THERE is art, as it was once traditionally understood, depicting and reflecting the world around us. There is conceptual art, which engages in the same process, but often uses found objects or spaces – from a pile of bricks to a room with a light-switch – to change our perspective.
And then there is self-reflexive art, that becomes so obsessed with itself, its processes and boundaries, that it risks ceasing to be of interest to anyone who is not a professional arts practitioner. And what’s slightly depressing about groups like the English/German collective Gob Squad is that, 90 years on from the creation of game-changing works of modernist self-reflection like Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author, they still seem stuck with the same familiar set of questions about the definition of performance, and of theatre itself.
Their latest show We Are Gob Squad And So Are You – in Glasgow last weekend as part of the current Behaviour Festival – is described by the company as “lifting the lid” on their participatory performance technique, which, in a style not unusual in current studio theatre, uses headphones and spoken instructions to enable members of the audience to “perform” the work.
All that the show actually does, though, is to focus obsessively on the single, well-worn question of who is the performer, who is the audience, and what the real difference is, in a world full of alienation. The performer who introduces the show says that it’s a “performance that behaves like a lecture, and a lecture that behaves like a performance, and it lasts about an hour.” In fact it behaves nothing like a lecture, since it offers no sustained argument; it’s not a great performance, though it has the odd engaging moment; and it lasts for almost 90 minutes.
All of which makes the outrageous New York performance artist Ann Liv Young, at the Behaviour Festival last Saturday, look like a giant of thematic content and theatrical energy. Her Mermaid Show, currently on tour across Europe, involves the usual mind-boggling mix of fiercely original imagery, eardrum-busting sound, and endless staged disputes between Ann Liv and the technical crew; this time around, she accused the Arches of being too cash-strapped to hire a decent sound engineer, and of providing her with a rotten fish to eat during her performance, thereby jeopardising the health of her unborn child.
When Young is not engaged in modish self-reflection, though, she creates images that are spine-tinglingly memorable, as she drags herself around the stage in a hugely heavy, fishy mermaid tail, or flaps wildly in her turquoise onstage pool, drenching us with spray. What she is doing is using the the mermaid myth to challenge our strange, tormented human relationship with the natural world around us, and with our dying oceans. And there is this moment where, with a microphone pressed to her body to catch every rasp of animal breath, she drags and flops towards the audience, stares into the eyes of a victim, and begins to breathe her seductions, her strange power to drag us down into her world. It’s astonishing stuff; and almost worth the Behaviour Festival season ticket price – £39 for more than 25 shows – in itself.
After that journey into extreme performance, though, it’s a relief to encounter a show that simply tries to extend our understanding of a real social phenomenon. The National Theatre Of Scotland’s Reasons To Dance, at the City Nightclub in Falkirk last week, marked the end of an eight-month encounter between the NTS outreach department and the people of Falkirk, designed to celebrate their extraordinary tradition of dance as recreation and release. For me, the early part of the evening was the most powerful, as we made our way past gorgeous black-and-white photographs of Falkirk folk in their glamorous 1950s finery, and sat in little booths with actors who delivered verbatim stories of nights at the dancing, from the 1930s to the present.
The short floor-show, when it came, seemed like an anticlimax, featuring a lot of disco moves, a Dashing White Sergeant, a solitary older couple dancing a beautiful last waltz, and absolutely no reflection on the relationship between these different dance traditions. As a community project, Reasons To Dance seemed energising and vivid; all it needed was a more powerfully-shaped finale, to do full justice to the material gathered by an 18-strong NTS team, over so many months.
For sheer concentration on the issue in hand, though, television writer Ben Tagoe’s Cold Turkey At Nana’s – this week’s lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint show – is difficult to beat. Its theme is heroin addiction, and how to kick it; and it features an extraordinary exhibition of “tough love” from a battling granny who decides to do what she can to save her addict grandson Tony, even if it involves imprisoning him in her house until the worst of his “cold turkey” is over.
The grandma, as played by Anne Kidd, is something of a stereotype, strong, knowing, unconditionally loving, and very, very funny. Scott Kyle, by contrast, gives a memorably nuanced performance as Tony, gradually softening from drug-driven demon to something like a human being; and although Rachel O’Riordan’s tough, fast-moving production finds no great subtlety in Tagoe’s script, the play’s sharpness, competence and passion for its theme are memorable, and full of promise.
WE ARE GOB SQUAD AND SO ARE YOU, The Arches, Glasgow
THE MERMAID SHOW, The Arches, Glasgow
REASONS TO DANCE, City Nightclub, Falkirk
COLD TURKEY AT NANA’S, Oran Mor, Glasgow
• The Behaviour Festival continues at the Arches until 29 April. Reasons To Dance, run ended. Cold Turkey At Nana’s is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 7 April, and at Perth Theatre from 17-21 April.