Review: Hoi Polloi: Stories from an Invisible Town

Hoi Polloi is a theatre company in Cambridge. They are rarely here but I just came back from the latest Hugh Hughes show:  Stories from an Invisible Town.  It is the fourth Hugh Hughes show I have seen.  The character HH is an "emerging artist" from Anglesey, an island off the North Coast of Wales.  The artistic director of Hoi Polloi, a man named Shon Dale-Jones plays Hugh Hughes.  His first show was about his adolescent need to tear himself away from the island.  In the multi-media show, the island was torn away from its roots with the effort, and floated all around the world.  The second was about the death of his father intertwined with the apparent death of a pet rabbit.  The third show was about his best friend outing himself as a cross dresser.  This show is about Hugh's memory project, an art project, spurred by his mother moving out of the family home.  He interviews his siblings ceaselessly about the memories and the truths, and the layers of life they laid together, and they agree to be in a show.

It's a conceit.  When I saw the first show, I thought the artistic director had directed a person named Hugh Hughes.  No, he made a character Hugh Hughes to help him understand his life and his memories - the stories are broadly autobiographical.  The result  is a series of plays more true, more edifying, more ingenious, more full of love than almost anything than I have ever seen on a stage ever.  Yes, I am helplessly lapsing into superlatives and I agree with you that it is not very helpful.  I texted my friend F after the play that this man's genius and love know no bounds and that he may be the living person I most admire.  What I am feeling right now is what teenage girls feel for Justin Bieber and that is not very attractive, I know.  (I just realized that mentioning Juston Bieber has probably guaranteed that this will be my most popular blog post)  (Fine.)

I wonder how to tell you why I like it so much.  Believe me I have searched for answers.  Let me start by saying I like plays. And one of the things that my ex-Christian soul loves about plays is that I found at plays what I didn't  (mostly) find at church.   Edification.  A clue about what to do next, about how humans are.    Plays are for me this important ritual for uncovering truth.  have seen a lot of one man and one woman shows.  These are shows where people try to tell the audience the truth about their lives through a narrative, a story.  The truth most of these shows uncover is that the people performing do not really understand very much about their lives at all.  I mean, it's sad and embarrassing watching.  But Hugh Hughes has layers, and Hoi Pollloi  makes human emotions accessible by these layers.

Example.  In the memory project, Hugh asks his brother Derwyn to recreate, on film, the emotions he felt during a particularly traumatic evening when his father mocked him for losing his homing pigeons ("making the homing pigeons homeless").  So this guy who has a burger business out of a trailer gives it a shot.  We find out he agreed and we watch the film with Hugh and Derwyn.  It is funny because he yells NOOO!  and it is silly and fake.  He's a terrible actor.    He yells no and we can see by the way he yells no that he is so buttoned up, so inhibited that it is ridiculous.  It lacks, well, honesty.  He yells and yells and even unconvincingly throws things.  The audience laughs, the lights go up and Derwyn says to the audience, "You're laughing now.  I don't mind telling you, I was very upset when I did that. Very upset."

I mean, oh, my God, it's the knock out punch.   It's the theatrical equivalent of Douglas Adams' Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) Because when Derwyn turns and says that to the audience, we are instantly ashamed and empathetic.  His pain is real and his inability to express it is no joke.  And above all we believe it is real.  The action of watching a fake portrayal  with the portrayer (who is also an actor)  - it's like life requires us now to contrive greater and greater outrigging, greater scaffolding and conceits so that we can hold open the internal space necessary to have an emotion, or believe one in others.  

This is real post modern theater.  The best description of post-modernism I heard was in my postmodernism and the law class.  If "modernism" is saying "there's one thing I do know... and that is that I love you." then post modernism is saying, As Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O'Hara, there's one thing I do know . . . and that is that I love you."

In our times, we have to strip away the cultural referents by naming them in order to enter into some authentic space.  Hoi Polloi strips away every excess, every layer, patiently.  Layers of media, layers of reality,  layers of memory, layers of audience and actor, truth and embellishment.  It is the most remarkably effective method I have seen and one I greatly admire.  

It would really make me insanely jealous if it hadn't made me so happy.

UPDATE:  I add a quote from an American theologian for reasons that will remain obscure:

“ . . some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. waking up to the first snow. being in bed with somebody you love... whether you thank god for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. if you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.” 

― Frederick Buechner


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