Theatre in Wales

Plays and dance productions in Wales since 1982...

A Bucket Rider
First presented in 2006 by Steepways Productions
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   There are 3 reviews of Steepways Productions's A Bucket Rider in our database:
A pathway to annihilation.
A Bucket Rider
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Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
A time when we hear that temperatures in Moscow are down below minus 30 and there must be many poor people riding about on their buckets seeking warmth for their homes, it may be very relevant to revisit Franz Kafka’s bleak and fantastic metaphor ‘The Bucket Rider’. Sean Tuan John’s production certainly captures the desolation of the original and has the same sad result but widens the metaphor into an even more desolate view of human existence.

Anne Siegel and Jonathon Ruddick’s new Cardiff based Steepways Productions is a hugely professional and imaginative outfit and brings alive John Norton’s inspired vision in a stimulating and very attractive manner, with great scene design, excellent film and animation and a little touch of magic. And at times it’s a lot of fun.

Apart from a first shovel full, the bucket rider never gets his coal but instead of freezing to death he is waved away by a waft of the coal-dealer’s wife’s apron up into the regions of the ice mountains, and he really does go up, a highlight of the evening, and is lost for ever. It is this tongue in cheek element, not taking themselves too seriously that gives this production its distinctive edge.

There are some fine and daft comic performances. The amazing Alex Alderton who is able to change from grotesque dwarf to night-club diva in the middle of a sentence. Her body movements and facial expression, aided by the grave-like make-up by Claire Williams and Dawn Thatcher are an immense delight. With Sally Marie, both of them wearing extraordinary grey beards, they give us some moments of near perfect absurd comedy. This excellent comedic team is completed and complemented by John Norton.

An actor of great intelligence and sensitivity, he clearly is having a great time bringing his baby into the world and giving the packed audience bemusingly good value for their money. He gives us childlike Milliganesque comedy one moment, then rapidly transforms himself into a kind of beneficent Mr Cleese. But it is his own personal warmth, always inviting us into the performance that spreads a mood of delight over much of the show.

But it is a desperate tale exploring the lower aspects of human existence, nihilism, and the meaning of life. What they discover, along with Kafka is that often life has very little meaning and it’s all a pathway to annihilation. There is a danger that the show becomes a victim of its own philosophy and moments of actual performance tedium do creep in. Some of the choreography, devised from the original story could be tightened up and made more apposite. The overall pace of the show needs moving along and with a little bit cut off the end, this new company will have brought a new and original look at performance art to Cardiff.
Michael Kelligan
A Bucket Rider
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Chapter Arts Centre , Cardiff
Franz Kafka’s short story on which this performance is based is indeed a short story. Very short. So short that Sean Tuan John’s production for Steepways Productions, in stretching it to over an hour of non-stop action, has to repeat the story lots of times – including once entirely in German.

So at least there’s no excuse for not getting the storyline, about a man needing coal who flies across the city on his coal bucket. And yet…

It isn’t the storyline, of course, that the original, or John Norton’s concept, or Anne Siegel’s revised translation, much less Steepways Productions’ show, is about – and the constant retelling of it, by the process of reductio ad absurdum, is designed to rob it of any obvious sense.

But that’s surrealism for you, forever plunging us into the subconscious world of apparent irrationality, with or without any intent to find meaning in life.

And indeed this multi-media production could reinforce any suspicion that this is all about style rather than content, about performance rather than substance. There’s the silent-movie mode, the animated-film mode, the original-language mode and so on.

Sean Tuan John, I guess, is a seriously whacky (or is that whackily serious) theatre-maker who is fascinated by the surreal, the juxtaposition of the deadpan and the extreme, the mundane and the bizarre, so Kafka is natural territory for his choreographic and directing talents.

And in terms of ambition this is quite a remarkable piece – Steepways (a Cardiff-based media production company founded by Anne Siegel, Jonathon Ruddick and Matt Mullins) incorporate not just a distinctive performance style, including aerial flying, but a distinctive set (from Rhys Meyrick) and film animation (Matthew Wright).

With nods to Mack Sennett and Robert Wiene, Paul Klee and Samuel Becket, as well as commedia dell’arte and grand guignol, expressionism and dada, A Bucket Rider is a knowing cross-genre homage.

But it isn’t really fair to label this purely postmodernist self-indulgence, because there’s a plot of a kind to the whole thing, the voyage of discovery made by the three actors as they initially grope for words through retelling and reinventing to a lyrical ending – but you did need to read the synopsis before the show started or the essential concept of the protagonists being silent-movie actors could escape you for the duration of the performance.

However, apart from the starting-point not being that clear, does it ever really get off the drawing-board, this exercise ?

Not for me, I’m afraid, because it seemed like a fascinating idea that was almost self-defeating – push something to its limits and it does become not only absurd but boring.

There’s a lot of talent here (with individual and intelligent performances from a distinctive trio of John Norton, Alex Alderton and Sally Marie) and a real sense of style that as yet doesn’t necessarily add up to a satisfying audience experience.
David Adams
A Bucket Rider
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Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff
THIS REVIEW FIRST APPEARED IN PLANET MAGAZINE No 175, FEB 2006, and is used here with their permission....

Kafka on Stage

How many laughs can you wring out of poverty and starvation? A Bucket Rider, the comedy inspired by Franz Kafka’s (very) short story of the same name, manages quite a few. There’s not much to laugh at in the original: a man, perishing from the cold and so thin from starvation that he can literally sail into the air on his coal bucket, flies off to beg a shovelful of coal from the merchant. While the merchant is just about prepared to give up a scrap of coal, his wife wafts the beggar away with her apron; he is lost forever in the ice mountains. Chilly beginning, chilly ending.

If you’ve ever read Kafka, you’ve probably wondered at the description “comedy” and then wondered why your sides weren’t splitting; “absurd” more accurately hits the nail on the head. This production, directed by renowned choreographer Sean Tuan John, gives absurd in as many ways as it can. John shakes out a myriad ways of re-enacting the tale with three actors, three chairs and a very large coal bucket — an ambitious approach to something that is barely more than the length of a film synopsis, but that only proves what can be squeezed out of Kafka’s imagery of the fantastic.

We have the silent movie interpretation, with irreverent subtitles on a screen behind the actors:

“What did he say? I missed it.”
“Probably some very insightful speech about poverty from Kafka.”

Makes you think of Bob Geldof & Co on TV making appeals to the public, all blending together until it’s just a lot of frenetic noise.

There’s the cabaret version, as the girls mime to a pre-recorded, smoky voice reading out the story; very Liza Minnelli. There’s the animated version (by Matthew Wright), with a smoking skeleton hopping on a bicycle to the merchant’s. There’s the radio version, where the stage is dark and every action is described in excruciating detail to the audience: “I enter stage right which is your left”; “Vanya, who is a woman with a man’s name, exits on the coal bucket in the wrong direction.” Lights go up, and there’s Vanya, astride her enormous coal bucket, vanishing back stage. She gallops back and the audience is laughing at the sheer farce. Because, let’s face it, the idea of a man flying to his death on a coal bucket is sheer farce.

Then there’s the alternative ending, where the beggar gets his shovelful of coal and goes home to a nice, toasty evening. Not an ending that Kafka ever came up with, you can bet.

And the last version — the director’s cut. With its cross-eyed actors (Sally Marie bending her body until she looks like a doleful oil painting of a peasant woman) and John Norton singing the story in a falsetto worthy of something Norwegian and meaningful, the director’s cut is a skit on all the art-house films you’ve ever endured. And yet, it’s also the most poignant version, as Norton is actually winched up in front of the screen, which plays Wright’s vaulting animation of the journey through the town, above the buildings, to the coal merchant’s house. For a moment, we soar with the beggar, hopeful and light, only to be waved away to the ice mountains.
There was just one moment of tedium, as actors criss-crossed the stage, hugging plastic skeletons, pronouncing funny/meaningful modern phrases: “I could murder a burger”, “I’m a bit peckish”, “Poverty is no laughing matter”. Fine for a moment or two, but after a while it was dull, the phrases not exciting enough. It was the only point at which I felt lectured.

A Bucket Rider is a physically beautiful, well thought out production. From the monochrome sets that are both reminiscent of silent movies and straight out of the film Beetlejuice, to Wright’s clever animation, nothing is extraneous. Sean Tuan John choreographs the actors’ movements with witty and effective simplicity. They don’t exactly dance, but they do express comic melodrama in every gesture and expression. They can be frenetic and they can be still, lending a varied pace to the performance.
The production is also intelligent. There is a loose, modern approach to the original that allows some lovely asides from the actors that prick any bubble of pretension — “I’m a bit peckish” says one, only to be told “If you’re hungry, I’ve got a cheese sandwich in the dressing room”; and from an impatient Sally Marie as the other actors tell the story all over again: “I’m still floating on my coal bucket...” This take on A Bucket Rider isn’t just in it for the laughs, though; there’s modern social commentary as the question of poverty is always, disappointingly, relevant. The coal merchant’s wife wafting that problem away with her apron becomes a metaphor for us all. She’s also the scared creature that protects its own, and to hell with everyone else. Nimbyism in the nineteen hundreds.

There’s also an eye to Kafka’s own cultural heritage (a schizophrenic mix of German speaking Czech Jew) and the situations that informed his writing. Kafka loved theatre and film — the latter a newly burgeoning medium; he equated the struggle of troupes of actors with the struggle to survive that engages us all; he wrote of the useless appeal of the innocent in the face of authority. We’re given three actors, apparently terrified in the face of the audience, pleading their cause. They’re from Kafka’s own silent movie era, with all the overblown expressions and ridiculous movements that match the acute sense of the ridiculous which pervades Kafka’s work. All three are incredibly strong in this arena of farce: Alex Alderton has the dramatic visage of a real silent movie heroine and Sally Marie manages to look like she’s a dying consumptive who can also do a turn at sexy if you ask. John Norton is just plain good.
A Bucket Rider makes for an entertaining hour, but is there an actual point to its absurd humour and physical farce? Beyond stirring some comparisons between poverty today and poverty in Kafka’s time, the point, for me, lies on a very literary level. By delivering a story in so many ways, the story is exposed, laid before the audience. Look at it this way, look at it like that. Find some way to understand it, to hear the poetry; to be the man riding on his coal bucket, lost forever to the ice mountains.

A Bucket Rider, Steepways Production, directed by Sean Tuan John, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, 19-21 January.
Alex Carolan

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