‘Beautiful, dedicated piece of craftsmanship’: THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR – Barbican Theatre ★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Carole WoddisLeave a Comment

Barbican Theatre, London

To say The Wooster Group is iconic is a bit like saying in the summer, the sun shines. It’s a given. The Wooster Group has been at the forefront of experimental theatre-making for nearly half a century. And nearly half a century ago, in 1971, an event took place in New York that, typically for its time, was part ‘happening’, part disruption, part debate.

Event it certainly was. Norman Mailer, then the big literary ‘beast’ in the American cultural jungle was hosting a panel debate on Women’s Liberation that included Germaine Greer, fresh from the publication of The Female Eunch and beginning her rise to high celebrity status; Diana Trilling, esteemed cultural critic; and Jill Johnston, radical lesbian feminist.

In the course of the debate, Johnston, a dance critic with The Village Voice but acquiring her own notoriety for her stream-of-consciousness, groundbreaking journalistic style, proceeded not only to over-run the allotted ten minutes but stage her own disruptive ‘sex-in’ with a couple of lesbian friends.

Such was the tenor of the times, caught on camera by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker’s now famous documentary, The Town Hall Affair. Add in Maidstone, a film made by Mailer – described by Elizabeth LeCompte, The Wooster Group’s director at the after-show Q&A as “bad, I mean in the old-fashioned sense of, just plain bad” – and you have most of the elements of this new multi-media treatment of The Town Hall Affair.

The final piece of the jigsaw comes from the fresh perspective LeCompte decided upon for a show she wasn’t even sure would make a stage piece, namely, looking at it from Jill Johnston’s perspective.

The Town Hall Affair is book-ended with excerpts from her book Lesbian Nation (written after the event) and the end of the speech she was not allowed to give.

The result – in a downsized, reconfigured Barbican Theatre emulating the intimacy of the Wooster Group’s New York home – is a sometimes amusing, technically fascinating 65 minutes in which, in time-honoured Wooster fashion, the debate is sync-ed, re-enacted and ironically reframed with the help of a bank of mics.

And on occasions, disrupted. Kate Valk’s Jill Johnston is mostly in charge whilst the profiles of Mailer, Greer, Trilling and Johnston going through their motions are refracted on a large video screen behind them.

© Steve Gunther, Scott Shepherd (Norman Mailer), Ari Fliakos (Norman Mailer), Kate Valk (Jill Johnston), Greg Mehrten (Diana Trilling) and Maura Tierney (Germaine Greer)…in the happening that was the Town Hall debate in 1971 in New York…

For younger feminists – and indeed for older ones – the most striking thing half a century on is the elevated intellectual level of debate, the prickly, confrontational motor-mouth energy of Mailer and the outrageous self-belief of Johnston.

If ever we needed proof of how dumbed down our age has become the Wooster’s Town Hall Affair absolutely confirms it. Equally, it also confirms the no-holes barred, anarchy of that time and the sheer Amazonian energy required to batter down some of the self-satisfied male bastions, so eloquently encapsulated in Mr Mailer himself.

Between them, Greer and Johnston certainly give him a run for his money.

The Wooster’s Town Hall does also carry its own anarchic moments – Johnston’s `love-in’ replicated in a twosome between Johnston and the Wooster’s on-stage stage manager. At one point, Mailer’s film bursts live onto the stage replicating a moment of male brawling between Mailer and actor, Rip Torn. Meanwhile, Diana Trilling, played in drag by the company’s Greg Mehrten with exquisite poise, keeps a watchful eye.

© Prudence Upton, Ari Fliakos (Norman Mailer as the director in his film, Maidstone), Greg Mehrten (Diana Trilling), Enver Chakartash (Usher), Scott Shepherd (Rip, the Actor in Mailer’s film), Maura Tierney (Beverly, the Wife, in the film)…an intervention…

The Wooster’s Town Hall Affair is a beautiful, dedicated piece of craftsmanship, highly technically and artistically accomplished but in comparison with material in earlier years, it seemed to me, less dangerous, more controlled.

I couldn’t help thinking that Johnston, though the centrifugal force, came off worse, crazier than even the rest of the monster egos on show.

As for feminism under the dialectical microscope, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the #MeToo generation of feminists would make of it. Deborah Frances-White, founder of the hugely The Guilty Feminist podcast, who chaired the after-show Q&A, described it as an `eye-opener’.

My guess is that the Pennebaker and Hegedus documentary might very well do that quite as well.

Dynamite personnifed! Those were the days, my friend. Indeed they were.

The Town Hall Affair
(in the form of a one act play)
Based on the film by Chris Hegedus & D A Pennebaker

The Wooster Group
Cast:
Jill Johnston: Kate Valk
Norman Mailer: Ari Fliakos
Norman Mailer: Scott Shepherd
Germaine Greer: Maura Tierney
Diana Trilling: Greg Mehrten
Jill’s friend/Ruth Mandel: Erin Mullin
Peter Fisher: Gareth Hobbs (Voice)
Usher: Enver Chakartash

Norman, The Director: Ari Fliakos
Rip, The Actor: Scott Shepherd
Beverly, The Wife: Maura Tierney
A Friend: Greg Mehrten
A Daughter: Mia Fliakos
Man in Black: Matthew Dipple

Director: Elizabeth LeCompte
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton and Ryan Seelig
Sound: Eric Sluyter and Gareth Hobbs
Video and Projections: Robert Wuss
Additional Video: Zbigniew Bzymek
Video Cueing System: Andrew Maillet and Wladimiro Woyno
Costumes: Enver Chakartash
Assistant Directors: Enver Chakartash and Matthew Dipple
Stage Manager: Erin Mullin

Producer: Cynthia Hedstrom

The Town Hall Affair
Part 1: Excerpt from Lesbian Nation
Part 2: The Play
Part 3: Coda: Excerpt from Lesbian Nation

The Town Hall Affair by The Wooster Group ran in the Barbican Theatre, London from June 21-24, 2018.

Review published on this site June 24, 2018

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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.
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Carole Woddis on Twitter
Carole Woddis
Carole Woddis has been a theatre journalist and critic for over 30 years. She was London reviewer and feature writer for Glasgow’s The Herald for 12 years and for many other newspapers and magazines. She now review for websites including The Arts Desk, Reviews Gate and London Grip and blogs independently at woddisreviews.org.uk. Carole is also the author of: The Bloomsbury Theatre Guide with Trevor T Griffiths; a collection of interviews with actresses, Sheer Bloody Magic (Virago), and Faber & Faber’s Pocket Guide to 20th Century Drama with Stephen Unwin. For ten years, she was a Visiting Tutor in Journalism at Goldsmiths College and for three years with City University. Earlier in her career, she worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Round House and Royal Ballet as a publicist and as an administrator for other theatre and dance organisations.