Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History (The First Act) at the Barbican, or, A Rather Extraordinary Evening


Note: A review of the performance on Friday 29th June 2018.

If you'd told me at 7.35pm last Friday evening as, disgruntled, I watched the audience continue to trickle nonchalantly in (the advertised start time of this three hour show was 7.30pm) that some two and a half hours later I'd have a supporting cast member sitting beside me pretending to be drunk while I patted his hand and Taylor Mac sang a lullaby and, more importantly, that I'd be finding this conceit touching rather than annoying I doubt I'd have believed you. But so it was. Regular readers will know I'm not a fan of immersive theatre – that this show, which is full of it, gradually drew me into it tells you how remarkable a piece of theatre this is.


This performance is the first three hours of a twenty four hour marathon, exploring the history of the United States since 1776 through its popular music. Originally staged as a non-stop 24 hour performance in New York City it has been broken down into a variety of other increments around the world. According to Taylor Mac the plan is to stage it in London in increments (a segment every year or every two years were both mooted). On the strength of this episode there's no question in my mind that the rest should come over.


These three acts cover the years 1776 to 1806. The first decade is primarily concerned with the American Revolution, the second takes us on a wild story about the plight of women, the third a drunken night out in a tavern. For me, the best of the evening is to be found in sections 2 and 3.

Taylor Mac's performances of the songs, backed by a twenty four piece band are strangely compelling from the outset – early on I sometimes had trouble picking out the lyrics but as I got more used to his vocal style this ceased to be an issue. In the full show one band member is lost at the end of every hour – here we don't really get that effect but there is a lovely trio for Mac, his costume designer Machine Dazzle, and departing tuba player Reuben Cohen at the end of section 1. The band, a mixture of Taylor Mac regulars and local musicians, play superbly throughout, under the expert direction of pianist Matt Ray and with particularly notable contributions from guitarist Viva DeConcini and supporting vocalists Steffanie Christi'an and Heather Christian.

As a historian of the US who originally specialised in this era (a major reason I decided to see the show in the first place) I found it fascinating to listen to many of these songs – especially the revolutionary related ones in section 1. Alongside them Mac runs some amusing riffs on what the meaning of the revolution actually was bringing in Tom Paine, attacks on Congress (which have a clever contemporary resonance) and economic questions. Having the gallery rip up bits of paper containing the names of congressional delegates and scatter those scraps on the stalls below produces one of the first remarkable images of the evening. Other political elements in this opening section feel more forced – the apology to Native Americans for example. I also got on less well with the immersive elements – we are asked at the start to stand up and do a kind of warm up, and to sing Yankee Doodle Dandy while my section of the audience was pretending to be holding bayonets on a group pretending to be prisoners – though, as I say the overall effect of that last section with the tiers above pretending to be disputing the constitution and hurling down the bits of torn paper is rather extraordinary.

Section 2 moves into a riff on the song “Oh dear, what can the matter be” in which Mac embodies both Beatrice (waiting for her lover Johnny to return from the fair with blue ribbons) and Katy Cruel and leads us into a somewhat labyrinthine narrative about the emancipation of women which ends up with “Jesus Christ, the apple tree”, the entire audience being provided with apples and instructed to bite into them at the same moment (again a striking effect) and, finally, Mac being hoisted into the air for the finale. Oh, and this is without mentioning his extraordinary section 2 costume which involves a smoke puffing backpack like object. Apart from anything else this is a remarkable total spectacle.
By this point, although it occasionally unnerved me that I had ended up with empty seats on either side of me, and there are supporting performers roaming around the auditorium throughout, I was pretty much converted to the show. Yes, there is an element of coercion to any audience involvement, but, by section 2, Taylor Mac and his ensemble had achieved that alchemy of persuading me to give in and participate. (Mention must also be quickly made here of Le Gateau Chocolat's cameo appearance as the interval act – being hilariously carried by the ensemble from one side of the stage to the other).

Section 3, in the pub, turns riotous. After we've been mocked for refusing to join in a drinking song loudly enough, beer and ping pong balls are distributed (to my relief I confess I got the beer) and soon the auditorium is filled with couples spitting the ping pong balls at each other. Nor does it stop there. A temperance choir (magnificently performed by members of the London Gay Men's Chorus and friends) get into a morality duel with Mac, by now centre stage in an inflated flamingo (no, really). The scene climaxes with sections of the audience hurling ping pong balls at the choir while the choir retaliate with water pistols. It's hilarious, and, again, visually remarkable.

Then, in a segment that does get a little rambling but finally punches home Mac talks about the mingling at these kind of performances of what he describes as queer and normative communities, and, as on stage he and the temperance choir come together in a more mutually tolerant relationship, we're asked to perform that act I mentioned at the opening of comforting one of our neighbours. In advance, I was very sceptical of the claims in some of the reviews that the show creates a sense of community – I was wrong, by this point I was convinced.

There's quite a bit of politics, jibes at Brexit, at Trump, at the likely impact of Justice Kennedy's retirement, the US treatment of immigrant children – but while it is angry, often rebuking, situating it within the humour enables it to strike home while avoiding that lecturing tone that can, at least for me, be so fatal in a theatre piece. And Taylor Mac's final message, delivered on the platform the show has slowly constructed over the previous three hours, is really powerful. It gives a sense of the vulnerability of the LGBTQ community, particularly in the States, in the current moment. But it is not an exclusionary one – when Mac suggests in this time of Brexit, Trump, rising populism, a durational performance of this show is a way for us to check in with each other from time to time to see how we're doing, and follows it with a beautiful performance of Shenandoah as the lights slowly dim, it is both a little piece of theatrical magic, and a gentle reminder of our common humanity, the importance of looking after one another.

Contrary to all my advance misgivings, this is a really extraordinary, funny, moving, unclassifiable piece of theatre. If you missed this short Barbican run, make a note now to catch Taylor Mac when he returns (hopefully) with the next episode.

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