Mutant Popcorn #2

Nick Lowe

Leeds Student, 3 February 1984

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below about science fiction theatre and Impact Theatre Cooperative first appeared in Interzone #15 (Spring 1986).

You’ll need pencil and paper for this one. First question:

Why is there no sf theatre?

Take your time. Write down as many answers as you like, until you feel you’ve resolved the question to your own satisfaction. Here are a few sample responses to start you going:

(a) Theatre is a moribund artform too inflexible to accommodate the mind-expanding concepts of modern science fiction. (b) Same, reading ‘science fiction’ for ‘theatre’ and vice-versa. (c) Live performed sf would find itself competing unfavourably with the technical legerdemain available to recorded media. (d) Science fiction is an essentially popular genre and theatre is an essentially elitist medium; consumers of theatre and consumers of sf are minimally overlapping social groups. (e) Historical accident: no science-fictional plays established emulative traditions in the formative years of the genre. (f) Genre sf is too crummy, radical sf too fringey to be a bankable risk in a subsidised medium. (g) sf habitués are a bit of a bunch of dimmies and wouldn’t touch live theatre with any more enthusiasm or appreciation than they’d pick up Daniel Deronda or Travels with my Aunt.

Yes, there are science-fiction plays. But Back to MethuselahRURDevil Girl from MarsIlluminatusInsignificanceEinstein on the BeachThe GeniusLittle Shop of HorrorsThunderbirds F.A.B, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer don’t add up to a genre of science fiction theatre, any more than Ian Watson, Geoff Ryman and Terry Gilliam add up to a flowering of British sf, koff-koff. There’s no continuity: no sense of a tradition within the medium that new works can acknowledge, build on, plagiarise. Greybeards may remember Ken Campbell’s often-delightful Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool from the seventies, but nearly all its productions were adapted from other media. And you’ll note that everything on the above list that originated in the theatre was created and packaged with no intention of identifying with a genre tradition.

Which brings us to question two:

If there was a science-fiction theatre, what would you want it to do?

Well now. Perhaps you’d settle for traditional genre narratives performed with the thrill of expensive live special effects. Perhaps you’d simply enjoy live realisations of your favourite prose/radio/film/comic/verse/tv/visual sf works. You might like to see sf motifs dressed up in well-tried theatrical forms: kitchen-sink robodramas, time-travel musicals, sex farces set on a generation starship.

Then again, you might conceivably prefer a kind of theatre that shares the ambitions of radical prose sf, but exploits the unique richnesses of live performance. Such a theatre would probe speculative perspectives on history, technology, consciousness and change, using fantasy not just to entertain, but to redraw the cognitive limits of experience and imagination. Ideally, it would promote intellectually demanding, technically challenging experiment at the very forefront of its medium, drawing ironically on genre to question stereotyped patterns of ideology and thought. And it would blast your brain eyes first through the rafters.

Mull it over. Decide your own answers. And while you’re mulling, I’m going to tell you about Impact Theatre Cooperative.

Impact was founded in 1978 by a group of no-longer students from Leeds, and for three years mounted a series of increasingly ambitious touring shows on a budget of dole money, scrimpings, and the odd grant from the Manpower Services Commission. Early projects included plays by Keefe, Poliakoff and Fugard, but within a couple of years Impact were adapting or devising most of their material themselves. They played schools, campuses, community theatres, mainly in the north of England, with the year’s work compiling together in a three-week season on the Edinburgh Fringe.

In 1980 Impact put together a weird late-night Fringe show daffily titled The Undersea World of Erik Satie, a dada nouveau fantasy doodled round the composer’s strange lifestyle and amateur ichthyological passions, with dialogue in grunted cod-French throughout. This being the sort of stuff the Fringe convulses over, Satie sold out night after night and eventually transferred to the ICA for Impact’s first extended run at a central London theatre. Then as now, the ICA theatre was a pinnacle of the avant-garde performance circuit, and from Satie on Impact have been enviably established alongside companies like Lumiere & Son in the front rank of British alternative theatre. In 1981 they won Arts Council subsidy, and to date they’ve survived some fifteen shows with only minimal changes of personnel.

From the beginning, Impact’s work was extraordinary. Ice (1979) adapted Anna Kavan’s haunting novel of sexual tyranny and frozen apocalypse in a space of suspended perspex, with a live percussion score setting the book’s weird glides from obsession into dream against an acoustic landscape of breaking glaciers. Already the group’s defining concerns showed through: bold set designs, intense concentration of atmosphere, potent integrated soundtracks, experiments with narrative and time, and the constant ironic interrogation of the mythology of male and female.

Certain Scenes (1981) was the first serious adult show created from scratch by the company, and a landmark production in every respect. In a world beyond the holocaust, the blame for apocalypse has been projected, by a fanatic sleight of reason, by man on to woman; and her phantom guilt is annually atoned in the ancient ritual pattern of Punishing the Judy. Each year a selected female victim is lowered into the pit, a grim subterranean landscape of iron and concrete dereliction, for ritual torment both physical and psychological at the hands of the savage male inhabitants of the undercity. In the event, the piece’s concentrated sexual violence became too disturbing to continue, and after a year it was dropped from the repertoire. But the coincidences of style and obsession with Riddley Walker brought the company into contact with Russell Hoban, and the collaboration that eventually generated The Carrier Frequency.

Fantastic plotlines and mythical patterns of symbol and action continued to dominate in subseqent shows. Useful Vices (1982) spun a preposterous yarn of East London gangsters making a powerboat getaway down the Thames, drifting into a mysterious fog, and winding up in the Amazon jungle where the native myths gradually overlay and absorbed their own complex tribal rites. No Weapons for Mourning (1983) developed a similar ironic interrogation between Californian Indian myths and the hard-boiled pulp machismo of the detective romance, as a hammy Chandlerian PI gets involved with a mysterious dame and a gloriously convoluted plot involving government nuclear tests on Indian land. Little does the investigator suspect that the cool bombshell beauty is equally investigating him, in a boggling metaphysical metaplot of tangling timelines and lapping realities…

No Weapons tidemarked Impact’s public and critical success, with its accessibly intricate plot, witty genre dialogue, and ironic play with well-loved stereotypes. By contrast, their later shows have been far more ambitious and challenging theatre events, and not surprisingly have gathered namby-pamby crits and unfull houses. Most Impact shows have played tricks with time and narrative; recent shows have gone far beyond trickery, setting out to re-examine the way human consciousness constructs time, and how the real-time processes of live performance can recreate the imaginative intensity of subjectively experienced time. An important input has been music, an increasingly organic component of the shows either as wall-to-wall taped soundtrack or integrated live performance. The systemic revolution in new music – composers like Reich, Glass, Nyman creating shifting textural depths of sound by the phasing and overlapping of repeated phrases – has changed the way we perceive music, and Impact have tried to create an analogue to this in the theatrical perception of time.

‘There are only ever three things,’ broods the central figure in A Place in Europe (1983): ‘memory, desire, and place.’ This radical redefinition of the experience of time brings together Impact’s three most constant themes, as axes of a symbolic space in which conventional narrative forms dissolve. Events and meanings connect with the logic of memory, the texture of dream: a kind of ‘condensed theatre’, in fact, rejecting the naivety and redundancy of sequential storytelling for a performance of concentrated, spellbinding intensity. Like Ballard, again, Impact are attracted by the possibilities of arrested time, and recent shows have virtually abandoned language and narrative for uncompromisingly poetic scenarios and systemic patterns of action. In the apocalyptic wetworld of The Carrier Frequency (1984), objective time seems to have drowned, leaving only fragmented echoes of the vanished world to crackle over the eerie Carrier Frequency, or mutate into magnificent ritual chants. Critics scratch heads and grumble about six people throwing each other about in two foot of water for an hour and a half, and it’s true that The Carrier Frequency alone of Impact shows has no decodable story. (It began as Orpheus and Eurydice, but with the successive layers of superimposed metaphor the original structure of myth has been buried into invisibility.) Songs of the Claypeople (1984-5), a minimal performance of astonishing beauty, took the systemic technique to frightening extremes, and the company now feel this phase of their work is behind.

As I write, a new show, The Price of Meat in the Last Days of the Mechanical Age, is in rehearsal, to tour in December and play London in the spring. Surprisingly to an outsider, the set is the first thing to take shape, in this case a breathtaking urban sculpture of epic ambition. Despite their success, budget-stretching is still a constant problem; the sound-system for The Carrier Frequency smothered Hoban’s powerful texts, and the company’s dream of a large-scale piece with live musicians remains a financial fantasy on the fringe circuit. By the standards of alternative theatre, Impact are big business; by West End standards, they’re just rats in the skirting. Unfortunately, you don’t get rich on vision, commitment, and probing the limits of physical and emotional possibility against the current of critical taste. For two and a half years, Impact have been climbing upwards from what used to look like the peak. I wish any other performers had half their adrenalin.

When you’ve answered both questions to your own satisfaction, score your responses any way you feel is appropriate. What do they tell you about your attitudes to theatre, science fiction, yourself? Are you concealing anything? Examine your palms. Could there be a connection between your answers and certain recurring dreams? Study your handwriting for immanent structures of desire. Was that a noise downstairs?

Now draw a tree.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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