-11 moon landing on a tabletop in 26 minutes, using two hands. At the time, I’d never seen anything like it; such a big story on such a small stage (Dawson later did Wagner’s Ring cycle in 30 minutes, but that’s another story). The raucous Barbican explosion came just a few years later.
Forced Entertainment, the genre-busting British theatre seekers, have made a typically unique impression in the pandemic world of online theatre performing their Tabletop Shakespeare, clear and succinct hour-long versions of the plays streamed from the performers’ own homes. But it was originally a live show which had its UK première, at The Barbican, in 2016. Six of Willy Shaker’s tales, compressed to 45 minutes each, on a metre-square table. Whether the company knew anything of the theatrical precedents for such work under the same roof (their show had opened in Berlin the year before), the idea of the tabletop extravaganza had clearly seeped into the fabric of the building.
And, in subsequent years, beyond (the randy leapings and honking discords of the satyr play are hard to contain). After the Barbican charivari, Boulton went on to extend her show into a full tabletop Oresteian trilogy, with eggs as Libation Bearers and black pasta for The Furies, and played it all over the world, from Texas to — genuinely — Timbuktu. Benzimra squirted his foam again in New York, at the Bindellstiff Family Cirkus and even in Central Park where the seed of the idea started, accompanied by his ventriloquist’s doll Sedgwick (Campbell had a ventriloquial phase too, and that really is another story). Nev Hawkins took Campbell’s attitude of ‘art for the people’ even further (as he put it, talking about Ken, ‘he really put himself out there, and put himself out for people’): his socially-engaged methods have helped to form the 16-piece Orchestra of Love and Redemption, a group with mixed experience which he describes as ‘an epic community band’. And Jacqueline Haig made a whole new food-based tabletop piece, Get Fruity, a family drama involving a grapefruit, a coconut and a banana coming to a violent end in a blender. They loved it at Glastonbury.
Craziness that’s great to watch but difficult to contain — perhaps that’s what Peter Hall didn’t want in his ten-hour drama. The action spilling out of the auditorium into people’s lives and laps; the breaking down of the separation of audience and actor. But in recent years that’s exactly where drama has been heading. The Fun Palaces movement has brought crafting, storytelling and song into any space willing to open its doors; the expanding popularity of improvisation gives any enthusiast the tools of building narrative and finding comedy gold; even the Arts Council is on to what’s up, and has said its strategy for the next ten years ‘will value the creative potential in each of us, provide communities in every corner of the country with more opportunities to enjoy culture, and celebrate greatness of every kind’. Of every kind. That’s crocheting alongside opera, storytelling with string quartets, carnival and children’s shows sharing space with the Rembrandts. The purists will hate it, Bowie with Beethoven and Hergé with Turner, but it’s too late.
Lockdown has accelerated this process. The Tories may seem not to care if the arts wither, but it doesn’t matter. In the short term of course, there will be redundancies and hard times (the results of the Cultural Recovery Fund distribution notwithstanding) — but the genie’s out of the bottle. Everyone’s making art, paid practitioners and enthusiasts alike. And hard times make us even more inventive: plays in back gardens, in the woods, online raves, improvised cartoons, Shakespeare on kitchen tables. New stories are everywhere. Punk is back, and it’s in everything. The whole world is a tabletop tragedy now, fish fingers and all.
Oliver Senton – Actor and Theatre maker