Friday 11 October 2013

speaking theatre, talking theatre

Me, on Monday morning: Some of the best conversations I've had about theatre have been with people who left at the interval.

Tanuja, on Tuesday afternoon: My mum&dad used to be terrified of going to see art/theatre. Now they know it's all about how they respond, they go see stuff all the time

Chris, on Tuesday night: Fascinatingly awful experience watching Secret Theatre #2 sitting next to a family of non-theatre-goers who'd last seen Ghost Stories there. They were pretty quickly reduced to hysterical giggling at how bad they thought it was. “Bloody hell,” one kept saying, “this is agony.” I mean, I liked it somewhat more than they did, but it was really instructive to see it through their eyes, its remoteness, its completeness. Until it reimagines its relationship with its audiences, the New British Titanic won't be much different from the Old British Titanic. Partly that's about formal choices in the work, but partly it's about how those choices are decipherable to those who don't “speak” theatre. … fear there's some truth in Matt Trueman's sense that (so far) it's theatre talking to itself.

Me, on Monday night: So it's only the interval but if Secret Theatre Show 2 were a boy I'd run away with it to Vegas.

Since my friend Jake and I started Dialogue last year, I've been thinking more and more about how people decide to go to the theatre, and how they respond to it, and how both of these relate to my shifting ideas about criticism. So much of my work now involves talking to people about theatre: about how a work made them and me feel, and why they or I responded in that way; talking about what they or I understood, appreciated, admired, hated; talking about politics and books and feminism and idealism as a natural extension of talking about theatre. Every conversation has illuminated the work we've seen from multiple angles; illuminated, too, how theatre can affect people, how it can fail to live up to their expectations, how it can alienate them and inspire them. Every conversation reminds me that an audience isn't a singular entity: it's a gathering of individuals, who bring their own thought-processes and experiences along with them. Their stories are as interesting to me as the theatre that brought us together.

The only stories I can tell here are my own. And increasingly I feel odd about this: blogging is an ego-trip, and what I really want to be engaging in is dialogue/Dialogue. So this post is an attempt to contemplate some of Dialogue's questions – how do I choose to see the work I see? How does the conversation around the work affects those choices? Who else saw the work with me on the same night? What was the language of the production saying to them, in relation/as opposed to what it was saying to me? – through some work I've seen at two theatres in particular: the National, where in the space of three weeks I saw Strange Interlude, The Bullet and the Bass Trombone, Squally Showers and Riot; and the Lyric Hammersmith, which has fired the first shots in its Secret Theatre ensemble experiment. And although this post is the last thing I should be writing now – I have a heap of work to do for the Fuel/New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood blog, the Edinburgh fringe to wrestle with, a Chaosbaby and a God/Head to nurture – the big, subsidised theatres have muscled their way to the front of the queue, as they so often do.

Strange Interlude first. I wasn't going to bother with this one, just like I didn't bother with the other little-known Eugene O'Neill play, Desire Under the Elms, when it was at the Lyric Hamm last year. For reasons I can't explain, because both were really positive, Michael Billington and Andrzej Lukowski's reviews convinced me it was fine to skip. Plus I was put off by the price: £34 (I like being close to the stage) is a couple of shows at Soho, three or four at Battersea Arts Centre or Camden People's Theatre, even more at the Yard. But then it was the end of August and the autumn season hadn't yet begun and the lovely press officer at the National said I could have a free ticket, and that's how I found myself stuck outside the big brown doors to the Lyttelton's auditorium at 7.20pm, having failed to notice that it started at 7. I could hear acted (albeit very good) American accents, heightened tones, the stamp of feet on wooden floorboards. Oh no, I thought. It's going to be one of those stultifying ones that make me squirm with boredom. Clearly, This Isn't For Me.

That feeling intensified when I got inside. I felt at odds with most of the people in the audience: I was so grateful to the man sitting behind me who, early in the second half, whispered loudly to his partner, “Why do they keep laughing? It's a tragedy.” The laughter was mostly provoked by the direct appeals to the audience of a central character, Charles Marsden, played (piquantly, by Charles Edwards) as a repressed homosexual, indignant, imperious, skewering everyone around him, and indeed himself, unable to find love except with his mother, and the woman he had grown up with, for whom he harboured an intellectual rather than physical passion. And it's true, a lot of what he said was riotously funny, because it was supremely bitchy – but there was an underlying sadness, an acute expression of what it is to be lonely and queer (in both senses) and longing for human contact, that was unbearably poignant, and guffawed over by those who find the campness of a closet gay innately hilarious.

I felt at odds, too, with the lavishness of the design, and what it said about what is expected of a “classic” text at the National. What Andrzej described as a coup de theatre, when a replica yacht appears on stage, for all of about 10 minutes, struck me as an appalling waste, unnecessary expenditure to fulfil a fusty idea of naturalistic theatre. You could finance a production at the Gate for the cost of that single piece of set: how is it possible to witness such profligacy and support the continued prioritising of subsidy for the National over venues and organisations further down the pecking order?

And yet, despite my quarrel with the audience and the atmosphere of complacency and the projection of theatre as upper-middle-class entertainment, Strange Interlude was so electrifying, so absorbing, so knotty and questioning and absolutely For Me that I left heart singing. Its central character, Nina, is a complicated woman who carves her own path in life, with thrilling contempt for a world that reduces women to essentialist roles: nurse, mother, neurotic, whore. Anne-Marie Duff's febrile performance raises Nina above O'Neill's text, too: I've only poked at the surface of the miry original, but there she seems less in charge of her own destiny, more a victim of hysteric feminine emotions that need marriage and a baby to keep them in order. I think O'Neill wanted to project a feminist perspective: there's an extraordinary passage in which Nina traces the problem of existence to the creation of God in a male image that reads like something by Jo Clifford (“Men should have been gentlemen enough, remembering their mothers, to make God a woman! But the God of Gods – the Boss – has always been a man. That makes life so perverted, and death so unnatural. We should have imagined life as created in the birth-pain of God the Mother. Then we would understand why we, Her children, have inherited pain, for we would know that our life's rhythm beats from Her great heart, torn with the agony of love and birth. And we would feel that death meant reunion with Her, a passing back into Her Substance, blood of Her blood again, peace of Her peace!”). But it's hard to feel feminist connection with a play that acquiesces to the notion that women's salvation lies in motherhood, not communal activity, not work.

In another, lesser performance, I might have felt no connection with Nina at all: she is a woman so magnetic to men that she has three perpetually mesmerised, devoting their lives to her. But then there was something in her struggle to figure out what happiness means, and if such a thing is even possible, that felt acutely familiar. “Say lie,” she instructs Marsden at one point. “L-i-i-e. Now say life. L-i-i-fe. You see? Life is just a long drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end.” How perfect is that? And in that chaste but ardent relationship with her probably gay platonic lover, I saw my own relationship with my friend David – right down to the picture of them, wizened, abandoned by everyone else, finding salvation in each other in the final flare before death, just as David and I always promise each other we will. Of course the bulk of the audience felt like an obstruction: Strange Interlude wasn't just For Me, it WAS me.

And in Simon Godwin's production, it spoke straight to me: the absence of the fourth wall, the characters' ongoing dialogue with the audience, the honesty they show us that they hide from each other, was exquisitely handled, giving the play vitality, wit and a much greater depth of emotion, investing preposterous, melodramatic plot devices with humanity. The characters spoke to us without an ounce of self-consciousness: I'm on stage and you're looking at me but I'm also looking at you. That isn't an acknowledgement often made at the National.

This is the odd thing about Strange Interlude: I've seen some really wonderful revivals at the National, vital productions of After the Dance, Rocket to the Moon, The Amen Corner, but each one felt of its playwright's time. Strange Interlude arose from theatre now – but in a way that placated conservative audiences into thinking they were seeing something much less experimental. To borrow X helpful terminology, it's as if the production were travelling upstream while distracting its audience with the view downstream. The trouble is, nothing in the language around Strange Interlude – either the marketing or the reviews I read – conveyed that duality. All that came across was the downstream bit. I interviewed Ben Power earlier in the summer, and he talked a lot about the difficulty of getting audiences to make the journey from the Shed to Strange Interlude, because of a basic assumption: work in the Shed is exciting, revivals at the Lyttelton are dull. I'd always prided myself on resisting such assumptions: it turns out I'm as guilty of them as anyone else.

Sure enough, with its Limited Editions season in early September, the Shed became the theatre in London where I most wanted to be. What a perfect programme: writing that unfolded like music (The Bullet and the Bass Trombone), a music-theatre ensemble experimenting with choreography (Squally Showers), verbatim theatre reconfigured as poetry and dance (Ours Was the Fen Country), a young ensemble's first show (Riot), a fact-and-fiction-blurring celebration of a disabled teenager (Up Down Boy). Not a single thing you'd expect to see under the National's roof: on it, maybe, but that's a different proposition.

I didn't see Fen because I'd seen it in Edinburgh, so I'll come back to that later, and I missed Up Down Boy because its single performance (grrrr tiny runs grrrr) clashed with a party. Bullet I'd wanted to see for months, ever since encountering the company behind it, Sleepdogs, online when seeking out interesting people to meet in Bristol. Tim Atack and Tanuja Amarasuriya, the couple behind Sleepdogs, are VERY interesting. Tanuja is also a producer with Theatre Bristol, an enthusiastic advocate for the amazing work happening in her city, and committed to encouraging a new criticism culture to emerge. Tim is a writer, composer and one of my very favourite critics: his review of Uninvited Guests' Love Letters Straight From Your Heart (no longer online!) made my stomach hurt with admiration and envy. Together, Tim and Tanuja make Very Interesting Theatre.

Bullet is narrated by a composer, whose orchestral piece is invited to be part of a state performance in a poverty-stricken country somewhere in the folds of South America, by a probably corrupt leader who is about to be assassinated in a military coup. The orchestra are caught in the cross-fire, and the composer tells us, painstakingly, painfully, about each musician's encounter with that violence, and endeavours to cling to life and hope. As a play, it felt problematic in places: slow, repetitive, boring. But somewhere in the middle, I realised I wasn't listening to it like a play any more. I was listening to it like music.

Atack has written Bullet the way a symphony might be composed: not with a single dramatic arc but a series of movements, feelings, pictures, recurring motifs. I should admit, I have a specific symphony in mind when I say this: Shostakovich's 11th, which is one of my favourite pieces of music ever ever ever. The two works share a similar political thrust, a similar humanity, a similar belief in music's power to express our darkest fears and brightest hopes. I should admit, also, none of this occurred to me when I was actually watching Bullet. Because the music I had in mind then was Godspeed You Black Emperor. Watching Bullet is the closest I've come to the experience of seeing Godspeed play live: it has the same long-drawn-out drones, the same careful build-up to sustained emotional crescendos – and again, the same politics, the same humanity, fear, and hope. It takes a long time for hope to emerge in Bullet, and when it does, it floods the dark room with sunlight: a magical, uplifting experience.

 If Bullet was Godspeed, then Squally Showers was Revolutionary Letter #51 by Diane di Prima:

As soon as we submit
to a system based on causality, linear time
we submit, again, to the old values, plunge again
into slavery. Be strong. No need to fear 'science' grovelling
apology for things as they are, ALL POWER
TO JOY, which will remake the world.

All power to joy, which will remake the world. That line could be Little Bulb's manifesto. I have such a crush on this company I get fluttery just talking about them. Their shows Crocosmia and Operation Greenfield were note-perfect evocations of the heightened emotions, bewilderment, longings and imagination of childhood and adolescence. In their programme note Little Bulb describe Squally Showers as the third in that trilogy: “we're exploring young adulthood and the world of work. All the passions of the teenage years are here but they've been expertly repressed over the years and the playfulness of childhood has given way to conformity and the daily grind.” I've seen it twice and am slightly ashamed to admit I didn't read it that way either time.

In Edinburgh it was still a bit of a mess: I watched it amazed that they'd have the faith in each other and in their audience to throw away the musical stage language in which they are so fluent, and replace it with choreography awkward as a Google translation. If I left that performance convinced yet again of their genius, it was less because of their willing embrace of the possibility of excruciating failure, more because of an extraordinary scene in which the characters – all employees of a television company in the 1980s – attend a fancy-dress party, and a unicorn, a monster and a wolf play piggy-in-the-middle with Margaret Thatcher, using an inflatable globe as their ball, with a carpet in the shape of the British Isles under their feet, and use an industrial fan to fill the air with money, all to the reflective strain of Black's 1987 hit Wonderful Life. (I might have got the precise details wrong there, but the spirit is right.) Watching this was like being punched in the stomach by carefully repressed fury, at the country and all its people having the life trampled out of them by politicians who treat humanity and all nature with disdain. I saw it the same night as (Shunt's) Nigel Barrett, who described it as Panorama on acid. I bloody wish I could be that succinct.

When I saw Squally Showers three weeks later at the Shed, it had already grown considerably. It still wasn't finished, but the individual stories it's telling, of ambition, compromise, the prickle of love, felt fuller and richer. I think they could sharpen up the politics more: in the toilets I overheard two girls, giddy with laughter – they'd really enjoyed it – asking each other: “What on earth was that about?” The person who asked me that in Edinburgh was, to his misfortune, bludgeoned with a stream-of-consciousness 10-minute monologue from me asserting that it's all about the internet – the television company and its dream of bringing people together into a single community mirroring the virtual communities created by social media in which we're all physically alone – and how that atomisation of society through innovative technologies relates to Thatcherite politics and the competitive individualism fostered by capitalism. The show's final, rousing declaration, that depressions are cyclical (1987, the year Wonderful Life was released, was also the year of a global stock market crash) but hope is permanent, and we can make a new world for ourselves if we work together and believe that we can, erupts with a force that makes it feel attached to rather than generated by the rest of the piece – but I'd much rather they leap up, wave their hearts as banners and shout that message out loud than leave it for us to figure it out.

The Wardrobe Ensemble's Riot was the odd one out in my Limited Editions trilogy: the company I knew nothing about, whose show I probably wouldn't have carved out time to see if it were happening elsewhere. I spent the first 30 minutes slightly wishing I hadn't bothered: it was fun, but nothing more. The riot in question took place at the opening of Ikea in Edmonton; the anglepoise lamps spread across the stage were a neat – if unintentional – indictment of the piece's tendency to choose light over dark. Their gently mocked assembly of characters included a young woman in love with herself, a pot-bellied man longing to kiss her, her boyfriend, his former girlfriend... I would like to talk to the capitalists about money but they only want to tell love stories, indeed.

Still, as the characters persist in blundering across each other's feelings, the piece becomes gradually more involving, and there's a sweet series of scenes in which an awkward Scandinavian woman escapes from the rampaging hordes by hiding in a tiny enclosure with a philosophical old man. But it was 48 minutes in before the show properly soared: that's roughly when the dream sequence begins, in which pot-belly – in the act of administering CPR on self-lover – serenades her with James Blunt's You're Beautiful, and she snogs him, and they dance like they're in a musical, wrapping themselves up in neon lights, a sequence so blissfully silly I felt lucky to see it. I left 10 minutes later still basking in its joyfulness, but wishing they'd been brave enough to face up to the horror at the heart of their story, the violence people will enact when brutalised by capitalism, before the final three minutes of the show.

The fascinating thing about seeing Little Bulb and the Wardrobe Ensemble at the Shed was how unselfconsciously they filled that stage, as if it made absolute sense for them to be programmed at the National. WHICH OF COURSE IT DOES. This is something else Ben Power talked about: the provisional quality of the Shed, a temporary venue, giving license to a degree of experiment that hadn't previously been considered possible at the National. There's a similar atmosphere at the Lyric Hammersmith, where the renovation of the building has upset its natural working order. “Maybe the existing structures of theatre in this country, whilst not corrupt, are corrupting,” Sean Holmes said in his speech introducing Secret Theatre in June. “And I speak as someone who is absolutely part of – ingrained into – those structures. … I've hidden behind the literal demands of the text and avoided the really difficult questions about representations of gender and race and disability. I've pursued star casting at the expense of the right casting. And given exaggerated respect to the five-star review.” The new world Holmes was describing, in which the ensemble would attempt “to truly treat theatre as Art. To provoke, horrify, charm, astound. And above all to question”, that sounded like a world I wanted to live in.

I'm going to talk to Sean later this month: I want to ask why he's taken the approach he has so far, why he's chosen the plays he has, why he's ignored the opportunity to present others less well-known, why everyone on stage is so bloody young. I want to gently slide in his direction some of my misgivings about what I've seen so far, because it seems to me that if Secret Theatre wants to change the corrupting structures of British theatre, that's not just about how the work is put on stage, it's about how they deal with reactions to it. So far, reactions to reviews (not by Sean, I hasten to add) have been business as usual: a lot of hate for Michael Billington, who dismissed Show 1 as “a compendium of avant-garde cliches”, a lot of love for Catherine Love who loved it. The bile directed at Michael was staggeringly unpleasant: like naughty little boys ganging up to throw rotten tomatoes at the headmaster. At one point on twitter, he was being lumped with Quentin Letts (the greatest insult that can be cast on a theatre-writer), who had given Gorge Mastromas at the Court one star, despite the fact that Michael admired Gorge Mastromas, and had given it four. Why not notice that?

Until I get swayed by Sean's perspective, here's how Secret Theatre has played out for me so far. I found the promise of it intensely exciting. Partly that was to do with the secrecy surrounding the titles: I was surprised by how much I liked and wanted that, in the same instinctive way that I hadn't wanted to know if my first baby was a boy or a girl. And I was so annoyed with Simon Stephens (the ensemble's dramaturg, although at some point I'd like to sit down with Simon, too, and find out what that entails), who crowingly tweeted a bit of a bad review that gave away the identity of Show 2. (Embarrassingly, I'm about to give away both titles myself. I totally respect where Megan Vaughan is coming from, with her challenge to critics to review without revealing, but I'm just going to accept failure on that one and blunder on.) The problem wasn't the revelation per se, it was its content: I was going to see A Streetcar Named Desire, and I wasn't sure I wanted to. Another production of Vieux Carre? Yes please. A British play that hasn't been performed in 50 years? Bring it on. But a rep standard? Wasn't that just boring?

To make matters worse, a few days before I saw Secret Streetcar, the Young Vic announced its super-exciting new season, which included a Benedict Andrews production of Streetcar. I loved Andrews' Three Sisters so much I saw it twice, but the firecracker of excitement that went off in my brain about him coming back illuminated something else: my hidden assumption that the Secret Streetcar wouldn't be as good.

It was an assumption based on having seen Show 1, which I had mixed feelings about. It's one of my very, very favourite plays, so I was piqued that I didn't recognise it until Woyzeck's name was spoken out loud, 10 minutes in. But I was distracted by the clunky prelude, in which nine of the 10 actors, dressed in dirty vests and pants, like characters from a Kneehigh show but without the charm or vulnerability, writhe across the stage and slurp at metal bowls of water. It set up a tone of painful self-consciousness, a performance style so acutely aware of its own radicalism and experiment it felt rigid. When they started speaking, they declaimed, with a flat intonation that you have to be very forgiving towards not to find risible. More than once, I longed to escape this production and return to the one I saw at the Gate, years ago, directed by Daniel Kramer, which took the coincidence that Woyzeck's lover is called Marie, and that the two-timing woman in the stoical Elvis country-pop ballad His Latest Flame is also called Marie, to build the entire show around songs by Elvis, an idea so ridiculous that it shone out as genius.

But if all the outside appurtenances of the Secret Woyzeck were horrible, on the inside something magical was happening. Woyzeck is a character apparently without self-determination, controlled by the social forces that entrap him, and this production represented that with piercing eloquence by imprisoning him in a horizontal hamster wheel: tied by a rope to the centre of the stage, he spent most of the production running around in pointless circles, harassed by the Doctor for whom he undertakes experiments for money, mocked by his seniors in the army, so numbed by his powerlessness he can't even connect with the woman he loves. The moments in the production when Woyzeck is unleashed are electrifying, because all social order breaks down: people dress up as animals and abandon their restraint, flinging their bodies and bowls of water across the stage; Woyzeck and Marie go deep into the woods, where Woyzeck throws another bowl of liquid over Marie, only this time it's not water. These stage pictures were beautiful, savage, insightful. So was the tipping of the hamster wheel on its axis, a strange, still, mesmerising scene in which Nadia Albina rises above the rest of the ensemble and executes a sequence of vertical spins. (Actually, that one was more perplexing than insightful.) So was the meeting of Maria and the preening, insouciant Drum Major: played by Charlotte Josephs and a saxophone, the character was impossibly sexy. Katherine Pearce's Marie turned to jelly in her presence – and then transformed before our eyes, became emboldened, powerful, vibrant. Because that's what love, however fleeting and lustful, can do: it can bring a person to life.

These scenes were seductive, but also troubling, because in them the line between invention and derivation felt perilously slim. In the final throes, when Nadia Albina sang PJ Harvey's England, Holmes crossed it altogether. I totally agree with Dan Hutton that the song brings a direct political comment to this production, a vehement indictment of Britain's abysmal inequalities and mendacious bureaucracy, intensified by but not unique to life under a Tory government – but that didn't stop me thinking that they could have picked a song, and an artist, less instantly redolent of Sebastian Nubling's Three Kingdoms.

There was a lot of line-crossing in Secret Streetcar, too. In the pinning of Stanley Kowalski's picture on the wall, so that even when he's not on stage he charges proceedings, just as the image of the decapitated woman did in Three Kingdoms. The white walls that people clamber over in unexpected ways, also recalling Three Kingdoms. The use of the languid soul song It's Not That Easy, previously heard in Benedict Andrews' Three Sisters. The watermelon to represent the men's poker game, which Belarus Free Theatre have turned into an instant metaphor for physical violence. OK, I know, I'm embarrassing myself: I watch a lot of theatre, and this kind of seen-it-all-before hoity-toitiness is deplorable. But Sean Holmes is a brilliant director: his production of Simon Stephens' Pornography tore right through the text, creating a production that was chilling, challenging and totally gripping. He doesn't need to be so in awe of European(-style) directors: why not find his own language within himself?

If the performance style in Streetcar was still agonisingly self-conscious, that was less marked than in Woyzeck; if the actors still spoke stiffly, excruciatingly aware of their radical intent, they also showed signs of beginning to find their own truth. And for all that I've carped so far, I loved Secret Streetcar: watching it galvanised me, because that too is what love does. It turns out I've never seen the play before (and still regret missing the Rachel Weisz/Ruth Wilson production at the Donmar four years ago), or even the film, so I truly was hearing it for the first time – but I think I would have felt that anyway, because the cast use their natural voices, which are so at odds with the blowsy American intonation of Williams' writing that everything will have sounded different. What might have been overwrought became unaffected, direct; Stella's love for Stanley became not a dramatic provocation but the startling, unassimilable voice of countless women living with domestic violence; Blanche's self-delusions around alcohol, and male attention, articulated not the tragic decline of the Southern Belle but the last vestiges of pride in people who are being crushed underfoot by those who are privileged, powerful and irresponsible.

Watching Nadia Albina – elegant, chiselled, beautiful, with one arm not fully developed – as Blanche, I marvelled at this woman getting to play a major role that would usually be withheld from her because of her disability. I found it interesting that the social group on stage (apart from the lamentable absence of old people) looked so modern, yet Blanche still communicated as a woman trapped in another time. The day I saw Streetcar, I was also devouring a novel by Dawn Powell published in 1940, seven years before Streetcar was first staged, and recognised Blanche's powerlessness in Powell's depiction of women who are abandoned as wives, neglected as mistresses, yet lack the autonomy to create another life for themselves.

(An aside: how is it possible that so few people know about Dawn Powell? I came across her by accident in a bookshop in New York aeons ago, and worship her. The classic line about her is that she's the author you always think Dorothy Parker was, until you read Parker's fiction and realise it's not nearly as good as her aphorisms. Reading this book last week – Angels on Toast – I kept concocting my own lines, with twitter in mind, obviously, because I'm a nitwit. What Powell writes is hi-ball fiction – like a cocktail, it slips down easy, has a little kick and leaves you giddy – and screwball fiction: her prose has that same speed, wisecrack humour and bittersweet romance. What I love about her most is that her writing has a wry, savage detachment – until suddenly she cuts her characters open with a scalpel and shows you the deepest recesses of their brains, at which point her empathy is boundless. There's a scene towards the end of Angels on Toast when the main character, who has spent the entire novel trying to avoid his embarrassment of an ex-wife, is startled by the recognition that the times they shared weren't an abomination but a “normal, pleasant past”; from another writer it could be appalling sentimental, but from Powell, it's a moment of dazzling psychological insight. Please, everyone, buy her books. Unless you hate films like It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story, in which case they're probably not for you and quite possibly we're not friends any more.)

Secret Streetcar. The deep soul soundtrack, the upstairs flats that had to be reached by climbing up a ladder, the shower unit that roved around the stage, in which Stanley traps Stella and beats her, the sound betraying him, thud, smash. The coloured lights that pulse when the two of them are together, that Blanche tries to cover up, to keep herself hidden. Blanche hiding from the doctors in a trunk, and trying not to beg Mitch to save her from herself. Oh, Mitch, so gorgeously played by Leo Bill, shuffling and awkward, voice cracking with insecurity every time he spoke. Sergo Vares' strident, sometimes incomprehensible Stanley hurling himself like 1950s Elvis at Blanche, trapping her at one point, my stomach churning at the knowledge of what violence that entrapment signified. It wasn't perfect, the energy kept slumping, Albina spent too much time fiddling with her hair – but oh, it was magnetising.

I wasn't alone in that reaction, but then I wasn't typical, either. With both of the Secret Theatre shows so far, there's a belligerence being projected from the stage: a kind of we-don't-actually-fucking-care-if-you-don't-like-this punk posturing that could feel punishing if you were genuinely taking a risk with them, and consequently feel bewildered by what you see. Something else from that Sean Holmes speech: Three Kingdoms “showed to us an audience hungry – perhaps starved of – work this exciting and provocative and important. And if the audience were starving, surely it was our job to feed them?” Well, yes and no. For one thing, do these audiences want feeding – or do they want to collaborate with theatre-makers to cook and eat together? For another: “an audience”? Who is that exactly? And if you know who they are, are you talking to them in the most engaging way?

I'm really interested to know who the people are who have been seeing Secret Theatre: that's why Jake and I have booked a Dialogue Theatre Club to happen at the Lyric Hamm on October 30. Will that family who sat near to my friend Chris, giggling at how bad Show 2 was, turn up? I wish they would. I want my love for this show to be challenged, and their feeling of agony, too. Some of the best conversations I've had about theatre this year have been with people who walked out in the interval, who didn't understand why those choices had been made on stage, who didn't “speak” theatre – but surprised themselves in being able to talk about it. In trying to appreciate each other's responses, we open each other's eyes to other ways of seeing. And that's a pretty amazing thing.


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