Monday, 5 November 2018

Once more unto the... (Criticism & Love #13) ((identity crisis #17,962))

This was written for Criticism & Love, a TinyLetter I've been writing for the past six months with Andy Field, and I wouldn't normally cross-post it, except that I've been thinking recently that it's time to stop using this blog and build a different web home, one that more accurately reflects where I am in life now, rather than where I was in April 2011. I have one more thing to publish here which might take me a month or so to put together, and then if I can sort my shit out I'll start 2019 with the new site. Or not. Maybe it's fine to just scatter wildflower seeds across the wasteland of the internet without claiming a whole garden as mine. Anyway. If you like this and want to read more of the Criticism & Love essays, please sign up here: it might help persuade someone to publish them in an actual book one day. Even if you don't, still sign up, cos Andy's essays are fucking brilliant. OK, here goes:



What is the point of theatre?

I mean, really?

Please don't think that calling what you make or see or write about or have an interest in performance art means I'm not asking you too.

Here are some of the things that have happened in the world in the four weeks since I last sat down to write one of these C&L essays:

Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as the 114th Justice of the Supreme Court, a lifelong role, despite allegations of sexual abuse against him and his readiness to limit abortion rights in the US.

Jair Bolsonaros was elected President of Brazil, despite expressions of homophobia and misogyny and his readiness to raze the Amazon rainforest, killing indigenous populations through displacement in the short term, future generations through climate destruction in the longer term.

The New York Times reported that Donald Trump wants to create a legal definition of sex as "a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth", erasing trans identities.

As reported in the Guardian, the IPCC (the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warned that humans have 12 years left to limit temperature rises “to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people”.

The Guardian also reported that “humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970” (figure provided by WWF).

A white supremacist man opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jewish people aged between 54 and 97.

Another white man was filmed verbally abusing a black woman on a Ryanair plane, later claiming, eroneously, that he is not a racist person.

Twenty traders of international backgrounds working in Ridley Road market in Dalston, east London, were issued evictions orders and given two weeks to comply. They were granted a last-minute reprieve but at present it's unknown whether that will last beyond 2018.

Residents and campaigners attempting to save the community-run Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford from destruction/redevelopment were violently evicted by police and security staff working on council orders.

And this is just what I've skimmed from the surface of my twitter feed.

*

There's a show by Breach called The Drill, from 2017, in which the three performers – Ellice Stevens, Amarnah Amuludun and Luke Lampard, directed by Billy Barrett, with video by Dorothy Allen-Pickard – take part in a series of training courses, sold to the public, to learn what they might do in the event of a terrorist attack, a bomb threat, a shooting, etc. “Everything feels very uncertain right now,” says Luke. “So we wanted to do something to make ourselves feel safer.” And so they attend workshops, imagine, improvise, role-play, act. Time and again the instructors impress on them the importance of realism. “Realism is everything,” says one. “If it's not realistic, if the training's not realistic, then people don't have the fear.” If you've felt that fear, stress, pressure in a training environment, it won't shock you when you feel it in a real environment. You need to immerse yourself, really take part, more effectively to learn. “The way people learn best is in a safe and controlled environment,” says another. “So while we will make it as realistic as we possibly can in this circumstance, it will be safe and it will be controlled.”

These are at once rehearsals and acts of theatre; as theatre they are events with the potential to produce catharsis, a safe and controlled experience of fear in a safe and controlled environment. Which, for Aristotle, was really the point of theatre. The growing feeling through The Drill, however, is that all this training is pointless: not only does it not diminish fear, it exacerbates a latent suspicion of other humans, and with it a latent othering and racism. And if the training is pointless, maybe theatre is pointless too. Certainly – and this might be a delicious in-joke – “realistic” theatre.

There's a show by Breach called The Beanfield, from 2015, in which the six performers – Billy Barrett, Grace Holme, Anna Himali Howard, Max Kennedy, Ellice Stevens and Tom Wright, directed by Billy and, on video, film-maker Dorothy Allen-Pickard – re-enact but also investigate the ethics around re-enacting the clash between police and military on the one side, and on the other a motley convoy of people including activists, non-violent protestors and peaceful worshippers of the solstice heading for the Stonehenge Free Festival in June 1985. The clash was a climax reached after months of aggression directed at the travelling community camped there. The performers were students at University of Warwick at the time, and had been involved in their own clash with police, called in to break up student protests against the neoliberal profit drive of their own education.

The group wanted to make this show, Ellice says early on, to do something real. “So real.” A specialist in historical re-enactment warns them to “be careful” because the real of performance can all too quickly become the real of life: pretend violence becoming actual violence, pretend hate becoming actual hate. The man who now owns the field where the clash happened refuses to let them perform there, because he's afraid of what trouble – real – they might stir up. They find a field and go ahead anyway; Grace gets hit and tells her friends: “This is really fucking painful.” There is video playing of the re-enactment and it looks really fucking painful, feels actually painful to watch. “It's really fucking horrible,” Grace says again. And it is. I mean, it's only theatre. But it feels horrible. Because it's also, as Dorothy says on the video, “a real event”. Historical real. Present real. Now real.

There's a show by Breach called Tank, from 2016, in which the four performers – Ellice Stevens, Victoria Watson, Joe Boylan and Craig Hamilton, directed by Billy and Ellice, again with video by Dorothy – question what of historical events can really be pieced together from the documentary material and memories that remain. The story of Tank is of a research centre on the US Virgin Island of St Thomas in which, during the early 1960s, a series of experiments was conducted in teaching dolphins to speak English. It's also a story about what a particular dolphin, Peter, might have been thinking, feeling, trying to communicate during these experiments. Because who can know? Dolphins have an “alien brain”, it's said at the beginning; that's why they were chosen for the research. Perhaps if this alien brain could be taught English, so could all the aliens who might be discovered during the space race – but so too might all the aliens who live on the earth itself, all those other, foreign people whose customs are, within the dictates of xenophobia, so unfamiliar and terrifying.

There's a book by academic Nicholas Ridout called Theatre & Ethics that considers how theatre “participates in a process of managing the way people think about their relationships with one another and their potential for creating societies in which everyone can enjoy freedom as well as social solidarity”. He begins with Plato, who lambasted theatre because “it peddles dangerously pessimistic illusions that encourage a fearful audience to submit to inexorable fate rather than struggle to imagine the world differently”. Throughout Ridout raises the question “How shall I act?”, but always with the caveat that theatre might be an odd place to come looking for that, given the relationships between ethics and truth, theatre and pretending. He resists theatre that presents a “universal concept of 'human' which … can easily lapse into 'humans like me'”, seeking out instead performance that challenges “our conception of what it is to have a human body, and to have intentions that make it do things … challeng[ing] the human spectator to consider what it is that allows him or her to recognise another as a fellow human”. He searches for that “moment of ethical encounter” in performance that can “be the basis for thought, feeling or action within the sphere of politics”. That, for him, is the point of theatre.

*

Here is a full list of the works I've encountered in a theatre or theatre setting in the four weeks since I last sat down to write one of these C&L essays:

Risk Lab, by Ada Mukhina, a participatory performance that invited its audience to decide whether they wanted to hear a text written by Ada that might be censored in Russia, where she is from, or in London/the UK, and rather than delivering on that vote, asked a series of questions about why each person had chosen the way they did.

The Malady of Death, written by Alice Birch, directed by Katie Mitchell, contemplating the mesh of relationships between masculinity, emotion(lessness), pornography and misogyny.

Summit, by Andy Smith (twice, for work), a brief rallying cry for better talking, and better listening, and more readiness to change, to do the work of social/political/economic change, performed in three languages: English, British Sign Language and (in this performance) Malay (although I've also seen it when the third language was Farsi, spoken by a young man, and miss the complexity that brought).

Burgerz, by Travis Alabanza, in which the burger thrown at Travis on Waterloo Bridge by a white man affronted by what he perceived as their failure to conform to patriarchal notions of gender becomes a metaphor through which those notions can be interrogated and smashed.

ear for eye by debbie tucker green, which is phenomenal, a survey of black life within white supremacy, meticulous in expression as it travels between the personal and the systemic, poetic in its protest, as elegant as it is angry, a defining play not only of this decade but – I'm sure of this – the decades to come.

Fallen Fruit, by Katherina Radeva of Two Destination Language, in which she traces the complex experiences of herself, as a seven-year-old child, and the adults around her in Bulgaria in the days before and immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the basic sufficiency before, the deprivation after; the tedium before, the freedom after, the strained commonality before, the pained inequality after.

Lock Her Up, three audio works, by Sabrina Mahfouz, Rachel Mars and Paula Varjack, each responding to aspects of women's experience in prison. I sat in a now disused prison cell beneath Leeds Town Hall and listened to the pieces in that order, experiencing mounting anxiety as I moved from Sabrina as a scintillating game-show host asking furious questions about incarceral maternity and motherhood, to Rachel's whispers in the silence of solitary confinement, and Paula's story of an imminent future in which immigrant women are increasingly detained as they no longer conform to invisibly shifting immigration policy, which ends with one such woman beating a prison guard with a pole, his skin and muscles collapsing with a squelch, squelch, squelch.

All those plus I'm a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings, No One Is Coming To Save You by new company This Noise, a merging of Othello and Macbeth by Jude Christian, Paper Cinema's Macbeth, a musical version of Twelfth Night (you bet it was too much fucking Shakespeare), Andy Smith's The Preston Bill for the sixth time, two R&D rehearsal sharings and two work-in-progress performances of #thebabyquestion by Paula Varjack, Luca Rutherford and Catriona James, Mouth Open Story Jump Out by Polar Bear, The Day I Fell Into a Book by Lewis Gibson, Charlie Ward by Sound & Fury, Frankenstein by BAC's Beatbox Academy, Chekhov's First Play by Dead Centre for the second time, and yes, you're right, I do see an awful lot of theatre. I'm choosing the word awful for its double meaning.

In the midst of all that, I also saw It's True, It's True, It's True by Breach.

*

It's True is another re-enactment play, of the trial, in 1612, of Agostino Tassi, the older man and established artist accused by painter Artemesia Gentileschi (a teenager at the time) of rape. The word accused there should not imply I don't believe her. It's quite different from Breach's other work: there's no video, and the three performers – Ellice Stevens, Kathryn Bond and Harriet Webb, directed by Billy Barrett, Dorothy Allen-Pickard joining them as dramaturg – never slip out of character to speak as themselves, so there is no metatheatrical discussion of how or why they're making each dramatic choice, or what the effect of those choices might be. This time the lines between verbatim speech transcribed by court notaries and imagined text are entirely blurred. So what is true, exactly?

It's certainly not true that the three women never slip out of character, because they are constantly slipping into and out of a series of characters: Artemesia is played by Ellice, Tassi by Harriet, and Artemesia's female neighbour Tuzia by Kathryn, but they also take turns to play the judge, Tassi's friends, other witnesses in the case, Bible characters painted by Artemesia, and more. Nor is it entirely true that they never play themselves: in the presentation of a woman struggling to be believed, fighting against a patriarchal system that sets man's word above woman's, that internalises misogyny to such an extent that women become the judge and jury of each other, Ellice and Harriet and Kathryn never stop playing themselves.

Another thing that's not true is that they don't question or justify their artistic choices: it's just that their choices snap into focus through an astonishing speech Artemesia makes explaining why her painting Susanna and the Elders is different to depictions of the story by male artists of the day. In men's eyes Susanna was courting the male gaze, asking for it. Asking for it. Whereas in Artemesia's eyes Susanna was unable to escape that gaze; she might turn away from it, push back against it, but such is the aggression of masculinity she is subject to it none the less.

How did the relationship between Artemesia and Tassi begin? Tassi was asked by her father to teach his daughter perspective. Perspective. The word is like a punchline – or, as Hannah Gadsby lays the emphasis in Nanette, a punch line – to a really bad joke.

*

There's a book by Rebecca Solnit called Hope in the Dark in which she describes world events as taking place on the stage of a theatre. “The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on that stage,” she says. But she draws her readers' gaze to the “shadowy spaces” off-stage, to “the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work”. What she's particularly interested in is “the power of a story and of a storyteller” to move across these hidden places in the margins, because “politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations”, and what better way to spread ideas and shape imaginations than through stories?

For Solnit, writing is no different from activism: both are acts of faith, because their effects are indirect, delayed and often invisible. “An essay, a book, is one statement,” she writes, “in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you're gone and never reach your ears, if anyone hears you in the first place.” And while “changing the story isn't enough in itself … it has often been foundational to real changes”.

Now I'm no Solnit, however much I wish I were. And when I ask what the point is of theatre, what I'm also or possibly really asking is: what is the point of (me) being there and (me) writing about it, and beneath that I guess what I'm really asking is what is the point of me? I'm thinking about this sharply not only because it feels like that theatre of world events is on fire right now and always has been, the gaze of the audience drawn not by the limelights as Solnit suggests but the glare of blazing flame, but because the response my words make to it keeps feeling so fucking paltry. Whatever I'm writing about, I repeat and repeat the same words – patriarchy, capitalism, neoliberalism, inequality are some of the key ones – as though intoning them as a mantra might do anything to dismantle their power. This is the sixth essay I've written for C&L (number 6.5 if you want to be precise), and each one has basically said the same thing: patriarchy is bad, capitalism is bad, neoliberalism is bad, inequality is bad, feminism hasn't solved any of this, fuck. What good is that doing in the world?

As I muddle through identity crisis number 17,962, there's something in Solnit's description of the long conversation, the call and the response, that I want to hold on to – hold faith in – not least because it's echoed in the final section of Ridout's Theatre & Ethics. Quoting a text by Adrian Heathfield, Ridout describes that “moment of ethical encounter” as “a reciprocal and unending cycle of call-and-response, of gift and counter-gift”. And “the act of critical writing about performance” is part of that: a recognition of “response-ability”. The ethical encounter couldn't happen without the witness, the spectator, the person in the audience “called upon to recognise that there is a relationship between what is shown in the theatre and their own experience of the world”, and “invited to do something about it”.

I have to keep returning to ideas like this because it's all the self-justification I have for the amount of time I spend, physically and mentally, in theatre, and for the fear that all I'm really doing is entertaining myself and hiding from life, never participating in what might genuinely be described as “action within the sphere of politics”. I have to keep reminding myself that I share Solnit's belief in stories, and belief in the need for different stories, and that's what I'm doing with the response-ability theatre encourages in me, trying to tell different stories.

It's True, It's True, It's True is a story of a rape. It is a story of a woman who would have married her rapist to maintain her dignity. He refused, and so she was able to do something better. She was able to paint. To paint stories told by men from a female perspective. At the end she enters another of her paintings, one of her many versions of the slaughter of Holofernes by Judith. Here's what the stage directions say about her entrance: “Judith appears in a golden dress. She is a rockstar, a guardian angel, the embodiment of rage.” And here's what the character says: “The names of my foremothers may be forgotten but yours and mine will never be.” Because it's not true that It's True is the story of a rape, a story that seeks to be a silencing and a full stop. It's the story of female anger, female defiance, female strength.

It's a story that needs to be told and retold and retold because patriarchy too is angry, defiant and strong, but more than that, patriarchy is powerful, in power, perpetually in power. And none of us know when this will change.

*

I've never asked or read why Billy, Dorothy and Ellice chose the name Breach for their company, but it makes me think of that rallying cry Shakespeare has Henry V deliver on the point of battle: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” Only here, the breach is not a war, but a space in which to rage, yes, argue, yes, confront, yes, but also care, speculate, listen, think, see things from a different angle, reshape ideas around community. All of which, really, is the point of theatre. Isn't it?

With that, dear friends, once more unto the breach we go.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A manner of being adequate

This was commissioned by Simon Bowes to be presented at the symposium Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger happening later today, as part of a trio of responses to that title by Something Other, the website I co-make with Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin. So really this belongs there, but my lovely friend David pointed out that I haven't posted on here in aeons, also this week is the seventh anniversary of Deliq and this writing reflects on how and why it started, so it makes sense to cross-post. Anyway: another polish of the pebble on which I think about how I do theatre criticism. Thank you for reading.

 *

 
Before I read any Berger – and I was late coming to him – I read an interview with him by Nicholas Wroe, published in the Guardian in April 2011, in which he talked about his “decision to abandon painting to write full time”. Wroe quotes him as saying: “Painting is something that you need to do if not every day, then certainly most days. It is almost like being a pianist, if you stop you lose something. The phrase 'Sunday painter' is not often a compliment. I was attracted to the novel form because I was attracted to the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour, their destinies and choices. The things that can't be schematised. The challenge is to try not just to explain the mystery, but to ensure the mystery is shared and doesn't remain isolated.”

In April 2011 I felt a shift or a seep or a click in my brain, perhaps all three motions at once: my second child had recently turned two, the first was now four, and this movement inside – a synaptic jolt, the electricity surging, or simply turning back on – meant I could think clearly again.

And so I started thinking out loud, otherwise called blogging. I wanted to write about theatre in untrammelled ways not afforded to me by my day job in journalism. At the time – in many ways still – bloggers were looked down on by professional critics: you couldn't, for instance, become a member of the Critics' Circle Drama Section as someone who self-published. Bloggers were criticism's Sunday painters. Becoming one created, for me, a new possibility: in unprofessionalism there was space to think about criticism as art.

I have a difficult relationship with the word art because in my early 20s I knew I'd never have the audacity or tenacity to be an artist – specifically painter – and that's partly how I ended up writing about theatre. And perhaps I still wouldn't be using the word now but for two things: working with Mary Paterson, and a passage Berger wrote in The Shape of a Pocket, describing the relationship between the painter and the object of their gaze:

“The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter... When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. … The modern illusion concerning painting … is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.”

What a beautiful way of thinking about writing about theatre: a collaboration, with the critic coming close enough to receive, and giving form to that received.

Blogging shaped a pocket in which I could give different forms to writing about performance, not only treating the form of the “review” as plastic, malleable, open to invention, but through that attempting a different kind of collaboration with its makers. I'm still finding the words for how to describe that relationship: for a while I talked of writing that honours the form of the work, by seeking to match it or mirror it or converse with it somehow. More recently I've started thinking about voice: the ways in which I'm trying to speak back to the work in something like the voice with which it spoke to me, listening so closely for its register and cadence that my writing corresponds to it but at a remove: harmony to its melody. The impulse to write comes from an encounter with that voice.

I choose to write and to think about criticism this way not because I want to resist being judgemental (although often I do), but because more and more I think the challenge of writing about theatre is to try not just to explain the mystery, but to ensure the mystery is shared and doesn't remain isolated. Because theatre is isolated: in place and time. Very few people see it. I want its voice to be heard beyond that very few. I'm interested in the question of how to stop my voice getting in the way.

That challenge has changed my reading of another passage by Berger, later in The Shape of a Pocket, that again describes the act of painting but speaks to me about criticism. He's distilled painting to two words, face and place:

Whatever the painter is looking for, he's looking for its face. … And 'its face' means what? He's looking for its return gaze and he's looking for its expression – a slight sign of its inner life. ...

A place is more than an area. A place surrounds something. A place is the extension of a presence or the consequence of an action.

How does a painting become a place? … When a place is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature and art. It is like a hollow in the sand within which the frontier has been wiped out. The place of the painting begins in this hollow.

What preoccupied me six years ago when I read this was that hollow in the sand where the frontier between nature and art, between critic and theatre-maker, between you and me, has been wiped out. But what preoccupies me now is the place that extends from that hollow, created from the encounter of the work's voice with mine. What are the parameters of that place, what are the politics, and who feels invited or permitted to inhabit it too?

Berger stopped painting because he “was attracted to the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour, their destinies and choices”. I have a difficult relationship with writing because in my early 20s I knew I'd never have the audacity or tenacity to be a writer – specifically novellist – and that's partly how I ended up becoming a theatre critic. As a blogger I've had more space in which to acknowledge the ways in which my background, education, tastes, desires, loves, secrets, frets and hurts affect the way in which I receive theatre. Often the return gaze that I see looking for the face in a performance is my own reflected: I might try to escape into theatre but I'll meet myself coming back, with all the discomfort that brings. I'm interested in how others might meet their own gaze.

When I say others what I mean is people who don't make or write about theatre, who might have all sorts of complicated thoughts about the work they see, but not a place in which to articulate them. The brilliant theatre-maker Tanuja Amarasuriya wrote about this in a provocation delivered at a festival I co-curated in 2014:

There’s an awful phrase that theatre professionals use a lot in reference to casual theatregoers: real people. “I really want to know what real people think of my work.” ... It’s a horrible term that demeans everyone; it dismisses theatre-makers as phoneys and patronises non-professionals as less informed.

Her provocation was that more people should feel part of the conversation about theatre: in the bar afterwards, in blogs, in reviews. She continued:

We need to encourage everyone to own their individual responses to art. If you’ve never talked about the way something makes you feel, and the only expressions you hear about how a piece of art makes you feel, don’t align with what you actually feel… then you might very well either keep quiet or believe you’re wrong. I don’t think it’s about hearing from real people, I think it’s about hearing from more people.

To make this concrete, Tanuja went on to describe how “talking about the work and hearing other people talk about the work” changed her father's relationship to art, encouraging him to attend, pay attention, and “influencing the way he thought about ideas and people”. This mattered, she wrote:

because my Dad comes from Sri Lanka, a country that has been riven by a brutally divisive civil war that I don’t think anyone inside, never mind outside the country has any objective perspective on. It’s a country where people I know as liberally-minded, progressive individuals suddenly become fearfully defensive and defined in opposition. It’s a community that needs more people who can appreciate that their own thinking about a particular theme can change rapidly over the space of a conversation; and more people who respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people.

In the years since Tanuja wrote this, the UK has experienced a conservative upswing triggered by the EU referendum and now I don't think it's too fanciful to describe ourselves as “a community that needs more people who can appreciate that their own thinking about a particular theme can change rapidly over the space of a conversation; and more people who respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people”. I'm thinking not just about leave vs remain, but about the toxic conversation happening now about anti-semitism, the fire burning between some cis- and trans-women. In the days that I've been writing this, Quentin Letts has been pouring tar over the RSC for casting a black actor in what he considers a white role and it's really easy, as a theatre critic writing towards social revolution, or at the very least a Labour government brave enough to redistribute wealth, restore the welfare state and redefine the narrative around immigration, to say: there's a world of difference between me and Letts. He's racist, homophobic, misogynist, classist, boorish, priggish, and writes, to quote Berger in Hold Everything Dear, by spraying “ethicides – agents that kill ethics and therefore any notion of history and justice”, in doing so destroying or making extinct “set after set of our human priorities”. I try very hard not to.

But those ethicides reach into the hollow in the sand where the frontier between nature and art, between critic and theatre-maker, between you and me, has been wiped out. How could they not? They affect the place that extends from our presence, that is the consequence of our actions. I'm thinking about the work I choose to see, the voices I choose to attend to, the voices I hear, and which I support. I'm thinking about unconscious or assumed notions of excellence, and who gets to paint or play piano every day, and of something the performance-maker Selina Thompson said in an interview with Sarah Gorman in 2017, summarising a discussion she has often with other performance-makers who are women of colour:

We talk about how lots and lots of white people, especially men, especially middle class white men, make very mediocre work. And it’s okay, it’s all right. And we talk about how I actually don’t want to make exceptional work anymore. I want to make mediocre work, and it be okay. To resist that call to ‘excel’ all the time.

I'm thinking about the phrase 'Sunday painter', and why it's not often a compliment. Who is responsible for ensuring it's not a compliment. And who has the power to change that.

The times I feel most privileged to do the work I do aren't when I get free tickets to sold-out shows, although that's a bonus, or when something I've written is praised, although that's a boost to the ego, but when I host a theatre club. I've been doing these for five years now – a very simple discussion event modelled on the book group, sometimes happening post-show, sometimes at a late point in a performance run so people can see the show in their own time then come and talk about it – and it feels symptomatic of theatre's failure – as an industry – to demonstrate any genuine interest in dialogue that the work it stages might inspire that there isn't a space like this for every work ever put on. The people who come are bus drivers, social workers, architects, administrators; they've experienced addiction, abuse, homelessness; they are young, old, religious, agnostic, of every possible background. All of them bring to theatre all the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour. They look for theatre's return gaze and often they are startled by the gaze other people have seen; they come having hated the work, and leave wanting to see it again. The place of theatre criticism, for me, begins in this hollow, within which the frontier between professional and quotidian critique has been wiped out.

I came late to Berger and now I'm slowly working my way through his books; most recently, Bento's Sketchbook. At the end, Berger offers a brief biographical sketch of Benedict Spinoza, for whom it was made, admiring “his calm, his frugality, his cheerful humour, his pertinence, and his manner of being adequate”.

I wonder what happens to theatre, to criticism, to social dialogue, if we resist the imposing voice of excellence, and celebrate instead the everyday, the Sunday painters, this manner of being adequate. I have a difficult relationship with the word expert because lack of audacity and tenacity has me most days feeling like a fraud, but then the EU referendum made that relationship more difficult still, because the word expert was sprayed – asphyxiated – with ethicides by the leave campaign and I want to distance myself from that. But there's no qualification in theatre criticism: only long years of watching and writing, by which token even Quentin Letts, who began reviewing for the Daily Mail in 2004, might rank among the experts. I wonder what happens to criticism if we describe the expertise needed to understand it differently: as an expertise in being human, alive and surviving this world, sharing its mysteries with each other.


The last painting I was working on, still unfinished when I gave up

Friday, 22 September 2017

receptivity / a constant question / a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality

This was written as a presentation paper for the conference John Berger Now, organised by Richard Turney, which took place at Canterbury Christ Church University on 12-13 September 2017. Its original title was Redrawing the Map to The Field of Performance, which I think we can all agree is pretty terrible. It was designed so that each titled section could be read in any order; on the day itself I dropped two sections to fit within the time limit. When reading it aloud to a room of academics, at least one of whom was playing solitaire on their computer, it felt like a blog post, interior in its address; reading it back to myself to publish it feels like an inert document of something that should be spoken. Maybe this between-ness, or liminality, is appropriate.



BEGINNING

I'll start with some background:

Redrawing the Maps was a five-day “free school” event dedicated to John Berger, which took place in November 2012. One of its three co-curators was writer and activist Dougald Hine, who also keeps a blog called Redrawing the Maps, in which he attempts to “make sense of the mess the world is in and what kind of actions might be meaningful in the face of that mess”. Before attending The Field of Performance, he hadn't included theatre among those actions.

Central to Redrawing the Maps was an “open invitation to anyone who wants to host or take part in a conversation, collaboration or workshop within this space”. The Field of Performance was Chris Goode's response to that invitation, and was an attempt to give shape to ideas rising like a morning mist from Berger's essay Field. It took place at Somerset House, a former tax office repurposed as a hub for art and ice-skating, on the afternoon of Friday 9 November, 2012, and the people who took part were Mary Paterson, Theron Schmidt, Karen Christopher, Jonny Liron, Gerard Bell, Gareth Kieran Jones, Tom Bailey, Kelda Holmes and, at a distance, Rajni Shah. The event was free to attend; I recognised a few theatre academics and performance-makers among the audience. I was there as a kind of double agent: mostly in an audience capacity, but also as critical writer in Chris' theatre company (although back then we called it critic-in-residence, and we're due another name change any day now). It's fairly typical of my working relationship with Chris that I'm only getting round to reflecting publicly on that afternoon now, almost five years later, even though it's been a model for the kind of rooms the company wants to live in ever since.

What follows is a haphazard collection of memories – some my own, some shared with me by others who were present, some recorded in a makeshift notebook, ungrammatical text and quick jerky sketches scrawled in a rough blue pen. It took me weeks to think of an overall title, but eventually I found one in a letter from Berger to the artist Leon Kossoff, published in The Space of a Pocket. Although this book barely mentions theatre, it was here also that I first found an image of the kind of writing about theatre I started thinking about in 2009 and began putting into practice in 2011 on joining Chris Goode & Company. Berger talks of painting as “an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears” (and what is theatre if not the visible that appears and disappears) and of the painter as “a receiver … giving form to what he has received”. He talks also of the necessity of the painter collaborating with the painted, a fraught collaboration because: “To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness.” More and more this closeness with theatre and the people who make it is the thing that I'm trying to achieve.

There was another possible title hidden in The Space of a Pocket, in Berger's description of the River Po as: “A sprawling story of regular repetitions and unpredictability.” That's my little notebook, and this reflection on The Field of Performance, in a nutshell.



PICNIC

It was like looking at a picnic it feels, a kind of untidiness that goes with that; and looking at, when I was near the edge, an ongoing re-arrangement of people, and activities; a coming together and stepping out.
                                                                                           Gerard Bell


I remember a picture frame, and two people, maybe Theron and Gareth, sitting either side of it, reaching through it, as though they were each other's reflection, as though they could be for each other a portal to another world.

I remember Karen lying beside the wooden bench – the kind of long low wooden bench used in school gymnasiums – then squeezing her body through the seemingly impossible space beneath it.

I remember the sharp loud green of a Granny Smith's apple.

I remember Jonny testing every limit of the space: questioning the handle of the locked door, framing himself within the picture windows, running his hands across their edges, his naked body rippling through the room.

I remember Jonny and Chris lying on the floor together, spoon snuggled, Chris with his arms around Jonny, and someone else, Karen perhaps, joining them on the floor, her arms wrapped around Chris.

My notes remind me that we started with a discussion of Berger's essay Field, talking about the sensation of being absorbed by details into the intricate life of a space – a space that is framed but has continuity with the space around it, which is a different way of thinking about the performance space.

My notes remind me that someone in the audience commented that there is a direct relationship between the word play, denoting a text/performance that takes place in a theatre, and playing, denoting the human activity most often engaged in by children, and later someone else returned to the point, drawing attention to the seriousness of play, how seriously children play.

My notes remind me that Karen wriggled her foot, and did something with some tea lights.

My notes remind me that we talked about the violence of the world we're living in, in which everything is commensurable, everything has a price. I recognise those words now as Berger's.

My notes remind me that Karen peeled apples and offered chunks to the audience.

My notes remind me that Mary talked about taking everything seriously, not as an interchangeable sign but for what it is.

My notes remind me that Gareth said that things don't change, the way you look at them changes.

My notes remind me that it was when Mary talked about framing (conceptually) that Theron held the picture frame (literally) in front of Gareth.

My notes remind me that Karen stretched her arms in the air and said: this is what I did in a field.

My notes remind me that someone in the audience quoted Gwen Gorden writing about play: you need to be held in order to play, need boundaries to let yourself go and surrender to something. That holding, said artist Alex Eisenberg, is what an audience does, and it enables beautiful things to happen.

One note simply reads: HOLD EVERYTHING DEAR.

My notes remind me that Kelda wrapped her arms around a small stool, and Theron wrapped his arms around the bench, and it was Karen wrapping her arms around Chris wrapping his arms around Jonny.

My notes contain the words: Jonny – small fire – smell now in room. I no longer remember if this was real or metaphorical.

My notes remind me that someone described the Bible as a review of the Jesus show.

My notes quote Berger's description of writing as dialogue, and as a way of dancing with people. I'm sad that I forgot that bit.

The final note reads: Indelible – thing once heard can never unknow.

Later, Gerard sent me another email to say:

it was like, or looked like, a creche too

which may be even closer than a picnic




POCKET

It can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light of glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.
                                                                                           John Berger
                                                                                           The Space of a Pocket


In Berger's writing – at least, the fraction I've read – those glimpses tend to come in forests, places in proximity to the eerie, or the consciousness from which humans have broken away. The room in which The Field of Performance took place was not, in its architecture, like a forest. It was a white room with wooden floorboards on the lower level of Somerset House, with an open door on one side, a sealed door on another side, possibly a mantelpiece on a third side and definitely a row of tall windows on the fourth wall. The passing of time made itself known in the darkening of the light outside those windows, petrol blue seeping across them as the world beyond the room turned to dusk. “Yet saying this implies narrative time”, as Berger remarks in Field, “and the essence of the experience is that it takes place outside time.”

But already I am drifting from the forest to the field, that landscape Berger describes as “a space awaiting events” and “an event itself”. In its ideal state, says Berger, this Field has “certain qualities in common with (a) a painting – defined edges, an accessible distance, and so on; and (b) a theatre-in-the-round stage – an attendant openness to events, with a maximum possibility for exits and entrances”.

The forest, the field, the room that was neither, with the wall of windows on one side and the open door on the other. The windows framing the activity inside for people passing by, and as the sky darkened reflecting it inwards, back to ourselves; the open door inviting participation, not only physical entry but the unconscious participation of footsteps or a conversation drifting disembodied to join us. I think of all the conferences, discussion events, “immersive theatre” I've been to held in closed rooms, with closed doors, with windows barricaded by shutters or curtains or windows not present at all. What openness to events is attendant in those spaces? What openness to improvisation, half-light or glimpses?

Describing The Field of Performance for Contemporary Theatre Review, Chris remembers:

the audience—perhaps because they were sitting around on the floor (and in the light) with us—would happily join in not just with the conversation, but also with the performance actions. They improvised in response to our responsive improvisations. I think it hadn’t been clear to many of them that ‘my’ actors were actors in the first place: so when things started to happen, a pocket of permission and encouragement was also opened.

It's useful, that word pocket. Berger defines it as: “a small pocket of resistance … formed when two or more people come together in agreement. The resistance is against the inhumanity of the new world economic order.” I have seen enough now of the industry side of theatre that its participation in that economic order is horribly apparent: the ways in which it's hierarchical, exploitative, ungenerous, silently corrupt. And yet somehow, in its side rooms, its rehearsal rooms, even on stage, I will encounter another visible order. Another kind of social organisation, expressions of the resistance Berger describes as “compassion that refutes indifference and is irreconcilable with any easy hope”.



CANDLE

Draw a candle at your end
                                               Rajni Shah


Rajni is a writer and performance-maker who describes herself on her website, accurately, as “a quiet voice of change”. When Chris began gauging interest in the event he was planning and asked his favourite writers and theatre-makers whether they would describe Berger as an influence, she responded – with more diffidence than might be implied in quotation –

Yes: because he treats language as a substance that contains movement and is intricately entwined with politics - the real politics of how we invent the world. And because he recognises – again, not just on an abstract scale, really recognises – the diverse languages at play in human thinking. Because peoples really matter in his work. And because the space of language is not separate to the space of thinking is not separate to the space of eating and walking and falling and hesitating and implying etc.

Unable to take part herself, Rajni sent many of the performers an instruction, in private, “to be used as you wish and if you wish”. To one she wrote:

Please imagine this is written on a beautiful slip of paper, in a small envelope, received in the post. It says:

Draw a candle at your end.

She shared this with me a month ago and I'm still not sure what to make of it. I have a vague feeling, somewhere deep, that the invitation is to illuminate something/other people, or to risk something of the self, and to do this in accordance with some intuition in the gut, without anxiety as to what others might think. But in truth, I don't know.

Rajni never got to see what emerged from her instructions. “I imagine a messy converging of similar gestures, some small smiles perhaps, confusion, and, hopefully, a kind of light(ness),” she wrote to me. That feels exactly right.

There were other instructions in the room, notes left by Chris as prompts for the performers whenever they felt stuck. Kelda recalled:

I read an instruction on one of Chris’ cards which said 'skin to skin', I responded by putting apple peel around my wrist as I didn’t feel comfortable applying that instruction to another human being. I was at the BAC years later and one of the ushers told me she remembered me putting the peel on my arm.

In my notebook I find a scruffy drawing of a candle.





NAKED

I remember having my back to Jonny when he took his clothes off and when I turned around it was both shocking and mundane, similar to a time I looked out of the window of a moving train and saw some people in a field, one of them was pulling a calf out of a cow that was giving birth.
                                                                                                   Kelda Holmes


It really was like that. One moment Jonny was prowling restlessly about the room; the next he was a naked body, with all the electricity and stifled giggles attendant on so much skin. There was such delight in seeing him trying to open the locked door this way, as though, having transgressed a cultural barrier, he might overcome a physical one too.

Jonny's nakedness was remarkable because he wasn't acting or performing anything, he was simply being, a being without clothes, in a room full of clothed people sitting on the floor side by side, a vision of utmost intimacy in a situation already intimate. A human body unfettered, relaxed and entirely itself: “To be naked is to be oneself,” Berger commented in Ways of Seeing. “To be naked is to be without disguise.”

Chris has written so much about the naked body in the performance space, particularly in relation to Berger's writing, that the challenge is to find my own frames of reference. The Dark Mountain Manifesto, co-written by Dougald and the writer Paul Kingsnorth in 2009, is a battle-scarred argument for a new way of telling stories about humanity, and particularly the progress named civilisation. They write:

The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation.

This “triumph”, they write, has made humans “the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on Earth”. And so Dougald and Kingsnorth reject it, “questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation” and positing instead the possibilities of “Uncivilised art”: art which

attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence;

art that is “untamed and undomesticated”,

Human, inhuman, stoic and entirely natural. Humble, questioning, suspicious of the big idea and the easy answer ... its practitioners always willing to get their hands dirty; aware, in fact, that dirt is essential.

Dougald and Kingsnorth identify Berger's writing among that art. I'd put the naked searching body of Jonny Liron there too.

It's such a simple point I'm embarrassed to make it but clothes are the front-line of civilisation: the immediate outward sign of our separation from other animals. To shed them is to return, even for a moment, to that pre-civilised existence: an existence that pre-dated shame and social judgement and all the oppressions these attitudes enabled. Jonny's nakedness tells a different story about what it is to be human together, to be brave and vulnerable, to draw the candle in a way that brings lightness but also that risks getting burned. It is another glimpse of a world order different from this one, disencumbered of false proprieties. It might not impact climate change, but in making us rethink our bodies and how they relate to each other, it might help us rethink our relationship with nature too.



DREAMS

My memories of the event are quite hazy, which I think is appropriate, as I want to think it was a hazy event - with indeterminate boundaries, and fluid perceptions, in which I was sometimes looking at things from outside of them and sometimes from inside. I have a memory of wooden stumps that we sat on, but in my memory they also became a long log, and somehow one of us was inside the log while the others were sitting on it. I also remember there being curtains on the windows, or the light fading outside them, or somehow being aware of what separated what we were doing there from everything that was outside, and feeling two different things at once: wanting that separation to be erased, so that everything outside would rush in, and at the same time wanting to keep what we were doing precious and safe, delicate as it was, in the way we were listening and caring for each other, knowing we had given this much time and this much space to be held within.
                                                                                         Theron Schmidt


Everything in Theron's description of The Field of Performance makes it sound like a dream. The haziness, the ways in which objects shift purpose, that feeling of sometimes looking at things from outside of them and sometimes from inside. Earlier in 2012, the performance-maker Andy Field wrote a manifesto for the making of political theatre, and dedicated one section, called Dreams, to Chris. He asked:

Could theatre be a place in which ideas
Are made out of bodies
Breathing together
Moving around each other
Nonsensical scenarios
Nightmares
Fantasies
In which we think not by listening
But by doing
Together
Figuring out a way of living
In the shapes that form in the space between us
Out of chaos
And play
And possibilities
A theatre that is actually, properly dream-like
Because it feels like a real life
That we might be living
But aren’t
Yet

The Field of Performance itself began with a dream. Or perhaps I'm taking too literally something Chris wrote to Theron, Mary, Karen, Rajni and me three weeks before it took place:

I'm dreaming of a space that is at one and the same time a conversation and a performance workshop. Wondering whether, say, Mary and Theron and I might be able to explore discursively some ideas arising (quite personally for us) from Berger, and how those ideas might be refracted productively through theatre/performance; and whether a small group of performers, perhaps including you Karen, might respond in real-time as that conversation unfolds. Such that the conversation and the improvised performance would quite easily start to bleed into and around each other, with neither, in the end, leading the other.

Contrary to Andy's notion of a dream in which “we think not by listening but by doing”, what The Field of Performance achieved was a thinking that was at once doing and listening. A space in which doing was made possible by listening. And maybe it did this by being a space in which the lines between waking and sleeping were blurred: “I liked falling asleep at one point,” Kelda wrote to me in remembering, “and drawing whilst a poem/writing was read aloud.” Chris wrote to us all the day after it happened:

what we made together was probably closer than I've ever got to the kind of space I wish we were making all the time: talky but also listeny; thoughtful but also playful; serious-minded but fun; self-conscious but sincere; diverse but not scattered. ... And a space in which it was possible to actually go to sleep for a few moments: which I did and it was lovely.

Berger writes about “that state between waking and dreaming” in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos: “What distinguishes this state from that of full wakefulness is that there is no distance between word and meaning. It is the place of original naming.” I think of the bank under construction on my local high street, the advertising slogan emblazoned on its hoarding: “Join the revolution”. In the place of original naming, language belongs to nature again, language becomes again true. This language, for me, is always Berger's subject, even when he's writing of art. He looks at paintings, and people, closely enough to hear them: their pulse, their electric crackle. This he translates into words – the words, as he writes in Hold Everything Dear – of “multitudinous, disparate, sometimes disappearing, languages, with whose vocabularies a sense can be made of life”.

Seeing becomes listening becomes doing but also dreaming. As Karen wrote to Chris, of how Berger has influenced her as a theatre-maker: “I think my response to him is physical. I remember specific descriptions of motion and behaviour that changed the way I understood the reading of human beings. His active observations of any and every thing gave me permission to fall into reveries of absorption.”

And through listening, doing, dreaming, describing, reading, permitting and falling into reverie, we find new ways to shape the life we might be living, rehearse its possibilities, and give it the breath of our lungs.





SHAME

I was initially thrown by the word liminality, a word I hadn't previously come across. In fact throughout the event I was torn between drawing attention to my personal confusion and trying to go with the flow. It reminded me of being a child at an adults' dinner party, where you feel awkward, curious, out of your depth, marginalised and intermittently bold.
                                                                                                     Kelda Holmes


If you had asked me at the time how I felt about The Field of Performance, it might have sounded like that. Or like this, from someone who asked to stay anonymous:

When I think about it now I have an aching sense of guilt and shame that I revealed myself to be an idiot who doesn't understand John Berger in a room full of people who are the opposite to both those things.

I recognise those feelings. I sat in the cafe with Chris and the team after it finished quietly holding my own shame as close to my chest as I could, trying to pay attention to the conversation while counting off on mental fingers all the stupid things I'd said. In particular I was kicking myself for an observation I'd made about the windows. We were talking about the relationships between theatre and society / theatre and self, and it occurred to me that – like the windows, still transparent, but made opaque and so reflective in the gloaming – theatre does both at once: lets you look through to others simultaneous to mirroring some truth of you. And then one voice after another rejected that idea. I quote a couple of them in my notebook: I don't want to see myself on stage, performance-maker Alex Eisenberg remarked, but to feel myself in a room with a bunch of people.

Those feelings of guilt and shame – as my correspondent went on to acknowledge – say “more about me than about anything or anyone else”. They're certainly at odds with Dougald's description of the event. He recalls:

A spirit of conviviality and hospitality, playful and serious, creating a space where it was safe to speak thoughts that were still half-finished, without the fear that your words will be used against you.

It's transpired since that the window/mirror thought was a half-finished one that's stuck. I relate it now to the ways in which Berger looks at painting – anything really – seeing both the skin of the thing, every pore and filigree hair, and penetrating through to the nervous system beneath. But then I realise I'm comparing myself with Berger and the shame kicks in once more.



THE ENDING THAT ISN'T

Wonderfully, when it was time for the performance to end, we knew it and our audience didn’t. And so, one by one, we in the company slipped away, off to the cafe for a post-show debrief and a cup of tea. When the last of us left, the audience were still performing to each other. None of us actors know how the performance ended. None of us ever does.
                                                                                                Chris Goode
                                                                                                Contemporary Theatre Review


We slipped away like rabbits disappearing into hedgerow or sprites melting back into trees. Mary and Dougald are the last names recorded in my notes, talking about the ways in which theatre and performance are documented and/or reviewed. The bullet points read:

writing about theatre doesn't replace the thing
easy for the writing to replace the work
text as choreographer's notation of experience of knowing
another choreographer can use to create another version

When I sent around a general request for stories from that day, Mary responded: “Do you know, I don't remember much about this, other than the fact that somebody got naked, which Ross [her partner] joked about later.”

As someone who has come to write about theatre as it lives in the memory, rather than recording what I saw as soon as possible after seeing it, I'm endlessly fascinated by the fragility and fallibility of memory, the ways in which the remembered merges with other memories, encounters and experiences, transforming that single night in the theatre into a longer strand, curled in spirals, of life. I'm telling you this about Mary not only to acknowledge that The Field of Performance didn't strike everyone in the room equally, although that's true, but because of its relationship to something said to me by Dougald, in response to the same request:

With spaces and projects like that, if they must be subject to 'evaluation', then this should consist of a storyteller being sent around, years later, to visit the people who were there and collect the stories of things that have happened since that would not have happened, had that group of people not found themselves in that room on that afternoon.

As I said at the beginning, when Dougald came to The Field of Performance, he had little relationship with theatre. Two or three years later, having moved to Sweden, he became head of artistic development at Rikstheatern, Sweden's national touring theatre, with a remit to consider the ways in which theatre-makers might address and inspire action against environmental catastrophe. More recently, on a brief residency in London, he invited political activists, economic change-makers and theatre-makers to a series of conversations on the art of the impossible: how we might regard the seemingly impossible happening (the resurgence, at mainstream level, of fascist ideology) as an opportunity to make other impossible things happen – the collape of neoliberalism, say. He sees theatre as a vital tool in this, not least in bringing neoliberalism to social account. Dark Mountain is on the surface of those shifts in his work – but I'd argue that The Field of Performance was the mulch beneath.

Similarly, in 2013 Mary contacted me about a project she was dreaming up, which eventually she called Something Other. It would be a website that attempted to think differently about writing in relation to performance, what writing is doing when it translates and transcribes live experience, and how writing might function differently online. Mary and I have been shaping Something Other ever since, and last year, with Diana Damian Martin, developed a companion project, The Department of Feminist Conversations. I like to say that these are inter-related projects that think politically about performance and performatively about politics. Neither Mary nor I remember the other being in the room for The Field of Performance. “The inability to remember is itself perhaps a memory,” Berger writes of childhood forgetting in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Mary and I haven't needed that first memory because we have been building on it ever since.

Chris Goode & Company tried, in October 2013, to host a similar gathering: a full-day symposium around a work Chris was trying to make called Albemarle. We told the story behind the work (genuinely the narrative came from a dream Chris had had, in that state between waking and sleeping), showed a little of what the company had been rehearsing, offered workshops in movement and sign language, and most of all invited conversation. If the result was off-key, discordant in some elusive but insistent way, I think it's because our motives weren't totally pure. We had something to sell at this gathering/symposium: we wanted people to buy into the idea of Albemarle, because that way we we might access the money needed to get it on stage.

The writing of Berger reminds us – as he says of Hieronymous Bosch – that

the first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world-picture implanted in our minds and all the false promises used everywhere to justify and idealise the delinquent and insatiable need to sell. Another space is vitally necessary.

The Field of Performance was that other space. In offering nothing more than a room in which people might think, talk, listen, do, get naked, sleep, eat apples, draw candles, squeeze under benches, play or be playful together, it became a space out of time, a glimpse of another world order in which theatre is not a transaction but a way of telling stories, untamed and undomesticated stories, to each other. This isn't so much a story of that afternoon as notes towards another version, a redrawn map pointing to another field of performance: a proliferation of fields perhaps, reaching to the horizon and beyond.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Eleven kinds of loneliness (for Annie Siddons, with love)






The loneliness of professional envy

Theatre is such a gift for the socially incompetent. You get to spend entire evenings in the company of fascinating, talented people, without having to worry about making a fool of yourself the moment you open your mouth. I’m most usually alone when I see work, but somehow I knew that Annie Siddons’ How (Not) To Live in Suburbia would be a show I’d want to share. And not with just anyone: with my two closest female, mum, struggling with the whole being middle-aged and married thing, friends, both of whom live in London's sprawling suburbia and have variegated feelings about it. It was February 2017 when we saw it, in Soho’s Upstairs Theatre, and as I sit down to write this I’m wondering what exactly I remember of it. Beyond the sensation of wanting to hide how I cried, even from these people I love so, surreptitiously cupping my chin to catch the tears before they spilled on my clothes.

And of course I wanted to write about the show straight away, but I saw it at the end of another fucking school holiday (my god they roll around so frequently) and had an impossible accumulation of other work to do. At least, that's the story I told myself. The real problem was that I could still – can still now – hear in my head what Megan Vaughan had written when she saw the show in January 2016. The way she described the sunset in London that night, the flagrant colours of the sky. The way she wrote about what London means to her, the decision to leave everyone she knew and had grown up with to live here, the ways in which my birth city has made her grow different. Her description of the northern line as her black aorta. I couldn't remember what aorta meant and when I looked it up I felt like such an imbecile.

The loneliness of the engaged tone

About a month ago Meg interviewed me as part of her PhD on theatre fan-writing/criticism and asked me if I feel part of a community doing this work. And I was surprised by how quickly and vehemently I replied that I don't. It's so many things: feeling older, and unaffiliated, and unable to keep pace either with the performance schedule or other writers or the juggle of different strands of work that also serve to sever, but most of all feeling recurrently disappointed by how hard it is to maintain a sense of connection and sorority in a city as frantic as this, that breathes in ambition and breathes out individualism. I keep trying to collaborate with others, to be social, to open up pockets of space in which people, a community, might meet. But it's a struggle, and mostly I feel like I fail.

The loneliness of worrying that you never get to the point, because you spend so much time mithering, and perhaps haven't really a point to make

Shall I tell you something about Annie Siddons?

Yes, that would be nice.

The loneliness of living in suburbia when urbia isn't just what you're used to but defines your very being

Annie Siddons lives in suburbia. Twickenham Home of Rugby, to be precise. She says it like that, with a twinkle, every time – except when she abbreviates it to THoR, which is somehow even more deflating, a cartoon swipe at rugby's deification of masculinity. Intermittently rugby fans descend on Twickenham in a deluge for a few hours of rumbustious drinking, and then the rugby leaves and Twickenham exhales and returns to its more placid state, as a leafy, prim, somewhat conservative kind of place, where the schools are good, the people are friendly...

What Siddons does is pick at that surface, to show that a place like Twickenham isn't quite as accommodating as it might be. As far as THoR's concerned she's an outsider – not just a newcomer, or an urbanite, but a woman of Greek/Egyptian background, which still (I suspect, having said goodbye to suburbia almost 20 years ago) matters. Plus she's a single mother, and we all know how kindly they've been looked on in the wider Tory culture over the past seven years. So while people make advances – there's the married neighbour who makes a pass at her, for instance – they do so in a way that makes clear her otherness as an exotic creature who works in The Arts. When you can't even join the local book group because you've been deemed too different, something is clearly up.

The loneliness of choosing to sacrifice what you want for the sake of your kids but refusing to let yourself define it as sacrifice because come off it with the language of martyrdom already

Siddons lives in suburbia because she moved there with her husband and two daughters and when they divorced she decided to stay because London is neither heaving with trustworthy schools nor affordable for a single parent, let alone a freelance theatre-maker with a career gap for motherhood. And anyway, all the divorce manuals (I'm told) say that when children are experiencing the destabilisation of the relationship they've taken for granted since birth, the blow can be marginally softened by at least maintaining stability in their physical environment.

Without going into detail, Siddons reveals that one of her daughters has a chronic health condition acute enough that intermittently she needs hospitalisation; meaning that among the concatenation of stressful and isolating events detailed in the show is another bout of child illness, which Siddons has to support and bear alone. The impression me and my friends get is that this is one of the reasons underlying the divorce; meaning that in an earlier version of this post, I wrote some violently rude things about her former husband. which I said I wouldn't apologise for but now wish I could. Our assumption is that he left her, but we're wrong; I'm not sure what this says about the baggage we brought into that theatre, the feelings we bear towards husbands, men, generally. Except I do, of course. They're equivocal.  

The loneliness of feeling so crowded by others' needs and demands that you don't have space to think

Now I've started writing about it the whole show is unfolding before me again – not specific quotes, much as I'd like them to, but the shape and measure and timbre of it: the steady way Siddons details her accruing isolation; the tragicomic films in which every attempt to reach for the starriness of London only leads back to the gutter outside her front garden; nips of laughter as she makes lists of promise then all too soon crumples them into balls of regret. The carefully planned birthday that goes awry, with Siddons alone on the razzle in Soho, screaming at her friends down the phone. The repeated attempts to write, to write, but nothing working out how she wants it to. The bodies of the Walrus of Loneliness and, later, his twin Seal of Shame pressing closer and closer to her, not just metaphors but physical manifestations of the feelings tightening her veins, squeezing her lungs until she can't breathe. She holds it all with such lightness, uses her body double (the brilliant Nicky Hobday) to give herself enough distance to be wry, but I remember now what it was that made me cry so much, the clay-clag sadness at the heart of it all.

The loneliness so deep-rooted, lived with so long, that it's not even recognisable, except that it is

I might have told these stories before on here; if so apologies for doing it again. When I was 12, after maybe three years of moving from flat to flat, my mum got in her car and started driving north from Dalston, looking for a house cheap enough to buy. She tried and failed in Tottenham, Edmonton, Enfield, before finally landing at a place called Waltham Cross, where the A10 running arrow straight from Liverpool Street into Hertfordshire intersects with London's orbital, the M25. We spent the next 10 years in suburbia and never felt at home. Back then we were about as ethnic as our street got; there was one Sunday morning when my dad, grown so exasper-infuriated by the neighbours' barely concealed racism, opened the front door, pulled one of the stereo speakers into the front garden, put a Greek album on the turntable and turned the volume to full. “They want to talk about us, I'll give them something to fucking talk about,” he fumed.

I figured out how to neck a boy in suburbia, but not how to make friends: I was still going to school in London, and didn't fancy joining in with the speed gang my brother was part of up the road. The one female friend I almost made stole my vinyl copy of Madonna's True Blue album and never spoke to me again. I realise as I'm writing this why someone said to me recently that I sound like I was lonely as a young person. I'd never thought of my teen years that way and didn't know what to say.

“I've never thought of myself as lonely before. But I think that's it. I think that's what I've been feeling.”

That's – as exactly as I remember it – what my friend {a} said as we walked out of Soho theatre and meandered down to the Curzon for a drink. {a} and I met in my Waltham Cross years, wholly by chance: we'd caught eyes at a couple of shoegazey gigs, but at the second one I got distracted by a boy, who happened to go to her brother's school, so when she spotted me at a third gig she came and said hello and we've been devoted to each other ever since. We've supported each other through university, and meeting the people who became our husbands, and becoming mothers to older daughters and younger sons; through the struggle to find work, and to feel fulfilled in our work, and to balance our work with the demands of parenting, and to balance our work with our husbands' work which, because the pay is higher and the hours more solid, always takes precedence; through frustration and boredom and, it turns out, loneliness.

I love that response she had to the show, because I love the ways in which theatre reaches into the deepest part of the self and pulls open the door you've been keeping not just shut but barricaded with furniture and flotsam, and in shining a light on those feelings – the light of shared experience – makes them, for a moment, easier to bear.

I didn't say any of that to her on the night, though. Somehow I couldn't find the words.

The loneliness of feeling like you don’t know how to talk, even to the people you love most

So that was one of the friends who came to the show with me; the other was my beloved friend [z], who I met when already married, and her daughter and mine were at the same nursery, although she's since been priced out of the area and now lives in Crystal Palace – making the same move as my mum but south instead of north. From the outside, I'd say that there are clear advantages to her life in a suburban cul-de-sac over mine: her kids can and frequently do disappear unaccompanied to the neighbours' houses, there's always someone ready to recommend a local plumber, she's often telling me about community events she's been involved in. But the truth is, I wouldn't swap with her for a minute: when I walked out of Waltham Cross for the last time, with my bag balanced on a skateboard that refused to balance me, I made a promise to myself never again to live outside of zone 2. (The advantage of being this old is that I am old enough for this to have been possible.) And [z] would be back in Stockwell in a heartbeat if she could. She's another one for whom urbia defines her very being: the hustle of it (she's one of my more pro-capitalism friends), the vibrancy of it, particularly the abundance of it, all the theatre and art and food and music and life.

Unlike {a}, [z] didn't recognise, or at least feel personally, the emotion palette of loneliness in the show. Depression, yes; disappointment and anger regarding husbands, yes; but not the loneliness, that was alien. We sat at the Curzon and [z] and {a}, who hadn't met before, bonded over alcohol and shared frustrations, while I quietly busied myself with barricading that door again. Two weeks later [z] told me she had decided to divorce. Everything that has happened to her since has encouraged me to be considerably more careful with my marriage.

The loneliness of lying in a hotel room with the people you made and the person you made them with, sobbing, but silently, because they were arguing for something like an hour before they slept and waking them by accident would be a disaster

The middle-class heteronormative summer holiday is a fucking abomination, isn't it? At least, so it seemed as we trudged up an urban slope in Naples, sticky with heatwave sweat and the accumulated grime of a long-neglected dirt-encrusted city, nine days of arguing behind the four of us and three more to go. It's our fault, I guess, for swapping city for sprawling, mismanaged, brutally inequitable city instead of beach: but then we even managed to argue on seaside days, hurling insults at each other more stinging than the salt, grittier than the sand. We're not very good as a family at giving each other space or solitude. When we got back home I unpacked the suitcases, packed the kids into bed, sat down at the computer and didn't get up again until 2.30am. An aloneness that is the very opposite of loneliness.

On one of those days in Naples I tried to start reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets. But it's a book that needs space, and solitude, not just in the external environment but internally, in the mind, and after five pages I gave up and moved on to one of my daughter's books instead. It's called Wonder, by RJ Pallacio, and {a} had recommended it to me just before the holidays: she loves it because she recognises in it an extreme version of her own experience. {a} has scars that run from her chin all the way down her neck, scars that I stopped seeing so many years ago it surprised me when she mentioned them again; and August, the boy at the centre of Wonder, was born with a genetic mutation that particularly affects his face. So she knows what it is to have people stare at you, and be freaked out by you, and want to know if you were burned in a fire, as happens to August. Those scars have so much to do with the loneliness that {a}, for most of her life, has felt as depression and insecurity.

Before I had to abandon Bluets, I came across this paragraph:

I admit I may have been lonely. I know that loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, if it stays hot enough for long enough, can begin to simulate, or to provoke – take your pick – an apprehension of the divine.

Instead of going to beaches in Rome and Naples, we took the children to churches. Dozens of them, florid affairs, with painted ceilings and marble floors and art commissioned from the leading artists of the time: sculptures by Bernini, paintings by Caravaggio, technically flawless, ravishing.

Those Caravaggios were my salvation, my access to solitude amid the divine.

The loneliness of aching to go home only to return home and realise that home is a thing of the past, you watched it being dismantled piece by piece and did nothing to save or protect it and now you can never go home any more

In that 12 days' absence from London an abomination has occurred on my local high street. New hoardings next door to the library – I library I know we're lucky still to have – announce the imminent arrival of a branch of Metro Bank, convoy to the branch less than two miles away. Although it’s an American bank, the hoarding is a distinctly Thatcherite shade of blue. Running along the bottom of it, in letters the red of fresh blood, is the recurring slogan LIVE THE REVOLUTION.

And I don't know what's worse. Is it that nothing in this city, this city swarmed by bankers and estate agents, property investors and tax evaders and Home Counties trust funds, is sacred any more? Or is it the ease with which meaning is cleaved from kind words, leaving the language degraded?

The loneliness of trying to do your best but knowing your best isn’t good enough

Maggie Nelson is one of the two writers I'm most obsessed with, by which I mean want to write like, at the moment; the other is Claudia Rankine. Each of them identifies as poet but what I've read is poetic prose; a prose lapidarian and gimlet, compacted to the point of becoming diamond while still with the nourishing softness of earth. Neither gives sway to unnecessary words: that's the quality I most want to learn from them. Focus and precision.

Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely is devastating: a fragile torch held up against the appalling darkness of this world, a darkness that expands in every direction, untrammelled. A darkness in which people are deprived of medications because money, or prescribed medications because money, or rendered invisible because money, or treated as less than human, in fact precisely not-human, because money. There is power in this illumination but fragility too, because hope is precarious and humanity's capacity to invent new methods of exploitation and control is terrifying and incalculable. Because to live in this darkness at all seems impossible, and yet we do, and keep doing.

At her most clipped Rankine writes:

Define loneliness.
Yes.
It's what we can't do for each other.
What do we mean to each other?
What does a life mean?
Why are we here if not for each other?

In those three questions is all the struggle of my relationship with – well, everyone, but above all my children, and at the deepest myself. I realise as I'm writing this why someone said to me recently that I sound like I am lonely now. Only I haven't been thinking of it as loneliness. I've been thinking of it as shame.

The loneliness of fretting in the late hours and the overstretched hours and the indolent dilatory hours whether writing about theatre is the right thing to be doing, and whether it's the writing bit or the theatre bit that's the problem

The last two paragraphs, each isolated within their own page, of Don't Let Me Be Lonely read:

Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem – is how Rosemary Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.

Or one meaning of here is “In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,” or in other words, I am here. It also means to hand something to somebody – Here you are. Here, he said to her. Here both recognises and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.

Isn't this precisely what happens in theatre – the best theatre – the theatre that engages its audience in dialogue even when presented as a monologue from the stage, the dialogue whose extents and limitations I am constantly questioning and seeking? In that moment of my friend {a} recognising her own loneliness in Siddons' loneliness, hearing its name, I see a hand extended and a hand receiving. I see a conflation of two same presences, and I see how theatre – and the act of talking and writing about it – has everything, everything, to do with being alive.

But that apprehension, too, can produce a lonely kind of feeling.