Friday, 21 February 2014

It must be love, love, love

A thought has been itching in my head for weeks now, a thought about love, and landscapes, and marriage, and Andy Field's new show with Ira Brand, Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine. A thought that I haven't found the time or space to formulate; a thought that, no matter how many times I sat down over Christmas and New Year to email Andy, refused to coalesce into words. But I'm in a new time zone now, and a new space, a hotel near Niagara Falls, surrounded by rough-tumble piles of hard-packed greying snow; and, perhaps most importantly, I'm alone. Somehow the thought about marriage felt shy of emerging with my husband hovering in the background.

I don't remember when Andy and I started talking about Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine, except that back then it was still called “I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories”. Maybe it was when he sent me an early text that Ira performed at Buzzcut in Glasgow in spring 2013 and I emailed him a bunch of thoughts it inspired about the intensity of looking a stranger in the eye, romance versus altruism, and the capitalist ideology enacted by Hollywood love stories. Maybe it was autumn 2012 when, with fizzing brain and palpitating heart, I read and re-read a talk he'd given in Nottingham, Political Art: A User's Manuel. In a section called Love dedicated to Rebecca Solnit, he quoted a passage of her life-enhancing book A Paradise Built in Hell, the bit celebrating “other loves”: the non-romantic loves you don't see in popular culture, that express themselves in genuine philanthropy – philia, friendship, for anthropi, (hu)mankind – a word narrowed and twisted by capitalism so it now connotes lofty patronage, rather than an active desire anyone might feel to make the world better, particularly for the powerless. At the end of that section on Love, Andy threw down a challenge:

I would like you to make a show about love
In which no one falls in love

Maybe he told me then that he was setting that challenge for himself.

In December just gone, I went to BAC to visit Andy, Ira and their producer, Beckie Darlington, in the middle of a two-week stint working on Sweet Hand. They showed me what they had made so far, then we sat in the cafe and wrangled over it. I say we: Andy and I wrangled, while every now and then Ira, whose head was cotton-woolly from a cold, would say that she finds it hard to work in the abstract in this way, that she makes by doing, trying, moving. What we were struggling to figure out was how the show could travel from a conventional romantic beginning – eyes meeting across a crowded room, the consuming sense of possibility generated in that moment of connection – to a contemplation of other loves: everything you might do or at least deliberate if you weren't constantly dreaming about those eyes/their possibility, but actively engaged with the world and more concerned with a wider philanthropy. At one point I said it was the difference between looking at someone and thinking, “I want to marry you, have children with you, live with you for the rest of our days”, or thinking, “I want to start a riot with you [and change the world].” It took me several weeks to realise that these weren't opposites: they were just different angles on the same romantic love story, so ingrained in my psyche that it's hard to see beyond it.

I really enjoyed the scratch showing a week later, even though it didn't quite work. The audience sat (and still do) in two rows facing each other, with a narrow pathway between; Andy and Ira sat (and still do) on opposite sides, but not opposite each other. When they speak, they don't look across at each other, but directly at the audience-member in front of them, so when their characters lock eyes at the beginning of the show, or bump into each other on the Paris metro, those initial stirrings of love are communicated outside of the couple, not within it. I happened to be sitting beside Andy that night, and watching the person opposite him was extraordinary: he knew he was at the heart of the story and there was a palpable electricity to that. But what the scratch didn't make clear was that everyone in the audience is at the centre of the story, everyone is invited to catch eyes with the stranger sitting opposite and imagine falling in love, or starting a riot – or eschewing the traditional romantic narrative altogether. It wasn't until close to the end, when we're instructed to hold hands with the person opposite and hold their gaze, that this potential connection was made, and that was too late.

The fragmentary structure of the piece felt really important: every time we were lulled into thinking about romantic love, crack, something happened to disrupt that. But somehow this never resulted in a contemplation of other loves. Until, that is, the final scene, when Andy and Ira took off their clothes and replaced them with dripping-wet outfits extracted from buckets of water, to play an apocalyptic disaster in which they stand at either end of the aisle and – in a mixture of quotes from Hollywood films – try to save each other, and everyone else. “It started as quite funny, but very very quickly became utterly devastating,” I wrote in my compulsory email to Andy. “It is shockingly romantic, the more so because of the distance between you. It is full of longing and desire and absence and need and yet when you talk it's about none of those things: it's anxiety for others, it's social care. I think it's the moment when you're doing both things at once: looking inside love and outside. Personal and political.”

The week after the scratch, Andy and co took Sweet Hand-making to ARC in Stockton, where they created an exquisite (I say this having only read Andy's report of it, but can't see how it could be otherwise) companion piece, I Want To Know What Love Is: a participatory work which involves people looking through a list of 100 types of love and, if they find one that relates to them, writing a few words about it, in return for a Casablanca thimble. If they don't find anything relevant, they get to smash the thimble. Oh it sounds perfect: a gorgeous invitation really to think about and celebrate other loves, loves for friends, for pets, for ideas, for places. The love of landscape, Andy told me later, emerged so strongly from this work; he hoped he would be able to get that into the show.

The word landscape snagged at my brain, and this is the thought I've been trying to prise out since. I see marriage as a kind of landscape, too. When you first fall in love, that landscape is verdant, all spring blossom and clover, but the further you travel across it, the more you notice its jagged stumbling stones, the steepness of its incline, the prickling gorse you have to avoid. The scamper across a soft grassy slope becomes a hike across a windswept moorland: ardour becomes arduous. That sounds unremittingly negative, maybe it is. But I can see the positives in it. Tough ground feels very sure beneath the feet. In August 2012, in the midst of a spectacularly dizzy high, when I felt I could be in love with almost everyone, it occurred to me how grateful I was for the security of marriage: I could enjoy this mind-spinning love for the people around me and still think about other things, get stuff done. Romantic love is distracting: as Andy wrote in that piece dedicated to Rebecca Solnit,

Perhaps love becomes a vacuum
In which we can’t hear the other things we’re trying to say

Love-in-marriage (and maybe by that I simply mean long-term love) isn't distracting: it's just there, a landscape of few defining features, stretching as far as the eye can see. No wonder popular culture has so little interest in it.

Thinking about marriage in this way, I realised that something has always troubled me about Solnit's celebration of other loves. I don't have the book with me so can't quote this accurately, but central to this idea is the story of an extraordinary woman who lived in the San Francisco area in the early part of the 20th century, who experienced the 1906 earthquakes as a child and was so emotionally struck by the charity people extended to each other that she decided not to marry but to devote herself to philanthropy. Whether intentionally or not, Solnit appears to convey here that marriage and other loves are mutually exclusive. But they're not. Marriage isn't a closing off from the world, but the terrain one walks across when opening up to it.

I tried to formulate something of that when Andy and I wrangled at BAC but it wouldn't come out then either. Perhaps it's not even relevant. But my inability to articulate a thought about another kind of love than the headily romantic feels part of the same problem as the one Andy (and Ira and Beckie) were grappling with when making Sweet Hand.

It was odd seeing the finished show on Saturday night (February 15); to be honest, I didn't properly see it, because I had spent the day metaphorically locked in a darkened room, cradling a broken heart (broken in the way that only love can break your heart), and was lost in a fog of misery. It's still an oblique and fragmentary piece, which requires its audience to make connections between disparate propositions, and on Saturday night I could barely identify the propositions, let alone connect them. And as I scan my memories of it, I'm not sure what belongs to Saturday night, and what to the December scratch. The invitation to connect with the person opposite is more clearly made at the beginning now, and there's a wonderful sequence in the middle where you're invited to gaze at each other, not into each other's eyes but through them to the mind behind, to its secret longings, fears and pains. Even so, I was surprised by how easy it is for people sitting just a metre apart to look at anything but the stranger in front of them. And the grip of the traditional romantic narrative felt even more tenacious in this version, particularly when Andy sings, in a fragile quaver, the Beach Boys' God Only Knows. I think it's brilliant that Sweet Hand ends with Foreigner's I Want To Know What Love Is, partly because it's a dreadful song that none the less makes me want to wave lighters in the air, partly because the show is genuinely saying that: I want to know what love is, I want you to show me. It's the perfect soundtrack to the journey Sweet Hand now takes, thinking about romantic love.

The day before I saw Sweet Hand, Valentine's Day (don't get me started on the pernicious manipulation of Valentine's Day), I spent a couple of hours volunteering at a centre dedicated to getting people into work. The vetting process for this had been fairly rigorous – I'd had to send in a CV and application form explaining why I wanted to volunteer, and talk all this through again on the phone and in person – and despite all that, the first question I was asked when I reported for duty was: “Why are you doing this? You're a mum, you work: why this as well?” As though the concept of philanthropy were utterly alien.

Popular culture could do so much to counter that, to create, as Solnit puts it, “maps of the human psyche with altruism, idealism, and even ideas on them”. What I've been trying to work out from within the fog of Saturday night is whether Sweet Hand still tries to create that map, or whether it simply talks about romantic love. I think Sweet Hand is many lovely things, but it's not a show about love in which no one falls in love. Like a child evading its parent's desires, it grew from that embryonic challenge into something else.

At least, that's the way I see it having spent so many months tracing its progress. And I might not have written about Sweet Hand at all, except that I'm in this hotel near Niagara to take part in a university conference about, among other things, “embedded criticism”, so I've been reconsidering what the gains and losses are in involvement in process of this kind. I couldn't see the finished version of Sweet Hand clearly because I was watching it through a personal-crisis fog – but also because the show isn't a single entity for me, it's split into twins. There's the living breathing show that's playing at BAC and about to tour, and then there's its ghost twin, a dream of a show about other loves that exists only in the ether. I sent an earlier version of this post to Andy, which I hope not too many people have read, which he felt was a value judgement on the show that exists. It's not: it's an observation about the weird perspective I have on it, a perspective I have from being involved in the process. I'm still wrestling with what that perspective means.

The conference, for anyone reading this on the day of publication, was set up by the amazing Karen Fricker, is taking place at Brock University in a small town in Canada that reminds me of Stockton, and is live-being streamed here (click on the live videos tab) and tweeted at #DARTcritics. The embedded panel is today at 4pm (9pm GMT), and also features Andy Horwitz of Culturebot, meeting whom has been an absolute privilege.





Monday, 10 February 2014

Eternity in an hour

[On 10 January 2014 I joined Ramble #3, part of Sheila Ghelani's ongoing Rambles With Nature, with an open invitation to document or respond to the event. This is what I wrote.]


1. a letter

dear sheila

i just sat down to write some of the things that have been tumbling through my head since the ramble earlier and of course as soon as i opened the clean white page i went blank. so i thought i'd write you a quick email instead to say thank you so much for having me along. it was in a funny way so reassuring to hear you talk about your uncertainty around what the day had been, its purpose and import; the phrases you used were so familiar from the way i talk about Dialogue [the long-term experiment with new approaches to writing/talking about theatre that I co-curate with Jake Orr]. i never know what that project is; it exists in a space of uncertainty; and as a result i feel constantly as though it's a failure. but at a party on wednesday i was talking to someone about Dialogue, and heard myself say that we shift the movement of air molecules enough to make changes seem a little more possible. that discovery was so comforting. i think rambles maybe possibly does something similar.

2. time is money is time is commodity is time

The clock outside the Royal Observatory squeezes all 24 hours into a single circle.
Midday is upside-down.
We are waiting for late arrivals and talking about time.
Time as a construct that we strain to control.
I'm running out of time.
I'll make up the time.
Passing time.
Spending time.

Time has become Death triumphant over all.”
(Actually I was thinking about train timetables. But this is the line that speaks to me now.)

This Ramble is a movement outside time, a removal from time's demarcations.
(So much so that I'm late for the school run.)
And yet, it too is bound by time,
locked inside a single hour, so relaxed, luxurious and slow at first,
but speeding up, until we feel time slip through our fingers
as tangibly as a skein of silk.

3. a line in the land

My children want to know about the equator; they ask:
Is it a real line in the earth?
If you went to the desert, would you see it?
Can you see it from space?

Near the top of the curved hillside path leading up to the Royal Observatory lies the Meridian line: a thin strip of metal slicing through the tarmac like a tram rail. I stand with other people's children, feet planted on either side of the world.

At night, a green laser light rises from this point to bisect the sky. This is my favourite discovery of the day. I look for the line down the weed-strewn hill, but there's no sign of it in the mud.

Instead there's the Thames, sinuous, ever surprising, splitting London in two. Defying geography, or at least simplistic assignations of north, south, east, west. My city is laid out like a geological slab: low, by the river, the cool white gleam of Georgian neo-classical architecture; towering above, the cold, metallic sheen of modern skyscrapers. London looks more international, less idiosyncratic, with every passing year.

Sweet Thames, run softly.

Sweet Thames, give us time: to stop, to drift, to ramble, to wander and wonder. Give us everything that cold, metallic sheen would burn away.

4. on the edge of conversation

Eight women, a photographer and me.
I'm here to record the conversations.

Sheila, Rajni, Mary, Shauna, Tiffany, Lucy, Susie, Tracey.
Eight women, all members of a collective, The Working Party.
And me.
I hover at the edge, listening.

Eight women, not all present, each with her own needs for this slim hour, this gift of time. Each following her own path, scattering like bees in search of pollen. I watch them disperse and feel a moment of confusion:

what am I here to record?

Three women, two, one, three, four. And me, at the edge, listening. To a conversation of murmurs, interwoven with birdsong, so easily lost beneath the rumble of planes, the loud percussive clatter of other people's chatter.

Conversation undulating like the landscape.
(Tiffany's phrase.)
(Undulating.)

Eight women engaged in a collective activity, understanding that each contribution might require solitude.
Grateful for the generosity of the invitation: how you do this is up to you.
Somewhat anxious about how rambling looks to the outside world.

Why are you walking alone?”
Why are you, a woman, walking alone?”
Why don't you have a dog?”
These are real questions Tiffany has faced when walking alone in the park.

This Ramble is a movement outside time, a removal from its demarcations,
its expectations.
It is, perhaps, a small act of revolution: reclaiming time for a different kind of work.

Eight women, gathered as The Working Party, struggling to understand how to gather and how to work.
And me, at the edge, listening.

5. in transition (i)

In moments of solitude, I notice the trees.
The single tree, isolated in a windswept plain,
branches bent in a reluctant arc,
so stubborn.
The unnerving bulbous swell of ancient chestnuts.
Twisted bodies and thrusting arms,
and a frowning face, nose high and round, erupting from a trunk.

I notice the trees the way I do when travelling on trains,
in moments of transition, between times.
Today I'm in transition, between an old life and a new.
I don't know where I'm travelling
but this Ramble is part of the journey
and I'm glad.

6. inside (a walking reference library)

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.
The passage from Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending that I happened to read on the morning of the Ramble.

A third dimension for thinking about cracks is that of time. This is a crucial dimension of struggle. … We come together and share a project of some sort, in an event, a meeting, a series of meetings; or we go down into the streets in a moment of celebration or anger. Later, perhaps, we disperse and go our different ways, but while we are together, our project, celebration or rage may create an otherness, a different way of doing or relating.
John Holloway's Crack Capitalism, illuminating the world that exists not-yet.

Time, all the long red lines, that take
Control, of all the smoke-like streams that flow into your
Dreams...
Holes, by Mercury Rev.

That life is brief was continually lamented. Time was death's agent and one of life's constituents. But the timeless – that which death could not destroy – was another. All cyclic views of time held these two constituents together: the wheel turning, and the ground on which it turned.
The mainstream of modern thought has removed time from this unity and transformed it into a single, all-powerful and active force. In so doing it has transferred the spectral character of death to the notion of time itself. Time has become Death triumphant over all.
John Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, not so much a book as an elixir.

7. edges

I trace the edges of the park: not just its outer walls but its inner enclosures, fenced and oddly forbidding. The tennis court, the bowling green, the flower garden, the rose garden. Neat, contained areas conveying rules and civilisation. Beyond the ornate gate lies Blackheath, an unfenced sprawl of common land, flat and featureless. Free.

Thick box hedges protect a sunken tiled bath, this and a high brick wall all that remains of Montague House. Once upon a time all this was private land.

Behind a high wire fence, a family of deer in a simulation of a forest. Their stillness so absolute, it's hard to tell if they're real.

8. in transition (ii)

Where trees are evergreen you can almost believe it's summer. The relief of bright sun after days of heavy rain. Thick dark leaves like silhouettes against a clean blue sky. Just the cool of the air and the paucity of flowers giving the season away.

No one mentions the hellebores. Waxy white petals turning inwards from the path, framed by pale pistachio leaves. Self-absorbed, or shy perhaps. Always hard to tell.

We stand in the rose garden, reading the names.
Ice Cream.
Amber Queen.
Ingrid Bergman.
Lady Maris Pettigrew.
Mountbatten.
Troika.
Peacekeeper.
Bonfire Night.
All dead. Or rather, sleeping. Gnarled stalks rise from the raw earth like claws. Waiting, needing the rebirth of spring.

Growth follows the knife, so the gardeners say.
Cut out the dead wood and throw it away.
Revitalise, regenerate.
Let new life come.

Autumn leaves still crunch beneath our feet.

9. oh yes, the conversations

I hover at the periphery of sadness and exhaustion and a group of women I hardly know, listening.

They talk about time.
In relation to astronomy.
Paying for time.
The names of the dogs we pass: Parsley, Flaxon, Lollipop.
Not wanting to be alone.
Worrying about what this day might be.
The need for hope in January, that abundance will return.
Not wanting to impose a familiarity with the landscape upon those for whom it is new.
The view through a camera lens.
A silent protest.
Painful feet.
Emily Dickinson.
Squirrels.
The deliciousness of the hour and wanting it again.
A day too beautiful to take in.

The group as a constellation, spread out across the park.
Recognising each other in strangers.
Taking pleasure in surprise.
The fertility of not knowing but discovering.
The difference between intention and attention.
The fine line between a waste of time and a use of time that hasn't been defined.

A space for breathing.
Trusting yourself to remember.

Wondering what it all means.

10. the remains of the day

Taking quiet pleasure in a bush of viburnum
(I got the name wrong, of course),
clusters of tiny white flowers, fragile yet firm,
breathing in their heaven scent.

And a line of misremembered poetry:
time please ladies, time sweet ladies,
time please

[Sheila Ghelani is also documenting Rambles With Nature on her blog. If you're in London, an exhibition of cinepoems by straybird, made in response to Ramble #1, is at the Siobhan Davies Dance Studio until March 2. Here is Sheila's brief description of Ramble #3:

A purposefully quick ramble, #3 will consist of a series of performed conversations undertaken through, in and alongside a series of hedgerows. These conversations will be undertaken by members of The Working Party: Mary Paterson (producer and writer), Rajni Shah (performance maker), Suzy Shrubb (musician), Tracey Low (producer), Shauna Concannon (academic / digital artist), Tiffany Charrington (live artist), Lucy Cash (interdisciplinary artist) and Sheila.]

Thursday, 16 January 2014

and in with the new (plus Vanity 11, Carrie Cracknell)

On the days I was writing this piece about Carrie Cracknell, a jury found the shooting of Mark Duggan to be lawful.

This got stuck in my head walking to school:


(assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault THE LAW!)

Several fire stations were closed in London.

Amiri Baraka died. I love the opening lines from his Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, written when he was still LeRoi Jones:

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for the bus...

Things have come to that.

I went to the launch party of my friend Sam's book, her first, a feminist-literary-criticism-memoir (not only has she written a book, she's invented a genre!), and watched in what was probably forlorn envy as she signed books for her friends, and wondered why I felt to ask her myself would be tacky. I had a long conversation with someone who knows cast members of Nirbhaya, who fumed at the lack of emotional or psychological support given to those women telling their stories of being raped; and I was generally doleful about how, for an industry dedicated to expressions of empathy, theatre is astonishingly uncaring (the show's the thing). I also learned that an Actionette friend was fired by Marie Claire just before Christmas, then phoned by them just after New Year because they had a hole on their pages and would she be OK to fill it?

Andrew Haydon's Postcards from the Gods blog shot up from essential to why would you bother reading anything else?

I spent 45 minutes in a branch of Nationwide opening little savings accounts for my kids, and contemplating how doing stuff online lets me, everyone, forget how a lot of people live. Exacerbates my impatience. Makes literature oddly vital as a site of encounter with other cultures, people without privilege. A thought mostly connected to reading Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners between Christmas and New Year: what an exquisite novel, so direct in its realisation that nothing is right, so radiant with hope. The pages about the natural affinity between London's immigrant black and working-class white communities are fiercely political yet tender; the final pages, addressing the impossibility of leaving London, the way this city claims you as its own, burrowed to the heart of my own family's immigrant experience.

Fergus Evans told the Guardian via twitter that I should be included on an alternative Stage 100 theatre list, for continuing to challenge what a critic should be.

I wrote an email to Mark Ball, artistic director of LIFT, who employed me in November to create editorial copy for their 2014 programme brochure being published in February, to say thank you: “The ongoing shifts in theatre practice are absolutely crying out for shifts in media coverage: I'm completely astounded that I'm getting to do this with you. This isn't flattery: the Guardian called me two days ago to say they're terminating my contract... There is so much really stupid thinking around arts organisations commissioning their own magazines: I feel like with this brochure you're giving me the space to create something that has journalistic integrity, yet the bouncy excitedness that will get people buying tickets. Fucking brilliant.” (This was before people started making me rewrite my copy: even in paradise, there is compromise.)

And, yes, the Guardian phoned me to tell me they're not going to renew my contract in March.

*

Sometimes my work feels like the most important thing in the world. And sometimes it feels like a colossal waste of time.

Sometimes I feel like the only thing that's important to me is to write about theatre, because to do so is to write about society, politics, feminism, anti-capitalism, inequality, privilege, poverty, psychology, parenting, climate change, art, cinema, books, long walks in the countryside, immigrant experience, second-generation immigrant experience, belonging, not belonging, crowded urban living, utopian longing, the poleaxing confusion of “how you live with other people [and] how you live with yourself”. It doesn't matter that a piece on here attracts maybe 300 hits (of that, how many people actually read to the end? Or past the first paragraph?). If I can bolster, challenge, inspire, entertain, incite into some kind of positive action one or two people each time, that's enough.

Sometimes I think, unless I'm trying to communicate with a massive audience, trying to effect real change in understanding and appreciation of theatre at a micro level, the world at macro, what the fuck am I doing with my life?

A jury found the shooting of Mark Duggan to be lawful and several London fire stations were closed last week. Who knows, maybe I could be doing something about that.

*

I've been expecting the call from the Guardian for almost as many years as I've been freelancing. By the standards of writers' pay, I've been being overpaid. I worked out that I got paid roughly £44 an hour for the Carrie Cracknell piece. That's patently ludicrous. Under the new pay terms, I'd get closer to £28 an hour. As an isolated figure, that's still ludicrous.

There are no isolated figures.

This month I'm writing two features for the Guardian; from September to December I wrote none. It's not that I didn't pitch features: three out of four ideas I send are rejected, and even those accepted don't always work out. That's natural, but time-consuming. I spent the weeks doing a combination of unpaid work, freelance work, and applications for grants, both of which were rejected. I love my work. But it's still work. And I'm constantly working. Sometimes I wonder what there is to show for it.

In the conventional sense, my Guardian salary was the thing to show for it. It's also been a security blanket. Last summer, Andrew Haydon asked why I don't have the courage of my convictions: if the structures within which I live are so abhorrent to me, why not walk away from them? I'm full of admiration for the way he's successfully achieved that – becoming in the process theatre's key critical voice to boot. But he doesn't have a family; I have. [Note added 22/1/14: Andrew pointed out, very gently, on twitter today that he does have a family, he just doesn't have dependents. I know from reading Stella Duffy's blog how hurtful this kind of unconscious expression of heteronormative superiority can be, and wish I'd been more thoughtful with my phrasing.] Families lock you into structures, responsibilities. I feel I ought to embrace being shoved out of a traditional financial structure. Instead I just feel scared.

*

When I was 21 and 22 and lost in the wilderness, not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life except that I didn't want to sit on the reception desk at my parents' factory, or in any other way join their business, I truly believed the most precious commodity in newspapers was space. Column inches. I sent in ideas, which were ignored. I wrote reviews, which were rejected. You had to be really fucking good to be given space in newspapers, and for a long time I wasn't good enough. Money was no object in this industry; when I got my first job, I was shocked by how much I earned (£26,000pa – enough to save up a deposit to buy my own flat, admittedly at now distant prices). Newspapers were happy to pay you – but give you column inches? Dream on.

Now I wonder if I was kidding myself: after all, my newly affluent parents were always at the edge of the wilderness, supporting me. But I also wonder whether the situation has reversed. The internet has given newspapers limitless space, but advertising revenue has disappeared in that black hole and now money is their most precious commodity. You can write for them, but be paid? That's the tricky part.

*

I've been walking around like a sack of broken china.

(Things have come to that.)

I've been thinking that, finally, I've been found out for the talentless fraud I really am.

(Things have come to that.)

I've been feeling sorry for myself, because theatre is my life, but now I'm not earning my own money, how can I afford to buy tickets? And who will give me press tickets for a blog review that maybe 300 people will read?

(Where do I even start on the self-centredness on this? How do I expect theatre practitioners to pay their rent if people aren't buying tickets? Isn't part of the problem with newspapers that no one wants to pay for them any more? When was the last time I actually bought a newspaper? I get my news from twitter, read the few articles that catch my attention online, expect everything for free. Of course the economics are fucked: but I can't ignore my role in making them so.)

And then:

I've tried to remember that people whose intellect and craft as writers dazzle me, make me feel unutterably puny, not only enjoy my writing but respect it, praise it, encourage it.

And that this is the push I need to work properly on Dialogue, and on reinventing what it is to write about theatre; to challenge myself as a writer; to discover a new audience, maybe not a massive or a mainstream audience, but possibly an audience that doesn't yet know that it wants to read about theatre, and all the things that writing about theatre entail. Society, politics, feminism, anti-capitalism, inequality...

It's the push I need to stop sitting tentatively on the outside of Chris Goode & Company, and properly embrace the extraordinary opportunity he gives me.

It's the push I need to build on the work I've been doing with Fuel/New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, to stop running scared from the Shunt book idea, to help Exeunt/theatremagazine become vital.

It might have been the push I needed to get the novels written, except that over Christmas I read a novel that was fine, serviceable, essentially not very good, and was forced to admit to myself that if I wrote a novel in time for turning 40, this is how it would read. A depressing truth, tempered by the fact that Penelope Fitzgerald was 58 before she published a book. I still have two decades to become good enough for myself.

The hardest thing, and I feel pretty stupid saying this, will be learning to say “it's Maddy Costa” when I call people, rather than “it's Maddy from the Guardian”. My identity has been tied up in that newspaper for 14 years. I've no idea if I'm ready to stand up on my own. But I'm going to have to.

That, and get used to not getting paid.

*

The days between sending the piece in and waiting for it to be published were spent working with LIFT. I'm late posting this because every spare hour lately has been devoted to that. It's blissful. I'm working on paper again, making pages, making a magazine. It's brought home to me how much I miss the tangible, miss commissioning other writers, miss working with designers, framing stories, seeing things from a reader's perspective. I miss the sense of achievement in seeing a project through to completion. Sometimes I think I'm still heartbroken by my failure to become Guardian arts editor.

On two of those days, working in the design office, this song played:



Both times I stopped freefalling and started floating. And now every time I listen I feel it rushing through my blood and it's like somersaults.

(Dug this one out again too. Also magic.)



*

There's a longer version of the Carrie Cracknell, by the way. (There always is.) Bizarrely, someone called Hobo O'Riley seems to have decided to post up his comment on the Guardian feature not there but on two unconnected posts here. He must really want to talk to me about it. At the point when I spoke to Carrie, I hadn't seen the explicit video for Blurred Lines, and the “prudishness” question was mostly directed at myself. I've since seen the explicit, and my problem with it can be boiled down to four words: naked women, dressed men. When that gets reversed, the conversation will start feeling very different.

Talking to Carrie has inspired me finally to read Susan Faludi's Backlash, a book I've owned for two decades but only ever dipped into, cover-to-cover. It ought to be out of date by now. So far, depressingly, infuriatingly, not quite astonishingly, it isn't. Dialogue is lining up a Theatre Club on Blurred Lines: I'm really looking forward to it.



Summer 2013 and controversy is raging. Robin Thicke's supremely catchy song Blurred Lines – in which a man in a nightclub tries to persuade a beautiful woman to stop being a “good girl” and do what he knows she really wants – is being banned from student unions up and down the country, condemned in blogs and newspapers for promoting rape culture, and topping pop charts across the globe. All this is fuelled by the song's video, in which – in the explicit version – women wearing nothing but silken G-strings and clompy shoes cavort around three men in suits who clearly can't believe their luck.

For theatre director Carrie Cracknell, who is directing a new show for the National Theatre Shed deliberately named after the song, Blurred Lines is a red rag. When I wonder whether it's prudishness that makes people recoil from it, she argues: “It's really easy for women to get accused of being prudish, but there is an absolute line about sexual consent which cannot be blurred. The rage I feel in relation to that song is about the idea of strong men, fully dressed, animalising and brutalising a group of scantily clad women who apparently are empowered and completely in control of their bodies.

“Of course sex is part of our life and not something we should repress or censor, but rape is not sex, and non-consensual sex for young women is a massive problem. A whole generation of young boys and girls are growing up and their first sexual experiences are pornography which is deeply hateful and misogynistic and full of violence, and this song is the tip of that iceberg. It has to take responsibility for the normalisation of that. Anyway, rant over.” And she stops, suddenly sheepish.

A willowy, elegant 33-year-old, Cracknell is all thoughtful restraint on the surface, but seething beneath. It seems odd that she should feel the need to apologise for expressing herself strongly, but it turns out this has been a running theme in the Blurred Lines rehearsal room. “That anxiety about being strident or pushy comes back to the socially constructed idea of gender,” she suggests, “and how women feel they have to find a feminine version of power to get what they want, while anything that feels outwardly aggressive or masculine is held back in some way.”

For Blurred Lines, which opens this week, she's working with eight female actors – including Sinead Matthews, Ruth Sheen, Claire Skinner and Michaela Coel – and a male writer, Nick Payne, to devise the show in the rehearsal room. Together they've been improvising a series of scenes that tackle the representation of women across film, television, theatre and pop. They're also contemplating casual misogyny, the normalisation of the sex industry, rape culture, and ongoing problems to do with work and parenting.

It's useful, Cracknell says, to have a male writer taking part: Payne describes himself as a feminist, and argues that the issues with which they're grappling are not women's only. “Nick said in rehearsal one day: a lot of this is a male problem. Rape is a male problem. Men are not trained as boys that they might become rapists, they're not taught in sex education that they have to take responsibility for whether a girl says yes or no. Of course we could argue that it should be a female playwright, but his perspective and searching and questioning have been as relevant as mine.”

Apart from Thicke's song, Blurred Lines has its roots in the work that pulled Cracknell into the mainstream: her 2012 production of A Doll's House, the Ibsen play championed by feminists because it depicts a woman walking out on her husband and children in an attempt to discover her real self. The production, starring Hattie Morahan as a fluttering, manipulative Nora, had two successful runs at the Young Vic in London before transferring to the West End; it moves to New York in February.

“The first question we asked when we started making A Doll's House,” says Cracknell, “was: what does the play look like now? What's the relationship between the gender politics of the 1890s and the world we live in? The thing that Hattie drew out was this idea that Nora's power is completely seated in her sexuality. That really struck me, because of this idea that women are more sexualised now than they've ever been, or trying to move towards an ever-narrowing ideal of what it means to be beautiful and therefore powerful.”

Are things really worse now, or is the problem that we expect decades of feminism to have made things better? “Women have always been judged on how they look more than men, women have always been objectified more than men,” Cracknell agrees. “What happens now is a pernicious, deep-rooted connection between global capitalism and an unobtainable physical ideal. The desire for profit of those big beauty firms and of our television culture, and the way that those things are hooking into each other, feels really overwhelming.”

To coincide with the stage production, Cracknell made a short film for the Young Vic and the Guardian, in which Nora – again played by Morahan – is updated to a modern working mother, falling to pieces as she struggles with her impossible juggling act. Payne co-wrote it with her, and had a strong influence on her thinking about both Noras when he handed her a copy of Kat Banyard's wake-up call to a generation of post-feminists, The Equality Illusion. Reading it, Cracknell says, “I had a feminist awakening. I'm of a generation that to some extent have been told that we're equal, that women have every opportunity men have. But I believe Kat's thesis: the equality we'd been sold was an illusion. Women are still disproportionately disempowered in public life and being paid less than men, while sexual harassment and violence are endemic in our culture.”

None of this occurred to Cracknell as a teenager. “I was raised with the idea that it was irrelevant that I was a woman: you just had to get on with being funny, being kind and working hard.” Back then, theatre was a hobby; her real ambition was to be a politician. She had a “strong left-wing upbringing”: her mother was a primary school teacher and latterly head; her father a businessman who taught at Oxford Brookes University and became a local councillor. “The first time I voted was for my dad. This idea of the right to vote was such a profound thing in our house,” Cracknell recalls. She studied history at Nottingham with full intentions of becoming an MP, but theatre snared her in her first year. Now she pins her socialist hopes on her nephew, who is also studying history and politics at Nottingham and wants to run the Labour party. “I've asked if I can be in his cabinet on gender and culture,” she laughs.

She spent a few years assisting directors including Dominic Dromgoole and Katie Mitchell, then at 26 became the youngest artistic director in the country, co-running the Gate in London with Natalie Abrahami. “We had a brilliant five years where we got to find our own identity make loads of public fuck-ups in a quite joyful teenage way,” she says. “Natalie and I were interested in experimenting with form, in what theatre and dance look like when they're together, so it always felt like this punk little venue.”

She managed to combine that with having two children, now aged two and four (they have a starring role in the Nora film, where they get abandoned on a trampoline). Cracknell won't talk about how she balances work and motherhood, but does admit that she finds balancing her own ambitions complex. “My desire to parent is as strong now as my desire to move forward. But I feel calm about making a bit less work, and enjoy that work more as a consequence, focusing on it more, having more time to develop it. A Doll's House was born out of a year of preparation because I was on maternity leave; I probably couldn't have made that work without that space to cook it in my mind.”

Rather than her own struggle with childcare arrangements, she prefers to comment on the bigger picture: “In Blurred Lines we've been doing quite a lot of research into the economics of how parenting affects the female work force. There's an elite 15% of hyper-educated women who are in many respects echoing the working patterns of men, very long hours, completely committed to their careers. A proportion of them have children and tend to go back to work quite quickly, and can therefore afford childcare and just about make that work. The financial gap is growing between that group and women who work in part-time, less well-paid or less skilled jobs who can't always afford formalised or flexible childcare and therefore can't affect change over their salaries or over the kinds of roles they can take on.”

Theatre tends to be low-paid with long hours, so where Cracknell fits into that picture isn't clear. Again, it's not something she's comfortable going into. So far, she says, being a woman hasn't diminished her own opportunities: mostly she's been able to do the work she wants to do, and she's been given some fantastic opportunities. Alongside her West End debut with A Doll's House, last year she directed her first opera, a well-received Wozzeck for ENO. But she feels a more general frustration with theatre culture: “It's still a male-dominated world because the stories we tell are inherited from a culture in which women weren't allowed to do those things. And we still predominately think the stories of men are more important and more interesting than the stories of women.

“We're only in the second generation in which women have really been able to take full control in public life and therefore we don't have all of those stories yet. We have to understand who those characters are, we have to take the female narrative out of the domestic and into the public.” Recently she was invited to direct a play for the National's biggest space, the Olivier, and was startled by how difficult it was to find a female character with the “scale or scope of emotional depth” to fill the room. Somewhat predictably, the play she's going to direct is a Greek tragedy, Medea.

That's in June; before that she'll be at the Royal Court, directing a new play dissecting rock'n'roll celebrity by Simon Stephens, and contributing to the life of the building as associate director. One of her key tasks is dealing with gender imbalance. “An American actress brilliantly suggested that you could take every screenplay and change half the male character names to female ones. Why can't the doctor or the policeman or lawyer or the judge just be women? Sometimes I think at the Court we can do that, we can encourage writers to think of their protagonist as a woman without actually changing very many of the characteristics.”

Despite that early ambition to become an MP, Cracknell is constantly surprised by the extent to which politics, gender or otherwise, now govern her theatre-making. “I used to call my work 'political with a small p': it was about the human experience. As I get older, I understand that the human experience is at the heart of a bigger experience, and I've found that really liberating and intellectually stimulating. Rather than my work always being about the story, it's about the context for the story as well.”

Sunday, 5 January 2014

clearing out the cobwebs

I'm in the middle of this ridiculously massive job that is stopping me sleeping at nights and setting up a five/six month programme of Dialogue Theatre Clubs (squeak!) and had a really exciting chat with Chris Goode last week about where we might take my critic-in-residency and I seem to be going to Canada to take part in an academic conference for the first time ever (aaargh!) and somewhere in the back of my mind I've concocted this entire book that I want to write about Shunt (honestly, Tassos Stevens says one thing, one tiny thing, on twitter about how great it would be if someone, possibly me, wrote about Shunt and I just haven't been able to forget it, it's like it bore a hole in my brain and I keep poking my finger in and squidging stuff around) and then there's the Fuel New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood blog to update and somehow in the midst of all this Mary Paterson and I are plotting a new project together and I think I need a deep breath now...

But I don't feel quite ready for 2014 until I've properly said goodbye to 2013. That involves at the very, very least saying thank you to the following shows (in no order whatsoever) for nourishing and/or cheering and/or challenging and/or holding and/or breaking-remaking and/or inspiring and/or surprising me over the course of the year: In the Republic of Happiness, Life and Times, Mental, (the Unicorn) Henry V, The Forest and the Field, Becoming an Image, Orpheus, My Perfect Mind, Say It With Flowers, The Victorian in the Wall, Landscape II, Trash Cuisine, Mission Drift, Our Town, Strange Interlude, London Stories, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, The Amen Corner, Circle Mirror Transformation, Blackouts, Fleabag, Grounded, Squally Showers, Ring, The Worst of Scottee, Secret Theatre Streetcar Named Desire, The Events, A Conversation, Fatherland, Wuthering Heights, Credible Likeable Role Model Superstar, Our Glass House, The Future Show, Beating McEnroe, Ballad of the Burning Star, The Way You Tell Them, There Has Possibly Been an Incident, Not Until We Are Lost, Each of Us, Hoke's Bluff, Nut, Mojo, Mr and Mrs Moon, Jumpers for Goalposts, (Young Vic) Beauty and the Beast, Toynbee, Surabaya Johnny...

another deep breath...

and try to ignore that nagging frustrating realisation that I've barely written about any of these things...

Thursday, 5 December 2013

In bed with a domestic extremist: Mental, the vacuum cleaner, and me

PLEASE NOTE: The following gives away an awful lot about about the vacuum cleaner's work Mental, which he's touring into 2014. If you'd rather experience the show knowing nothing, or at least with its surprises intact, it's probably not a good idea to read it until after you've seen it. Thanks.

We shuffle past the closed bedroom door, neatly lining shoes along the hallway wall, to a small, neat living room decorated with insurrectionist art and fabric owls. A cheerful, kindly woman offers tea and tiny carrot cakes, primly arranged on a tiered stand, and though the atmosphere is relaxed, an awkwardness hovers, as though we were gathered for the wake of a distant relation and weren't quite sure what our demeanour should be.

The bedroom, white with pistachio-green trim, is sparsely furnished. Disco sings sweetly from an old-fashioned record player. We snuggle against the wall beneath a giant duvet and slowly a hand emerges from the low bed before us, fingers wriggling as they test the air. Then a face, nervous but smiling. The body is very much alive: it's important to remember this, that we're beginning at the end, with James sitting with us, talking to us. We cling to this fact as his story unfolds.

*

“I've never done anything like this before in my life. Never made a 'show'. It was a real experiment to try and do it. I'm more comfortable with it now. I've kind of gone, yeah, I spent nearly two years making this thing, I should show it to people.”

Ten days before seeing Mental, I meet up with James-the-vacuum-cleaner-Leadbitter in his basement studio in the Artsadmin building, a square concrete room that might feel like a prison – the one small window is high in a corner, and barely lets in natural light – were it not for the homely clutter and art crowded around the walls. One painting, hanging above the two desks, stands out: a rectangular canvas, painted gold, with the words “Representative art is so 19th century” printed on it in stark black helvetica. In the corner opposite the window, a duvet is crammed in the space above a storage cupboard; beside the door sits the old-fashioned vacuum cleaner from which he takes his pseudonym. He rolls out a folding table for our tea; I sit in a black office chair that insists on spinning me away from him. He laughs: “That's my producer's chair. It's like: get back to the computer, get back to work.”

Leadbitter started making work in 2003, shortly after his first stay in a psychiatric hospital. “The very first piece I did was called Cleaning Up After Capitalism: I had the vacuum cleaner, and wore a yellow bib with 'cleaning up after capitalism' on the back, and I'd go into public spaces or corporate spaces, like chain stores, or the City of London, and do a cleaning act. I'd clean and engage people in conversation. A lot of my work was straddling performance intervention with direct political action.” A lot of it landed him in serious trouble, too. In 2005, he was taken to court by Starbucks for a number of transgressions against its brand, which included defacing Starbucks coffee cups so the logo read “Fuck off” and setting up a website encouraging others to do the same. It's worth reading the “decision of independent expert” document commissioned as part of the case: Leadbitter's irreverence offsets the corporate humourlessness beautifully.

His protest came from a place of boredom: “I got bored with mainstream activism, I got bored with marching against the war in Afghanistan.” And from cultural discussion around branding: “No Logo came out in 2001 and that was really influential. I started to read Adbusters, the Canadian magazine, and fucking around with billboards. Graffiti and street art really influenced me, that thing of: don't wait for the audience to come to you, take the work to the audience, go to the community and present your work to them, go to the contested spaces and make the work there. That always got me really excited.”

But beneath the global-political was the local-personal. “Having gone through the psychiatric system, which felt very oppressive, often it was about creating a space of liberation through these performative acts. I often would look at advertising and feel really alienated, so it would be reacting against that, or challenging that kind of dogma. And I guess I was at a point in my life when, I was 23, I didn't really give a fuck about anything. Not I didn't give a fuck about anything, some things I really cared about, but I wasn't necessarily concerned with what would be the consequences of what I was doing. Also, the medical treatment that I'd got really didn't work, so this became my way of trying to make sense of the world, and make sense of these experiences I'd had in treatment and as a teenager.”

In some ways, teenage Leadbitter was typical, at least of people who end up working in theatre. “I went to a really great youth theatre in Burnley, so I had that bug from an early age. I used to run tech for the whole youth theatre; my mum wanted me to be an actor but I preferred doing design.” When it came to university, he opted for set and lighting design at the Central School of Speech and Drama: what a mistake. “I hated it: it was really conservative, and I should have gone to Dartington with my friend Robert.” He dropped out after a year. But it wasn't just the course: the depression he'd started experiencing before university was worsening. He was already self-harming; now he was suicidal. And this is where Mental begins.

*

There were so many possibilities.

Running in front of a lorry.

Jumping off the roof.

Pills. Knives. Rope-lengths of fabric.

He tells us these stories surrounded by heavy wads of paper, piles and piles of documents, medical assessments, police records, obtained via the Freedom of Information act, each portraying a version of James Leadbitter, the slight man with tufty hair, twinkling eyes and an electric-blue dress scooping from his shoulders, who sits in his bed, in his own bedroom, sharing an outsized duvet with his audience. One by one he slips plastic sheets on to an overhead projector and reads from them the evaluations of doctors and nurses, the clandestine comments of police and their spies. If you're quick, you can read outside the highlighted sections, get a fuller picture. I notice with a catch of breath his birthday: 29th May, five days before mine. Fractured personalities written in the stars.

I don't remember all the details of the life he narrates – it's a few weeks since I saw the piece, and the intimacy of the environment precluded taking notes – but I remember vividly his demeanour. He has the campness of a late-night-telly light entertainer; the roguishness of a small boy doing something he knows he's not supposed to, face sparkling with pleasure in transgressing and being witnessed in his transgression. The line between performing himself and being himself is subtle, and will shift according to the perception of individual audience members: I feel he stands one side of it at the beginning, when he's talking himself into starting the show, the other in the fleeting moments when overcome by a memory of cruelty, or kindness. His inability to comprehend his treatment at the hands of powerful social institutions is ongoing and genuine. But always there is this levity in his narration, which comes from a place of generosity, a desire to support his audience as we listen and absorb.

The disco soundtrack, soft and radiant with love, gifts more lightness. One song repeats over and over:

Love is, love is the message that I sing to you
Love is the message that I bring to you

The contrast of that care with the official language of the documents is sharp. Here, Leadbitter is a number, a sequence of actions, a list of medication. His humanity is bypassed. Frequently Mental feels like a work not of individual autobiography but of exposure, indicting a society that practises institutionalised betrayal. No one who works at the hospital where he is first sectioned tells Leadbitter that it specialises in treating personality disorders. The more successful he becomes as the vacuum cleaner, the more rigorous and resourceful the police become in inhibiting his activities. It's not until he recognises a face on Channel 4 that he can explain this feeling of being targeted: the groups with whom he has been working have been repeatedly infiltrated. The police documents are packed with personal information: address, identity numbers, hidden distinguishing features such as the tattoo on his back that reads “our civilisation is fucked”. They got that one wrong, says Leadbitter, mouth curled in a sardonic smile. He turns around, pulls up his frock; the light catches on the letters carved into his skin: “THIS CIVILISATION IS FUCKED”.

*

“People talk about mental illness as this monolith, but it's as broad as any other – schizophrenia to anxiety is what cancer is to a common cold. It's not comparable, but, you know.”

At the age of 19 – he's now 33 – Leadbitter was identified as experiencing multiple mental health problems: depression, general anxiety disorder, panic anxiety disorder. More seriously, he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Only no one told him. “It's quite common if you have what's called a serious mental illness, so things like paranoid schizophrenia, borderline multiple personality disorder. For a long time they wouldn't tell you because the stigma of the diagnosis could be as bad as the actual diagnosis. I get that, but for me that's not the issue: the issue is how you inform the patient.” He finally found out about two years ago, at the end of an assessment process, when he was handed a sheet of paper with his diagnosis and sent on his way. There's a painfully funny scene in Mental when he pulls a copy of Borderline Personality Disorder For Dummies (it genuinely exists) from under the duvet, one of many books he bought when trying to make sense of this new information.

Essentially, he was being medicated for a condition he didn't know he had, and that, says Leadbitter, “was really destructive. Because by the time I was 26, I'd got a job at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow, I was in a relationship, but I was still completely undiagnosed, and all of that crumbled in my hands. I totally destroyed it all because I didn't know what was going on. I didn't have the language to talk about it, couldn't reflect on it, you know?” He moved back to London and attempted to reconstruct his life, “in a way in which I could cope. I developed all these coping strategies, smoking a lot of cannabis.” But they didn't work, and in 2009 he had a relapse and was back in hospital.

Acquiring and reading through the thousands of pages of medical notes written about him over that 14-year period has been “one of the hardest things I've ever done”. Did he recognise himself in the descriptions he encountered? “It's really different. Some bits you're like, yes, that's so correct, and then other bits you're like, what the fuck are you talking about? Who are you talking about? It really depends on the person you're talking to, because there isn't necessarily a test for it, it's not like you can do a blood test and be told, you have bipolarity, it's so much to do with your own representation of your experiences, how you talk about your experiences.” Which might be different on any given day, I note. “Exactly. Some days you can't even speak, and some days you're spilling rather than sharing.”

I ask if there's a family history of mental illness; there is, but, he emphasises: “I don't buy that [mental illness] is just genetic or it's just social. I have a very strong attitude that anybody that wants to apply a simplistic model to mental health is getting it wrong, because it's infinitely complicated.” Talking therapy – of which he is a staunch advocate – offers a brilliant insight into those complications, he argues. “Although it is utterly, utterly painful, and quite horrific at times, it's also a wonderful process of discovery, not just in terms of yourself and your mind but how that relates to the world that we live in and how society functions. You learn that everything is so utterly complicated, there are no black-and white-situations.”

*

The lights dim and Richard Hawley's voice, comforting as a sheepskin coat, croons in the darkness:

Roll river, keep on rolling
Ancient lady cold
I'm forsaken, lost and forgotten
Roll river roll

In James' bedroom, watching a shaky film of a tiny, adored figure walking in the middle of the street in a Glasgow full of snow, I absorbed Roll River Roll as a love song; it's only later, reading the lyrics, that I realise it's the ballad of a man about to drown. James' description of his post-relapse suicide attempt is delivered lightly, with a tender solicitude, for himself and his audience, but with every accruing detail it becomes harder to hear. He mentions the carrot cake he bought for his final meal and I remember eating mine before I came in and want to cry. He shows pictures of his room in the hostel he moved to after leaving the hospital, a safe house for people at risk of suicide, remembers the night in the kitchen when he had to resist the siren call of the knife drawer, and was held by a warden whose non-judgemental understanding cracked the ice of his benumbed soul, and we all want to cry, James too. Always there is the knowledge that he is here, telling us these stories; he survived and continues to survive. But it's the overwhelming awareness of the pain he has experienced that makes Mental so difficult to sit within. That, and the fact that he relives it, in front of an audience, night after night after night. That in itself feels like a kind of self-harm, and I don't know how he can do it.

*

“In the three hours leading up to the performance, it's very like, 'Am I really about to share all this stuff? Why am I doing this?' And then I start and do the show and afterwards I feel really icky.”

One of the things I like about following the vacuum cleaner on twitter – aside from his ongoing campaign against mental-health stigma, embedded in our culture in the abuse of words like mental, crazy, bonkers, nuts, which he attacks with weariness, fury and sparks of dry humour – is that every now and then he'll have a sharp little dig at conventional theatre. He looks a little shame-faced when I bring this up. “I'm not a big fan of what I call theatre-with-a-capital-T. I guess I struggle with a lack of legitimacy in a lot of these things: when you've been in a psychiatric hospital, you go to the theatre and, like, this doesn't compare. When was the last time you saw a mad person play Hamlet? And how amazing would that be? So yeah, I do bitch about it quite a bit.

“It feels like theatre hasn't quite caught up with visual-art theory, you know? Visual art has very much abandoned representative practice, but theatre is still wrapped up in that. When I do go to a theatre and see the things that I really love and get me excited or angry or upset, it's people speaking about their personal experiences, like Kim Noble or Bryony Kimmings. The first time I saw Franko B – and we've worked together a bit – it really hit me: it wasn't just this pretending, it was very, very real. I can relate to that on a very personal level, but I also like that immediacy.”

When performing Mental in cities other than London, Leadbitter always aims to find another bedroom to house it. His one experience of staging it in a theatre venue has confirmed to him how important that is. “I did it at the Tramway in Glasgow a few weeks ago, that was to 50 people, and it was really difficult. I don't think it ruined it, but it did change it quite a bit. I had to extend the range of my performance, some bits had to be a little bit bigger. At home I can be quieter, I have that real intimacy. It changed it for the audience, too: there's this bit in my story about the police coming into my bedroom to take me into hospital, that's much more significant when it's in my own bedroom.”

The decision to stage Mental in a bedroom rather than an open social space like a theatre also demands that the audience travel somewhere unfamiliar – in my case, in the dark and on my own, which always generates mild anxiety in me. “There's a slight challenge in there,” Leadbitter agrees. “That's something I found doing the show in Latvia, at this amazing festival called Homo Novus. A lot of people were coming to me afterwards and saying: 'I was really frightened about coming to see your show, I was going to be in this bedroom with this crazy person, the police say he's a domestic extremist, I was frightened! And then it starts and you just destroyed that thing immediately.' I hadn't really thought about it like that at all.” But that's wonderful, I say. “It is! And it's nice to challenge that preconception of mental illness as well.”

It was the second hospital stay that encouraged Leadbitter to reconsider his work, and made Mental possible. The difference, he says, was that the breakdown: “was really public. I was doing this big commission with Artsadmin, I had to drop that. That was really difficult, because I felt like I was letting them down. And I was tweeting about it a bit at the time. It was this thing of going: this is so fucking intense for me. I was very close to dying on a few occasions.

“Actually, this is something that's really amazing: for me and a lot of my crazy friends, we all say this is our civil rights moment. A lot of us talk about coming out of the closet. It's this thing of going, fuck it, I'm not hiding this any more. So although it was very difficult, it had some positiveness to it. And it really changed the direction of the kind of work I was making. Also – I found this doing the Mental piece – coming out and going, OK, this is the shit I have to deal with in life, you get other people going, yeah, I can relate to your experiences, and these are my experiences. That solidarity is so, so empowering. When somebody says, I know what that's like, and you know they know what that's like, you go: OK, I'm not on my own, this person can genuinely relate to me.

“The language that people use is really, really different to when you're in hospital and you say to the nurse, I don't want to continue any more, I can't take it any more, and they say, we're going to help you get through this. The response is so different. It's little things like, I said to somebody I really want to self-injure, and they were like: have you tried putting elastic bands around your wrists? When you really want to do it, pull them really hard and flick them against your wrist. I tried it and it was great. Or I'm having a panic attack on the ward and an old guy comes over and calms me down in 10 minutes, no drugs, sat with me, held my hand. It's a really beautiful and amazing thing to have that solidarity and mutual care. More of that please.”

Increasingly, his work seeks to create places in which solidarity, empathy and empowerment can flourish. Many audience-members have commented that they could do with sharing the cup of tea after Mental, rather than before, to decompress after inhabiting such an intense space; Leadbitter understands that need, but asks his audience to leave directly after the show, because he too needs space to look after himself and decompress. (This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and compassion is exercised: the night I saw it, one member of the audience was so affected they left the bedroom, went straight to the bathroom and burst into tears; they were then allowed to stay in the empty bedroom until ready to face the night.) As quoted above, performing Mental makes Leadbitter feel “icky”; what pulls him through is the audience response, not in the room so much as in conversation, on email and on twitter in the hours and days afterwards. People open up to him about their own experiences with depression, doctors, anti-depressants; they ask his advice; they tell him: “I can relate.” In Latvia, he says, “a 19-year-old woman came up to me after the show and said, 'I've never said this to anybody, not even my parents: I have a psychiatrist. I've never told anyone and I've seen your show and I'm not embarrassed any more.' For all the difficult it is for me to do the piece, for that one person, I'm happy.”

Prior to Mental, he made a piece called Ship of Fools, in which he turned his flat into a hospital for a month and sectioned himself. “The Ship Of Fools will function as an inter-section between mental sanctuary and creative liberty,” he explained on his website. “As part of this time the vacuum cleaner seeks creative residencies at the Ship Of Fools: both artist and non-artists alike in an attempt to find creativity in madness.” His next project takes that idea much further. “It's called Madlove – A Designer Asylum. I'm a big believer in the notion of an asylum, a safe place to go to experience madness, but it's going to be an asylum designed by mad people for mad people to experience madness in a more positive and less painful way. We're going to bring mad people together and people that work in the mental health industry, or people that are carers or that support people, and say: right, because psychiatric hospitals are so oppressive and so difficult to be in, let's redesign it completely. Let's think about what we need to go through this experience. It's still going to be painful, but let's change it. My producer has this really wonderful statement: it's putting the treat back into treatment.”

I can't wait to visit.

*

Seeing Mental had and continues to have a profound effect on me. It's affected how I watch theatre: a few days after I was in Leeds and happened to catch the James Brining production of Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse; its first scene is set in an asylum, and it looked exactly like the asylum in Joe Hill-Gibbins' Young Vic production of The Changeling, right down to the individual gestures of the actors. I left at the interval, unable to watch any more, feeling no connection with what I was seeing. At the end of November I caught up with Hannah Silva's The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, a taut three-hander about a woman whose depression has led to anorexia; there was much about it, not least in the breakdown of language, that felt insightful, and yet part of me was troubled by the aestheticisation of this experience, particularly in a scene when Sadie kneels on a cabinet and slowly wraps a red chiffon scarf around her waist and wrist, delineating self-harm. In that moment, honesty was replaced by theatre.

Much like Chris Goode's God/Head, Mental has made me reconsider what it means to be honest. Now and then people commend me on the honesty of my writing and I feel quietly fraudulent, because I hide as much as I reveal. I come from a very old-fashioned culture that believes fundamentally in putting up a front; much as my family rail against its hypocrisy, it's coded within us and that's a hard habit to break. But it's also typical of me to interiorise everything: keeping a blog has been extraordinary in that respect, in reminding me that self-expression isn't just possible but OK.

Increasingly I'm interested in what it means to invite someone to listen to the voice that rattles around your own head. A lot of the work I've really cherished this year – Mental, The Worst of Scottee, Laura Jane Dean's Head Hand Head, Peter McMaster's Wuthering Heights – in some way or another does exactly that. Head Hand Head (which Chris Goode helped in shaping) really touched me: for maybe 40 minutes, Laura enacts the different obsessive compulsive routines that she has adopted over time to cope with the paradoxical trauma of being so terrified of dying that you're afraid to be alive. The voice that speaks to us is the same voice she hears inside her head. It felt like a privilege to be given access to something so private.

Mental felt like a privilege, too. I left it feeling intense gratitude towards James, for sharing his internal voices with me. I heard enough of myself in it that I've been galvanised into doing things I hadn't previously thought possible, into engaging in conversations that I hadn't previously been able to contemplate. The narrative of struggle, or not being able to cope, is still expressed so rarely that people are startled by it, or react negatively to it: we need to work together to support its honest expression, and through that change the social conditions that make struggle and the inability to cope so much a part of our lives.

*

“Do you feel in control?”

He shakes his head. A barely audible whisper: “No.”

“What could be done for you to feel in control?

There's a small pause. “Well, I think that the art world needs to get a bit real about supporting disabled artists. Artsadmin are phenomenally great at it but I feel that a lot of the time me and my producer are really having to fight for the support I need to do the show; we're having to say: 'This is why it's going to be a bit more expensive, because somebody needs to help him and look after him.' So that could be better.

“Not being attacked by the state for being disabled would be a help: I'm going through the Atos process at the moment – Atos Healthcare are doing the whole welfare reform process – so I'm having to defend my benefits, it's really anxiety-provoking and the stigma is still really horrific. I've been assaulted coming out of the hospital, people have attacked me because I'm coming out of the psychiatric hospital. Casual use of the word mental, or the casual use of the word crazy, it hurts, it hurts when I hear it, so that's still difficult. It's difficult to have to go: listen, I don't want to be aggressive or assertive about this, but can you not use that word around me because it hurts.

“There are some really amazing people out there who get it. Without Gill Lloyd [co-director of Artsadmin], without Lois [Keidan, co-director of Live Art Development Agency], I would have stopped making work three years ago. Gill has fought, she's said: 'James, you need to keep going; I'll help you write an Arts Council application because you can't even read at the moment; if you've nowhere to go, sleep in your studio, don't worry about the rent, it's fine.' I was going to get kicked out of the homeless hostel I was in and the fact that she would stand by me and write to the council and say, 'You can't do this to somebody', that is phenomenal.

“The way I describe it to some people who I feel don't quite get it is: 'Imagine you're doing a show in a building and it's not wheelchair accessible, you wouldn't say to the person in the wheelchair, you need to build your own ramp to get into the building.' But often that's what happens to me: often, I have to explain that I need to bring two people with me, one to look after me during the show, one to look after me outside; I need a quiet dressing room because when it's noisy I'm going to have a panic attack.

“That's part of the battle and I'm prepared to fight for that, because it's not just for me: it's for every person who has a mental illness.”