Thursday, 26 January 2012

my head's in a haze

You'd think I'd have Shrew out of my system by now, but apparently not. I wrote the last post much too quickly, hurling it out before moving on to the next thing, so it's super-scrappy and missed out whole strands of argument, many of which emerged in the comments on the piece in G2. The one that has particularly bugged me is the idea that Petruchio does Katherine a favour: he shows her that to treat people violently, to thrash out at others not necessarily indiscriminately, but as an externalised expression of your own self-loathing, is unacceptable and merely reinforces your own unhappiness. It's one thing for her to tie up her sister's hands and clout her: that's what siblings are for (spoken like a true older sister). But Kate also smashes a lute over Hortensio's head, is unable to express herself other than rudely, demands respect from her father while showing none. Lisa Dillon was good on this: she thinks what Katherine achieves with Petruchio is “a growth and a maturity. She's disgracefully immature to begin with. Most of the time she deserves what she gets [ie the epithets of shrew and mad], because she's fuelling it all the time. But she finds a place of balance, for the first time ever in her life, because of this man.”

Approach the play with this understanding and you can read Petruchio's violence completely differently: as a show, designed to make Katherine rethink her own behaviour. Nichola McAuliffe suggests (and I think she's right, that it's there, if subtly, in the text) that Petruchio's servants are bewildered by his erratic, pugnacious behaviour: he doesn't usually treat them this way, and the point of him doing so is to reflect Katherine back at herself. And it works: Katherine, in standing up for the servants, begins to appreciate the value of respect. She finds in herself calm, and patience, and a kind of gratitude: she realises how much in life she has taken for granted before now. If Petruchio has killed something in her, it's her toxic rage at the world – and only kindness could assuage that. There was something lovely Kathryn Hunter said: Katherine's story is “the journey of a person who's learned how to play again”. To begin with, “she's rebelling against the kind of constraints that are expected of her, to get married and to conform, she's hitting against that and is angry with everyone, to the extent that she's lost her sense of humour. I think something happens in their relationship, it suddenly clicks and she gets it back, and then she's able to love him and say, 'So you want me to play that game? OK, I'll play it.' She finds a freedom within constraints. She finds freedom.” It's the freedom of happiness and security; OK, it's the freedom of a traditionally structured marriage, where Petruchio is her “keeper”, but 400-odd years ago, that was pretty much the best a woman could hope for.

I'm starting to feel like Shrew is an itch that will never sufficiently be scratched. So I'm going to stop – although first, there was something else that came out of the piece that has troubled me a lot. The day it was published I had an email from Tim Crouch, querying the assumptions projected by my throwaway comment that Bailey's production is the third from the RSC in a decade, fourth if you count his adaptation for young people. We had both agreed, while chatting on the phone, that it was really sad that only Dominic Cavendish had reviewed his production, and that this was symptomatic of the lack of value placed on work for children and teenagers. And the way I'd phrased myself, it looked as though I was collaborating in the same devaluation that I usually bemoan. I've been feeling entirely ashamed of myself: I knew I was being glib even as I wrote it, and Tim was absolutely right to call me on it.

Believe it or not, I've been thinking about stuff other than Shrew over the past week. I've been mulling on L'Immediat, which I saw at the Barbican with Lyn Gardner, and probably really annoyed her with all my fidgeting. I found the show exhausting, really draining to watch. The first sequence – Matt Trueman made a point similar to this – is like the entirety of Michael Frayn's Noises Off condensed into 10 minutes of stomach-churning chaos. When one of the performers started scrambling up a tower of cardboard boxes that I hadn't even noticed, despite it reaching up to the lighting rig, I instinctively pushed myself right back into my chair to brace myself against its inevitable collapse. Where I disagree with Matt is in finding the rest of the show a deflation of that first sequence. What follows is quieter, but all the more desperate for it. There is an extraordinary, devastating scene when the cast attempt to re-set the stage, and someone's arm emerges from the rubble. It's as though we're seeing the survivor of an earthquake, or a bomb, reaching out for help, praying to be saved – but instead of pulling the person out, the rest of the cast merely shrug and pile furniture above the trapped body, higher and higher, until what they've created is a pyre (let's burn humanity at the stake!), a tower of landfill (see the detritus of materialism!), a curiously hopeful – because it is secure, this structure, it's architecturally sound – sculpture constructed from the flotsam and jetsam of our lives (not dissimilar to the exhilarating, and themselves farcical, creations of Phyllida Barlow). With newspapers full of images of the Costa Concordia lying on its side in the sea, it was hard to watch the tilting sequence – slowly, deliberately, everything on stage, furniture and bodies and black satin curtains and lights and props, is tilted to the same 30-degree angle – and not think of sinking ships. The agonising, funny in a toe-curling way, sketch of people fighting to reach a plastic bottle, struggling against their own refractory bodies, competing and losing and yet never allowing themselves to be defeated, had the clang of Beckett about it: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” For all its humanity, it's an oddly inhumane piece, furiously demanding of its performers, so precisely choreographed that you're loathe to blink in case you miss a detail, even if that detail exposes the fragility of the timing, the vulnerability of the enterprise. My exhaustion was that of undivided attention; I found it draining because, for all the laughter, it is a relentlessly sorrowful work.

It's been a good week for extracurricular activities, too. I've made an infinitesimally small leap – more of a nudge, really – towards finally fulfilling some sewing projects, with progress on the all-new basic pattern block, designed to fit perfectly my all-new, still surprising, occasionally demoralising, post-childbearing shape. I've tried out another basic, this one from the awe-inspiring Pattern Magic books, and my Mum, who is herself a magician with patterns, from a combination of experience and formidable instinct, gave me a hand with the fitting over Christmas. There is such quick, calm efficiency about her as she folds and creases the paper to shift the darts and eliminate excess fabric; the process is as delicate, transparent, yet mystifying, as origami. On Tuesday I cut out a toile from the edited pattern; if it fits then I'll be all set for the 40s/50s dress-making class that starts next term.

Tap class, which started three weeks ago, is unspeakably brilliant. I spend the entire time there giddy and grinning and glowing fuchsia-pink, partly because it's bloody hard and I'm always getting the steps wrong (I have no instant aptitude for intricate, particularly repetitive, body movements; I had the same problem trying to play guitar when I was a teenager, although back then I had no patience for practice, either: at least I've now acquired that), partly because it's surprisingly good exercise. My route home takes me past Crazy for You, which I saw in December: it was so adorable, cheerful and spirited and depression-defying (the narrative itself is, plus I had only just left the Actionettes), that I left feeling almost effervescent and started looking for tap classes the next day. Somewhat unfortunately, the route also takes me past the Delauney; I sidled in yesterday and am relieved to report that the coconut and pineapple dacquoise didn't taste quite as good as it looked: the pineapple puree was too sweet, and made the bottom layer of coconut macaroon soggy where it should have been crisp. There's still the cheesecake and the sachertorte to try before I dismiss the place outright, but chances are moderate that it won't become a weekly compulsion, which would be ruinous in more ways than one. It's bad enough that I can't go within 200 paces of Maison Bertaux without popping in for a macaroon. I did, however, exceedingly enjoy eating the dacquoise while waiting for the bus, licking every smudge of cream from my fingers, standing outside Boots, directly in front of a large advertisement for half-price weight-watching products. It's the little things in life …

Lots of musical activity this week, too. I finally listened to the new Andrew Bird and it's exquisite, so here's a song from that:

and the Laura Gibson album, La Grande: she's not someone I've paid much attention to before, but this song is brilliant, all shooting stars and Amazon queens and wild animals prowling through the undergrowth:

After a lot of avoiding him, because on first listen (several months ago) he honestly just seemed scary, I suddenly clicked with DM Stith, and had an especially heady moment with Fire of Birds, so here's that:

A breakthrough, too, with Wilco's The Whole Love, which I'd shaken hands with a couple of times last year, but hadn't taken the time to chat to: I don't think it will ever be a close friend like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Summerteeth, but we'll keep in touch.

Honestly, no wonder I was accused this week of knowing nothing about Motown. It's in the comments below my review of Martha Reeves, a show I really tried to be positive about, but failed. I suspected disaster might be afoot when I went to the toilets before the show began and there were leopard-print tiles on the walls. One unexpected consequence of reading How To Be a Woman is that I now have a disquieting desire for a leopard-print coat (page 215, number one on the list of fashion rules: Leopardskin is a neutral. Oh, the power of suggestion). I thought it was a vague fancy that could be easily silenced, but then I met up with the magical Betty Clarke and wore hers (vintage, an ebay buy, calf-length, very luxurious, but the fur was the softest, palest grey colour – I'd ruin it within minutes) and the desire became all-consuming. Of course, when a thought like that enters your brain, you become weirdly possessed (OK, maybe it's just me): now it seems everywhere I go I spot another one. Mostly they are too short, too straight, too modern-looking, so clearly I'm going to have to make my own. The picture I have in my mind is knee-length, fitted to the waist but flaring out, with a big, sweeping collar. I've sewn with leopard-print fake fur before, making a cave-woman frock for an Actionettes show in Benidorm (a multitude of don't asks), and it's blessedly easy, primarily because it doesn't fray. Knowing me, the coat will be ready just in time for summer in 2016.

Anyway, it was fine seeing leopard-print coats everywhere, but the minute I saw these leopard-print tiles I remembered that hilarious, terrifying riff in Mark O'Rowe's coruscating Howie the Rookie, about the – was it American Indian? South American? - people who believe that your death will be presaged by some vision that will inexorably present itself to you once, twice, thrice, its import unknown until death deals its fatal blow. Like I say, I'm susceptible – and the leopard-print tiles made me pause, and shiver, just slightly.

I won't repeat what I thought of Martha's singing, there's no need. Still, one good thing did come of that show. When she played Heatwave, it was all I could do to stop myself leaping out of my chair and doing what's affectionately known in the Actionettes' camp as the Brucie; when she started demonstrating the pony and the swim and the mashed potato and the funky chicken, my heart began to ache and wouldn't stop. The truth is, the past two months of not being an Actionette have been miserable, and they haven't even been doing that much. So, I've rejoined. Yay! In celebration, here is a completely ridiculous video of go-go girls: it's from a Greek film, whose name translates, splendidly, as Ah That's My Wife.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

vanity project 5: the taming of the shrew

Even at interview stage, I knew my piece for G2 on The Taming of the Shrew was going to strain at the limits of its word count and demand extra space here. There were so many contradictions to wade through and attempt to resolve; even people who seemed essentially to agree didn't agree in quite the same way. It's not a play I've seen in a major production, and although I'm sure I reviewed it on the fringe once for Time Out, I don't remember anything about that show. I re-read it a few days before starting to interview and initially struggled to see why it's considered such a problem, at least in terms of the characteristics deemed problematic: I couldn't see the brutality, the disgusting misogyny. The way Baptista favours one daughter over another is obviously repulsive, but that's about bad parenting, not the sanctity of the male hegemony. As I read on, however, lines kept snagging me: I simply didn't know which way to take them. Petruchio's capricious behaviour on his wedding day felt incomprehensible, as did his sleep/food deprivation plan. When Katherine tells him she will henceforth call the sun the moon, or any blessed thing he might choose, I couldn't tell if the voice I heard in my head was wry and amused or weary and resigned. And her final speech, reminding wives that they owe their husbands a duty of “love, fair looks and true obedience”, made me shiver. When I got married, the ceremony text was perfunctory and words such as obey were significantly absent. Katherine's speech may celebrate mutual respect, but it's a respect founded on, in Petruchio's words, a sense of the “awful rule and right supremacy” that put men at the head of the family and women at their feet.

Talking to people who have staged the play and played the roles exploded my idea of it wide open. I found myself in total sympathy with those who understand Shrew as a love story: an uneasy, inscrutable, passionate depiction of what it is to link your hand to someone else's and, no matter how much life buffets you, never let go. Something I wanted to get into the piece, but had to edit out at writing stage, was how even people who have performed in violent productions that present Petruchio as a misogynist felt unconvinced by that interpretation. Michelle Gomez, talking about Conall Morrison's contentious 2008 production for the RSC, said his reading “made sense to me academically and intellectually”, but also felt too emphatic in its relentless violence. “There has to be some humour injected into that dynamic between Kate and Petruchio and we worked very hard to take it out,” she said. “I think we were working against it – I think it's in there.”

Her words echoed what Tim Crouch (lovely, lovely Tim Crouch, whom I didn't even manage to fit into the finished piece) and David Farr said. Talking about that tricky sun and moon exchange, Tim said: “She decides to play with him, so they play together. I don't think she acquiesces: she joins in and that feels like they find an equality.” And on Kate's final speech: “To ironise it, or to deliver it as an act of coercion seems to go against the quality of the words.” Farr, too, felt: “If you go for the ending that is purely punitive and pessimistic, I think you're fighting an inherent spirit in the writing. If you just play the negative, ie she is now just a bullied subservient housewife figure, that may work intellectually but it's not what's actually happening emotionally.”

But what is actually happening? The fascinating thing is that, beyond the consensus that it's a love story, there is no proper consensus – and if some of the misogyny camp suspect they're bending the play one way, some of the love people confess they're bending it another. There was something Lucy Bailey said, when talking about how Petruchio dominates the second half, and Kate is constantly in reaction, that struck me: “If you played it just as it was on the page, the play would tip very quickly into all the difficult areas that people struggle with.” Edward Hall said much the same thing: if you play it as it is written, you get violence and you get misogyny and you get searing irony at the end; you do get love, too, but it's a Stockholm Syndrome love. My suspicion (and really, what the hell do I know?) is that what you don't get is any character growth, only stasis (Petruchio) and reduction (Katherine). Maybe we love-readers are just hopeless romantics, or maybe we think there's more to Shakespeare's characters than that.

For me, Tim Crouch summed up the problem with the misogyny-because-it's-on-the-page reading perfectly. He once played Petruchio himself, in America, in a production set in the Wild West; he was a man-with-no-name figure, the kind of shoot-a-guy-soon-as-look-at-him outsider that makes cowboy movies so compulsive. His treatment of Kate was “an act of subjugation” and her final speech was delivered through tears. What didn't work for him about this was that “the final speech got fixed absolutely, and I felt it lost its ambiguity. Everything became one note, and the note is subjugation, male supremacy and domination.” In the love reading, those notes are still played – but the music is more complicated, and much more intriguing.

Anyway, enough preamble. This is the piece I wrote, before I edited it to fit the word count, which was before the Guardian edited it to fit the page. It's a bit messy and no doubt benefited from the trim but at this stage there doesn't seem much point in trying to be a fraction less verbose. As an aside, another fantastic thing that came of writing this piece was locating the original “personal is political” essay from 1969 on the interweb, a thrilling essay that I should have looked up years ago.

A man acquires a rich but headstrong woman for his bride. At the wedding he punches the priest; afterwards he refuses to attend the family party. He drags his bewildered wife through mud to his country house, where he starves her, deprives her of sleep and contradicts every word she says. By the time they return to her father's home, the woman's spirit has been quashed: she is meek and submissive, ready to put her hand beneath her husband's foot.

When you strip The Taming of the Shrew of its comic sub-plot, in which a bevy of disguised lovers woo a charming social beauty, and focus on the bare bones of the story of wild-cat Katherine and her “tamer”, Petruchio, Shakespeare's early play looks like a nasty piece of work. Indeed, critics and academics have spent much of the past century denouncing it as barbarous, offensive and misogynistic. Yet Shrew is remarkably popular with audiences: the production opening in Stratford-upon-Avon this week is the Royal Shakespeare Company's third (fourth, if you count last year's adaptation for young audiences) in less than a decade. Either theatregoers are secret sadists, who like nothing better of an evening than to witness a spot of wife-bashing, or there's more to The Taming of the Shrew than meets the eye.

Over the past two decades, productions of the play have divided fairly neatly into two camps. On one side are the performances that emphasise the brutality of Kate and Petruchio's relationship. In this interpretation, The Taming of the Shrew can be considered, in director Edward Hall's words, “theatre of cruelty”. His all-male production in 2007 “followed the text through to its bitterest conclusion. Look at what Shakespeare has written: Kate is starved of sleep, beaten, refused food.” Too often, he argues, this abuse is played for laughs, when what should be being communicated is the extent of Katherine's suffering.

What exonerates the play for Hall is that he doesn't think Shakespeare was himself being misogynistic in his portrayal of female subjugation, but questioning the values of his patriarchal society. “He's challenging an audience's expectations of how a woman is supposed to behave. What if, as a human being, she doesn't want to roll over and do what the man wants, as was expected in Shakespeare's day? I actually think he's championing the woman's rights. He reminds us that we need to treat each other with respect.”

The other, less stomach-churning interpretation of Kate and Petruchio's relationship is that theirs is a deeply felt, curiously misunderstood love story. Lucy Bailey, who is directing the new RSC production, believes the attraction between the pair is instant, and what unfolds is “all foreplay to one event, which is to get these two people together into bed”. For this reading to work, Bailey says, it's vital that Petruchio never appears to be superior to Katherine. “In rehearsals the play quickly becomes odd if Petruchio starts to lecture, becomes the educator, or takes any moral position. It becomes punitive, and you start to think: 'This is dead and ghastly.' It is a fantastic battle of the sexes, in which Katherine must always win as well as Petruchio – and it's because they won't allow each other to win that the game continues.”

The trouble with the love-at-first-sight version is that it's even harder to understand why Petruchio should mistreat Katherine so. Gregory Doran, who directed the play for the RSC in 2003, suggests that Petruchio doesn't know how to handle their relationship, because he is as much of an outcast as Katherine is. He points out that both characters are frequently described as mad by the people around them: “Madness is a way that society can label you and put you in a bin. That's what Kate and Petruchio are struggling against – but they find somebody else in their bin. I don't think it's describing an ideal relationship, but it is a real relationship.”

Like Doran, director David Farr, who staged the play in 2002, shifting the setting to 1950s America, believes that Shakespeare offers a key to Petruchio's mental imbalance by telling us that his father has recently died. “Here is a man in grief,” says Farr, “who takes out his disaffection and anger with the world on other people almost as an experiment.” That idea of experimenting is crucial to David Caves, who is playing Petruchio in Bailey's production. He finds the classic characterisation of Petruchio as an innate bully abhorrent; he prefers to see Petruchio as a man whose pride is piqued by encountering a woman capable of outwitting him. “If he dishes something out to her, she dishes it back to him twice as bad. He's constantly having to improvise.”

Nichola McAuliffe, who has played Katherine twice and hopes to direct the play herself one day, believes we misread Petruchio's actions, because we don't understand his references to falconry. She points to Petruchio's key speech in which he relates how he will “kill a wife with kindness”, by depriving Katherine of sleep and food. It is, she argues, “a falconer's speech”: it describes how falcons and other birds of prey are socialised. “If you know anything about falconry, you would know that you have to go through this with the bird: if it's cruel, it's cruel to yourself, too.” Sure enough, Shakespeare gives the impression that it is Petruchio himself keeping Katherine awake – and when she doesn't eat, he doesn't either.

There remains a difficulty in these “torture” scenes: Katharine barely speaks, whereas Petruchio never shuts up. According to Lisa Dillon, who plays Katherine in Bailey's production, this is what makes sense of Katherine's long final speech, in which she advises wives to be gentle towards their husbands. “If you look at the language she uses, all the way into the second half, it's odd,” says Dillon. “The verse is staccato, there's lots of saying 'what?' and 'why?' to people. You get the feeling that nobody ever listens to her. But Petruchio gives her the power of speech and language: he gives her proper freedom to speak. That is not a woman being crushed.”

What's so appealing about the love interpretation is that Shrew becomes, not a sappy romance, but a more complex critique of society and attitudes to women, which were changing in Shakespeare's time and have continued to change ever since. Bailey and Dillon argue that Katherine is rescued by Petruchio: so censured was her unfeminine boldness that if she didn't marry him, says Dillon, “she would go from shrew to witch and end her days as a madwoman. He saves her from herself, and from a structured society in which she's never going to change.”

Kathryn Hunter, who played Katherine at the Globe in 2003, says what rankled about the character was that “her father was going to marry her off after a single interview”. For McAuliffe, too, it is the bartering of daughters that looks really misogynistic in the play. Katherine's sister, Bianca, is so popular that their father, Baptista, is able to pit her suitors against each other, promising her hand to the man who has most to offer financially. And, as a portrait of womanhood, spirited Katherine is far preferable to flirty, wily Bianca. As Michelle Gomez, who played Katherine for the RSC in 2008, puts it: “Bianca is the manipulative, backstabbing, awful version of what women are, fluttering her eyelids to get what she wants. She gives women a very bad name.”

One of the abiding tenets of 20th-century feminism was that the personal is political. Perhaps what's so difficult for modern feminist audiences of The Taming of the Shrew is remembering that, in this play, the personal is just personal. Katherine's final speech, says Bailey, “is a love gift. It's so clarifying: out of the chaos and small-mindedness of this town that suffocates both of them, Kate and Petruchio invent a way forward that's entirely for themselves. She's not talking about other people, she wouldn't behave like this if she were married to anyone else. She behaves like this at this moment with him. That's why it's wrong to mix it up with a weird sexual political statement: it's a personal statement.”

Not only that, says McAuliffe, but it's a recognisable statement. “When she says, I'll put my hand under your foot, that's basically what I say to my husband: I will put my hand under your foot if you want – but I trust you not to ask me to.” Shrew, she says, is a warts-and-all portrait of how a marriage works: “You make room for each other, you fit their holes and they fit yours. Yes, they drive you potty – but that's between you two, you are a united front. That's what Kate and Petruchio learn. They are one person by the end, like a falconer with his bird.”

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

child's play

I've had a glimmer of a crush on Joe Penhall for years now; I can't remember what started it, but it certainly flared when I commissioned him to interview Sam Shepard in 2006. Which was just as well, because he also infuriated me over that piece: in an outrageous display of egoism he insisted on being put up in the Chelsea Hotel (as far as I could tell, a budget hotel only by the reckoning of those who cheerfully smash guitars worth several hundred pounds night after night), possibly even on flying above economy class, making his expense claim insane. But it was worth it, because the piece itself was perfection, whip-sharp, passionate and illuminating.

The embers of that crush glow whenever I hear Giddy Stratospheres by the Long Blondes (conversations about work with Penhall invariably veered to music at some point; the Chelsea Hotel incident heightened my suspicion that there's a frustrated rock star locked inside that man), and they were fanned again when I saw Haunted Child listed in the Royal Court's winter season. I have vivid snapshots in my head of Blue/Orange and particularly Some Voices, which I caught up with in the beautiful revival that was at the Young Vic in 2004, so had high hopes for this new one, hopes I started dismantling once the middling reviews came out.

I finally saw Haunted Child a few nights ago, and have mixed feelings about it myself. On the one hand, I thought whole swathes of it were ridiculous. There's far too much exposition, hammering home a point that is abundantly clear throughout: that Douglas, the errant father who returns to his family home bedraggled and missing his four front teeth, has been brainwashed by a freakish quasi-religious cult. The acting was weirdly uneven: Sophie Okonedo as the abandoned wife and Ben Daniels as the deluded evangelist were exhilaratingly good together, her thrumming with tension, him brightly intense, but with the child actor frequently slipped off-key. And I was never quite sure what was happening with the child, whether he was really as disturbed as his mother, Julie, kept telling us.

But on the other hand, I was undeniably gripped by it. The line that sank a hook into me came almost at the beginning: when the child, Thomas, says to his mother he wouldn't mind dying to be with his (presumed dead) father, because: “if we're just going to die anyway, what's the point?” It's every parent's terror, surely, to have your child confront you with that question. Would I even know how to answer it? Julie, I note, doesn't answer it: she brushes it away, smothers it in a cuddle. What a terrible abdication of responsibility on her part.

What interests me about the play is that, on the surface, Julie's rationalism, pragmatism, acceptance that life is a muddle and sometimes the best you can do is simply get by, seems like the “right” way to live. But while it allows her to puncture Douglas's fevered and increasingly ridiculous visions of a more spiritual future with delicious wit, her approach to life never comes across as altogether satisfactory, either. Why should we just get on with the way things are? Why shouldn't we strain and fight for something other than a job in an office and fixing up the house? Shouldn't there be more to life? What, exactly, is the point?

As Matt Trueman identifies in his review, it's not so much an existential crisis that engorges this couple as a political one: they're trapped in a (capitalist, selfish, materialistic, aggressive, Conservative) society, which has built up over decades, centuries, perhaps (as my husband would argue) since man evolved, yet is neither healthy nor beneficial, except perhaps for the very few. Something else needs to be built, and I don't think Penhall believes for a moment that spirituality provides either succour or solutions: religion, or at least Christianity, has always tolerated, created excuses for, materialism and the consequent social inequality. The picture of spirituality Penhall offers us might be deliberately extreme to the point of appearing stupid, but to a non-believer, how far is it really from the tenets of more conventional and accepted religions? Over Christmas in Cyprus with my parents, my Mum (who believes in something, a force in the universe, but not the God described in the Bible) related with some disgust the intricate rules about what Greek Orthodox followers are allowed to eat in the several weeks before Christmas and Easter: meat on these days, fish on these days, abstinence of this and that on those days. From that to drinking a bucket of salt water to purify the soul, as indoctrinated Douglas does, isn't such a great leap, if you ask me.

It's not spirituality Penhall thinks we need, but an alternative social order – the trouble is, the present modus operandi is so embedded in the collective psyche, even thinking up a plausible alternative seems impossible, let alone instituting one. Just before Christmas, I saw Mike Bartlett's 13 at the National, a production far more buzzy and electrified and current than Haunted Child, but equally less involving: there was too much of the perennial student about scruffy prophet John for his popularity to be convincing, and the entire second half felt like a university debate. As John, Trystan Gravelle was magnetic, so still and soft and reasonable you felt inexorably drawn to him, mesmerised by him, but nothing his character said persuaded nearly as much as the fiercely eloquent key speech from the Tory prime minister, about why – despite her liberal core – she joined forces with the Conservatives. Annoyingly, I deleted the copy of the script from my inbox, so can't quote it verbatim, but at the root of it was a belief in hard work, in human ambition, in our ability to change lives, our own and others'. In retrospect, it reminded me of a piece Philip Pullman wrote in the Guardian in 2005 (and I'll bet rather a lot that Bartlett, avid Guardian reader that he is, either clipped it out and kept it on file or, like me, has it tattooed on his memory) about the conservative-with-a-small-c social values he longed to see championed by a government, any government, even a Tory government. Much as John, and through him Bartlett, seemed to be advocating “belief” in this play, ultimately what Bartlett most effectively communicates is that we should be putting our faith not in some spurious numinous spiritual force but in the possibility of creating a new way of living that doesn't feel toxic, even if it is, to some degree, the old way of living.

Preoccupied to the point of unhealthy fixation with these questions that have no answers as I am, I glimpse hope where I can. On the weekend I read my daughter a book we picked up in the library called Three by the Sea, by the astoundingly brilliant author/illustrator Mini Grey. It's about a dog, a cat and a mouse who live in splendid isolation in a beach hut, where dog does the gardening (bones protrude from the ground), cat does the housework (a quick zip round the house followed by a nice long nap) and mouse is in charge of the cooking (cheese fondue for everyone!). They're perfectly happy, until a stranger from the Winds of Change Trading Company blows in, and through a series of insinuations poisons the trio with discontent. He's a crafty fox, and before long manages to steal their boat, but that's, rather wonderfully, by the by. What fox makes the three realise is that if they thought a little more about each other, shared their toil, co-operated more, their lives could be richer and happier. It's the pared-back, child-pure version of that philanthropic, humanist vision Pullman conjured up: how much better life would be, if only we were all a bit less bloody selfish.

Monday, 2 January 2012

sometimes it's hard to be a woman

When I saw Jumpy (April De Angelis, Royal Court), early in November, I fully intended to write about it here, but – as ever – time and deadlines and small children and myriad tedious minutiae intervened. Instead I had a good rant about it with a friend who shared my misgivings and thought I might leave it at that. But then, unexpectedly and in passing, I had a conversation about it with another friend just before Christmas, and was fired up all over again. She loved the play, in a feel-good, Saturday-night-show kind of way, but the thing she said about it that made my heart go cold was this: “It made me worry about my neck.”

Jumpy revolves around a woman called Hilary, a committed feminist who cherishes memories of protesting at Greenham Common and works in adult literacy; a worthy, idealistic, liberal sort who is pushed to the edge by the stresses of turning 50 and the belligerent, capricious behaviour of her obnoxious teenage daughter. On the plus side: Hilary was played by Tamsin Greig. Swoon! On the down side, to be brutally honest, was just about everything else.

No, let's be fair. While the audience around me rocked with laughter, I watched Jumpy through a fog of depression: my daughter is only four, but I already have to deal with the same arguments about clothes, the same fierce desire for independence, the same tantrums and stubbornness and flouncing and refusal to listen to reason that Hilary encounters from her daughter, Tilly, and Tilly is 15. Do I want to fight this war for another decade and more? De Angelis's acute portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship makes my future look relentlessly grim.

It took a day or two for that gloom to clear, and that was when I started asking questions about the play. Why is Hilary so ineffectual? Why is she so timorous regarding abortion? Why are the other adult female characters polarised caricatures of sexual voracity and frigidity? Why are we presented with a smart, inquiring, politicised woman, only to see her become obsessed with her own sexual attractiveness, mind-addled by empty flattery? Where's the feminism in all this?

Perhaps – like Caroline McGinn, whose Time Out review is impeccably judged – I freighted Jumpy with too much expectation. As it happened, in the week that I saw the play I was in a particularly uncompromising mindset, sharpened by reading two feminist books simultaneously: Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born (I'm taking this one slowly, savouring it) and Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman. I had problems with the latter: Caitlin says in the acknowledgements that she wrote it in “an urgent, five-month blur”, and it really shows. The book is catalogued as humour first, feminism second, so maybe it's unfair to expect crisp and rigorous argument from her, but a lot of her reasoning – particularly in what might have been key chapters, on fat/body issues, and why it's OK not to have children, and how to deal with sexism – is sloppy, unresolved and curiously unconvincing. It's frustrating, partly because I didn't have the compensating pleasure of finding her jokes funny (good God that sounds bitchy), partly because when her breezy, sardonic prose is ignited by deep-in-the-gut anger, particularly at the abhorrent influence of porn on women's body image and the idiocy of pubic waxing, she comes across as pretty sage. I read most of it thinking: I'm too old for this – which was weird, as she and I are almost exactly the same age. What I mean is that it feels mostly like a first primer in feminism for girls: already I'm planning to put my copy on my daughter's bedside table when she's, I don't know, 10 or 11, if only so she can discover what a waste of time and resources boys and Brazilian waxes and fashion magazines are from someone other than me. I might, however, have to score out the sentence: “Childbirth gives a woman a gigantic set of balls.” I thought the line was mildly absurd, but a friend (who doesn't have children) found it positively offensive: women without children are not deficient in boldness or bravery, and what woman wants a gigantic set of balls, anyway?

If Caitlin's book is like a three-hour gossip on the phone between teenagers, Adrienne Rich's is a calm, generous lecture from a wise-woman to her disciples. Her prose, plain yet teeming like a handful of fresh earth, pulses with knowledge: knowledge she gleans from nature, her own body, the shifting mysteries of the moon (it's a very 1970s book); and from evidently scrupulous but lightly worn research. Reading it makes me feel serene, because she has felt some of what I feel, asked some of the same questions about ignominious social forces and found out some possible answers; and furious at the centuries of degradation of women's experience, intelligence, feelings and abilities that she details. Here she is, clear-eyed and judicious, slicing through the sentimental mush that swathes the very idea of motherhood:

The physical and psychic weight of responsibility on the woman with children is by far the heaviest of social burdens. It cannot be compared with slavery of sweated labor because the emotional bonds between a woman and her children make her vulnerable in ways which the forced laborer does not know; he can hate and fear his boss or master, loathe the toil; dream of revolt or of becoming a boss; the woman with children is a prey to far more complicated, subversive feelings. Love and anger can exist concurrently; anger at the conditions of motherhood can become translated into anger at the child, along with the fear that we are not “loving”; grief at all we cannot do for our children in a society so inadequate to meet human needs becomes translated into guilt and self-laceration. This “powerless responsibility” … is a heavier burden even than providing a living – which so many mothers have done, and do, simultaneously with mothering – because it is recognised in some quarters, at least, that economic forces, political oppression, lie behind poverty and unemployment; but the mother's very character, her status as a woman, are in question if she has “failed” her children.

It's the generosity of Rich's thought, her consideration of the experience not just of white middle-class women but women of different nationalities and ethnicities and social classes and periods of history, that make this book so vital. I feel challenged by her scepticism of socialism and other patriarchal utopian ideals, inspired by her commitment to the goal of social change despite the centuries of conditioning that must first be overturned. She makes me think, think hard, about the ways I might contribute to effecting that change.

De Angelis' Hilary has spent her life trying to make those contributions, too: De Angelis signals as much in the character's wistful references to Greenham, in her choice of work, in her even-handed attempts to bring up her daughter Tilly as a thinking, conscientious, self-respecting woman. Tilly is at once the apotheosis and the antithesis of feminist hope: she has freedom of choice, but most of the choices we witness her making – the ridiculous heels in which she can't actually walk, the ogling of footballers, the easy censure of perfectly normal female bodies – suggest dispiritingly that capitalist media have won where her mother and, by extension, old-fashioned feminism have failed.

Is De Angelis dramatising the arguments that surround feminism, the fear/criticism that the various movements of the past several decades haven't achieved enough, haven't inspired genuine change? Or is she voicing that criticism herself? It's hard to tell, because the play – like Hilary – lacks the courage of its convictions either way. Hilary says all sorts of right-on things: she denounces plastic surgery as a death-trap, life without the pill as medieval, burlesque as middle-class stripping (what a po-faced attitude that one is). But when it seems her daughter is pregnant, she organises a “conference”, attended by Tilly's single-teenage-mum best friend, ostensibly to help Tilly to decide what to do, yet shows no ability to guide her daughter or, importantly, to talk about abortion openly and fearlessly. And faced with emotional crisis, Hilary does the dramatically conventional thing: she rejects her husband, snogs her daughter's boyfriend's father, then has sex with her daughter's next boyfriend. It's not so much that the plot is beneath her, but beneath me: this is the stuff of trashy magazines, magazines I gave up reading years ago.

My friend David asked a pertinent question when, fug clearing, I told him about the play: does it show the trap, or is it the trap? Does it demonstrate what capitalism, the media, institutional patriarchy do to vulnerable women, or does it do those things itself? I would argue the latter. Caitlin Moran, in one of her more common-sense moments in How To Be a Woman, makes a useful suggestion: when uncertain whether something constitutes sexism, one should ask, are the men doing it too? Hilary's crisis is matched, indeed fuelled, by that of Tilly's boyfriend's father – but when they kiss, it's because he makes it happen, and when she doesn't see him for weeks, it's because he discovers Buddhism and achieves a modicum of dignity and empathy. Hilary's crisis is also mirrored by that of her (childless) friend Frances, who deals with it in forthright fashion: by creating and performing an amateur burlesque routine. The rest of the audience found it hilarious, but to me, this scene was excruciating: the way it's staged, Frances loses all dignity. She has no self-awareness, no idea just how foolish she appears.

The text simply says the routine is challenging and unfinished, and, as ever, I find it impossible to distinguish between what De Angelis intended by it and what was projected by the direction and performance. But the scene on stage encapsulated everything that irritated me about Jumpy. Rather than stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its female characters, the play diminishes and trivialises them. It niggles at ageing women and refuses them the grace of self-acceptance. Writing about it, I make it sound as though it's stripping the veneer of confidence and bravery from modern women, but I didn't get the impression that that was what it was doing when watching it. It felt as though De Angelis was simply doing what most other modern media do: making women feel inadequate. We already have adverts, newspaper articles, celebrity photographers, fashion designers, high street shops, and on and on, making women worry about their necks. Do we really want theatre doing it, too?

I've been tinkering away on the above for the past fortnight, and it feels like a horribly curmudgeonly way to bring in the new year. Progress was hampered by the making of umpteen mince pies, finally seeing – and being totally mesmerised by – The Red Shoes, and also by an idiotic accident a week ago, when I nearly sliced off a fingertip while trying to cut into a recalcitrant pomegranate. Even though I know in my own soul how strong a hold the Orthodox religion has on Cypriot identity, I was still startled to see gold-leaf icons on the walls in the A&E room in the new hospital outside Limassol. I had another, happier kitchen accident with a jar of mincemeat that my Auntie Tina left in Cyprus last year: instead of turning it into yet more pies, I experimented with using it as the foundation for a cake. Thankfully, I baked it in a loaf tin, because as a cake it was a bit odd, but as less sticky sort-of malt loaf toasted and generously buttered it made an exceedingly good breakfast. So here's the recipe: a small offering that doesn't quite excuse all the sniping above, but at least starts the year on a less antagonistic note.

Mincemeat loaf

500g mincemeat

250g plain flour

3 tsp baking powder

4 eggs, separated

I started out assuming that there would be enough fat and sweetness in the mincemeat so more wouldn't be required; in the event the finished loaf was a bit dry, so possibly some melted butter could be added at the beginning, too. But that's what I didn't do. What I did do was beat the egg yolks into the mincemeat, then stir in the flour and baking powder. Then I whisked the egg whites to firm peaks, loosened the mincemeat mixture with two big tablespoons of the egg white, then folded the rest of the whites in gently. I then tipped it all into a 2lb loaf tin that I'd lined with baking parchment and baked it at gas 4/180 for maybe 50 minutes or an hour. After it had cooled I kept it well wrapped in a couple of tea-towels (but would have used tupperware if all Mum's boxes hadn't been full of Christmas leftovers) and it was still toasting deliciously five days later.