Preview: Letters to Windsor House
Funny and fierce cabaret-inflected piece of performance art from Sh!t Theatre which delves into the nation's housing crisis
This article is from 2016.
If the Fringe has become more of an arts market than a celebration of alternative performance – with well-recognised companies vying for attention alongside plucky outsiders and students – Sh!t Theatre are an example of the more experimental edge that still maintains a strong presence. Having become a fixture at Summerhall, and sitting comfortably within the venue's mix of British and European avant-garde shows, the duo from London fly the flag for accessible, witty yet challenging performance art.
Letters to Windsor House takes the recognisable Sh!t Theatre style and applies it to a subject that was inspired by a familiar, yet rarely explored, phenomenon. 'We, like many renters, kept receiving letters to previous tenants,' say Louise Mothersole and Becca Biscuit. 'We got loads. We got attached to them. When we moved flat we brought them with us. We collected them, we separated them out by name and started trying to guess the lives of the people.' From this unlikely genesis, they began to develop a show.
Through a series of workshops with homeless groups, the obsession with other people's mail evolved into a more political concern. 'One of the underlying themes of the show is the housing crisis and instability,' they continue. This reflection on current issues is a hallmark of their work, as other shows have tackled women's status in society, drug testing and life on the dole, all given the particular Sh!t Theatre slant.
In Letters, they take their starting point from found objects and allow them to guide their process. 'In our flat at Windsor House, we also started receiving strange-shaped packages. We became obsessed. We decided to open the mail and piece the previous tenants' lives together.'
This obsessiveness informs a righteous anger at the heart of Letters: despite the royal associations of the house's name, it's in a run-down estate and their deliberately amateur video footage reveals scenes of urban decay. Their on-stage banter may be funny, but the fantasy lives they invent for the previous tenants paint a picture of a nation in which financial hardship is too easily imagined.
The uneasy mixture of hard facts and surreal silliness is partially why Sh!t Theatre remain in the margins of mainstream theatre. 'We like to consider our work within the performance art tradition,' they explain. 'Our work also fits within the tradition of DIY performance.
'We both went to Queen Mary University of London where any love of conventional theatre was beaten out of us. The void was then filled with performance art,' they explain. Performance art is not always associated with fun or accessibility, yet the playfulness of the pair has attracted comparisons with British vaudeville's knockabout humour and cabaret routines.
However, their influences include Taylor Mac, an American performer who is equally at home messing around with classic songs and writing scripts on a massive scale. Although there is little obvious in their approach that echoes Mac, the sense of fun, of audience engagement and, perhaps crucially, the seriousness of popular culture suggests a similar aesthetic.
Another influence – also from the queer schools of performance – is Split Britches. This New York group insist on drawing stories from everyday life, then filtering them through their distinctive combination of subversive stage strategies and distorted traditional structures. While Letters is not as explicitly feminist as earlier work Women's Hour, which parodied the genteel ideals of Radio 4's feminine programming, the very appearance of Sh!t Theatre reveals their roots in this provocative approach.
Despite this pedigree, their aims are immediate. 'We hope the audience will laugh, get angry, feel nostalgia and be generally informed and entertained,' they conclude. By finding the social implications in letters that usually end up in landfill or recycling, and bringing their episodic wit and intelligence into play, Sh!t Theatre make a deeper point about how politics is not just for elections, but threads through even the most trivial aspects of daily life.
Summerhall, until 28 Aug (not 22), 1.35pm, £6.