by Rachel Beaumont

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Not as easy as it looks: The Gender Agenda at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Gender Agenda and Illusions
London Sinfonietta
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Stalls E4, £15
12 April 2018
Southbank page

The premiere of 4.48 Psycosis engendered in me a lot of respect for Philip Venables, and so I didn’t think at all when booking a ticket for The Gender Agenda. As the date approached my second thoughts kicked in, prompted primarily by alarmist emails from the Southbank Centre. One warned of a preceding ‘informal cabaret-style performances exploring issues of gender’ in the foyer, another that ‘parts of The Gender Agenda require audience participation and you may be asked to take part. There is no obligation to do so, but we do hope you consider joining in, in the spirit of the work’. I’m not sure what these emails can do beyond deter people or make them worried, and in hindsight I think they’re indicative of concern about a slowly emerging product that diverges from the original commission.

If the Southbank was itself having second thoughts about awarding the opening of the refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall to The Gender Agenda, then they were right to do so. This is not to say that I thought The Gender Agenda was an unmitigated disaster; to my mind Venables emerges from it almost as sincere, earnest and well-meaning as he did from 4.48 Psychosis. It’s also in the nature of experiments that some of them must fail. Nevertheless, where The Gender Agenda fails it fails hard, enough to make me want to shake myself and demand if I really, really want to be a guinea pig for such things, and if they really deserve my sacrifice.

The experiment of The Gender Agenda is that it is a game show about gender. It has games and baloney and adverts and all the crap you expect from a game show. It also has the London Sinfonietta and an attentive conductor in Jennifer Cottis, who, like the rest of us, spend most of the time sitting around not doing anything while we wait for Hoyle to finish his current portion of crap. This already sounds to me like a recipe for a slow evening; add in the fact that everyone seemed to have relied on Hoyle being naturally entertaining without actually rehearsing him to verify the fact and it gets even slower. And so we have all the ingredients of a game show except the ruthless drive to entertain – something I suspect is rather more difficult to achieve than director Ted Huffman seems to think it is – which results in something that for all its well-meaningness can’t help but be boring, fatuous and disrespectful to its audience.

What made it not an unmitigated disaster? Venables’s music was squeezed into the jingles and advertisements. I could have done without the frenetic pseudo-jingles (again, I sense the real thing is harder than it looks) and I’m sad to have it affirmed that the dramatically potent use of muzak in 4.48 Psychosis is just a thing that Venables does. But the adverts, all three minutes’ worth of them, had a wit and energy and openness and communicative fervour that I thought was worth listening to. It’s such a shame Venables and his collaborators thought it made sense to water this down with so much waste-of-time drivel.

Another problem with The Gender Agenda, aside from its existence, was that few people returned after the interval to hear the far more accomplished Illusions. This is another co-creation with Hoyle and, with a bit more guidance and much less of being hung out to dry, he’s more able to come into his own. The upside of this is that his venomous wit and febrile verbal imagery comes to the fore, energetically set by Venables in music and video and played blisteringly by the Sinfonietta. The downside is that this is by design shouty and echo-chambery stuff, railing so furiously against everything and everyone that by the end it looks like a parody of itself – far easier to criticize than the gentler sincerity of Venables’s ads in The Gender Agenda. Lastly, neither of these amplification-heavy pieces are a good fit for the newly boomy QEH.

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