Literary Death Match, London, 18th May 2015

I spent Monday night in a Spiegeltent. I do love a Spiegeltent. They are a large canvas and wooden structure, hung with mirrors and big, round, hanging lamps, with circus-style seating and wooden booths around the edge. Sitting there, amongst the rest of the audience, I could see the trapeze swings strapped to the striped ceiling above, but rather than circus acrobats, I was, in fact, there to see writer and poet performers at the ‘Literary Death Match’. There was however, a ringmaster, taking charge of the action, the excellently-quiffed Adrian Todd Zuniga.

He kept us entertained with literary snippets, from biting comments from one author to another, to recounting strange exploits of writers, before and between introducing the Death Match action. There are two initial rounds. At each round, two writers speak for 7 minutes or less (or maybe a few illicit moments over), reading their own literary works. They are then judged on their literary merit, performance, intangibles, and on Monday night, super intangibles, by a series of judges, before the winner is chosen. The winner from each round goes forward to complete in a fast-paced, hilarious last round, with a little help from some audience members, before that night’s champion is announced.

There is a lot to love about the Death Match. It’s great to find a night that celebrates prose writing in an involving and visual way. The audience has all the excitement of a group of people who have thought that their encyclopaedic knowledge of 19th century English novels or 20th century American classics would go unappreciated and unused all their lives, only to discover a night where shouting ‘Sense and Sensibility’ could rouse a huge cheer and a hug from Nat Luurtsema.

That said, I was sat next to Mr Story, who is not much of a reader, and he was laughing uproariously. This is not a book-geek fest where your knowledge is tested. While the readings by the authors are at the centre of the action, they are the calm, the hushed listening of the audience, amid the storm of laughter, as the judges try to out-do each other, garnering laughs and cheering during each feedback.

The judges were great. They were Molly McGrann, Cariad Lloyd, Marcel Lucont and David Cross. Marcel Lucont was extremely funny as the most French man you can possibly imagine, and I’m hoping to see him again this summer. Four speeches of feedback after each reading was a little time-consuming, and Adrian Todd Zuniga could have been a bit tighter with the time, but the judges’ comments were generally funny, so it was mostly forgivable.

In rounds one and two, where the writers read their work, we heard extracts from a young adult novel by Nat Luurtsema, a chapter about a claustrophobic Welsh Christmas from Dan Tyte, a short story about a strange night in a rural pub by Joe Dunthorne, and poetry about the life of an LA actress by Amber Tamblyn.

It was easy to recognise the writers who had backgrounds in comedy (Luurtsema), and poetry performance (Joe Dunthore, and, of course, Amber Tamblyn). They looked extremely comfortable on stage, performing their words, and interacting with the audience and judges. Through all the readings I was reminded how nice it is to be read to. It should happen more often. I did, rather churlishly, wonder to Mr Story, if Amber reading poetry was a bit cheat-y. Poetry lends itself to performance more than prose, so I thought perhaps it wasn’t a level playing field. But then, it was hardly a hard-nose competitive championship.

The finale of the evening came as the last round, between the two previous round winners – Nat Luurtsema and Amber Tamblyn. They each stood on opposite sides of the stage, flanked by two volunteer audience members – their team, to play the decider, ‘One Star Wonder’. Adrian Todd Zuniga read out a series of one-star Amazon reviews of classic books, and Amber or Nat, or members of their team, had to buzz, and won points with a correct answer. The audience was split down the middle, and shouted out answers too, to help their corresponding teams. This was an exciting, hectic round, with all the brilliant bizarreness of one star Amazon reviews, and an increasingly loud and competitive audience. I have just found a one star review to provide you with an example. It says of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Basically these old fashioned girls that nobody cares about act stupidly about foppish gentlemen’, I’m rather worried that the rest of my afternoon could be spent down a one-star review seeking rabbit hole. Talking of rabbit holes, I also found a one star review that said that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is ‘the product of a straight lace[d] librarian trying to think as though they were hallucinating.’

Before I go off to spend the rest of my afternoon looking through one star reviews of classic books, I shall heartily recommend the Literary Death Match. It’s extremely funny and full of energy, and it’s great to hear authors reading their work.

The Literary Death Match tours all over the place – it’s next in Helskinki. It will be in London for one night on 29th May, so do get yourselves there. 

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