Wednesday, 14 September 2016

on a road to nowhere (come on inside)

Nowhere
Andrew Schneider's Youarenowhere is a sex and drugs show: euphoric, pulse-quickening, a thing of abandonment – not his, he's steely with self-control, but mine, of any other thought than what strange new joy is this, now this, now ////. A nerves responding from reflex not thought show, an eyes resisting the urge to blink show, a blissful transcendence of all knowing beyond the moment of its happening. It doesn't yield its pleasures instantly; there is a tantalising foreplay of strobe-effect action, Schneider flitting about the stage, body illuminated then plunged into ////////, no connection between these movements beyond their intended effect: the accumulative tingle of surprise and excitement. There is a lecture, of sorts, on quantum physics and perception, but Schneider speaks not only of but at the speed of a moving train: his words blur as they hurtle past, clarifying only when they're gone. I have a vague sense of irritation that all this energy is being expended to talk of un/likely im/possible love, but then something happens so unexpected, so astonishing, that all rational thought is consumed in jangling awe.

I don't know anything for true about drugs but I've had some sex and while each time it's basically the same there are nights that linger. Not all positive: there is the sex of feeling nothing, or feeling chafed, or torn, or used. But then there's the sex of feeling drunk when stone-cold sober, the sex of floating weightless, the sex of ////// /////// and enchanting strangeness and can this be forever please. Each time is individual, if not in essence different, and there's no guarantee of feeling the same thing twice.

Now here
Sometimes I think I'm addicted to theatre, sometimes it's just that I married it. Each time it's basically the same, and yet... Sometimes I try to feel the same thing twice, but seeing something a second time changes how I watch: the quality of attention might be more deliberate or more yielding, more focused or more forgiving. And inevitably that changes the feeling.

But theatre being ephemeral, one shot is usually what I get. And how much I remember of a work depends on its impact.

The impact of Robert Lepage's The Far Side of the Moon was seismic. I'm not sure I'd seen anything like it before: I was barely 26 and had been watching theatre seriously for less than five years. When I read Lyn Gardner's review of it from 2001 I'm aware I remember almost nothing she describes. Only the moment when the window of a washing machine door became the porthole of a rocket looking towards earth from space. ///////// //// ////.

What remains instead is the feeling of astonishment. “The entire evening is a marvel,” Lyn wrote, “like discovering that the party conjurer is actually a real magician.” That's what I remember: shiver after shiver as story and staging shifted and stirred. There was an esoteric quality to its sequence of wild coincidences and brain-sparking connections, but also an emotional tenderness. Most of all there was wonder. All the wonder of the universe, and of humanity, there on the stage, more vital and real than my own skin, which might as well have melted away.

I've seen other Lepage shows since, and mostly felt disappointed, no matter how adroit they were. Seeing Needles and Opium at the Barbican in June I felt more hopeful than usual, knowing it's an earlier work, and more rewarded: staged in a suspended, rotating cube, it had the flexibility of a gymnast, stretching and somersaulting as it moved between the story of a heart-broken actor holed up in a Paris hotel room, the same hotel room once inhabited by Miles Davis and his lover Juliette Greco; the story of that thwarted love, Juliette ravishing in period film clips, Miles played by a silent actor, who leans from the cube as defiant of custom and conventional gravity as the music he played; and the dry wit and playful texts of Jean Cocteau, spoken as his body floated among stars. But I never reached full hypnosis, and I wondered if maybe I've seen too much theatre now, and know too well of its tricks.

Nowhere
Sorry if I've said all this before, but every time I choose to go to the theatre, I'm choosing not to be with my kids: not to help them with homework or play games or run their bath or tuck them in for the night. Generally I'm quite scathing of the concept of family, at least extended family: if I wouldn't choose a person as my friend, why devote time to them because of an accident of birth? There's something in Slavoj Zizek's provocation regarding the violence of love – a text Schneider delivers in the early part of Youarenowhere, at speed again, choppily, constantly interrupted by static – that appeals to me in this regard. “Love, for me, is an extremely violent act,” he ruminates. “Love is not 'I love you all.' Love means I pick out something, and it’s, again, this structure of imbalance.” I'll happily reject that structure of imbalance when it comes to cousins, uncles, even // ///////. But I can't inflict that on my children.

Except by going to the theatre. Each time I go it is a specific rejection of their longings and demand: sometimes I leave with the seven-year-old shouting through the door for me to come back. What am I sloughing off each time I do this? What world or self am I trying to reach? What oblivion do I seek?

Now here
I left Youarenowhere thinking that it was like nothing I'd ever seen before with the possible exception of two things: The Far Side of the Moon, and a work-in-progress by Andy Field called, if my email headers can be trusted (um...), This Show Was Born at the End of the World, which played at Battersea Arts Centre for two nights in 2010. It started as a kind of game, a let's pretend we're sitting in a building called Battersea Arts Centre, and that we're an audience, and let's pretend the apocalypse has struck, but somewhere in the middle it made a couple of shifts, one of them physical, bringing two sets of audience together, the other mental, from (according to my email) “fantastical to real”. And this is the half I remember and cherish, because it was unwonted and beguiling, and that other audience was so near so far, and there was a moment – so simple, but I don't think I'd seen it before – when they were instructed to hold up their illuminated mobile phones to shape a new constellation. It flashed in my mind in the hours after seeing Youarenowhere like the face of a person I once met on holiday // ////// / //// //// ///, and it struck me again how bizarre it is, to feel so close to a thing so ephemeral, so intangible, that lives on only in the mind.

Nowhere
It's funny, reading back on the email conversation I had with Andy about that work, because one thing he specifically wanted to avoid in it was “a cheap bit of sleight of hand”, and in the aftermath of Youarenowhere, that's all I could think about: sleight of hand, the magic that Lyn named. Flash the lights and suddenly there's /// // Schneider; flash the lights and suddenly he's not talking but dancing – to Robyn, of all things, Call Your Girlfriend. Flash the lights and it's as though he's slashed a subtle knife through the technicolor curtain concealing the parallel universe from this one; flash the lights and we're teetering at the edge of / ///// ////. Every so often when I take the kids to the theatre there'll be a bit of stage business that they can't get their heads round and they'll say to me: how did that happen? And my reply is always: because theatre. It annoys the shit out of them. Youarenowhere was the first time in a long time that I couldn't get out of my seat at the end, because I was trying to figure out: how the fuck did he do that? WHAT JUST HAPPENED? And though to some extent I could work it out, for the most part the answer that contented my brain was: because theatre. Theatre made that happen.

Now here
There's no technical wizardry in Stacy Makishi's Vesper Time; at least, no technology beyond the humble projector screen and a pair of plastic boots. But I got the same buzz of bedazzlement from it as I did from Youarenowhere, because Makishi is expert in theatre's other wizardry: the ability to unite people, however temporarily, into an idea of community. She is stealthy in her movements: in a typical dramatic arc, she first introduces herself as Hawaiian, and then teaches us a few phrases from her homeland – aloha, obviously; ai-ya, “I belong” apparently (apologies to Stacy if I haven't used the same phonetic spelling) – and later happens to mention, in a self-deprecating way, how much she likes the Tracey Chapman song FastCar, and eventually persuades us to cast off inhibition and sing along with her the chorus: “I, I had a feeling that I belonged, I, I had a feeling I could be someone.” My god the abandonment of that moment in the room, the joy unleashed by it, the eye-watering hilarity of realising we'd been tricked, that the “I, I” of Chapman was the same “ai-ya” of Hawaiian phraseology, that she was making a point about human connection with equal parts pathos and bathos, that she had transformed the song into a mantra for lost souls everywhere, encouraging a sense of belonging by creating one for us.

I've been questioning lately this marriage to theatre, and whether it's time for a period of separation. I want my commitment to it to be more than addiction, or the quest for a certain kind of dazzle or buzz; I want to feel there's genuine purpose in writing about it, while being aware of the self-centredness of that desire. In another glorious rainbow of Vesper Time, Makishi talks about her father, who left the family when she was young, and a figure called (something like) Uncle John, who for a few years held that place surrogate; and how, as an adult, she wondered whether she should get in touch with Uncle John and let him know that she still thinks of him fondly and that he meant a great deal to her, but decided not to, because he wouldn't remember insignificant little her. And then it's too late, she hears that he died, and she realises her mistake: to tell him these things would have been an act of generosity, a communication not of her own importance but of his. And it seems to me that this might be the purpose of this writing: to tell the people who make this work, that makes me feel so much, torn sometimes, used sometimes, but also drunk or weightless or enchanted sometimes, tell them that they meant something to someone, and that matters, they matter.

Nowhere
/////'/ / /// / want to write, //// / //// ///'/ //// ///. //'/ // // //// /// other song that appears in Youarenowhere, Ricky Nelson's Lonesome Town, in particular this ache of a verse:

In the town of broken dreams
The streets are filled with regret
Maybe down in Lonesome Town
I can learn to forget

And I want to say something about /////// ///// // //////// ////: the place I go to forget. /// ////// /// //////: that oblivion I mentioned before. But it's a disjointed thought, not least in its relationship with the actual lyrics, too fanciful perfectly to fit. I've tried to delete it, believe me, but something is resistant. Maybe it's the memory of the show, an entity in its own right now, not wanting me to edit but striving to shape itself instead.


[Quick note of double thanks to Andrew Haydon, for including the Zizek video in his review of Youarenowhere as I had no idea myself where that text was from, and for the trick at the end of this review, which influenced me here.]

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Demolition plot (slight return)

Back when I was reading Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, there was a passage about the Zapatistas that shone so suggestive a light on Dead Centre's show Chekhov's First Play that it sparked me into writing about it (this is a postscript to that text). In a chapter on revolution, especially the social revolutions that have taken place in South America over the past few decades, Solnit talks about carnival and the idea of jubilee, a Biblical notion of social renewal whereby once every 50 years liberty from work, ownership and exploitation is proclaimed “throughout all the land” (now that's a religious tenet I can stand behind). It leads her to celebrating the Zapatistas, and to a discussion about their literary figurehead, Subcomandante Marcos. She reports how, in response to journalists' speculation as to his identity, Marcos wrote:

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian on the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany … a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the metro at 10pm, a celebrant of the zocalo, a campesino without land, an unemployed worker … and of course a Zapatista in the mountains of southeastern Mexico.” This gave rise to the carnivalesque slogan 'Todos somos Marcos' ('We are all Marcos')...

So much of Chekhov's First Play is concerned with the possibility of social revolution: of smashing down hierarchies and all the structures that (up)hold them, of replacing the cult and the claim of the individual with the selfless anonymity of the collective. When the wrecking ball falls, the stage picture shatters with carnival energy, and at the centre of that chaos is Platonov. Plucked from the audience, Platonov could be anybody – in the same way that Marcos could be anybody.

In his confusion, his hesitant movements, his inability to keep up with the action, the manifold ways in which he doesn't fit, Platonov radiates the imposed powerlessness of the outsider, no matter how much the characters on stage are magnetised by his presence. And again, that not-fitting makes him one with the ostracised whose identity Marcos so joyfully adopts, whose presence is a problem to authority, and yet who can, through persistence, through simply continuing to be, challenge their surroundings and even change the script. The slogan that Platonov inspires, the line that every character repeats in turn, is: “You made me nobody.” Once they've said that, they fall silent: the final vestige of hierarchy – language – demolished as surely as the country-house set.

That's pretty much what I intended to say when writing about Chekhov's First Play the first time, but it wasn't the only thing, and somehow in the (general indulgence of the) writing I forgot to say it at all. And I might have carried on forgetting, except that I'm now reading another Solnit book, Hope in the Dark, and again there's a bit of writing about the Zapatistas that reminded me of Dead Centre. There's a beautiful line, also quoting from Marcos, on facing the future with bravery and expectation of change: “With our struggle, we are reading the future which has already been sown yesterday, which is being cultivated today, and which can only be reaped if one fights, if, that is, one dreams.”

Solnit picks up on this because it supports her reasonable and reassuring thesis that political despair is a drain on human resources; that while fatigue is understandable, and temporary loss of faith a natural response to disappointment, the defeatism of long-term despair is unacceptable: “even an indulgence if you look at the power of being political as a privilege not granted to everyone”. Despair rejects the slow, patient and repetitive work required to bring about social change, and replaces it with inactivity and maudlin doom-mongering. It's necessary, she argues, to believe in other possibilities; even, quoting F Scott Fitzgerald, “to see things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise”.

This argument for an embrace of the unknown is exactly what she illuminates in Chekhov's First Play. Despair in the play is figured in the character of the “director”, who seems perky enough at first, but gradually reveals his self-doubt and crushing sense of failure. He shoots himself out of proceedings, only to return at the end, still “tormented, without anything to believe in”, but now aware of the need for hope: for “courage … to keep on living”. What might happen in the future he doesn't know: he just has to continue – and do so reaching outwards. When he speaks his final word, hello, he's no longer the “director” but a single being with Platonov, their identities merging just as “todos somos Marcos”.

Our relationship with the unknown was a central concern in another work by Dead Centre, Lippy – but there they undermined their own proposition, maintaining a sense of visual mystery in the staging while chipping away at narrative ambiguity in the text. Chekhov's First Play similarly (but with less self-contradiction) shapes its dream of the future even as it professes uncertainty: the other slogan repeated by each character in turn, just before the “You made me nobody” sequence, is: “Is this mine? I can't imagine owning anything.” This is the politics of anti-capitalism, of the Zapatistan maxim quoted by Solnit: “Todo para todos, nada para nosotros” – “everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves”. And the word “imagine” is crucial: it suggests not a physical shift, but a mental one, the same as Solnit advocates in her book. All the social and political transformations we've witnessed in the past century and that are yet to come have one thing in common, she says: “they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. … To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”

Dead Centre plucked Chekhov's First Play from the past, tore it and transformed it into a commitment to imaginative hope. No wonder I'm still thinking about it.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

And here are my holiday snaps*

*title a wave hello to Selina Thompson, who sent me an email at exactly the moment I needed a voice from home brimming gossip and love and a knowledge of my other self

It turns out that a full-scale theatre detox – an entire month of seeing next to nothing – is simultaneously healthy prep for the annual Edinburgh fringe binge and a major mistake: within 24 hours of seeing work again my brain was fizzing from the excess of stimulation and I couldn't talk only gabble delirium. The thing that stood next to nothing was Hadestown, a show I've wanted to see for a good five years, ever since I interviewed Anais Mitchell and added her to my pantheon of living-by-their-own-truth role-model women. For the not yet obsessed: Mitchell is a folk singer who created a wonky, sawdust-strewn rewrite of Orpheus and Eurydice to be performed as a community opera with her neighbours in semi-rural Vermont; later she released the songs as an album featuring Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) (be still my heart); and now she's worked with the Team's director, Rachel Chavkin, to transform it into an off-Broadway musical. I love the Hadestown album to distraction. I paid $99 to see the production at the New York Theater Workshop, more than I've spent on a single piece of theatre in years. I went girded for disappointment. But oh. OH.

In an ideal world I'd have seen this with Vernon singing, or at the very least Taylor Mac, who joined Chavkin for R&D work on the show. But it didn't matter that this isn't an ideal world, because Hadestown is a thing of such perfection that it transcends its performers: lyrically, musically, but also narratively and politically. I say this with authority, having witnessed Martin Carthy sing the role of Hades for a gig performance at Union Chapel apparently drunk, missing his cues and forgetting the words. And anyway, Chavkin's performers were pretty much phenomenal. Plus, Mitchell herself worked with Chavkin (and dramaturg Ken Cerniglia) on the additional material, and her composer collaborator Michael Chorney is a vital presence in the theatre band, so hyper-sensitivity to stage change had its balms.

The bare bones of the story are this: Hadestown opens with pragmatic Eurydice grilling her poet-musician boyfriend about how exactly they might survive if they got married. He spins her a golden yarn about nature providing, as though they were hunter-gatherers in a time of Eden; but the fact is, they live in (Depression-era) America, where “times are hard and getting harder all the time”. When she hears the lonesome whistle of the underground train to Hadestown blow, she's lethally tempted: its tycoon despot offers work, money, warmth and security in place of harsh precarity. Orpheus, recognising that she's lost her soul (and, it's implied, her body) to capitalist exploitation, attempts to save her – but Hades, altogether too cognisant of the weakness of humans, inevitably thwarts them.

That's the skeleton: what makes Hadestown exquisite are the feathers and jewels with which Mitchell, Chorney and now Chavkin adorn it. In some ways that's the wrong metaphor, as attested by Chavkin's rough-hewn aesthetic: working with designer Rachel Huack, she stripped the theatre back to a wooden floor, installed a homestead amphitheatre of mismatched wooden chairs (a smart nod to the pioneers and Puritans of America's past, and its constitutional commitment to rugged individualism), and set the action in an open circle overshadowed by the gnarled branches of a single, wintry tree. The sparseness brightened the gleam of Mitchell's peripheral characters: bold and swaggering Persephone (exquisitely played by TEAM regular Amber Grey, crackling as she twisted her body into jagged origami); the glittering chorus of Fates, watchful, teasing, never judgemental; and Hermes, gossamer on record but in Chris Sullivan's performance stomping and robust, a railroad man with a touch of Charon in his crepuscular gaze. Like Chorney's orchestration, a tapestry of American sounds weaving jazz, country and more, Michael Krass's costumes criss-crossed the decades: 1950s bobby sox and dirndl for Eurydice, a 1930s embroidered slip for Persephone, patchwork silks and leathers for the Fates. Everything on stage felt thrown together yet intimately cohesive, simple in a way that belied its complexity.

For Orpheus, love is simple, and so is life; he's a sentimental romantic, but he's also, as Hermes so tenderly puts it, an artist who “sees the world as it could be, not how it is”. Mitchell and Chavkin are unsparing in puncturing that romanticism while committing absolutely to its promise: Hadestown really is hell, overheated, overlit, over-policed and over-provided, and while Mitchell had plenty of gated communities to draw on when she conceived the notion of a workforce committed to constructing the wall that separates its own wealth from its fear of the poverty and jealous need beyond, that imagery has all the more bite with Trump's Mexico manifesto (and, on our side, the appalling Calais action) poisoning the air. Any hint of a middle-class or left-wing sneer at the “stupid” working classes (the criticism levied as much at Brexit voters as Trump enthusiasts) who unthinkingly follow-the-leader is quashed by Mitchell's clear differentiation between people and structures. People are moulded by the context that contains them: Hades himself is built by the system he builds, his humanity and happiness compromised by it. In Eurydice's shoes, the Fates demand, what might we all do the same? When Orpheus looks back, Mitchell and Chavkin open the possibility that it's not an innate emotional weakness at fault but some trick of structural oppression that ensures even the most strenuous of opponents will ultimately be crushed. This is what makes Hadestown emotionally devastating: not the fact that Orpheus loses Eurydice, as the myth declares he must, but the deeper loss of the collective human soul to capitalist inequality, from which – no matter how hard we might try to stride into a different future – there seems to be no escape.

But there is. Orpheus is still singing, and dreaming of a better future. We know this, because Mitchell wrote Hadestown.

Laura Veirs shares the left-wing politics of Anais Mitchell, and her earnestness of expression, too; but whereas Mitchell's solo work is more straightforwardly me-and-my-guitar folk, Veirs' collaborations with producer Tucker Martine pack the musical references of Hadestown into erudite pop songs. It took me a while to click with her, but since 2010's July Flame I've been a devoted fan. We played Warp and Weft as we drove across Indiana, and it reminded me of listening to PJ Harvey's Let England Shake while driving through the Cotswolds, those placid rolling hills suddenly muddied and seething with the ghosts of dead soldiers, insurrectionists, men. Indiana is basically flat; I'd guess it's desolate in winter, but it's verdant in early August, field after field of thriving maize. Veirs' circumspect songs made that landscape churn with alarm at what America has become and what it's built on:

How can it be so cold out here in America
Everybody is packing heat in America
Training their barrels on the city streets in America

Every bad man finds his peace in America
In America

No shootings were reported while we were in the country, but I did read of the Black Lives Matter action shutting down the M4 back home and glowed with admiration and a sense of possibility. Ever since Theresa May glided into her premiership that's what I've wanted to do: just sit in the middle of roads, bringing cities to a standstill. Instead I sat in our hired car for hour upon hour, contemplating the spray contraption that looms over so many field, maybe distributing a fine mist of water but more likely showers of pesticide, noting how many billboards advertise litigation lawyers, wondering how houses that don't have garden fences around them can suggest so much hostility towards the unknown stranger. Laura Veirs sang and her words ploughed the land, churning to the surface its lack of care.

Later we played Anna Meredith's Varmints and I thought again that it's my favourite album released so far this year.

I'm honestly embarrassed by how much I love the National. Looking at them in the film of A Lot of Sorrow, installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was overwhelmed again by shame, that these middle-aged white guys, with their suits and wedding rings and thinning hair, are so capable of turning me to putty. And yes, I'm ashamed of my superficiality in judging them by appearance: me, a middle-aged white woman, with my own wedding ring, constantly reminded by the queer and feminist art with which I align myself of how essentially straight I am; ashamed, too, of the craven lingering adolescent desire to be different, other, strange. My embarrassment at loving the National is a nugget of a more general shame I feel just being me.

But maybe the National are embarrassed in a similar way; or rather, my feeling is that its members, especially Aaron and Bryce Dessner, use this middle-of-the-road rock behemoth to finance all the different, other, strange art they want to make. (Thus Orpheus entered Hadestown, proud even in his submission.) A Lot of Sorrow is a fascinating intersection of those two impulses: a continuous performance of the song Sorrow, from their 2010 album High Violet, over and over, non-stop, for six hours, in a white-walled room in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I saw at most 16 minutes of it on film, and not even consecutively, but it was enough to get my pulse racing at the intricacy of detail: the jitter of exhausted fingers, the crack of voice, the decision to switch to playing guitar with a violin bow, the pause to gather resources, the slipped note, the brow that furrows with effort, the snatched snacks for sustenance. Their bodies are entirely at the mercy of the song: it plays over them, through them, and so plays through me; for days after its words spill out of me unbidden, no matter that they're sunk in cliche.

Those few stolen minutes in front of it are every night I've huddled in the dark listening to the same song(s) over and over: listening to Cat Power so obsessively that the person I was staying with told me I'd ruined What Would the Community Think? for them forever, listening to Godspeed as though they could realign the stars, listening to Interpol's NYC, a song that haunted me this holiday (“got to be some more change in my life”), listening to that National album I was reviewing for the Guardian stupefied by how out of sorts it left me. On all those nights I was alone, but watching A Lot of Sorrow in Chicago I was with my son – my funny little boy who likes his music gentle and melancholy, has a penchant for Debussy, and was as mesmerised by the film as me. I twined my arms around him, grateful for this lifebuoy of love.

The friend we stayed with in Chicago is a fascinating combination of socially Democrat (that's how she votes, too) but economically Republican (a committed believer in success rewarding hard work, adherent to the American Dream). She's white Scottish, her husband black Chicagoan, and their political engagement – both donated to the Bernie Sanders campaign – gifted plenty of lively conversation in their house about disappointment in Obama's leadership, lack of belief in Sanders' revolutionary agenda, and the dire prospects of the upcoming election. The thing that took me by surprise was their admission that they get at least half of their political news from watching the plethora of satirical programmes that screen in the US. It's not a healthy state of affairs, they said, because what's needed is cultural balance, a space in which people can actually speak across the political divide, rather than hurling snark at each other. But the thing is, I can't remember the last time I engaged with any news-related programming on the BBC without wanting to punch people for allowing so much inanity so much airspace. If we're going to ape American programming, can we at least import the acute with the vapid.

We spent an evening watching John Oliver programmes, and one in particular landed a horrible punch. It's a programme about drones, in which Oliver shows a clip of a young teenager from Pakistan, talking about the sky: grey days are good, he says, because that's when his head feels clear of anxiety. Blue skies, by contrast, fill him with fear. And people wonder how Muslim children might become “radicalised”.

Peter McMaster's blog was my holiday firefly, bringing flashes of natural wonder to a fortnight of preying architecture and obsidious concrete. I harbour a deep and quiet love for Peter and his work, and the attempt at a different way of living, thinking, making art and opening up to the world represented by Gold Pieces: Outer Hebrides reminds me how much and why. The work takes the form of a two-week cycle tour, marking in gold leaf upon land's edge a line to which, at a conservative estimate, it's anticipated water will rise as human-accelerated climate change affects sea levels. The gold is ostentatious but the action anything but: it's a humble attempt to reckon with environmental destruction, a lament for what might soon not be, a movement towards a different sense of value. It's art made for no money or purpose other than to notice, to acknowledge, to witness – not what's before us, but what's unseen.

There's a beautiful thing Peggy Phelan says in her forward to the Tim Etchells book Certain Fragments, identifying “the essential nature of witnessing itself: to continue a conversation that without your intervention would cease”. Gold Pieces: Outer Hebrides continues a conversation between human and land, one Peter still dominates (painting rock with gold is “an unsympathetic defacing”), but in a way that's diametric to the domination humans generally exert, plundering earth's resources without care. His journey coincided exactly with mine to the US, a piquant synchronicity: while he cycled, camped, measured and gilded, I visited the Natural History museum in Manhattan, Prospect Park zoo and the aquarium in Chicago, and in each place fretted at the ethics of human-animal relations, the cruelty required to give children a glimpse of wild nature, and the extent to which cities diminish and even eliminate opportunity for children to commune with a greater outdoors.

Peter's blog posts continue another conversation: with the unseen audience. When Phelan writes of the witness, she's thinking of course of the audience, and I value that sentence so much for its suggestiveness regarding criticism or writing about theatre. To me it presents a set of open questions: is it enough to be a silent witness? Is documentation essential if the conversation is to continue? Is it possible to engage in the conversation as critic/critical writer/whatever without overbearing? I don't know. But there was a warmth for me in reading Peter's posts and recognising in the scenario an echo of when I first met him, at Battersea Arts Centre, when he was thinking similarly but in a different context about masculinity, privilege, and solitude, environment and the spiritual possibilities of a closer connection to nature. There is a longevity and depth to our conversation, but also a scarcity, privately as well as professionally: I rarely see him; I've seen much more of his work than I've written about. And so how might it register if I stopped being witness, if the conversation ceased? Would it matter?

It was such an unexpected gift, a few days after I got home from Chicago, to bump into Peter at Forest Fringe, where he was performing another variation on the Gold Piece strand, a one-on-one called CommitmentCards. The work is exquisite in its shape and generosity: Peter begins by offering tea, then asks what you're yet to say no to. Gently he guides the conversation to an invitation to commit to something, with him as witness. Work like this galvanises but also disquiets me: it's so open that it inspires openness, and how much must the artist then absorb of human anxiety or insecurity as participants unburden? Megan Vaughan, writing about her interaction with Commitment Cards, describes Peter as “a reassuring therapist”, and Peter himself says in his blog post about the evening that he's “not afraid of the idea of art-work being therapeutic” or “to embrace the sensation of therapeutic experience”. I worry because he doesn't have a therapist's training or safety mechanisms; that these things aren't required for one human to give their ear to another is a useful and inspiring thing to remember. As Peter says in the blog: “I was moved by witnessing someone open up for the benefit of both of us, for the creation of a bigger idea of self-expression and compassionate communication being allowed to exist in the world.”

I've participated in one other Gold Piece with Peter and cherish it precisely for its compassionate communication, achieved without speaking at all. Based on the Japanese practice of kintsugi, the root Gold Piece invites its participant to mend a piece of broken china, gluing the pieces together then painting the cracks with gold dust. As I did so, I felt Peter was silently forgiving me for every stupid or thoughtless or mistaken thing I'd ever done. Kintsugi is a philosophy as much as a practical art: it values the imperfect, honours its scars. There's another thing I want to write about it (especially since my brilliant friend Anna spotted a reference to kintsugi in Beyonce's Lemonade) so I'll shut up now, but this strand of Peter's work feels so important to have in the world – not just in spite of its minimal reach, but because of it.

The Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is so bizarre: a small-town museum in everything but pretensions, closer in spirit to those ramshackle rooms devoted to dolls (Dunster), shells (Margate) or fishing paraphernalia (Hastings) than the more grandiose cultural houses that its architecture evokes. I loved it, the more so for being ridiculous. Highlights: the Elvis display, which I wanted to bring home to my mum; the drawings by Jimi Hendrix; the absurd attempt to claim Cleveland as the epicentre of the pop universe; the fact that the area devoted to the history of hip-hop is only slightly bigger than the area devoted to outfits worn by Beyonce. Best of all are the listening booths that people – locals, I'm guessing – have claimed for karaoke, each one packed with friends singing at the tops of their voices, not caring for the lack of closed doors. I didn't buy any memorabilia because I'm going to make it instead: my own version of a dress worn by Wanda Jackson, with a panel of gold sequins down the front and red fringing down the sides, something to fill a dance floor with flames.

There are things generally known, at least by the people I surround myself with. It's known, for instance, that humans are humans, regardless of what country they're from or what colour skin they have. It's known that humans have affected and accelerated ecological devastation. It's known that story is vital to human culture and existence. Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind repeats these known things, but places them in a depth of field (as he puts it, scanning “millennia rather than centuries”) in ways that are surprising and transformative. I'm prone to hyperbole I know, nothing I say can be trusted, but I'm only two-fifths through and already I'm changed by it. Or rather, he's brought to light and forced me to acknowledge a whole lot of weak thinking in my brain and challenged it in necessary ways.

It's an incredibly depressing book, because page after page asserts the same argument: that it's actually impossible to change the culture in which we live, because the story of it is too tenacious, too embedded. In no way is he saying that we are by nature neo-liberal acolytes of the free market, but that all societies coalesce through story, and the stories that dominate now have been in place for thousands of years. This bit in particular is devastating: he's talking about how difficult it would be to shift inter-subjective imagined orders (the examples he gives are “the dollar, human rights and the United States of America”) because to do so would require “simultaneously chang[ing] the consciousness of billions of people”, and to do that would require creating “an alternative imagined order” even more powerful than the one you're attempting to change. And so, he concludes: “There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.” The book is full of statements like that and every one stings.

But. BUT. He's affirmed my belief in feminism as the story with the most potential to create change. His chapter on the patriarchal structure is brilliant, because it comes right out and says that its “universality and stability” is bewildering. He presents all the key arguments for masculine supremacy and steadfastly exposes them as arrant nonsense. There's a glorious butter-wouldn't-melt tone to this writing: a swallowed amusement that no one will admit that the real reason men dominate over women is that, in general, they are selfish shitbags who chanced to seize an opportunity for power and never let go. The feminist story struggles because it is disparate and scratchy with argument and riddled with its own damaging hierarchies, but there is hope in its tenacity, its adaptability, its ongoing refusals, its compassionate communication (such a useful phrase). It is the story in which I have most faith, and which gives me the most strength.

He's also made me feel better about the idea of living in a bubble. If the imagined order at the macro scale is so impossible to change, why not collectively imagine a new order on a micro scale and live within that instead? At some level that's the ultimate in white middle-class privilege, of course – the same line of argument that builds walls and gated communities – but I don't, I hope, mean it that way. My alternative world is populated by makers of story, theatre, art, music and more, by feminists and activists, by people who don't retreat from the bigger world but comment on it, rewrite it, work against it. Each fuelling the other, giving each other purpose and sustenance, and making life in that bigger system possible.

We went back, me and my funny little son, to A Lot of Sorrow, because – and, dozy as I am, I had to go to Chicago to find this out – the film was also screening in London over the summer, as part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition at the Barbican. And then I had to go back a third time, because there were chunks of the exhibition deemed unsuitable for children (translation: he missed out on seeing a hilarious film of a dog running round and round a swimming pool as a woman swam lengths because it was next to a video of a couple having sex), and because he was tired by the time we reached the Visitors room and two minutes in there was 58 not enough.

I realised something, watching A Lot of Sorrow that third time, laughing as Kjartansson brought out burgers to the band, ribs crushing and convulsing every time Matt Berninger rumbled the opening line. There's a National lyric that's key to the whole exhibition, but it's not from Sorrow, it's from Pink Rabbits, an absolute humdinger in a song full of them:

You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park
You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart

A television version of a person with a broken heart. Just writing it gives me shivers.

Kjartansson is fascinated by the interface of performance and personal, the effects of external culture on internal emotions, the ways in which people make stories which inform human behaviour, the Mobius strip of mirror and mirrored. In the accompanying text for the multi-video installation Scenes From Western Culture, he talks about the pervasiveness of certain atmospheres, certain settings and moods, wanting to jolt the brain into seeing them and maybe even resisting them. By using repetition, he invites audiences to look harder, give better attention: to seek out the difference between the television version and the person.

But it's the broken-hearted bit he's particularly incisive with. My son had zero tolerance for God, in which Kjartansson dresses up as a Rat Pack crooner and, accompanied by a cruise-liner swing band in a pink-satin room, warbles the words “sorrow conquers happiness” on repeat, and to be honest I didn't bother returning: the minute I saw felt off-kilter compared with the fine balancing act of A Lot of Sorrow and in particular The Visitors. There's such subtlety to the permutations of melancholy in both of those: the performers wallow in it, luxuriate in it, step away from it so easily that one person I know complained on twitter that he “smelt the faint whiff of vacuous”, saw only “irony on loop”; but there's also a fine and solicitous appreciation of how intense and real and consuming melancholy can be, how weird and jolting it is to feel like shit and yet sometimes be capable of laughing or noticing beauty, how excruciating it is to know somewhere deep down that the melancholy that is so overwhelming might also be something you're performing (a question Selina – waving hello again – asks of herself in Salt). Nothing about A Lot of Sorrow, or The Visitors, or Take Me Here by the Dishwasher felt ironic to me: there's a grain of playfulness in them, even in Dishwaster a dash of cheerful stupidity (in this one, Kjartansson has isolated three minutes of a soft-focus Mills & Boon movie romance, in which a woman in a pink maribou dressing gown has a tryst in the kitchen with a man in plumber's uniform, and projects it on a wall while young male musicians loll about the partially decorated gallery space strumming at guitars and droning the dialogue from the film on repeat). But the questions these works ask about how we see or feel or differentiate between the real, the imagined, the fantasised, the performed, and how our ability to do so is affected or conditioned by the art, film, theatre, music, TV and books we consume, are serious and rigorous and give Kjartansson's work its vitality.

Before I saw Search Party's Growing Old With You at Forest Fringe, Andy Field texted a warning: “your heart is going to BREAK”. I braced so strenuously that for most of it I was steel. But then Pete lay down on a table and Jodie began to cover his body in salt. And that was it. Snap.

Search Party are just about my favourite theatre-makers in Britain (inevitably that's a long list in which everyone is joint first). I love them for Save Me, the semaphore show, in which they stand at opposite ends of a public thoroughfare and communicate messages given by passers-by to each other; with patience and grace and infinite charm it makes visible the fragility of communication and the ways in which people speak their truest selves to strangers. I especially love them for My Son & Heir, the parenting show, in which they speak so honestly of the strains and anxieties and competitiveness and compromises and horrible absurdities of bringing up children that I wept almost non-stop through it. And now I love them for Growing Old With You, the all-of-our-lives show that they're going to make new versions of every 10 years. At Forest they performed the first instalment, and because it's already a few years old, it feels like an act of nostalgia as much as documentation and assessment. The scene in which Jodie covers Pete in salt felt, in the moment of watching, overwhelming in its romance and longing: for youth to be preserved, for the intensity and joy of falling in love and getting married to never be lost. But on reflection, its complexity is unfurling. I see the futility of that attempt to control time, and also the limitation of it: where's the room for growth or change? I see Pete lying still on the table like a corpse: that time is already gone, fleeting as the life of a butterfly, and nothing can ever bring it back. Above all, I see that while you can't argue with perfect being, maybe you can't live a full life either.

There's a great paragraph in a Guardian interview with Jenny Offill from last year in which she talks about her admiration for visual artists who “take an everyday thing and somehow make it, by accumulation, into something much bigger”, and in particular her delight that British reviewers of the book understood its humour, “all these moments which are really meant to be kind of a joke about what it’s like to be depressed”, which tells me she's probably a big fan of Kjartansson. I'm finding her novel Dept. of Speculation painful to read, because it's like she's poking needles into my brain. I had to put it down for two days after this line: “Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.” The paragraph in which the narrator, a woman of “crooked heart”, describes her happiest time as “a time you were all alone, in the country, with no one wanting a thing from you, not even love” made me choke. I feel exposed by it, the more so because I so desperately wish I were smart and brave and gifted enough to have written it and it's lacerating to reminded page after page that I'm not.

The thing is, I never make room for other kinds of writing in my life, because I'm always writing about what other people make. Holding up a mirror to the mirror, an endless loop, shoring fragments of feeling and experience against my ruins.



Saturday, 23 July 2016

in search of triumphant escape

At 6.07am on Friday 24 June, I was woken up by the words: “Oh fuck, Leave have won.”

At 8.55pm on Friday 24 June, I walked into the black-box theatre at the New Diorama for Coyote, a “semi-improvised mixtape” telling the “story so far” of Ponyboy Curtis.

I'm always on tenterhooks, seeing Ponyboy, but this time the stakes were impossibly high. I went to them in need of reassurance, consolation and hope. I went knowing that Andre Ponyboy, Portuguese and in London on a student visa, was already feeling that his future in the UK was threatened, and wanting to give him a hug to say: we'll fight to make this OK. I needed Ponyboy and Chris to make everything OK. I needed them to process the day or at least bear its weight; to recognise the terror and anger lodged in people's stomachs, articulate it, expunge it, transform it. I knew such expectations were unfair, but everything about the day was unfair: I needed them to rebalance it.

For most of Coyote, they did. And yet this performance – my fifth encounter with the group – suggested some limitations of Ponyboy as a project that either hadn't struck me before or that I'd brushed off unexamined. Ponyboy, like all Chris' work, is a haven for me, a refuge of idealism; but on a day when all ideals were shattered, the walls of its asylum became visible. That Coyote survived its setting at all, without crumpling into irrelevance, is testament to the conviction with which the group shape a queer, anti-capitalist, romantic space that diametrically opposes the demonising and exploitative politics espoused by, among others, the frontline of Leave campaigners. But something about the hard truth of the day, the ugliness of the divide slashed through the country, made romance insufficient.

Attention
Coyote began, as always, with naked bodies walking silently and carefully, tuning in to each other's frequencies. As a line of the introductory text said, on such a day, “what could they do but pay even closer attention to each other?”

I've always cherished those opening minutes of Ponyboy shows, not just for the attention each body gives to the other, the scanning and scoping, the pausing and reflecting, the communication of openness and vulnerability through pores and downy hair, but for the transition it allows me to make, slowing me down, encouraging me to listen not just with ears but eyes and even my own skin. More and more I recognise that the attention of those minutes is vital: the invite of it, the kindness, the alertness of the listening; and that it shouldn't be focused solely on those with whom we sympathise, but extended to those with whom we disagree. The referendum, scarred by the death of Jo Cox, demonstrated the extent to which civic and cultural attention, whether to racism or the crushing effects of austerity or the too-many communities demoralised by ongoing lack of opportunity, has lapsed or was always lacking.

And yet, in Coyote, the attention of those minutes felt wrong. In following pre-set patterns and established behaviours, in speaking of itself generally rather than the specific moment, it seemed languid, luxurious, indulgent. Not a solution, but part of the problem.

Violence
[I've been trying to write about this show in a single, coherent, linear essay, but it's just not happening. There's something pleasing about that, how strenuously Ponyboy resist normativity in narrative, and any response requires me to do the same.]

I'd seen Ponyboy play with violence in FCKSYSTMS, wrestling and grappling, laughing as they overpowered each other. In Coyote they stopped playing and shit got real. Of course it did. Maybe it felt that way because, as well as the exposure of the time, Ponyboy were contending with exposure of the space. When they've performed to a general public before, it's been at the Yard, where the audience are contained in rake seating and the demarcated playing space has lots of air around it. I've seen them in more intimate settings, but there it's just been just me or a small invited audience. This was different. Even with the seats pushed back, the theatre at the New Diorama is small and overheated; even with the audience crammed against the walls, the playing space is cramped. It's marked out by white tape, a thin line separating internal from an amophous external in which Ponyboys can be off instead of on - only here, the outside was almost eradicated. The tension of having no release or relief poured into the play-violence of Coyote and made it savage, while proximity made it more perilous. 

[As a sidenote: it's funny how we as audience stay in our places when watching Ponyboy, honouring the divide of that thin white line, even when almost sitting on it. On the recommendation of Simon Bowes, my Ponyboy sparring partner, I recently read an essay by John Berger on the "theatre of indifference", a social and cultural phenomenon whose "precondition is the failure of democracy", and results from "the inevitable divergence of personal fantasies when isolated from any effective social action". In his email mentioning it, Simon wondered whether "the experience of performing or of watching a performance is a way of divesting ourselves of real participation in politics by creating a simulation of it". Watching Ponyboy, do we really create the queer sexual revolution, or only fantasise about it? But I'm jumping ahead of myself.]

All they were doing, of course, was inhabiting an age-old model of masculinity, fearlessness as a mask for fear, aggression exaggerated to extinguish any other emotion. The more they fought, the more their sweating bodies cried: see? See this? This is what it's like out there. This is the violence you live with and ignore, day after day. Look at it. Look at it. And now help us get rid of it.

The smell in the room changes when they fight. It becomes heavier, muggier; I know it's absurd but I always think it's the musk of testosterone. If only the tropes of masculinity attached to it could be washed off as easily as sweat.

The visitor
There's always been a visitor in Ponyboy shows. In At the Yard, it was a different person every night, reading out a letter they'd written, to men or boys, specific or generalised, real or imagined. In FCKSYSTMS it was a teenage white boy (Stan Smith): a totem of ultimate privilege, but one growing into a knowledge that this advantage is becoming necessarily precarious. Coyote's visitor looked back to Ponyboy's very first R&D in December 2014: to Chris' obsession with Nova, “someone from another village”, who appears in Peter Handke's play The Long Way Round to galvanise those around her with firebrand “words of resistance”. [Writing this, I think of what it means to be a fan, to have rare access to the object of obsession, to collect and collate facts, incidents, obscurities; b-sides, flexi-discs, bootleg live recordings. The mixtape analogy is perfect.]

During that R&D week Nova was played variously by the Ponyboys themselves, by Tilda Swinton in a swimming-with-dolphins recording set to electronic music I found offensive in its attempt at aura-manipulating psychedelic expansiveness, and by playwright Jo Clifford, who divested herself of jumper and bra to perform semi-naked and regal. In Coyote, she's played by Annie Siddons, who keeps all her clothes on and stays sat behind a desk, but loses no impact for it. I look up to Annie anyway, but those words combined with her strength of being set my pulse racing. It's a speech directed to a group of villagers, ignored and made-to-feel-inferior; a speech hymning nature, art, faith and revolution, and above all the promise of humanity committed to working with love. She is cosmic in scope – the line “a cry to the gods is form and form reveals the arcade in space” is exquisite – but also molecular, drawing attention to the “yellow-in-yellow amid yellow blossoms”. In total, the speech lasts a good 20 minutes; Chris slashed it in half, and I couldn't be sure what made the cut, but scanning my photocopy now my eyes catch on so many lines that speak to our tumultuous moment:

Nature can neither be a refuge nor an escape. It provides a model and a measure; but the measure must be taken each day anew.
Who says that failure is inevitable? Don't listen to the gasps of the dying: they lie.
Time is the vibration that helps you through the accursed century, and it is also the luminous tent of survival.
Nowhere in our human history is a consolation that holds water. The cries of horror will go on for ever.
Only love can enable you to see things as they are. You alone, my beloved, are real. Loving you, I awaken to myself.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, Nova's words were counteracted by a conversation I remembered having with Selina Thompson, a few days after the Orlando shootings, in which she briefly flashed with fury at the way the lives of queer and trans people of colour were as usual being erased, not just by the violence of one man wielding a gun, but by the use being made of their deaths to boost arguments for gun control and other white-liberal preoccupations. The white-gay-male-led campaign #loveiswinning in particular made her bristle: love, she fumed, isn't winning for black people. I also remembered Chris and Jonny Liron talking in the R&D rehearsal room about an uncomfortable prickle of right-wing fervour they apprehended in Nova's words, something – worryingly – I never felt I noticed. I might have missed it again in Coyote but for the music Chris used to underscore Annie's voice: a gentle, celestial twinkling that grew imperceptibly menacing with a sly change of key.

The visitor is a necessary figure in the Ponyboy space, which might otherwise feel hermetically secluded, as solipsistic as a teenage diary. And Nova is my favourite of all those I've encountered so far. It saddens me to say this – because I want not to be conditioned by heteronormative gender thinking, I want my brain to be less binary – but I know it's because she's a woman, unexceptional yet unconventional, speaking boldly, not to any gender but to everybody. It makes me happy, in a simplistic way, that the Ponyboys stop everything and sit, like acolytes, like children, while she holds forth. It makes me happier still, in a way that supports a recent insinuation that I'm as bad as Angela Leadsom and deserve a similar massacring, that it's Annie, a mother to teenagers, someone whose CV includes the career break taken when those children were small, whose current show is about her struggle to live in suburbia, who commands the room for this moment and illuminates a path that might save us. It's not that her words are uncomplicatedly hopeful – if anything, Nova says, “Hope is the wrong heartbeat.” It's her embrace of the difficulty that lies ahead that makes me cleave to her so.

Howl
When the Ponyboys howled in At the Yard, what they emitted was the sound of desperate hearts: a carmine sound aching with animal longing and thwarted desire, a yearning that might never end. There was looped projected film of a boy running and stumbling to throw himself into the arms of another, and on the stage there was running, stumbling, pounding and wanting, and falling to knees to emit that howl, head tipped back as though pleading with the moon.

When they howled in Coyote, what they emitted was the sound of desperate fury: disappointment, terror and rage. Maybe it was the proximity again, but I don't think so: the escalation of intensity was devastating. There were three in total, ending with Andre, whose howl was a severed artery, spraying blood.

Transgression
You know what I said about Hakim Bey when writing about FCKSYSTMS? Forget it. Or rather: if the text of Wild Children shot an arrow over my head in that show, here it hit solid and true. Not even the word ontological could faze me: because how perfect is the phrase “natural ontological anarchists, angels of chaos”? Bey's vision is of children as “savage runaways or minor guerrillas” locking gaze with “artists, anarchists, perverts, heretics”, creating together a “means of triumphant escape” through “delirious and obsessive play”. Play in the quotidian sense, the play of my children, with lego and teddies, or football and sticks, is something I struggle with: it never feels to me a route to triumphant escape but tighter bondage. For all its imagination and make-believe scope, I'm yet to accept its invitation, or find a way through it, to shape for myself a different role. But when I'm with Ponyboy Curtis, I'm able to shed that. I realise this will contradict what I've said above about Annie Siddons (to be honest, almost everything I've written this year is sloppy with contradiction), but words like that allow me to forget I'm a mother, they entice me to contemplate radical play: the play of breaking rules and testing boundaries and doing all the things a mother says you never should. I've done a bit more reading about Bey since then and this blog in particular left me furtive and breathless. We are conditioned from birth to behave as we do: I know this because I've been mindlessly conditioning my own children. Ponyboy are the vanguard of a full-scale rethinking.

Smashing down proprieties around sex is one of their methods: instead of equal marriage, that solid cornerstone of capitalism, they offer the fluidity of polyamorism; instead of monogamy, the gifting body, generous with its pleasures and on display. The fashion-show parading of different masculine types is a long-standing Ponyboy trope that has never held much meaning for me, straight-laced as I am, and in Coyote I see it as another dip into irrelevance and indulgence: a moment in which the “semi-improvised” is overtaken by the “mixtape”, to the detriment of the whole. But the sex is of a different magnitude entirely. It is untrammelled, almost rapacious: body piles upon body, limbs so entwined they might be conjoined; tongues travel greedily from mouth to nipple to hardened cock; and because the room is so small, sometimes those bodies are only just beyond reach. But perhaps the most electrifying thing about it, on this day of all days, is the extent to which this vision of male lust defies the narrow-minded prejudice of Farage and his cronies. What emanates from those bodies, in their tantalising almost-fucking, is an emphatic and joyful fuck you.

Im/possible dreams
I've been pretty positive so far, right? As I left Coyote, that's how I was feeling: becalmed, held, relieved. In the New Diorama cafe I had three separate conversations with four of the Ponyboys that reassured me further. Nick and Griffyn gave me news about Paul, whose absence was a sadness if not quite a surprise (on the last day of FCKSYSTMS he wrote on twitter: “the thing imitating itself – performance of sincerity/committment seems to preclude understanding of the artist as critical or suspicious – might be because we think of critical/ironic 'distance' - and i'm interested in proximity – & also probs as a relatively young artist people are reluctant to point out weakness or horror in the thing i have committed to – + when one name dominates a work, & is publicly seen to promote a politics, there's an assumption that everyone in the work agrees?” So I'd guessed he was ready to leave). Andre admitted that he'd spent the day in fear of being attacked every time he opened his mouth, but we agreed that his howling had dislodged something, unchoked us. Craig, brilliantly, said that he'd had exactly the same problem with the opening section as me (arguably, it misfired through a lack of conviction). But then I had a conversation with another audience-member, and performance-maker, Ira Brand. It's niggled at me ever since.

Could women do this?” Ira wondered aloud. She's spent the past year playing (in a wild children way) with gender presentation, and now has as tangible a male identity as she has female, so I don't think she meant this in a straightforwardly cis- or white-feminist way. I talked meagrely of the experiment of CG&Co's Riot Act, a room of feminist expression crossing gender and sexuality, and Ira listened patiently before kindly pointing out I'd missed the point. She was thinking about the gaze, how it distorts female bodies/polices female sexuality, and how women using their bodies as tools for revolution would be received.

It's not often I feel I have a direct effect on CG&Co's movements, but the roots of Riot Act lie partly in something I wrote about the Ponyboy R&D, confessing that I'd find a room of naked women far more erotic than I do naked men. Whatever Riot Act achieved (and it was a difficult room, so ideas on that are mixed), it didn't do nakedness: there was a song about the injustice of men being able to walk the streets topless, and a comic strip about it too, but no undressed breasts hanging loose. The most triumphant expression of gaze-defying female presentation was Emma Frankland finally wearing the skirt she'd bought as a teenager, two decades before her transition.

Ira's comment made me re-see Ponyboy: for all its queerness, for all its transgression, it's the expression of a group of white males. They might be questioning their own privilege, but that they're able to gather at all is concomitant with that privilege. Even if they point to a queer romantic polymorphous future, arguably they do so for themselves first and everyone else second. I accept that I come at this through some problematically circumscribed thinking about binary gender, not to mention invisible exercise of privileges of my own. But still. On this awful day of turmoil, the promise of Ponyboy carried only so far.


[I love this song. Chris chose it as the closing of Coyote, and might have used it in another Ponyboy soundtrack, too. It hits a note of sincerity with such precision that its blandness, or sentimentality, is rendered inaudible. There is so much I don't write about when I write about Ponyboy, in particular the collage of materials Chris grafts to the group, the storytelling he does from his seat off-stage. Like Chris, I end with this song because it points forward. The youth are changing, changing. I don't know where Ponyboy Curtis will go next.]

Friday, 15 July 2016

Demolition plot (extended play)

There was a time when I wrote a diary. Not every day; intermittently, for about four years. I stopped when I realised that a) I was only writing it when I was miserable, b) I was repeating myself, c) writing it changed nothing.

There was a time when I thought Chekhov, if not the most boring playwright in the history of theatre, certainly in the top 10.

I'm sorry if you've read these things before here.

Remember that last sharp day of winter we had? At least, it was the last sharp day London had: Tuesday 26 April, 2016. I stood at the kitchen window and tried to work out if those slushy white flakes were hail or snow. A few days later I stood in the same place and realised I was looking at the first sharp day of spring: green leaves so defined against a bright blue sky they seemed extra-dimensional. And I had a thought I'd never had before: this means nothing to me. The spring, the brightness, the green, the blue. Time turning, age grinding, unremarkable repetition, and a slow, inexorable deadening.

This is the emotional voice in my head that listened to Chekhov's First Play and heard its echo.

But we won't start with either of those.

Let's start with Dominic Dromgoole.

In 2000 he published an “A-Z of contemporary playwrights”, The Full Room, written with such irascible passion that with every dip I come away scalded. On Phyllis Nagy: “I'm sure she's terrific, but for me it always sounds like someone being a writer, rather than someone writing about being.” On Lee Hall: “Somehow he manages to keep many thousands of hungry mouths happy with a few loaves of a talent.” That the witticisms emerge from a forensic scrutiny of the actual plays gives everything he writes an air of justice, despite his protestations in the introduction that he's not here to judge, and regardless of whether or not I agree. But if he's ruthless in exposing flaws or inconsistencies, he's also intemperate with admiration: in the heat and light of his praise, his subjects glow.

He also writes with a strong moral compass, whose true north is Chekhov. In the entry on Anthony Neilson, he notes approvingly: “As Chekhov could dream of a better world in time to come, without providing some glib programme of improvement, so Neilson looks four-square into the heart of our sexual darkness, and allows himself to dream of a better world.” And in the entry on Patrick Marber – “a brilliant boulevard entertainer” – he looks in vain for “a real wish for good. With a Chekhov, with a Brecht, with a Beckett,” he explains, “you see a brilliantly realised and brutally honest vision, behind which there hovers the ghost of a better, fairer, more beautiful world. With Marber … beyond what we see is a chaos filled with violence, sexual desire and sexual disgust, and endless mutual loathing.”

I think about this chapter on Marber a lot, in particular for what Dromgoole says in the final paragraph:

Chekhov wrote volumes of work, built schools, opened hospitals, interviewed ten thousand prisoners on Sakhalin island, kept his family, kept his patients alive, held hundreds as they died, spent fifteen years coughing his own life away, and still managed to keep hope in balance with despair, still managed to love life and its mad optimism.”

The leaves, drunk on chlorophyll, radiant and meaningless.

*

The “director” of Chekhov's First Play (warning: a frenzy of spoilers lies ahead) has read a biography of Chekhov; he knows these facts and knows that, by comparison, he himself is failing. I put “director” in quote marks to differentiate him from Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, who co-directed Dead Centre's production, not because they didn't genuinely read the biography, but because I left the Mayfest performance stupefied by an adolescent crush on Moukarzel, who also wrote the adaptation and plays the “director” on stage, that heard everything he said as soul-dredging confession. I need the quotation marks to remind me that this is a character, that the voice that is speaking is a performed voice, that when the “director” begins berating himself as “a fraud”, when he says “I don't know what I'm doing” or that “I haven't been feeling myself lately. And by lately, I mean ever”, what I'm hearing is a fabrication. Never mind if it's the words I hear in my head all the time.

But let's avoid that voice a little longer.

It's hard to avoid the “director's” voice in this production. Once he's delivered his pitch-perfect introduction – light as a meringue and yet ominous, not just because he wields a gun, but because he makes visible something I (and likely others in the room) had never contemplated before: the audience member's temporary legal ownership of their theatre seat, its status as “private property” – he retreats to the wings and talks around, across and over his actors, commenting on their performances, his own choices, the themes and subtexts of the play. Of course, some of his own text has a subtext: when he says, close to the beginning, “I love real life. The detail”, there is an underlying irony that is quickly exposed when he begins to berate the actors for moving in the wrong way and forgetting their lines, in other words being real people, but also an undertow of pathos whose emotional pull operates more slowly.

What he particularly wants to draw our attention to is the reflection – no, continuation – of Chekhov's world in our own. Some of that is to do with unchanging human nature: as he notes in his introduction, all Chekhov's plays “ask the big questions: who am I? What kind of a society do I want to live in? What do I want?” But some of it is to do with the ways in which Chekhov thought about “the kind of society” that surrounded him, his attitudes towards privilege and work, property and debt, social stagnation and the possibility or imminence of change. These attitudes, compassionate, socialist and challenging of orthodoxy, have a pliability that the best directors (and playwright-adapters) seize as gleefully as children do playdoh.

I didn't think any of this until I watched Benedict Andrews' production of Three Sisters (Young Vic, 2012): it spoke so precisely to the frustrations of my own life, and to the stuckness I've been able to name since reading the Ann Cvetkovich book on depression, that I heard more vividly the play's address to society at large. I felt the same wonder and excitement watching Katie Mitchell's production of The Cherry Orchard (Young Vic, 2014): as adapted by Simon Stephens, it wasn't a play about privileged (albeit poor) people for whom I felt no sympathy, but the complex relationship between class, capitalism and environmental devastation. Robert Icke's Uncle Vanya (Almeida, 2016) was the least convincing of the three, in that a lot of the staging choices were fucking annoying even if they did make intellectual sense, but as a portrait of people damaged by the basic condition of being alive, holding down the lid on their hopes, desires, frustrations and anger before inevitably boiling over, it was exemplary.

I'd seen all of these plays before, sometimes in pretty good productions, but my general idea of Chekhov was sealed early on by a Cherry Orchard played in a wealthy suburb of London, by actors with plummy accents wearing white lace and linen suits, that left me wanting to punch every person on stage, for their entitlement, apathy and mediocrity. This was the problem of Chekhov's First Play for me: when the curtain rises, it looks like just such a traditional, tedious production. And that's a lie. The directors, Kidd and Moukarzel, know that it's a lie: they know they're working within a “German theatre” aesthetic, but they pretend not to be for dramatic and comic effect. To be fair, it works: the jokes teasing conservative theatre, in which the “director” complains about the actors and lets slip the sexual shenanigans going on behind the scenes, easily win the laughs they chase. OK, I sound like a miserabilist. But Chekhov's First Play does something incredibly powerful politically, and for me that could have been more potent still if Dead Centre hadn't settled on the chocolate-box image of a sprawling country house as the site for that action: an image that distances more than it implicates.

In other ways, Chekhov's First Play is rigorous in implicating. It makes explicit reference to Ireland's recent history, first with jokes about its flaccid economy, but gradually becoming more serious about the spiritual effect of debt. (Something about the way it compacted gravity and sickly unease into comedy reminded me of John McDonagh's film Calvary.) It talks about the central character of Platonov as someone “over-educated but useless, unnecessary”, typical of a generation who have “let go of ideals”: people who know that there is social inequality, rising poverty, ecological catastrophe taking place, but are comfortable enough themselves never to do anything more serious to challenge it than mouthing off on social media. (I'm very much describing myself here.) It spends its entire first half insistently arguing that we can't wait for someone else to save us. And then. And then.

Two months on, I still feel giddy and breathless just thinking about it. Because the hinge point of Chekhov's First Play unleashed all my wildest fantasies of what I'd like to do in the political world. It drops a wrecking ball from the flies and proceeds to demolish everything: the physical set, but also the metaphysical structures that hold the characters – and us, the audience – in place. That wrecking ball smashes at property, at family, at propriety and expectation. When it falls, the women stop talking in a vaguely dissatisfied way about lacking a sense of purpose and start naming their specific hatred of “my marriage and capitalism and my student loan and how the modern consumer society separates us from ourselves … normality and monogamy and gender normative privilege”. Being idealistic about wanting these things to change isn't enough. You have to get out there and actively fight them. You have to live the difference you want to see.

To do that takes courage and verve. It takes a willingness to make mistakes, look awkward, feel out-of-step with everyone else. It takes quick thinking and attentive listening. And Chekhov's First Play shows us how. It pulls someone out of the audience, someone prepared enough in advance to be wearing a particular red denim jacket but no more, and gets them to play Platonov. I've since read the playtext (THANK YOU OBERON for replacing the copy I stupidly lost) and understand a lot more about what happened in this half of the production, but I'm going to be truthful about the experience of watching and say that there was much that I didn't hear or that didn't feel clear in this section. It didn't matter: chaos was part of the point, the necessary correlative of destruction.

Through most of this, the “director's” voice is absent: he's silent because he shot himself, unable to bear the disparity between what he wanted the production to be and what he had actually made. Implicit in his adaptation is a question – what does it take to be extraordinary, and actually change the world? – and a recognition that it's the wrong question, playing into patriarchal notions of singularity and genius. Far better to be a nobody: but a nobody genuinely dedicated to the cause of helping other nobodies, enabling them to escape the bonds that tie them, enabling them to cast off the pressures of keeping up with life as shaped by neoliberalism. Platonov is that nobody: he's just a stranger, plucked from the auditorium. It could have been any one of us. And because of that, it's all of us.

Such was my intense sense of identification with this Platonov that I felt quite upset when the staging required him to point a gun at his own head. It felt wrong, an unethical ask. Reading back over the text, I wonder what it means to have a character repeatedly described as useless and unnecessary, and then have him played by a member of the audience. I worry that if I pick at the wrong thread of Moukarzel's adaptation, the whole thing will unravel.

What holds it all together for me, allows me to live in its contradictions, is that voice, the “director's” voice, which is also Platonov's, and mine. That voice caught between idealism and pessimism, hope and depression, knowledge of the work that needs doing and terror of actually doing it. The “director” seems so confident when Chekhov's First Play starts, but it's all bluff. He lacks faith not only in himself but in theatre as a medium: “It's so aimless,” he mourns, as his characters sing People Ain't No Good in Russian. The song returns in the final scene, when the “director” returns, head bandaged, for a speech that devastated me:

This gun. At least let me explain one thing right. Chekhov's first play had a gun in it and his second, and all the rest had guns in them in one way or another, until in his last play … it was gone. It's like he got over it. He wrote away the gun.

He realised his characters have to do something even harder than dying. They have to go on living.”

I've lost count of the number of times I've thought those last two sentences in the past few years. The accuracy with which they echoed my inner voice – the inner voice that the “director” explicitly acknowledges in his opening speech – meant that the words that followed reduced me to a puddle. “I don't know who I am, what it is I want, why I'm alive. But I need to have courage,” his voice, my voice, said. “I wonder will this voice ever stop? … This commentary, commenting on everything. Will it ever go away?” Not just my inner voice but the voice I hear speaking to a counsellor, a weirdly out-of-body experience. “Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say...?” These are the questions that consume me at night, lying awake in my too-hard bed. And as I sat in my theatre seat – my own private property, which holds me in place, in which I always behave with absolute decorum, just as I do in the world outside – I knew exactly what was coming next, but still felt an intense sense of gratification when Platonov's final word is: hello.

*

For such a basic word, hello is really hard to say.

On Friday 1 July, I visited the South-East London Sisters Uncut occupation of a disused shop in Peckham. I'd planned to get there early and sit with my laptop, writing about the room, but also maybe writing this, or about Ria Hartley's work, or maybe about what it was to grow up in Thatcher's Britain as a way of reflecting on the terror and anxiety but also weird sense of euphoria I felt in the first week post-referendum, when it still seemed vaguely possible that there might be a left-wing resurgence (excuse me while I wring my hands with despair). Instead, I found all sorts of excuses to delay leaving home. There wasn't going to be wifi in the building. I had some scraps of food in the house that I ought to cook for my lunch. And so it was 1.30pm by the time I arrived, giving me barely an hour in the space before the school run.

The people on the door were immediately friendly but the usual shyness consumed me so I rejected the offer of a tour and had a look round on my own. The main room was welcoming, warm and light, despite having few windows and no carpet on the concrete floor. It was the warmth and light of generosity and political fervour. The occupation was staged to draw attention to the lack of provision for women living in Southwark who experience domestic violence, particularly black and minority ethnic women following austerity cuts. Along one wall was a huge banner bearing the group's slogan: how can she leave if there's nowhere to go? Along another, lively posters detailed previous Sisters Uncut actions, in photographs and clips from less than sympathetic media. There were sofas and a large children's play space with toys and a wendy house and drawing materials, and a stack of food with an invitation to all-comers to help themselves. Scattered around were copies of the excellently thoughtful safe space policy, and reminders that the space was open only to people who identify as female or non-binary. It was beautiful.

Looking around gave me the courage to go back to the people at the door and say hello. This is how I met Sita, who, it transpired, is a massive fan of Chris Goode: we'd both seen the Ponyboy Curtis show Coyote, and Sita is almost finished a PhD largely concerned with literary shapings of masculinity, but with a chapter on theatre in which Men in the Cities is prominent. When a friend of Sita's arrived I continued the conversation with Becca, asking about how the occupation was going, and about Sisters Uncut generally. When I had to leave, I felt like an idiot: I hadn't had enough time. I wished I'd been there all day.

I asked Becca why Southwark in particular and she patiently told me about its appalling record of failing women who come to the council seeking help in escaping abuse situations. We talked about the council's bristly, patronising response to the occupation, that “statistics don't tell the whole story”, and the blog Sisters Uncut planned to publish in reply. I asked how they managed to get into the building, and Becca told me about laws related to squatting and the mechanics of the occupation, how everyone involved was taking time off from work or study to be there. I've always been terrified of this kind of direct action – and there was a moment when the Sisters gathered at the door, worried that an aggressive man might be seeking entry, that reminded me why – but talking to Becca and Sita, it felt possible. More than that: necessary.

I can't imagine not writing about theatre but nor can I carry on as I am, advocating in the abstract for social change without doing physical work to bring it about. In the time it's taken me to write this post, I've been reading Here We Stand, a glorious, invigorating book of interviews with and texts by female activists, that is nourishing me and encouraging me and giving me a way forward. There's one woman in particular, Mary Sharkey, that I'm clinging to because she was in her early 40s before she became politically active: what a relief to encounter her, and recognise that there's no point berating myself for wasting time and not doing this sooner (that voice again, commenting on everything) because – as she says in the final line of her interview – it's never too late to start. She has an excellent motto, too: “Behold the turtle, who makes progress when she sticks her neck out.” Perfect.

So I've been inhaling that, and also Kimya Dawson's album Thunder Thighs, which I deeply regret missing on first release, if only because it would have done me much good to hear her sing “now I'm 37 and I'm glad that I'm alive” when I was 37 and really not. There are so many best-friend songs on this album: Same Shit/Complicated, which trumps me for ultra-earnest expression; Utopian Futures, which to the letter describes the place I want to live; Zero or a Zillion, a piquant fuck you to the art accountants out there. But I think my favourite is Miami Advice, in particular the chorus that closes it:

You think I'm preaching to the choir
But I am not
I'm singing with the choir

This is such a key point made by the women of Here We Stand (a book, it's worth noting, that was recommended to me by Mary Paterson, with whom I've been working for a couple of years and in that time has taught me so much about collaboration and political engagement): the real goal isn't individual action but collective. “What we create are ripples,” says Liz Crow, “where the work of many peoples combines to make change.” And collectivity starts with saying hello.

*

Five years ago, I started writing a diary again. It's going OK: I'm doing better at turning to it in different moods, and trying hard not to repeat myself. I still know it doesn't change anything, not materially. But it does something my old diary never did. It says hello. I know this because you're reading it now.