Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Language barriers

[This is a companion to a piece published in Exeunt. Might make more sense if you've read that first.]

I managed to make it to lunchtime before I got myself into trouble. A whole morning of sitting in an antiseptic white room around an imposing board table listening to academics deliver powerpoint presentations about austerity and “structural adjustment” with relation to gender and geography, how social relations are re-made through sugar and whether Fairtrade is genuinely fair, peer-to-peer lending and local currencies, feeling sort-of-interested but also sort-of-disengaged and basically incapable of asking any questions, and then something happens and suddenly I'm erupting incoherently with what sound suspiciously like anti-intellectual and anti-academy sentiments and wishing I'd kept my mouth shut.

This is me at this_is_tomorrow. Having an allergic reaction to a university.

In brief (because the business version of this story can be read on Exeunt), this_is_tomorrow is an artist development programme produced and curated by China Plate for Warwick Arts Centre, that aims to forge relationships between theatre-makers and academics at University of Warwick, in the hopes of inspiring innovative new work. Each year since 2012 it's invited a small group of artists to spend a week shuttling from one university department to another, hearing about top-level research in politics, economics, manufacturing, science and maths. Matt Trueman attended in 2013 as an “embedded” critic and each day I gobbled up his report from its furnace and seethed with jealousy that I wasn't there.

In the event, it's just as well China Plate brought me this year in for only one day: I'm not sure I could have handled any more than that. Maybe it was the specific department I landed in – politics and international studies (PAIS) – but from the moment its affable yet stern director of research, Matthew Watson, commented in his introduction on the university's need to demonstrate its impact on the wider world, my back was up. The day became stained with the suggestion of opportunism – and that cuts both ways, because if this-is-tomorrow successfully engineers an artist-academic relationship, it could result in the work being part-funded by the university (as happened with Theatre Rites' Bank On It, supported intellectually and financially by Abhinay Muthoo, head of the department of economics). I do recognise, though, that this is perfect pragmatism, especially in a Tory landscape. And I talk in the Exeunt piece about how this_is_tomorrow resists such cynicism, by refusing to insist on product-based outcomes for the project.

It's not Watson but Joel Lazarus, a research fellow with PAIS, who triggers my outburst about the academy, which even at the time made me sad, because he's the person whose presentation feels closest to my own work, particularly with Dialogue. He used to be a city trader but moved into academia after experiencing a breakdown, and has since dedicated himself to transforming British society by generating “civic literacy” and “mass intellectualism”. He talks about his desire to facilitate discussion, through interaction with culture and the expression of emotional truths, and it's like hearing myself talk about why I love the conversations that happen in theatre clubs – in which, to use Lazarus' phrase, we don't just “read the word but read the world”.

Part of me is really excited by Lazarus' presentation. I recognise the hopes of his work, its structures, its relationship to Marxist thinking, its informal methodologies. But the fact that he gets me using words like methodology rankles. There is an uncomfortable twist in my stomach at the terms civic literacy and mass intellectualism: on whose terms are they being defined? Because from where I'm sitting, around an imposing board table, with only one person of colour and an Eastern European as nods to diverse ethnicity, those terms look uncomfortably white, western-middle-class, and male.

I've since read a thoughtful piece by Lazarus on Open Democracy, in which he presents his vision for a “true democracy” reached through dialogue that is expressive of love, faith in humanity, hope and critical thinking. It calls for “radical, revolutionary social transformation” in terms I find inarguable. And yet I did argue with him at Warwick, for pitching his stall on such high-faluting ground, and not talking more like Francois Matarasso, who writes passionately of the value of traditional and everyday cultures and community arts. “All human beings have intellectual power,” Lazarus opined – but does that have to be expressed in received academic terms to be counted?

Looking back, I realise it was the context that troubled me more than the content. Lazarus spoke at the end of a morning mostly spent listening to male academics; the one exception was Shirin Rai, whose discipline is rooted in feminism and who systematically challenged her colleagues for their failures to acknowledge gender, class or ethnicity in their research. (I got the pleasing impression that Shirin is a thorn in the side of many in her department. I adored her.) Their lapses, combined with the setting, the language, the presentation of the academics as experts, the emphasis on top-down transmission of knowledge: all struck me as traditionally masculine/patriarchal ways of interacting and thinking about the world.

The afternoon brought more women's voices, and shifts in the presentation styles, but also a realisation: that I'd encountered several of the ideas under discussion before, in less formal settings, in more colloquial language, and more conversational relationships. Those encounters had happened in the context of theatre: where I'd felt more engaged, more challenged, more inspired and more equal. In the days following this_is_tomorrow, I thought a lot about the different places academics and artists occupy in British culture. I thought about the similarities between them as groups: both devote time to research, and are rigorous in how they present their thinking about the world to a particular audience. And I thought about the differences in how their perceived: academia as a site of intellectual debate and power; theatre as a place of “entertainment” where attempts to advocate for its ability to inspire civic literacy or mass intellectualism are easily repudiated as variations on the dreaded theme of “theatre is educational” or “theatre is good for you”. A part of me felt affronted that artists aren't already celebrated as public intellectuals, the people who do our best thinking about the world.

Writing this, I recognise an element of defensiveness, another strand of the anti-intellectual reflex that Lazarus keeps butting against. I am part of that problem. There was an acute reminder from Lazarus of the other, pejorative, meaning of the word academic: irrelevant. When the academics in the room ask for help from the artists, it's in plaintive tone: they want their research to reach more people, not out of a desire for self-aggrandisement or to push Warwick up the university league tables, but because they genuinely believe the wider population should be thinking about drones, and public memorials, and alternatives to capitalism, because these things affect how we see ourselves and govern how we live.

Two incidents particularly struck me at this_is_tomorrow. Madeleine Fagan is researching “the implications of disastrous and catastrophic narratives of climate change”, focusing in particular on apocalyptic films and books and thinking about the ways in which they mould the ethics governing political policy on climate change. There was something lovely about the way Chrises Haydon and Thorpe started throwing zombie film titles at her to build on the ideas she's already developed. (I was much less generous, and sat there silently seething that she apparently hasn't read Rebecca Solnit on the subject.) Later, Trevor McCrisken spoke about “the seductive nature of drone warfare”, and broke off in the middle of his presentation to lean towards Haydon to say that his thinking on drones had been transformed by the Gate production of George Brant's play Grounded, which Haydon directed and which focuses on a drone pilot's slow mental breakdown. Being completely honest, both incidents fuelled my mounting resentment at the perceived intellectual superiority of academics. Looking back, I recognise how much scope there is for exchange, conversation and a sharing of expertise between academics and artists – a scope this_is_tomorrow is built upon.

I thought about Madeleine the day after attending this_is_tomorrow when I watched the Zinnie Harris play How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court, a dystopian vision of European collapse. I also thought back to the theatre club discussion Dialogue had hosted for Mr Burns at the Almeida, where some brilliant people talked about their own research into apocalyptic narratives, and the difference between those constructed by men – which basically amount to “only a hero can save us!” – and those generated by women, which hope instead for community transformation. Harris is female, but her play felt like a masculine presentation of disaster to me, in its inexorable subjugation of its female main character, and in the relentless selfishness of almost everyone she encounters. So much of what I was resisting at this_is_tomorrow was the sensation that the very way humanity thinks is defined by male thought and male ideas, that it's impossible to break out of that because our very language was shaped by men from an agenda that was essentially racist and misogynist. And the question that plagues me now is whether theatre is defined by male thought and language too, and I'm so entrenched in it I just don't see it.

Friday, 5 June 2015

feet to the ground / body to the wind

At the moment my art is situated between the pornographic tendency to reveal everything and the erotic inclination to hide what it's all about.
[A statement on a wall, by Marlene Dumas]

I want to write this in greyscale, a half-tone, a whisper. [I'm struggling to write it at all.] It might be I'm tongue-tied, word-shy, uptight; I don't deal with the sensual so well. [Erase, rewrite, delete, revise. Weeks trickle past. Still this isn't written.] It might be a phase of not needing writing, at least not enough. I do need it: like love, like breathing. But I could shed those too. Sometimes.

Picture a woman. She is naked, voluptuous, flesh doughy and luminous. She stands on a wooden platform, gleaming black heels pressed into it like skewers; a fascinator covers her eyes with a wisp of lace. Rope snakes around her, criss-crossing her chest, her stomach, her thighs, eating into her skin; tied to a rack above her head, it pulls her arms high, forcing her body to stretch. She is caught. So tightly bound that her skin flushes red around knot and twine. She is caught and she sings in a voice that flames from her stomach and her heart, pours viscous from her throat, the German lyrics of Surabaya Johnny. The words mysterious, but not the feeling. I long for you. Ache for you. With every fibre of my being. Every thought is of you, my soul crying out to you: love me. Love me more.

[Months later, I wrote:

she is everyone i've loved from afar
every hand (never) held kiss (never) felt
body that never held me in the night
the delirium of wanting
(in vain)

I wrote:

my eyes full of this woman, this extraordinary naked woman, but my mind at sea, drowning in a long history of unrequited crushes, unresolved obsessions, on people who liked me, respected me, but never wanted me that way. i thought of them, and i thought of my mother, and how she tried to protect me from lust. how shocked she would be by me sitting in a deserted warehouse looking at a woman trussed up like a pig. i thought of the bondage of romance and the lie of rom-com, of femmes fatale and the pop songs that caught me, binding me in chains. i thought of my own flabby body, the roll of my stomach, the ripple of thighs, and wearing red lipstick to stop chasing a kiss]

It's strange: I've listened to Father John Misty so many times but it wasn't until that night of unbridled euphoria three posts back that I noticed how lubricious his songs are. I'd always turned to Fear Fun in downbeat moods, cloudy with melancholy: he cared for me by shrugging at death while mocking the stupidity of being alive. Lust in those songs seemed unconsummated, unrequited, wistful, conditional, and if not then hapless, ludicrous, exhausting: “I would like … to smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved”, “oh I long to feel your arms around me”, “if this is what it takes to get you on a date I'm gonna put my member behind glass”. And then there he was singing them live and the sex was spilling out of them: all the torrid days and nights he'd lived to ejaculate those words, vivid and glistening. This realisation of rampant red-blooded male heterosexuality was oddly disappointing: in my head FJM was the gentler twin of John Grant, Fear Fun the Queen of Denmark that didn't finish by punching me into a wall; both re-vision the country music I'd grown up listening to with my mum (a fan of Dolly, Kris, Willie, even Kenny on the lesser days), but what I particularly loved about Grant was his singing to boys, queering country in ways that felt/feel transgressive and transformative. And here was FJM's country being flamboyant but conventionally straight.

That deflating recognition hasn't stopped me listening to FJM with a fervour and frequency that borders on obsession (while hardly playing Grant at all). But I listen to I Love You Honeybear – and this one is flagrant in its evocation of honeymoon bliss – and something in me aches. It's nostalgia, I think: for curiosity, and not knowing, discovering a body, being discovered in turn, for surprise and spontaneity, silliness and wonder. Feeling that nostalgia makes FJM's dispassionate depiction of marriage in Bored in the USA all the more devastating:
How many people rise and think: 'oh good, the stranger's body's still here,
our arrangement hasn't changed'?
Now I've got a lifetime to consider all the ways
I've grown more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades.
I suspect you feel the same.

[The hours and the days and the weeks drifting by.]
[I would cover every mirror in the house if I could.]
[Take down the clocks.]
[Smash all the plates.]
[Not every day. Sometimes.]

The first few times I listened to that song, the canned laughter disconcerted me. The sound was so ugly, so jarring, so cruel. But it's necessary, because how else is it possible to carry that level of disillusion in your mind except with a readiness to laugh at yourself? (Which I'm pretty bad at. All of the times.)

Writing about marriage is hard because it isn't just an institution, it's two people, and how to keep that separate? Every word against marriage as a thing feels like a betrayal of the man who loved me so much he wanted to spend the rest of his life dealing with my shit. If I hadn't loved him back I wouldn't have married him, but having married him I find I loathe many of the expectations and conventions of conjugal life. The normativity of it. The routines, all the more defined since having children. The predictability, the acceptability. It makes me tired of being straight. I'm quoting this book everywhere at the moment, but here's Paul Goodman on marriage in Growing Up Absurd:

For powerful and well-known modern reasons, some of them inevitable, the institution of marriage itself, as we have known it for several hundred years, cannot work simply any longer, and is very often the direct cause of intense suffering. … A dispassionate observer of modern marriage might sensibly propose, Forget it; think up some other form of mating and child care. … But of course, in this field there are no dispassionate observers. We are all in the toils of jealousy of our own Oedipus complexes, and few of us can tolerate loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned. Nor do we have any other formula for secure sex, companionship, and bringing up children.

(Two notes: firstly, Goodman's focus in the book on the spiritual malaise of men, the gnawing and diminishing lack of meaning in male lives, the absence of opportunity for what he calls “excellence and manliness”, suggests that although he doesn't specify, the “intense suffering” he describes here should be read as experienced specifically by men. Secondly, Goodman's focus in the book on the necessity of opportunities for worth, excellence and spirituality for men alone, his presentation as incontrovertible fact that a woman's “career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act”, makes reading the book as infuriating for me as it is elucidating and inspiring: part of the fun is turning each page not knowing if I'm going to agree vigorously or want to rip it to shreds. I know there are women who find motherhood natural, creative, fulfilling: that I'm not one of them fills me with jealousy, guilt, frustration, sadness, a host of irritable emotions at constant war with the heart-battering love I feel for my kids.)

For days Bored in the USA played in my head on repeat. And then a natural trail of musical association (I imbibed Springsteen through the womb) led me from Born in the USA to Born to Run to Dancing in the Dark, and then it was replaced with these words:
I take a look in the mirror
Want to change my clothes, my hair, my face
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored of myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help

And these words:
You can't start a fire
Worrying about your little world falling apart

Picture a woman. Except she doesn't look like a woman. She wears a white shirt, a man's black raincoat, jeans. Her cropped hair is gelled to stiff smooth spikes, on her face is scribbled a black moustache and beard. She is telling a story of seeing a man in a bar, self-assured, crisp and cocky, and of herself meeting his challenge: sitting down opposite him, sliding a foot between his legs, going out to his car and letting him fuck her, hard, against the seat, once, then again. What does this say about masculinity, about femininity? About aggression and acquiescence, confidence and meekness, the veneers of (binary) gender, the relative visibilities of desire? A shift and she's Ollie, a graphic designer with his own business, nice but no spark to him, no danger, no risk. Invited to ask him a question, we face him in silence. Another shift and she's Bruce swaggering through that song: you can't start a fire, can't start a fire without a spark. Want to change my clothes, my hair, my face. I watch each transformation and wonder: which one feels to her most true?

Weeks later, in a gallery in Modern Art Oxford, Dancing in the Dark is playing again. The exhibition is Test Run: Performance in Public; the exhibit is Hopeful Romantic, by Lilly McElroy, a four-minute film of a woman standing alone in wild, rural, desert, snowy places, looking over mountain peaks, wheat fields, broad placid lakes, facing out into the distance, a ghetto blaster precariously poised on her head, Springsteen rustling the breeze. There is running but no hiding from the self; there is leaving but no escape. I watch the video and for the briefest of moments stop performing wife, or mother. It's just me and the song and these extraordinary not-empty landscapes and a yearning that will never be assuaged.

[The woman in the toilets doesn't meet my glance.
It's amazing what you can get up to in public places.]

On reading Kathy Acker. On reading Kathy Acker and feeling a shock of recognition. The electric shock of words that scorn the normative narrative line, the charge and dazzle of words that have so little respect for rules. Her writing jitters and somersaults and constantly re-forms itself, into film scripts, and poetry, illustration and the curlicues of Arabic, into fantasy, romantic reverie, the pulse and sweat of pornography. She writes of other writers and her passion for them sears the page. She is everything I want from writing, from myself. But I've been struggling to read any more. There is a violence to Blood and Guts in High School that I find terrifying: a subjugation of the young female that feels unresolved and deeply uncomfortable. Sex and pain so inextricably entwined. It confuses me, how intently and unrelentingly the young female is punished for desiring this pain. Exploited, imprisoned, abused. I want her to have more power, not to be more aggressive, just to have more control. For her to display less neediness, for the men she encounters to show her more respect. Less realism, more idealism. Acker is so much braver than me.

I'm 50 or so pages into Blood and Guts when I see Hannah Silva perform a work-in-progress of Schlock!, and zero pages into 50 Shades of Grey, because truly life is too short. Schlock! splices Acker and the Shades trilogy in a way that feels true to Acker's slash-and-steal techniques, characteristic of Hannah's chippy-chop playfulness and linguistic interrogation, attentive to the underlying politics of cheap-thrill erotica and thrillingly promiscuous in its stage languages. The written word covers the floor in pages and pages of typescript torn from novels; Hannah chews on them and spits them out, snatches sentences from Acker, loops her voice, and – oh so beautiful – speaks emphatically in British sign language, merging text and body, body becoming text. Amid the sex and the sensual is also the intimacy and fury of mother and child, the nakedness, love, anger, resentment, the complex interplay of dominance and submission. It was a few weeks later that I caught myself recognising that if what I really wanted from my children was unconditional love and near-total obedience, I should do them and me a favour and get a dog.

In Schlock!'s post-show discussion (titled something brilliant like Sex and Subversion on Stage), I mostly struggled to keep up with the general erudition and specific intelligence of Chris Goode, but did talk quite a bit about Rosana and Amy Cade's show Sister, which I'd seen a few months previously in a work-in-progress more raw and emotionally scorched than the show the sisters went on to perform on tour. Rosana in particular charred the air as she communicated from a place beyond verbal expression, between pain and rage, about misogyny, sexuality, embarrassment, fear and belonging; while Amy's discussion of her family's difficulty comprehending her sexual drive and the desires it engendered gave me a couple of necessary jolts. Feminism struggles with prostitution and I recognised that I'd drifted into an uninterrogated belief that all sex work is exploitative: Amy calmly argued the case that sex work can provide women with a sexual fulfilment not so easily accessible elsewhere; can – for a woman endowed with certain social privileges, not least independence – be an articulation of autonomy, strength and dissident pleasure. Listening to Amy inspired an almost immediate rethink in how I talked to my daughter about her body; it might even have made me braver in my relationship with my own.

Picture a woman alone on a train. Self-absorbed and silent. [A line from the Sonia Delauney exhibition, via Plato: silence is the soul in conversation with itself.] Barely noticing the landscapes and the seasons shuttling past, from stark trees and louring skies to lush verdant gleam. Writing for company, writing for calm; writing propped up in big hotel beds, unfurling into words. Curtains open to midnight darkness and the TV always off. The hardest bit of the journey is always the going home.

To offset the contemptuous and borderline offensive disregard for female experience in the Goodman, I read Growing Up Absurd alongside Women's Poetry of the 1930s, an anthology edited by Jane Dowson that presents like an extended PhD thesis but introduced me to a lot of excellent minds. The strict time parameters meant several of the poets weren't necessarily represented by their best work (which might have emerged in the 1940s/50s), and neglect struck me as a reasonable fate for anyone writing florid, earnest verses to the countryside. But page after page flamed with anger at the Spanish civil war and political violence, at “Europe's nerve strung like catapult, the cataclysm roaring” (Nancy Cunard); at social injustice, particularly poverty, and the loathsome privilege of the languid upper classes. To the “children of wealth”, Elizabeth Daryush warned: “You'll wake to horror's wrecking fire – your home/ Is wired within for this, in every room.” Daryush also had one of the most acute couplets encapsulating these poets' other great theme: the various disappointments, frustrations, limitations and thwarted desires of marriage. Surveying the pros and cons of a bad match, Daryush concluded: “[W]hen the mistaken marriage mortifies,/ it's your own branch and stem and root that dies.” Often the tone is self-righteous, but Frances Cornford's Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents has the lightest air of ironic amusement; it's so gentle in its satire you could almost miss her addressing parents – mothers, let's face it – as “you, the unstable”.

A sinewy and much-valued conversation about privilege and ethnicity with Selina Thompson led me back to another poet, Ntozake Shange, who turned the world through kaleidoscopes when I first read her 20 years ago and still does now. If you haven't read for colored girls who considered suicide when the rainbow wasn't enuf or Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo then please stop wasting your time here and get to it. Nappy Edges is such a brilliant book: angry, sexy, determined, graceful. What it says about the writer's voice – a musician, a band, you can recognise from a handful of notes, but a writer from a sentence? – will ignite me for years. Poet is one of those words I hanker after (like artist, dancer, singer, even writer): Shange makes me want to be a poet, and brave enough to live that.
people keep telling me these are hard times/ what are you gonna be
doin ten years from now/ what in the hell do you think/ i
am gonna be writin poems/ i will have poems/ inchin up the
walls of the lincoln tunnel/ i am gonna feed my children poems
on rye bread with horseradish/ i am gonna send my mailman off
with a poem for his wagon/ give my doctor a poem for his heart/
i am a poet/ i am not a part-time poet/ i am not an amateur
poet/ i dont even know what that person cd be/ whoever that
is authorizing poetry as an avocation/ is a fraud/
put yr own feet on the ground/
It's August 2013 and I'm in bed with a woman. We lie in the back of a large industrial van, me in my clothes gazing at her tousled hair, black against the quiet white of the sheets, her pretending to be asleep, yet insinuating her body against mine, snuggling my arm into the yielding flesh of her torso. I remember wanting to stroke her hair, touch her skin, gaze at her for hours, not the minutes she gave. Two months later and we're together again, her naked, tied up, distant though close; wanting to touch her, trapped too, a voyeur. A year later I wrote:
I don't remember how Surabaya Johnny ended. But that's because it hasn't. That performance lives on in me, day after day. I carry it like a scar with all the others: the graze of knuckles in Soho, shame staining my cheeks in Hornsey, eyelids burning in Battersea, stomach at my feet in Warren Street. A line from a song in the Klanghaus show: “And the soul lives on, when the bones are gone.” Unrequited love is like that: some spirit of it keeps living, a halcyon dream.
That was eight months ago. I don't dream that way any more.

[Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage.
I wonder how it would feel for her to not let go.]

Picture a woman, two women this time. One flamboyant, robe flowing, paintbrush dangling from her mouth like a cigarette. (I so wish I could carry that off: what a gorgeous, ridiculous affectation, much better than actual thin cigarettes.) One slight and angular, a bit like Barbie. They are arguing about friendship, marriage and commitment. The straight-laced one coos to her boyfriend on the phone; he is disruptive, demanding, she becomes infantile in response. The flamboyant one is resistant, too singular for straight conventionalities. Their bodies become their tools for debate: there is rough and tumble argument, limbs tangling and torsos thrusting; there is an awkward but loving struggle to maintain contact, heads pressed together while arms and legs twist away. The odds are stacked against marriage here: for all that it offers in security and stability, it carries the threat of soul-sapping lifelessness. I don't want to choose once and stop, cries the flamboyant one. I want to choose you every day.

Dear god I cried watching Oh I Can't Be Bothered. Cried for the selves that chose and didn't get chosen, cried for the desire, ambition and zest. Cried for the moving on, the growing up, the drifting apart. Cried for the feeling stuck. That's the most useful description of depression I've ever encountered (in Ann Cvetkovich's book Depression: A Public Feeling): a feeling of being stuck, so totally stuck that there seems to be no way out, and so the energy to find one gradually slumps and feelings become numb in the concrete of being stuck. The Barbie woman in her polythene bridal veil, trapped and potentially suffocating. Pulling it off only to find that no one can be relied on, not really. Having a contract at least limits that vulnerability.

[lines from an email correspondence:
i'm just kind of being nosy about people's marriages at the moment bec it kind of defeats me how they work. how the fuck does marriage work?”
I don't think there's any rules, but it's definitely hard... I guess I predominately believe in fluidity and I like the notion that (even) a marriage is a continual choice, day to day, to stay together rather than a fate accompli... that every day we choose to stay married and it really is as simple as that.”]

The woman bound with rope and in the bed is Sarah-Jane Norman. The woman dressed up as Bruce Springsteen is Ira Brand. The women fighting between marriage and friendship are Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen. The self-absorbed woman is me.


Friday, 15 May 2015

The first coming of Ponyboy Curtis

This is not a review.
This is a partial view.
This was written in January 2015, after spending 3.5 days (of 5) in a rehearsal room with Ponyboy Curtis.
This is not the same Ponyboy Curtis now performing At The Yard, at the Yard.
This is written to be read on paper.
This is dedicated to Chris, Jonny, Richard, Nick, Matthew, Sean, Craig, Gryffin, with thanks, respect, admiration and trust.
This is a beginning.
This will continue.

1 Skin
Taped to the back of the rehearsal room door is an A4 sheet of paper with a slogan typed in italics: “Skin never hurt anyone – no weapons, no danger.”

I think of people who have been hurt because of their skin. Because of its colour. Irregularities. The way it moulds the skeleton beneath, draping over fat, signifying gender, wrinkling with age. I think of how skin enforces privilege. I think none of these things in the rehearsal room.

I think of a text from Chris Goode's blog, a hymn to the folk singer Sam Amidon written soon after seeing him play live in 2010:

“Amidon's lack of guardedness as a performer [… hard to describe … a kind of charisma, a kind of radiance, a real feeling of openness ...] reminded me very much of what Utah Phillips used to say Ammon Hennacy told him about pacifism:

'You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.'

I've very seldom seen anyone stand in front of an audience as disarmed as Sam Amidon.”
[Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, 31 December 2010]

I think of the people I've seen stand in Chris' rehearsal rooms and disarm themselves completely. Each one radiant with an honesty naked as their skin.

Skin never hurt anyone. And yet revealing it is so fraught.

2: Beneath
Beneath the word romance is the idea of quest.
Romance, etymology: c.1300, "a story, written or recited, of the adventures of a knight, hero, etc".
Romantic, meaning "characteristic of an ideal love affair" (such as usually formed the subject of literary romances) is from 1660s. Meaning "having a love affair as a theme" is from 1960.

Romance and kindness are interrelated.
Kindness, etymology: c.1300, "courtesy, noble deeds".

But so too are kind and kin.
Kind: etymology: "class, sort, variety," from Old English gecynd "kind, nature, race," related to cynn "family" (see kin), from Proto-Germanic kundjaz "family, race".

So buried in kind is the German for child, kind.

An adventure, courtesy for others, forming a tribe, playfulness.
These feel like good movements for a new ensemble to make.

3: Gangs
I'm watching Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 movie The Outsiders – the film from which Ponyboy Curtis takes its name – and wondering what the hell took me so long. I can measure out my adolescence in American movies about peripheral teens. Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume was my role model, my manifesto for living. So was Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. From the moment I met the Cry-Baby girls, I wanted to be one, to stand with Wanda, Pepper, Hatchet-face, sneering at the world: “Our bazooms are our weapons!” There is a moment in the Ponyboy room when Matthew puts on a big, padded jacket, pulls the hood low over his head, and looks so much like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club I feel the breath snag in my lungs.

The Outsiders is different from all those films because women hardly register in it. This is a film about camaraderie between men. Young men looking out for each other, learning from each other, protecting each other, whatever that takes. Young men struggling to negotiate the rules of family and friendship, of law and loyalty, of a stratified and heartless society that doesn't value them because what it values is wealth and obedience. Young men dispensing love through practical advice. Be careful where you drop those cigarette butts. Don't wear that shirt for the fight. There's little space for poetry in these lives, but they find it. It burns inside them, gold.

Day one of rehearsals and the smokers are huddled outside together, blowing pale grey clouds into winter air and forging the first tentative bonds. I've never smoked a cigarette in my life. Chris doesn't smoke either. We are pierced again by the old disappointment of just not being cool.

4: Jonny
In this room of mostly strangers, everyone knows Jonny.

“If there's a more ravishing performance anywhere on the Fringe this year than Jonny Liron's Dionysus -- well, could somebody tell me about it?” Chris wrote that on his blog in August 2007 after first encountering Jonny on stage at the Edinburgh fringe. By the time I met him in June 2011, he was a figure of mythic proportions glimpsed slantwise: the stories I read or heard of him conveyed someone who would push at the edges of most things and push the rest over the edge. The person I met was tall and tattered and wild; he wandered through the rehearsal room naked and danced such a febrile, inside-out dance to Bowie's Modern Love that I've never heard the song the same since.

Jonny made nakedness habitual. Is that right? Comfortable, but also a challenge. There was something else about him, too, but I couldn't figure out what. I thought I saw it in October 2012, in an almost-private performance, a duet with Chris called The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Belladonna, Chris seated at a desk reading words of fantasy and longing, secret passion and ravaged desire, while Jonny prowled the candlelit concrete space of his warehouse home, curved and stretched and pummelled his body, seared Chris' arm with wax, and finally set fire to everything. Painted on the wall, in thick black letters, were the words: CAPITALISM ENDS HERE. Here was god and sex and pain and want and most of all love; here was a willingness to exist at extremes such as I'd never encountered. It was that, but also something else.

A few months later, April 2013, I saw it, in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre Studio, where Chris Goode & Company worked for a week on the Jacobean play The Witch of Edmonton. It's a malevolent play that nearly broke everyone in the room, but Chris wrestled it into submission by creating a “remix”, heavily edited, multiply layered, inviting subversions and interventions. Here I saw the two sides of Jonny: the one who, stalking naked on all fours across the rehearsal room floor, could present the figure of a goat, in whose implacable stare one is confronted with all the roiling, savage mystery of the world; and the one that could play a piece of classical text with charisma, radiance and openness, inhabiting the words so completely that they seemed inextricable from his being. This Jonny's stature and vulnerability reminded me of the best Hamlets I've seen – Rory Kinnear, Sam West – people who gave every indication of making Shakespeare up on the spot, by locating that poetry deep within; people for whom there is absolutely no division between thought and language, feeling and speech. My vision of Jonny was transformed.

In Ponyboy Curtis, I saw yet another Jonny, taking responsibility for others in the room, guiding them, supporting them. When Matthew was hesitant, puzzled, shy, Jonny's advice and nurture illuminated possibility.

And then he climbed a wall and swung from a beam.

Slowly, surely, the others followed suit.

5: Masculinities
Boys in the playground, pulling down each other's trousers, grabbing belongings and throwing them in the air, piggy-in-the-middle turning into wrestling, no place else to go.

Boys in a boyband, real gang, us and them, the smart one, the shy one, the scallywag, the regular guy.

Clothes make the man.
The violence of a hood pulled up.
The cheek of an orange baseball cap.
The adventure of electric-blue sweatpants.
The seduction of a T-shirt ripped at the back.
Clothes that bring out a hidden aspect of personality versus clothes that impose personality.

(“Naked people have little or no influence in society.” Apocryphal, Mark Twain.)

I watch them morph through different personae. Berlin bareback sauna boy and a muscular guy from a porn calendar. The shadowy men clenched into themselves, whose latent aggression makes me cross the road or run breathlessly home. Men I would introduce to my parents and men it's never occurred to me to befriend.

“I feel quite slutty.”
“It feels like I'm ready for action, and not in a good way.”
“This just feels like something my dad would wear.”
“I feel like I have wings.”

Craig lays his clothes out neatly on the floor as if the empty space before him is a body and his flesh is in fact his soul.

6: Glancing femininity (or something like it, at least)
Jonny in a skinny pink T-shirt and nothing else, surprised by how feminine he feels with his penis exposed.

Matthew, so modest, in glasses and headscarf, clutching a canvas bag. He looks like a timid librarian, specifically female. I have no idea what to do with this thought.

Griffyn has almond eyes and arching brows and hair that swoops in a Marcelled quiff. He looks like his mother and wears a battered silver wedding ring and tattooed across his collar bone are two words: rogue lad. He pulls on a thick woolly hat and unlaces his clumpy boots, pulls his dark blue jeans low so that tufts of hair peek above the belt. On to this bare-chested, breastless body I project the dyke I would love to the ends of the earth. Rogue lass.

Jonny is fascinated: what's it like, being the only female in a room full of men often naked?
The truth is, I feel safe. Except when they're wrestling, I feel no sense of separation. No sense of the structures that rank and diminish. Gender de-weaponised, I feel human among humans.

And then, looking at Griffyn, I realise something. This room would feel a lot more tantalisingly erotic if I were surrounded by naked women.

7: Hounds of love
Towards the end of Stefan Zweig's 1927 novel Confusion – which I finished reading a few days before this rehearsal week began – is a diatribe against “trivial and unimportant” writers/playwrights who swim only in the mainstreams of human passions. “Is it through complacency, cowardice, or because they take too short a view,” the narrator demands, “that they speak of nothing but the superficial, brightly lit plane of life where the senses openly and lawfully have room to play, while below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution? Does the breath of those beasts alarm them, the hot and tearing breath of demonic urges, the exhalations of the burning blood, do they fear to dirty their dainty hands on the ulcers of humanity, or does their gaze, used to a duller brightness, not find its way down the slippery, dangerous steps that drip with decay? And yet to those who truly know, no lust is like the lust for the hidden, no horror so primaevally forceful as that which quivers around danger, no suffering more sacred than that which cannot express itself for shame.”

Dangerous beasts. Fantastic, demonic. The ulcers of humanity. Decay, horror, shame.
And yes, this was written almost a century ago. But the language of homophobia is still embedded in our culture, doing its insidious work to vilify love.

The Ponyboy rehearsal room is a place that makes love possible. Intimacy possible. That sounds so sentimental written down; suddenly I understand what Chris meant when he said on day 4: “falling in love is a way to have better arguments”. The Ponyboy rehearsal room makes burning blood possible.

I'm intrigued by the moments when the outside creeps in. When Nick and Sean huddle together watching a Nirvana video, then pull away with fumbling uncertainty, Nick wary of crossing a boundary uninvited. When the persona embedded in a certain assembly of clothing prevents the wearer from making contact with another. When the tension that surrounds a tentative kiss causes an eruption of physical braggadocio, rippled muscle and insouciance.

Outside this room, gay is still a taunt.

Knowing that makes the intimacy all the more tender. Bodies curled around each other. Fingertips caressing temples, skin brushing upon skin. A hold that cradles, sustains and enables, that lifts and protects and elates. Sometimes this feels erotic, but when sex isn't the goal, there is potential for so much more. Intimacy brings strength, brings confidence, gives wings. A room full of men taking flight.

Notes, day 4, afternoon.
“by being brave and kind to self
can push through things instinctively want to stop”

“I had moments of getting genuinely horny
it felt exciting, real
indicator of my getting into the work and people
incredible to undo years of shit where yr intimacy w/ men either in a we're going to have sex date way or relationship way
incredible to get back in touch w/ men's bodies
in a way that isn't about fucking
exciting and v powerful”

“felt different urges
felt naughty”

Ponyboy as the
“picturesque adolescence that never had
where got to know people's souls”

8: Ready to catch him should he fall
Nick has the face of an angel, the physique of a dancer and the sleek self-possession of a cat. He brings into the room a profound belief in karma and a connoisseur's taste for destruction. I'm not in the room on the day he starts a fire directly beneath the smoke alarm, but the discussion it provokes the following day is gripping. How to create a feeling of care in the room, not to extinguish risk but reinforce it. How to be so secure as a community that one person can consistently break the rules because the others will rally round to manage the consequences and prevent hurt. How to negotiate individual freedom and test the permissions of a group, not to destroy that group but to make it stronger, more aware of its permissions and desires. How to be part of a community by thinking collectively, and being open to disruption of that thinking.

On the final day of rehearsals, we have a long conversation about Take That, and how a large part of their public appeal could have been generated by appreciation of the fraternity between them, broadcast even in their off hours. Later, Nick – whose wilful acts of sabotage have included a pointed refusal to work with the music Chris chooses for the room, instead listening to his own on headphones and, again when I'm not there to witness it, managing to insert a track of his own into the afternoon soundtrack – will choose the moment of most heightened, loving emotion, of Jo Clifford – playwright, performer, transgender woman, special guest on the last afternoon – circling the room to hug each of us one by one to her naked chest, Nick will choose this specific moment to skewer proceedings, to rent the atmosphere as though with a scythe, by playing through the tinny speakers of his smart phone It Only Takes a Minute by Take That. It is appalling. It is obnoxious. It is a flash of genius, inspired.

9: The sounds of silence
[the click of the camera]
[the slow shift of limbs]
[the scratch of my pen]
[cars outside]

[the flex of muscles]
[the thump of bone hitting floor]
[the flutter of paper like cherry blossom]
[a child's voice floating in]
[a sniff that could be tears]

[rough gasps]
[the damp click of a kiss]

Richard has an extraordinary ability to create silence around himself. In group discussions he is often the one saying nothing, but the impassivity of his face belies deep intellect and deeper feeling. During improvisations he can keep a distance from the others without drawing attention from them, make being on the inside look like the outside. I see him shivering as he pours a bottle of cold water over his head. Scowling beneath a hoodie, the tension of his naked body released by another's touch. Masking his genitals with tape, marking himself within this new tribe.

Nick creates noise. Richard creates silence. But in that silence I hear howls of pain.

10: Words of resistance
out of the silence a torrent of words It is only because of the danger that I can speak as I am going to a deluge, cascading, relentless, unstoppable yes, it is possible to bow down to a flower. The bird in the branches can be spoken to, and there is meaning in its flight words of revolution, words of utopia, words that alarm Chris and Jonny with reminders that anarchy and fascist libertarianism share the same default language in nature nothing is ever finished, as in the world of games listening feels like drowning, my ears too full to hear When my innermost heart trembles with the trembling of the river so I act as though it's a slow tide, letting some words wash in and others fade out, sentences catching light as they rise in waves

artists are those who are capable of living I know nothing about Peter Handke's play The Long Way Round except this remarkable speech, delivered by a woman and handed out in the Ponyboy room on the first day of rehearsals, five close-printed pages of A4 but to pass something on, one must love this is the only text with which the group work; other language would be a distraction Communicate the horizon and though I hear it three times, it's not until I read it to myself that I notice this line:


and I think yes yes YES!

don't let anyone talk you out of beauty on day 4, Chris plays a recording of Tilda Swinton speaking the words over a new-age-trippy seagulls-and-waves little-fluffy-clouds soundtrack so personally offensive I'm amazed that others in the room found it transporting losing yourself is part of the game and on day 5 Jo Clifford reads it with glinting eye and volcanic passion transform yourselves relishing the magic, the connection to nature You are mysterious and inexhaustible the reverence for children, for artists, for love Better for you to be dead if you cannot love yourselves relishing especially the invitation of these reckless and restless young men; it inspires her to stride proudly into the speech, to pull off her jumper and jade-green bra and deliver all five pages of it topless, charismatic and radiant at this opening of her transgender body Take the big leap. Be the gods of change. Everything else leads to nothing when the lights go out she reads by a torch, and when that is extinguished she stands by the window with the blind pulled up a little and reads by the streetlamps' refractions; she changes what's possible in the outside world, draws me and Chris into the storytelling (we are audience, we are complicit), and at the end Joy is made possible by helpfulness to friends, and friendship dances around the world walks slowly around the room, hugging each one of us in turn, in gratitude and solidarity.

Hope is the wrong heartbeat.

Blessed be every kiss, however brief.

Only when shaken by deep feeling will you see clearly.

Lift yourselves up

and trust your seething heart.

11: Let's go, let go, letting go, let it go
I'm out of the room for a day and a half and when I get back on day 4 Matthew is transformed. Shyness abated, he spends almost the entirety of a persona exercise cavorting in just a pair of moss-green underpants and white headphones. At the far end of the room is a big square window with a low wide ledge; he stands on it, pulsing his body to a silent disco soundtrack, and we all of us long to go to that party. Between him and the outside world is nothing more than a sapphire blind and thin panes of glass.

Day 5 and it happens like this:
The room is silent, tense.
Nick is strutting around taking people's photographs on his phone.
Sean and Craig, lying on the floor together, begin to pose, pout, play up to the camera.
Nick turns the camera around and reveals he was photographing himself all along.
Now Nick is lying on the floor.
He's pressing play on some music for Richard.
Sean stands over him.
Chris presses play.
Live fast die young bad girls do it well
Sean is dancing over Nick's prone body with joy with abandon with wild wild release and honestly, truly, it's like watching them fuck, only better.

How far can we push this?
How far can this go?

Jo standing by the window, blind pulled asunder, voicing words of resistance semi-naked, from the heart, the spirit of the new age speaks in her, adventure, courtesy, family, playfulness, the quivering of truth, our journey starts here.

12: The politics of kindness
Matthew, day 4: “We were talking about this gifting idea, I'm still trying to get my head around it, we've been doing this thing in warm-up where we actively help each other, and there was a moment this morning, I was blindfolded and stretching on the floor, I don't know who it was it but he came over and started holding my head, which I love. He was doing it for a while and it was incredibly lovely but suddenly I was panicked: I need to return the favour, let him know that I'm grateful, give him something back. And then I thought: just accept this gift that he's given me. And suddenly I was intensely moved, because this never happens in life, that you get something for free that's so tender and lovely and someone doesn't expect anything back. I felt like I understood something about what was happening in this room. Now I want to pay that forwards and give that energy onwards: that seems like the right mentality for the world.”

This is how that blog post – the one that talked about Sam Amidon from 31 December 2010 – ended: with a call to arms, a manifesto for living. I remember the shiver of excitement that I felt when I first read it; it changed me, galvanised me, for the better. This is what Ponyboy Curtis is made of:

“What shall we do? We can choose, in these times, to re-create fixities and continue to slam home our kindness in the face of radical right-wing assault. Or we can choose to move, and build, and knock down, and move again, and rebuild, and never stop moving, and never stop building. Because we know, we do know, you do know, that it's possible to live the lives we need. Our task now is to find a way of imagining those lives without being afraid of our capacity to change, and without fearing the crucial imperative to lay down the weapons of our privilege.

Now, more than ever, theatre is an instrument of escapism. Escaping into the real. Escaping at last into real life. We can actually do this. Tell your friends. Get naked. Testify!”

Friday, 13 March 2015

The fever, and what remains

Flashback. A dreich night in January 2015, although it’s hard to tell if the drear is outside or in me. This is the ugliest hotel room I’ve ever been in. The furniture matches only in being tasteless; the art on the walls isn't worth a glance. There are people everywhere: sunk into camel-coloured leather sofas, upright at a glass dining table, perched against a lacquered cabinet, folded into the window frames. And still it doesn't feel crowded. A man walks amiably among us, tracksuit bottoms flapping around his bare ankles. His voice is the amber of single malt, lustrous with good breeding. At one point he stands right beside me and speaks as if I’m the only person here. I gaze into his flecked brown eyes and feel my insides burn. This isn’t what he said to me:

I went to a play with a group of friends—a legendary actress in a great role. We stared at the stage. Moment after moment the character's downfall crept closer. Her childhood home would at last be sold, her beloved cherry trees chopped down. … She would be forced to live in an apartment in Paris, not on the estate she'd formerly owned. Her former serf would buy the estate. It was her old brother's sympathetic grief that finally coaxed tears from the large man in the heavy coat who sat beside me. But the problem was that somehow, suddenly, I was not myself. I was disconcerted. Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping?”

Flashback. November 2014. I’ve always hated The Cherry Orchard. That bloody awful production in Richmond or Wimbledon, all prim bustling dresses, beige suits and starched accents. This is something else. The stage is wide and gloomy, its walls the grey stain of condensation mould. Unwantedness seeps from the characters, too. When the Katie Mitchell/Simon Stephens take on The Cherry Orchard makes me weep, it isn't because the neglectful rich are losing their crumbling mansion and desiccated land, but because love is so cruelly absent: the word is spoken but the feeling isn't there. In this world, a mother mourns her dead son by abandoning her living, breathing daughters; men spurn affection that women struggle to give; caring for nature isn't nearly as important as the principle of owning it. In this world, generosity looks like thoughtless idiocy.

Together with brilliant Lily Einhorn, I hosted a Theatre Club on The Cherry Orchard for the Young Vic's Two Boroughs participation audience, most of whom found the coldness of the production really difficult: it disengaged them from the characters, whom they found self-centred and/or stupid, and stopped them sympathising. I understood what they meant: the characters weren't likeable. Even so, I'd had an electric evening with them. Especially listening to Peter: mocked as an eternal student, he gives two impassioned speeches, one about the responsibility of human beings to make change, the other about slavery, acute with truth and fearlessness, that made me want to leap out of my seat and punch the air:

Your grandfather. And your great-grandfather. And generations and generations of your family before them. They actually thought that they owned real living human beings. They bought and sold them like cattle. And here, standing here, looking out at the cherry trees that were built on all that ownership, it's like I can hear the voices of all those humans, all those dead souls, that were owned and purchased and sold by your family. It's degraded all of you. You're not just in debt to the people you owe money to. You're in debt to all the dead that you've ever owned. If we're going to change our world then we need to atone for the things that have happened in our past. We need to suffer for it.”

That's how I want us to talk about the problem of capitalism and why we're really not living in a “post-racial” world. I think about how Selina Thompson described intersectional thinking to me as “a commitment to never being comfortable or relaxed, and always being aware of the discomfort of your own privilege”: that's how I understand that word “suffer”.

The theatre club group found the politics of the production difficult too, and we spent a long time prodding, digging, picking at loose threads, to reach an articulation of these misgivings. It was clear that the way the Ranevskaya household conducted themselves wasn't just unsustainable but inhumane. Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping? But the problem ran deeper than that. I've always taken the conventional line on The Cherry Orchard: first performed in 1904, it anticipated change that in hindsight is known to be the revolutions of 1905 and, more seismically, 1917. Stephens and Mitchell, we decided, really wanted to believe in social revolution, gave Peter firecracker speeches about human potential, but were undermined by the charisma and tenacity of the businessman, Alexander, a David Cameron lookalike who echoes Peter at his moment of greatest triumph, the buying of the orchard from right under the family's noses:

If my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather could drag themselves out of their graves by their claws and see me here now. And see their little Alexander, who could barely even read and who they used to beat up and who used to run round here in the winter with no shoes on his feet, this same Alexander, has bought an estate, and not just any estate, the finest estate in the world! The estate where they were farmhands! They weren't even allowed in the kitchen.”

By the end of the Theatre Club discussion, the group felt relieved and resolved: Mitchell and Stephens wanted to ignite socialist fervour, but instead gave the devil, Alexander, all the best tunes, which made their version politically muddled and counter-productive. Done. But something about this jarred with me, nagged at me for weeks, until the fierce, piercing intelligence of the production finally hit me. The Cherry Orchard is a play anticipating social reorganisation: Chekhov didn't know what that would be, but conventional hindsight reads that as the advent of communism. But Mitchell and Stephens take the longer view, the full span of a century view, and read it as the advent of capitalism. I might be making this up, but I remember there being a moment in the production when the characters look through the window at the cherry orchard, and the window is at the edge of the stage: the auditorium is the orchard, and we, the audience, are the cherry trees, bought and sold, at the mercy of aristocratic whims and capitalist exploitation.

Alexander is the oppressed man who embraces corruption the moment opportunity arises: rather than seek to dismantle the power structures that exploited his family, he reinforces them. When he echoes Peter's language, it's in the way that neo-liberalism contains the word, the promise, of liberalism, the way capitalism tries to sell you self-determination and contentment. The violence of this production isn't in Alexander's inexorable destruction of the cherry orchard – the fucking trees were half-dead anyway – but his ability early in the play to present his corporate machinations as solicitude, an expression of love. He is every food manufacturer that has chopped down rainforests to replace them with beef farms because people have an insatiable desire for burgers and every energy company executive rubbing their hands at the prospect of mining the Arctic for oil because people need fossil fuels to achieve fulfilment.

Alexander is a force for one kind of change; in enacting it, he dismisses all others, the way capitalism makes imagining the apocalypse easier than imagining social reorganisation. “I know exactly the potential of the people around here,” he tells Peter. “They have the potential to lie. They have the potential to deceive. They have the potential to inveigle. They'll change nothing.” This is where we find ourselves, this production says. In a time when the wealthy and powerful treat “common” people with scorn. When even dedicated left-wingers encourage people to vote for strategy rather than what they believe in. What are we going to do about it? Matt Trueman, brilliantly, argues that Mitchell and Stephens present the minor character Charlotta as a beacon: uninhibited, impulsive, queer and quixotic, she articulates the necessity of constant regeneration. I think he's right. But I also think she's living solitary in the future and doesn't especially care who joins her there. There are many reasons to be wary of Peter: he's self-important, overly earnest, heartless even (his treatment of Anna, the poor woman who loves him, is appalling). No wonder Matt rejects him. But he's the only person on stage articulating the problem. That counts for a lot.

Or does it? What point is there in all those words? All these words? When and how do words become action? What action can they become? Harry Giles, who eschews party politics and instead campaigns at a grassroots level, is the source of all inspiration to me, but sometimes I struggle even to read his tweets, let alone follow his path. I want change and I want to enact change, but the energy of that wanting goes into finding the words, not pushing it through.

And then I'm sitting in a hotel room with a man with absorbing brown eyes, who's articulating the present problem with lacerating bluntness. When Wallace Shawn wrote The Fever, Thatcher was still prime minister and Reagan was handing over the presidency to Bush: these were the architects of our world, and the inequality his text describes has become more stark, more excruciating, more putrescent in their wake. Flashback: I'm sitting on the stage of the Olivier theatre, watching James Graham's This House, a play about the five years (1974-79) during which Labour dwindled and Thatcher rose to power. I'm squirming with discomfort, because I hate basically everyone and everything on stage, and then one politician says to another something along the lines of: under the Tories, life would be shit for some people; under Labour, life is shit for everybody. I still remember the audience's laughter at that “joke” as one of the ugliest sounds I've ever heard.

Watching The Fever was good for me, the way I'd like counselling to be good for me. It lifted all the anxiety, the self-reproach, the guilt, the discomfort, the desire, the confusion I feel being a middle-class white person working in the arts, with no financial worries apart from the principle of wanting to be paid, all the words that whirr in my brain on sunny days and sleepless nights, took all of that and put it in the mouth of someone else, so I could nod along and say: yes, that, that's how I feel, that's the rhythm of it, the sickly fevered pulse of it, the anger and sorrow and useless pity of it. If I had a problem with Robert Icke's production, it's that the Mayfair hotel room he picked was so large, so ostentatious, so beyond the means of the people in his audience, conceivably even the offensive man in a suit who sat opposite me with a smirk on his face that clearly said, “This isn't about me.” (This is the only point on which I even slightly disagree with Andrew Haydon's shrewd and searing review.) Shawn makes clear that if you can afford to buy a ticket to see The Fever, regardless of background or career or anything at all, you're implicated; the hotel room, by contrast, let the audience off the hook, let people listen to the text as a rant about the super-rich instead of a livid indictment of the entire system:

Do you remember that day in school when you were playing with those three other children, and the teacher appeared in the room with four little cakes and gave all of the cakes, all four of the cakes, to that little boy called Arthur, and none to you or your two other friends? Well, at first all four of you were simply stunned. For that first moment, all four of you knew what had happened was unjust, insane. But then your friend Ella tried to make a little joke, and Arthur got furious and he hit Ella, and then he went into a corner and he ate all the cakes. It was an example of someone getting away with something.

And your life is another example. It's the life of someone who's gotten away with something.”

I feel that all the time. Writing about theatre. Living in a big house. Buying hot chocolate in a cafe for £2.90. That's partly to do with the constant nagging sensation that unlike my husband, who leaves the house at 8am and doesn't return until 6.58pm, I'm not doing a proper job, because art isn't truly valued in these structures and nor is domestic work, but it's something else, too, a getting away with something indefinable but immoral.

Flashback. Before buying the big house with my husband I lived in the sunniest of flats on the same road where Vincent Van Gogh was a lodger in 1873. At night I still return to that flat, wander through its odd-sized rooms with jewel-coloured walls, wishing I'd never left. It fit me, nourished me, gave me new ways to grow. Even so, now and then I'd walk past the crumbling Van Gogh house, with its peeling paint and overgrown weeds and apologetic windows, and wonder. What the hallway might murmur if I walked through the weather-warped door. What ghosts hid within the walls. What lightness of belonging it might let me feel.

Francesca Millican-Slater knows that feeling. Flashback: it's summer 2014 and she's giving the audience at Camden People's Theatre a slideshow tour of her flat in Birmingham. It is the ugliest flat I've ever seen. The former offices of a TV rental and repair business, it has teak wood panelling in the sitting room, walls an eye-popping tropical yellow, a ramp down to the bedroom, and a door that bolts only on the outside. She sleeps with a hammer beside her and listens to the flat creak and sigh. The sounds are whispers, laughter, conversation. This flat becomes her best friend.

Forensics of a Flat (and Other Stories) is a show about regeneration, the necessity of change, what's lost with it, what gained. Fran – I've only seen two shows by her, but feel like I know her – moved to Birmingham because, late in 2011, she realised she was tired of London: she'd fallen out of love with with the push of the crowds, the relentless tempo of living, even with crossing the river at night. London was in the midst of that pre-Olympics regeneration programme and she knew in a way that I somehow didn't that things were only going to get worse.

The Birmingham flat is so singular that Fran sets out to explore its history. She discovers that the shop sat in a terrace built at a time of considered social regeneration, on a patch of land shaped like a slab of meat. The idea was to create a community, with all the shops it needed close at hand, and its own theatre; in a story typical across the UK this later became a cinema, then a bingo hall, and was finally boarded up. Fran traces the different owners of the shop, remarkably few of them, grocers mostly, until she reaches her landlord, a scintillating character, all wide-boy swagger and petty-criminal charm. He has gathered his own community, of young men just like him, who gather for regular karaoke sessions in the rooms downstairs but otherwise leave Fran in peace.

She's good at this, Fran, finding a story and digging deep to its buried roots, making you care about something or someone forgotten and seemingly inconsequential. The other show I've seen by her, Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs, took the form of a quest: rummaging through a box of old postcards she encountered one addressed to Miss Gibbs in a flat in London, that said only, “Be careful.” Who, what, why, why, why? She showed it to a handwriting-reader, who guessed the writer was a man, looked up Miss Gibbs in the census and other official records, visited the address, and slowly discovered that the postcard was intended for a factory worker who in her life would have been utterly insignificant. There was something so poignant about the resurrection of this forgotten woman, the granting her of a status she could never have had in life. Remembering her, I wonder whether it's the lure of celebrity, artistic genius, the blue plaque imprinted with the name of Van Gogh, that attracted me to 87 Hackford Road, and nothing intrinsic to the house itself. How shallow that makes me feel.

I missed some of the detail of Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs in Forensics of a Flat. I wanted to know more about the other people who had lived there, and especially more about the local House of Wanton Women, a correctional institution for those uninhibited, impulsive, queer and quixotic creatures who needed to be restrained from indulging in sex, wine and cheese. But this wasn't a show about people so much as power. Who shapes a community? Who decides how people will live? Who controls resources? Who dictates fashions in entertainment, shopping, interior decor? When Fran moves into her flat, it's in a parlous state, but it has character, and she loves it. What value that love? To her landlord, nothing. He gives the flat a makeover in the end: rips out the panelling, sorts the windows, upgrades the electrics and paints the walls innocuous white. When she shows us estate agent images of the renovated flat, all its singularity is gone. In its place are uniformity and a substantial rent hike.

For as long as I lived on Hackford Road, I hoped that the Van Gogh house would go up for sale, not because I'd be able to buy it, just so I could step inside. When I do at last, in May 2014, it's not with an estate agent, but Artangel, who commissioned video artist Saskia Olde Wolbers to create Yes, These Eyes Are the Windows across its interior. I wish they'd asked Fran instead; I think she would have unearthed the stories I wanted to hear: less of the administrative to-and-fro of how the house was saved from demolition in the 1970s by a postman-turned-sleuth, more incidental details from the lives of the people who lived there after Van Gogh moved on. The people who installed the 1950s furniture that lingers in the bedroom, the people who put up the patterned wallpaper now torn and grey, the people who had to move out because they couldn't afford to fix the roof, so weak now that scaffolding poles grow like tree trunks from floor to floor, holding it up. The women who worked in the galley kitchen jutting into the garden, the children who learned here when the house was a makeshift school.

Wolbers knows she needs to convey the whispering of the walls. Sounds spill from cracks and crevices, climb the stairs, crawl around doors. Murmurs of romance, the girlish giggles of the landlady's daughter and the heavy longing of Van Gogh's unrequited love; the triumph of the postman's detective work; the heavy thump of officialism in letters from the council; the intrusion of journalists and idle chatter of local residents. I hear the hiss and roar of dust disturbed, the faint gurgle of tributary rivers, electric static and hum. I wanted to love what Wolbers had done. But something was missing. It was, I think, the voice of the house. The soundtrack clattered and buzzed within it without ever seeming to fit. It was a story imposed on the building, rather the story it wanted to tell.

Or maybe I was distracted by another whisper: the whisper of my own long-cherished wanting. Walking around the rooms of the Van Gogh house, I painted the walls in jewel-like colours, restored the splintered beams of the exposed attic, ripped up the linoleum, gave the kitchen more space. Why do people weep for houses? Because houses aren't your belongings: you belong to them. I've lived in 11 places over the years (not counting university rooms); two, maybe three, felt properly like home.

I arrived too early for Yes, These Eyes Are the Windows, so spent a bit of time wandering up Hackford Road, thinking about regeneration – the area has been considerably landscaped, it's full of benches and arty quotations embedded in the brickwork and pretty-pretty flowerbeds now – and the inexorable rise of London property prices. The people I bought my two-bed flat from had owned it for about three years and paid £95,000 for it. I bought it in 2000 for £205,000 and sold it in 2005 for £245,000. May 2014, a two-bed flat on Hackford Road, without a garden, was on the market for £450,000. Soon after this, I saw a house for sale around the corner from me, for £1,695,000. That's fully £1m more than a house on the same street cost nine years ago.

This is how diseased the London property market is, how poisoned by money. The house next door to mine is basically derelict. The window frames are rotten, the drains are cracked and pulling from the wall, buddleia grows from the roof. The inside is raw with disrepair. Even in that parlous state, it was sold last October for £850,000, allegedly to a married man who hoped, once it was renovated, to start a family there. Turns out his motivations for buying it were far more mercenary: weeks later, the house was back on the market, this time for £1m. Still in that parlous state. He was just a speculator, looking to make what for him is some spare change.

When I tell friends that story, their eyes pop: if that's worth a million, they cry, what must your house be worth? I turn the question back at them: what do you mean by worth? How is that defined? Who by? What value system do they operate by? What ethics are they using to shape this worth? What ethics are shaped by this worth? Is my house an investment, a commodity, or the place where I live? To what extent am I being objectified by a value system I can't control?

Flashback. I pretty much managed to avoid everything to do with Dapper Laughs, but now I'm watching Charlie Brooker's 2014 Screen Wipe and there's his stupid misogynist face and surprise, surprise, it turns out he works as an estate agent on my local high street, and all my worst fears are confirmed.

Flashback. To a time before I could understand why people might want to leave London.

Before that wet chilly night in late 2013 when I looked at the London skyline and felt crushed by the realisation that it belonged to an international city.

When I could stand in the middle of Hungerford bridge, gazing at clouds skimming the dome of St Paul's, and not want to be sick.

This city's grit is embedded in my skin. I used to find that romantic.

The life I live is irredeemably corrupt. It has no justification. I keep thinking that there's this justification that I've written down somewhere, on some little piece of paper, but that it's sitting in the drawer of some desk in some room in some place I used to live. But in fact I'll never find that little piece of paper, because there isn't one, it doesn't exist.

There's no piece of paper that justifies what the beggar has and what I have. Standing naked beside the beggar – there's no difference between her and me except a difference in luck. I don't actually deserve to have a thousand times more than the beggar has. I don't deserve to have two crusts of bread more.”