New vehicle for Stewart Lee as he prepares for performance at Norwich Arts Centre
12:19 26 April 2014
(C)2011 steve ullathorne, all rights reserved
Stewart Lee is a comedian who divides opinion. For everyone who raved about the recent third run his BBC2 series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, there were plenty who hated it — and hate isn’t too strong a word as he seems to provoke opinions just as strong as those who often espouses on stage.
Called a slime-pit of bitterness by the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir — “I always think it’s nice to counter-balance the good press so people aren’t going to come along under false pretences...to show it’s all a matter of opinion” — his recent live show, Much A-Stew About Nothing, touches on everything from parental alcoholism, shoplifting and urban foxes to vasectomies, Anglo Saxon poetry and Judith Chalmers.
His latest project is unlikely to win over the comedy doubters, especially as it marks a change of direction from stand-up into music — but music of an avant-garde type, which is probably like a red rag to the bull of those who accuse him of being pretentious.
It sees him seated reading the anthology of short stories, epigrams and mini-essays which celebrated experimental composer John Cage recorded in 1959 while his regular collaborator, David Tudor, performed improvised music in another room.
Cage’s Indeterminacy is available as a cardboard box of 90 cards of 90 stories of different lengths, and a leaflet of instructions: “Read the stories aloud, with or without accompaniment, paced so that each takes one minute. A stop-watch or watch with a second hand will help keep time. Read all 90 stories in order or select a smaller number, using chance procedures or not.”
While Stewart, a fan of ultra-left field music, reads the cards at Norwich Arts Centre next week, part of a revival tour of a project he initially performed in 2012, musical improvisers Tania Chen and Steve Beresford will provide an unrelated accompaniment using everything from the piano to found objects like plastic laptops designed to teach children to spell.
Meanwhile The Conspirators of Pleasure, an improvisational ensemble with Poulomi Desai (prepared sitar), Seth Ayyaz (Middle Eastern percussion and electronics) and Simon Underwood (bass, circuit bent instruments and electronics) will also perform.
If that sounds way too much like high brow hard work, fear not. Stewart’s comic timing hasn’t deserted him and his delivery teases out the humour in every Cage story.
“I thought it would be a lot more serious — then Steve Beresford told me to look at Cage performing Water Walk on an American TV show back in 1950,” the comedian says of his involvement.
“Harry Hill actually performed it at the South Bank Centre, which he did, absolutely dead-on. Just like John Cage. So in some ways it did seem like Vic Reeves or Monty Python — Cage invites the audience to accept there’s some point in doing what he’s doing and then does it totally straight — which is what all the best comics do. It’s hilarious and beautiful.”
The links between comedy and the avant garde, the supposedly po-faced bastion of high seriousness, aren’t that unusual. The late improv guitarist Derek Bailey was a member of the Morecambe and Wise house band, Lee points out; while Steve Beresford put together Vic Reeves’ house band.
“One of the liberating things about watching Cage on Water Walk is that he accepts the derisory laughter as a valid response to his work. I think that’s great,” writes Stewart in an article explaining the project. “I don’t believe he wasn’t aware at some level that the stories, when juxtaposed at random, wouldn’t produce comic effects. They’re a mixture of the pretentiously philosophical and the banally mundane. A disproportionate number of them have a lot to do with mushrooms – not the magic ones, just mushrooms.
“I think my involvement will bring in a lot of people with very little knowledge of John Cage who will go there and realise they have permission to laugh – not that I’ll be playing it for laughs. Cage’s instructions are ‘performance without expression’.”
That is very different to live stand-up comedy, which he finds exciting in its unpredictability, opposed to the stage-managed atmosphere of the TV studio.
“There’s always a sense no matter how well a TV recording goes it’s never going to be quite as good as the live thing because there aren’t the variables.
“It’s like two things working at cross purposes; on the one hand you want to get the material you’ve worked out down at its best possible form. On the other, you’re hoping it goes a bit wrong so it has the flavour of being a real one-off event. To introduce a bit of chaos into it, however small can seem really radical on television.”
Looking back, it’s hard to believe but it’s been 20 years since Stewart and Richard Herring did the pilot for the anarchic sketch show Fist of Fun. A couple of years ago the two were told the BBC had no plans to release it or follow-up show This Morning With Richard Not Judy on DVD.
“We got a little cartel of people together and bought it off them and sell it ourselves at gigs,” says Stewart.
Funnily, he doesn’t have very fond memories of the time.
“It was very stressful and we lost quite a lot of money, we were toured in a non-cost effective way and it wasn’t much fun. I hadn’t looked at Fist of Fun, the first series...I don’t remember writing it, some of it I don’t remember ever filming.
“For the first time I could see what people must have liked about it. It was a relief to be honest because you always worry its rubbish, I thought it was pretty good,” he roars with laughter.
n Indeterminacy by John Cage with Stewart Lee, Norwich Arts Centre, April 26, 8pm, £12 (£10 cons), 01603 660352, www.norwichartscentre.co.uk