Brand new or just brand?, asked the message board as we exited from DV8 Physical Theatre’s show at the Tate Modern. Well, not brand new: Living Costs is a partial though substantial reworking of Cost of Living, which choreographer Lloyd Newson originally made for the Sydney Olympics arts festival in 2000. Just brand? A pertinent question, and a central theme of the piece, which takes the audience on a tour through the Tate. Moving up through its levels, we witness scenes ranging from low-art clowning to high-art modern ballet, by way of vaudeville, pop, circus and fashion.
a combination of smooth-talking arts presenter and slick PR professional
Our host is Wendy Houstoun, a combination of smooth-talking arts presenter and slick PR professional. Communicating via the headphones we all wear, she steers us through the building to ensure that we have a ‘rich and happy experience’, prompting us with tour-guide commentary lest we pause in doubt. ‘Newson moves us to a higher level,’ she urges, as we ascend an escalator. ‘The wheels of fortune keep turning,’ she offers, while circus artist Kareena Oates hula-hoops a ring of fire.
In the ground-level turbine hall there are bored clowns, cheesy muzak, and an usherette with the voice of an angel who cajoles the audience into a banal singalong. A cast of sequinned Ziegfeld Follies girls (both male and female) descend the escalator to participate in a game show (‘Up for Grabs’) in which everyone is a contestant but no one a winner. Houstoun sizes them up, from pliant ballet girl Talia Paz through overweight Thom Fogarty to septuagenarian Diana Payne-Myers (‘strong foundation, but the cracks are showing’). Higher up, Rowan Thorpe bops ecstatically to ultra-bland Celine Dion, and rows of identikit models in chic black numbers announce the ‘Tate 2003 Collection’, accompanied by seductive, sedative dinner-jazz music in which you can almost hear the subliminal message ‘buy me, buy me’.
We move on up, past living exhibit Payne-Myers, naked on a plinth labelled ‘Please Touch’, past Fogarty egging us on to see the ballet girls spread their legs, like a sleazy freakshow host selling his fairground attraction. And the finale, on the top floor: a trio of dancer-types going through starkly minimal motions, all pointy feet and pointy arms. Their choreography is no great shakes, but the stunning backdrop of the night-time cityscape lends the scene a cool, metropolitan sophistication. Ah, location, location…
Bolshy Scotsman Eddie Kay is having none of it. Ripping off his clown mask, he rants: I hate this job, where’s my minimum wage, what are you looking at? Later, he pogos agitatedly but ineffectually, his rebellious posturing constrained by the dead weight of Thorpe’s impassive hand resting on his shoulder. At the end Kay gives the dancers the slow-hand clap, pissed off as ever.
the show carries a frisson of risk without packing the punch of a challenge
Like the art, the audience is stratified, divided into colour-coded groups. Some sit, some stand, and a tiny elite (I was one) is given preferential treatment as if they were corporate sponsors – or press reviewers. Living Costs probes the hierarchies of art and audience, who gets to the top and who’s left out in the cold, what we buy into when we buy a ticket, the gap between the come-on and the pay-off. But the ideas are stronger than the execution, which often mirrors rather than ironises its subject (witness the bland film projection ‘commissioned by Tat’). Consequently – and disappointingly, given Newson’s track record – the show carries a frisson of risk without packing the punch of a challenge. Which is probably fine by the sponsors. ‘Is this the revenge of capitalism against postmodernism?’ purrs spin-meister Houstoun. Your call.