What I Thought
Woody Allen had doubts about the wisdom of casting Christopher Walken and Christopher Biggins in the joint role of the Baron Wolfgang von Sträcke. But why? What sort of thing is reasonable’ to expect in a 50-hour improvisation? By what established criteria do we judge whether what happens is successful?
There were of course some inspired comedy scenes, clever dialogue, ambitious plotlines and dizzying character arcs. Mark Meer and Oliver Senton as the Baron and Sebastian Fields remained most coherently in character throughout the fifty hours, and provided a strong fulcrum around which the entire mechanism turned, vast and complex. And although they were not major characters, the Gibberish Brothers (Matt Alden Dykes and Jamie Knifefight Cavanagh) maintained much of the energy that drove that mechanism, even though it was necessary for them, like most of the other characters, to explore the darker, more subdued side to their personalities. The brutal murder of Jeff Bouldernuts was shocking, but aren’t all chimney sweeps scary? It sparked further tension and ultraviolence later on. Other characters were more mutable still, and took time to develop.
Lightweight that I am, I took two breaks and missed hours 15-20 and hours 31-38. I would very much like to have known what happened to some of my favourite characters. What happened in the end to auteur filmmaker Winley Carter? And BMW, the chauffeur? And what were the true origins of the Man who Became One Hundred Bears?
Yet around the 28-hour mark, an abrupt and universal change happened. Every single performer simultaneously forgot everything that was going on. An emergency summit was called on stage to try and resurrect some plot, any plot at all, but to no avail. This transformation roughly coincided with Dana’s furious intervention in a quayside scene, in which he broke away from his station and launched himself, like a drunken tramp, at the terrified seagulls on stage. This may have caused some of the insanity that followed, but I rather think it was a symptom of it. In any case, from this point on, anything was possible.
Kurt Smeaton was handed an enormous mimed cocktail. Beckoned to relax on the settee he realized that he would have to put it down somewhere. We saw panic come over his face as he looked around for somewhere appropriate. Having stayed hyper-alert, in character, for more than twenty-four hours, while carrying so much plot and dialogue in his head, to think up something so trivial as where to put a glass down was the last straw. It would have been so easy for a performer to give up, to abandon the mime, to compromise by abandoning the truth of what was in his hand. Instead, he simply released the glass into the air and spent several seconds watching it float gently towards the ceiling. In this sublime, childlike moment, we saw the gravity and plot and intellectualizing give way to a deeper, and madder, logic. The ‘letting go of the glass’ was of course a metaphor for the letting go of everything that stood in the way of the improvisers’ ability to create, and it is not a coincidence that metaphor was used in the final scene to finally defeat evil. Improvisers of short scenes are told to hold on to everything and reincorporate. For the purposes of the Improvathon, this was the rule that was temporarily holding the performers back and had to be abandoned, reluctantly in some cases. The remainder of the scene was spent writhing with Belinda Cornish.
What Kurt achieved physically (see also his ‘Nightmare of Ballet’ scene), Sean McCann achieved linguistically. His Shakespearean skills are well established, but once released from the censoring burden of sense and significance, he began, along with Adam, Oliver, Dylan and Josh, to create an entirely original freeform poetry, consisting of inside-out Shakespeare, washed through with David Mamet and eventually Dr Seuss. ‘Look! I’m a pillow!’ said Sean, abruptly, and somersaulted on to the settee, yet it made sense at the time. It was only a matter of time before we saw a helicopter eating a cake. And it made perfect sense, believe me, because it picked up a passing mention some six hours previously. For me, these lunatic scenes were the best things in the Improvathon, and I was almost disappointed as, around eight hours before the end, the line ‘time is running out’ started to appear, the overarching plot re-emerged, and characters began talking about ‘doing something’.
Yet the level of reincorporation in the final two hours was miraculous, and to a packed house, the whole play began to come together frighteningly coherently. In spite of the fact that much plot had been lost, this was done by giving each of the secondary characters an appropriate emotional send-off before the showdown and finale. My personal favourite scenes were the Last Judgment of Valentine (lovable Lucy Trodd), called to account for the sins committed in the name of her blameless philosophy of ‘I’ll try anything once’, and the melancholy departure of Natalie Klad (Maya Sendall). Having failed throughout the entire proceedings to inject a sci-fi theme into the plot, her farewell to her marijuana plant was genuinely touching.
Improvisation is often judged on how convincing an impression it does of something else, don’t you think? What I saw at the weekend was improvisation beginning to resemble nothing on earth but its true self.