In the Mini Grey book Egg Drop, an impatient egg decides to fly by leaping from the top of a very tall tower, 583 steps high. A double spread of illustrated polaroids depicts the many futile attempts to put him back together again. They try string, sticky tape, tomato soup, chewing gum. “Nothing really worked”, says the narrator, mournfully, “and shells don't heal.”
No video for this song, so listen to it here.
I went to see Dirty Market's Oxbow Lakes hoping it would fix me. There was a pertinence to its marketing – “Oxbow Lakes dramatises a child's experience of his parents' conflicted feelings towards him and themselves,” no less – that made me think this play would KNOW. That it was coming from a place of knowing, because Dirty Market's directors, Georgina Sowerby and Jon Lee, are a couple, and have children. In the event, the play felt like the string and sticky tape, tomato soup and chewing gum that prove so ineffective in healing shells, because I saw it when so broken by a trip to London Zoo – can I just pause here for a diatribe against London Zoo? What a fucking nightmare of capitalist extortion. As soon as you walk in – and even getting through the gates costs enough to fill a fridge and food cupboard – it's trying to prise money from you. Take the kids to the toilet and there's the shop, taunting them. Just past the entrance are face-painting and a bouncy castle and fairground rides, all at extra cost. And then everywhere you go there are merchandise stalls, so there's no escape from objects of obscure desire that attract your children ineluctably, far more than the animals, most of whom are asleep anyway. I HATE IT. And the most recent visit was so traumatic that a) I never want to go back, not even to see again how beautiful giraffes' eyelashes are and how much otters love to lick each other's genitals, and b) I arrived at Oxbow Lakes drowning in my unfitness as a mother.
Oxbow Lakes starts with a party, an attempt at a party, poisoned by the child refusing to fall asleep for fear of the shadowy figures lurking in the dark, and the husband and wife (played by Jon and Georgina) arguing over their responsibility in voices choked by the frustration that cloaks guilt: the guilt of regret, of longing, of feeling inadequate to the task of raising another human. The guilt of knowing that a child is supposed to expand your horizons and perspective, yet feeling instead a narrowing of self and existence. How appropriate that this first scene plays out on an impossibly skinny rectangle of stage, the child a black shadow on a white curtain, casting a pall on everything the adults attempt to do.
But what starts as gruesome kitchen-sink realism (there's even a Look Back in Anger ironing board) transforms into grotesque fairy tale when we're moved behind the curtain to the kitsch horror landscape of Oxbow Lakes. The child has fallen into a bedtime story and disappeared into the night; his parents chase after him, mother frantic, Dad inept, both thwarted by a constabulary that would control them and creepy snobbish locals whose nefarious motives are obscure. There was menace here, but also comedy: characters styled as though in a John Waters film, all quiffs and kookiness, those played by Benedict Hopper in particular dry as dead leaves and daffy as panto. The deeper the parents sink into this murky, cartoon world – and again, the set is really considered, a series of painted flats in a magnified Victorian toy theatre – the more estranged they become, until one of them literally no longer recognises the other. Are they really searching for the child? Or a notion of happiness that might not even exist?
There was something problematic about the transition to the final space: a clumsiness in the handling of the audience, who were left behind then admonished for not following sooner; it slowed us down and interrupted the tension. The space we move into is the most menacing yet; I recall plastic sheeting, looming witches, lights swinging, a ribbon rope our only protection, a huge sheela-na-gig icon with gaping, lairy mouth – was it threatening to eat the parents? Destroy them at least. It is their last chance to recognise the distance between the real life they have come to think of as a nightmare, and this place of horror and fear; and because this is a kind fairy story, they do. They rediscover their love for each other, and for their child; they cry out, with relief, with hope, with expressions of love. My broken heart trembled, and longed to feel a similar redemption.
I don't know Georgina or Jon, but we twitter-spoke the next day, after which I sent Georgina an email, a tribute to her bravery I guess; I wanted to confess that I'd seen my darkest soul splayed across the piece, and ask if making it had helped her find a state of grace. She admitted in return that in some respects it worsened the strain, consuming both her and Jon through the summer, as they wrote and rehearsed and built the set and cleaned the venue, leaving scant space for their seething children (who, it transpires, are the same age as mine). For all that it felt like an ensemble work – particularly in the middle section, where a looseness in the text conveyed the multiple collaborative voices engaged in its creation – Oxbow Lakes felt acutely personal, too: a slightly jumbled, self-conscious, but willingly truthful portrait of the struggle to accept that parenting is a difficult, messy business, a concatenation of tiny defeats that puncture the spirits, intermingled with a joy so extreme it turns you to jelly. Strawberry jelly, that the kids consume whole. My life met theirs in that performance space; at points I'd glance around the younger people in the audience, wondering: do you have children? Do you want them? What does this story mean to you? Are you reading this as lived experience? As a cautionary tale?
From the oily murk of Oxbow Lakes to the white soil of Albemarle. Two weeks of October were spent in a rehearsal room with Chris Goode and Company, watching a new phase of research and development into this big strange illogical re-creation of a dream. And immediately I think: no, stop now, don't pin it down in writing, don't define it when – like a child – it still has so much growing to do. But this is just a snapshot of Albemarle in its infancy, taken not to forget. And Albemarle is so like a child at the moment, so like my four-year-old son: curious, and open, and full of love for the individuals who nurture it; unafraid to be naked, or to speak its mind and heart truthfully, without coding or restraint.
There were times in the rehearsal room when I found that truthfulness unbearable. On Monday when I watched Heather Upritchard take off her clothes and mark with black biro every aspect of her body that has caused her anxiety, tracing its lingering scars of uneasy existence, evidence of brutality against herself, and inflicted on her by a capitalist, competitive society. On the same day, Jo Clifford talked about the battle to avoid invasive surgery when transitioning from male to female, the lack of care or respect demonstrated by doctors whose only concern is to fix a body within rigid conservative notions of gender. These events were coloured by a piece of text Chris had written, which he read out on a day when I wasn't in the room, detailing one by one the childhood experiences that had estranged him from his body, and filled him with shame. The unbearable became two-fold: there is so much pain in so many people, and so much noise in my own head that I find hard to block out. As ever, I took refuge in music, and for most of the fortnight I had this song in my head:
And when Lou Reed died, at the end of the fortnight, it was quietly replaced with this song:
And yet, the body was also the site of immense joy in the rehearsal room. There was the shared pleasure of dancing, dancing like no one is watching, dancing to discover freedom. (In the dream that he's re-creating, Chris is directing a dance show – something he's always wanted, but been too afraid, to do.) There was the brain-testing delight of watching Jeni Draper speak in sign language, each moment of comprehension a happy surprise. (Jeni plays Chris' neighbour, Simon Pegg – it's a dream, OK? – and is integral to the utopia Chris is creating within the piece, in which ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality, are not crushed by iron hierarchical structures that promote primarily the white middle-class heterosexual able-bodied “normal” male, but co-exist in more fluid, generous social arrangements.) There was, for Jo – who plays Chris' mum (in the dream no longer dead) – and Chris, a shared experience of taking control of the body's representation, inspiring to witness. Jo, I sense from her blog, is engaged in a long slow process of stripping away the carapace she built around herself in unhappy decades of living as a man; on a day when I wasn't in the room, she did this literally, flinging off her clothes in a fervour of relief at feeling accepted, admired, for the complicated, transgender being that she is. On a day when I was in the room, I saw Chris – fleetingly, in glimpses, because I was busy swirling around like a gush of water – move in a way I've never seen him move before: he's usually so tip-toey and timid, but here he ran and leapt and frolicked like a foal discovering the power of its feet. Afterwards we sat as a group and talked about this transformation, and he looked suddenly years younger, luminous.
We talked about healing, too, and self-indulgence. This was an indulgent room. Many days began with a massage, with taking the time to care for someone quietly, physically, listening to their body's needs. How is that work? All these cries from the soul: isn't that what therapy is for? At the end of the fortnight, Albemarle travelled to Leeds for a further stage of R&D, this time with the dancers; one of them, Jonny Liron, also works in construction, and quickly demonstrated his impatience with the touchy-feely London room. When do builders, or supermarket workers, or train drivers, get the space to sift through crushing experiences of scorn and betrayal, of bullying and shame?
It's easy to condemn artists for abysmal narcissism. It's much harder to attempt to answer why capitalist structures foster scorn, betrayal, bullying and shame – and what kind of society could we build in which people no longer cause or feel this pain? A society in which consideration is more important than competition? We carry within ourselves what we need to make utopia, Chris suggested on that luminous day, but it's beaten down by violence, brutality and fear.
While working with Chris, I read a book by American writer and queer activist Sarah Schulman that was like having my eyes scoured with brillo pads: I saw the world around me, and myself, differently, more clearly, afterwards. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination looks at the impact of Aids on the queer, trans, immigrant, artist and in myriad ways other communities of New York in the 1980s, its acceleration of a two-fold process of gentrification: the same physical gentrification that I've been witnessing across London in my lifetime, whereby areas once home to huddle-muddle social groups become colonised by white moneyed middle-classes, squeezing and pricing everyone else either out of the area or into isolation and inferiority; and a mental gentrification no less recognisable, whereby what she scathingly describes as “supremacy ideology” promotes a homogenised culture in which corporate, non-individual, non-antagonistic expression are given social dominance while radicalism or dissent are either punitively restricted or, once the mind is successfully gentrified, not attempted at all. It's an uncomfortable read, because it demands accountability, and because it cherishes discomfort:
“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. … Depending on our caste and context, opportunities are regularly presented that enable us to achieve more safety by exploiting unjust systems. … We get to feel better precisely because someone else doesn't have what they need.
“Conveniently there is a billion-dollar self-help industry that tells us to treat the very skewed frame as if it were neutral: Accept it. Be grateful for it. Do not resist. … If you are the demographic that the frame was designed to inflate, accepting it will help you maximise its privileges. But if you are the demographic that the frame was designed to defeat or marginalise, accepting it makes it more effective for its intended beneficiaries. …
“We live with an idea of happiness that is based in other people's diminishment. But we do not address this because we hold an idea of happiness that … excludes asking uncomfortable questions and saying things that are true but which might make us and others uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable or asking others to be uncomfortable is practically considered antisocial because the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy.”
The Gentrification of the Mind, p166-7
For Schulman, people have “an unquestionable responsibility” to take care of others, “even if it makes you uncomfortable”. People have a right to individuated expression. People need to recognise that the perceptions of the privileged, prioritised in most cultural activity, are not the only reality. She speaks throughout from personal experience, subjective anecdote, painful memory. And yet, there is nothing indulgent about this book. It is a book that names and exposes the homogenising social frameworks that deny difference, disobedience, diversity, and begins to argue a path (back) towards utopia. Reading this book, I saw another glimpse of Albemarle.
Indulgence is a ticklish word within Chris Goode and Co. I wasn't involved in the rehearsal process for Scottee's show The Worst of Scottee earlier this year, which Chris directed, but understand that it came up a lot in that room, too. In The Worst, Scottee looks at four key experiences in his life, times when he lied, stole, took advantage of people, and did something in shy innocence with such cataclysmic negative effect that he's still living with the damage. Now and then, during the show, we see a filmed interview with someone Scottee knew during that time; the videos feel pointless, because all these people have long since moved on – but that, of course, is the point. No one bears as much ill-will towards Scottee as Scottee himself.
I thought The Worst was extraordinary. I know Scottee a little bit – I interviewed him early last year for the Guardian, about his brilliant beauty pageant (Ham)Burger Queen, and he surprised me: the minuscule awareness I had of his work had given me the now-incomprehensible impression that he'd be arrogant, aggressive, mocking; in fact he was friendly and thoughtful, if a touch businesslike, and admirably cogent in his argument for a live-art-meets-light-entertainment brand of performance that reaches out to people like his mum and his neighbours on the council estate where he lives – but I don't think knowing him much affected my response to The Worst, except perhaps in making me worry for his health while he's touring it. Part of what makes it extraordinary is its lacerating honesty; that, and the frame Scottee (and Chris) have created for its articulation. Scottee performs almost the entire thing in a mock-up photobooth, the kind of place teenagers used to go to take selfies before smartphones changed everything. He talks not directly to us but to the camera, to himself and to an anonymous world, a remove that allows impossible truths to be voiced aloud. He could be taking confession, except the only place absolution is going to come from is himself. Until now, what he's given himself instead is metamorphosis, from the fucked-up teenager with an eating disorder finding oblivion in alcohol and drugs to outrageously glam femme-chub Scottee; The Worst opens with him decked out in a piss-take funeral suit and black face paint, obstreperously singing Cry Me a River while fake tears soak his ruffled shirt. By the end, he has stripped away clothes, paint, skin, and his vulnerability is shocking.
“Time is a healer,” Matt Trueman wrote in his review of The Worst, “and it’s here that the show sidesteps any suggestion of self-indulgence.” I found this interesting, not least because Matt is one of three people who described Chris' show God/Head as self-indulgent, and he used the same word privately to me as an indictment of Wuthering Heights, which we saw on the same night at Battersea Arts Centre, almost at the end of my Albemarle fortnight. How curious, I thought. Wuthering Heights wasn't indulgent. It was healing.
Wuthering Heights made me laugh and flinch and ache and cry. I want to try and remember it moment by moment, because none of the reviews I've read (with the exception of Catherine Love's) quite captures its richness, but I didn't take notes, so what follows is a jumble. It starts with a horse (Nick Anderson) whinnying as it gallops around the perimeter of the space, acknowledging and accepting its entrapment, while three men spruce themselves up in early-Victorian suits. The horse is monogamous, proud yet caring, with great respect for his ancestors who lived outwith captivity (how I love the cadence of that phrase). This, it's clear, is Heathcliff's horse: a measure of the man. But this is not – so Peter McMaster, who performs in and directed the piece, acknowledges in his introduction – a straightforward adaptation of Heathcliff's story. Peter realises this will trouble some people, but hopes they understand that this performance is being given to them with love.
We know these men love us because they recognise that Wuthering Heights, for a lot of people, means Kate Bush's batshriek wail just as much as Emily Bronte's novel, and within five minutes of the show starting it's blaring through the sound system and they're dancing:
Because I'm quite stupid, it wasn't until I read the reviews that I realised they were re-creating that video; in any case, I was too busy wanting to have sex with all of them right there to think about postmodern cultural cut-and-paste. I think this scene does something remarkable: it's light and it's funny and it's adorable, and in being so it shows you everything that is potentially attractive about self-possessed, confident, cheeky, preening, smarmy, lascivious masculinity. The masculinity that doesn't know its own privilege because it never needs to question it. Big, bold, butter-wouldn't-melt masculinity that gets away with murder, the murder of people and planet enacted day after day in the name of patriarchal society, because it's so seductive.
It's a masculinity the four men carry inside them: another early scene has them coughing as though drilling to the depths of their torsos to dislodge it. One morning in the Albemarle rehearsal room, Jamie Wood talked diffidently of his inner caveman, whose savage existence troubles him sometimes, but protects him, too. What is lost in the rejection of traditional, “natural” masculinity? What is gained?
There are two relays: in the first, the four men each describe an incident that contributed to shaping their ideas of masculinity. I remember Thom Scullion's: he recalled walking hand-in-hand with his father, aged about seven, and his father saying to him, “One day you won't want to do this any more.” Was his father preparing his son for manly isolationism, or preparing himself for inevitable rejection? Thom's story reminded me of a man I spoke to when taking part in Rosana Cade's brilliant Walking:Holding in August at Forest Fringe, a man in his 60s who had spent decades not holding hands with people, not even his wife, because when he was a child his father had told him men don't do such things.
In the second, the four take turns to comment on each other as though delivering a form sheet on a race horse: height, weight, key characteristics. He's in an 11-year relationship – wooh! Yeah! Slap him on the arse! He's a fan of masturbation – louder cheers! Champion pose! Slap him on the arse! In this sequence they are footballers scoring hard-fought goals, Usain Bolt on winning gold at the Olympics: self-aggrandising, swaggering, playing down weakness. The arse-slapping was perfectly judged: it is the bodily contact that alpha males find acceptable, anything else being gay and therefore abhorrent.
There is a slender thread running through all of this: a longing to father and be fathered. Another brief diversion: the word fathering inevitably makes me think of this song:
Hand-in-hand with that, this song:
Why Mark Mulcahy never became as famous as Jeff Buckley defeats me.
What next? Other masculine archetypes emerge: Thom stands in the centre of the circle, stiff-backed, authoritarian, a monolithic, unemotional figure who starts out generic, an industrialist, a grandfather, a begetter of individuals and so of society, but slowly transmogrifies into the no less authoritarian or monolithic Heathcliff, doomed both to perpetuate this figure and measure himself against it. The horse talks about Heathcliff and himself, in doing so emphasising that the field boundaries that contain his existence are replicated in his master's life. Heathcliff's ancestors may have lived outwith captivity, but Heathcliff is enclosed within a patriarchy that is slowly adapting to prudish Victorian morality and the slow rise of capitalism.
The irony is that to Cathy, Heathcliff represents a freedom, one she can't have. In one of the few sections that feel close to the novel, Cathy and Nelly – played by (I think) Murray Wason and Peter, dressed in long silken dresses that gape at the back, zips stuck beneath shoulder blades – Cathy and Nelly commune by candlelight: Cathy tells Nelly that she has agreed to marry Linton, but she's afraid, because she loves Heathcliff. She sinks to the floor, howling with the wildness and transformational potential of that love: “I love him because he's more me than I am myself.” I love him because with him I could reject or take on the world. I love him because he fills the air with extra oxygen. I love him even though he's trouble, because he's trouble, because I want to make trouble. I love him because we make each other better, stronger, braver people. There isn't enough of that kind of love in the world.
What else? Cathy's death, in Heathcliff's arms, him begging, desperate, wanting – but it's too late, because his pride murdered her, and his social position, and his jealousy, and his wildness, and his freedom. Her body is laid out in the centre of the circle and, in recognition of that dreary violence, the other three sing a murder ballad, Down in the Willow Garden, as though recanting a liturgy:
Another diversion: it's a source of some regret to me how much I love murder ballads. I have a sickening catalogue in my head of women strangled, stabbed, slashed at the neck, shot, left in a ravine, dumped in a lake, hidden beneath bracken, abandoned, decomposing, pecked at by birds of prey, sometimes because they had the temerity to look at or kiss or fuck another man, sometimes for no reason at all. I hate their violence, their misogyny, their jealous black emotion – and yet, there is a magnetic pull to their lurching rhythms and bleak chords that turns my head and makes me almost giddy. Songs in which the perpetrator is a woman are rare but I secretly, savagely relish them; these are two of my favourites:
It's after the murder ballad, I think, that Wuthering Heights fractures. Peter, still dressed as Nelly, walks up to Heathcliff, stands maybe a foot away from him, and begins to ask a series of questions, calmly at first, gradually becoming agitated, enraged, convulsed by pain. It's important that he's both male and female now, himself and a character; the questions could be spoken by Nelly to Heathcliff, by women or by men, by an individual or by society as a whole:
Are you feeling alone?
Do you like yourself?
Do you think you are a good person?
Do you see yourself in nature?
Do you get scared?
What do you think about sex?
What do you really think about sex?
What makes you feel aggressive?
Do you value women?
You know the things that happen in the night to women in parks or other dark places – do you think you could ever be the person who does that?
Are you homophobic?
Have you ever fantasized over a man?
Do you believe men and women are different?
Do you enjoy having power?
Do you know how to manipulate people?
When are you at your most vulnerable?
What will you never mention out loud?
What do you care about?
Are you trapped?
Does it make you sick?
Will it change?
Is it changing?
How long will it be like this?
There is something still to do isn’t there?
What is it?
That's maybe a quarter of the text; Peter reads it from sheets of paper, his voice growing hoarse as anger and anguish rip through his chest. Thom/Heathcliff stands motionless in the face of this hurricane, features barely flinching, but every word is like a dagger, and at just the moment when you think, surely he can't take any more, you realise that Cathy has risen and is standing behind him, her arms wrapped around his chest, not quite protecting him, or even forgiving him, but supporting him, reassuring him that this needs to be faced. One body holding another, beginning a process of healing. Creating a new framework of existence in which care is key.
What happens next? The scene is so excoriating, a prolonged electric shock, I don't quite remember. Soon Peter and Murray put their suits back on and there's a sequence in which Heathcliff searches for Cathy. Murray, or was it Thom, stands in the centre, the other three at corners of the room, and directs them in an outward-facing scream of longing: you're looking for her with hope, frustration, embarrassment, the agony of lost hope, the burning memory of someone you once loved, shame. Each time he adds a set of instructions to characterise their cries, one of them stops screaming and quietly watches him, knowing that he risks revealing more and more of himself. There is confusion here, and pain, and nothing in the way of answers, only a knowing that if we – not just men – don't name all these feelings, all the frustration, hope, embarrassment, agony, burning memories, shame, nothing can change.
Somewhere here I think they talk about what they want for the future. As men. As fathers. And the final words belong to the horse, still calm, still proud, understanding and accepting that his freedom from captivity will come with age, and death. For men, for us, it has to happen before then.
So no, Wuthering Heights isn't an adaptation: it's a multi-authored autobiography, a social study, an inquiry, an exorcism, a challenge, a howl of pain. And yes, I know Peter McMaster: we met a year ago by chance, when Dialogue was resident at BAC, and now I bring into his work an ongoing conversation with him that is sometimes light-hearted, sometimes intense, sometimes political, sometimes personal, always full of respect, admiration and trust. One strand of that conversation deals with his belief that there is a masculine responsibility not to rely on feminism to fix the modern world, which in effect places women in an impossible position, but for men to work together to address the malignity of masculinity, break it down, and find new ways of being, and being together, that are more androgynous, spiritual, conscious, that will wreak less havoc and injury. I caught echoes of those conversations in Wuthering Heights – but also sensed the private soul-searching conversations that had taken place between its performers, quiet admissions to each other that burnish the work, giving it a complexity of texture: distress and tenderness, rage and sympathy.
It wasn't Peter but the horse, Nick Anderson, who told me later that their Wuthering Heights is only possible because the four of them check in and out each day: sit together and ask each other how they are, confess emotional baggage rather than attempt to conceal it, sharing these burdens rather than expecting individuals to deal with them alone. The check-in/-out is central to Chris Goode and Co's work, too: it creates within Chris's rehearsal rooms and theatre places of understanding, listening, not-judging, that cherish openness, honesty, truth. These places make change possible. Healing possible.
The more I think about theatre as a place of healing, the more I realise that almost everything I've seen over the past year fits into this narrative. Perhaps it's the central narrative of all theatre. But I've already been writing this post for what feels like weeks: it has to end somewhere. Over that time, I saw two more stories of healing that felt different in some essential way to the ones mentioned above. Oxbow, Albemarle, The Worst and Wuthering Heights all wrench open the self to attempt a healing from the gut and the heart: Landscape II and The Events are more cerebral, journeys wrought by an omniscient author, that trace the arc of a character's progress from trauma towards healing. My response to both was less personal, more intellectual.
Appropriately enough, it took two goes at Landscape II for me to grasp it. Partly that's down to the subtlety of the work: it's a mark of how intricate and barely perceptible its gestures are that Melanie Wilson acknowledges her audience's presence, our active role in the room, by walking through the auditorium to the stage, then giving us a wisp of a smile and a five-degree nod of the head. Yet another aside: the further I get from the experience of sitting in the same room as her/this work, the more I connect Wilson with PJ Harvey – it's something to do with the way Landscape and Let England Shake are constructed with a painstaking attention to minute detail conveyed with the lightest of touch.
Partly my responses were conditioned by the circumstances of watching. The first time I was at the Lighthouse in Poole, with a small in number, slightly older audience, many of whom fidgeted throughout. I felt that discomfort, that boredom, that distance from the story, and to a degree shared it, because Wilson's delivery is slow, acoustically resonant but not emotionally so, soft and flat and requiring absolute focus and investment just to stay awake, let alone absorb and comprehend what she's saying. But I also resisted, because the story fascinated me. Wilson portrays a war photographer called Vivian, holed up in an isolated barnhouse in the North Devon moors, slowly encountering her great-great grandmother Beatrice (who stayed in the same house some 100 years previously) through a stash of brown crinkly diary-letters discovered in an upstairs room, and resisting the memory of another woman, Mina, whom she befriended in an unnamed country in a war zone in the Middle East, whose story she once had a responsibility to tell – a responsibility she feels she failed. It's a complicated tale, and Wilson recounts it with a soporific patience, shifting between landscapes, slipping between sheets of time, using a computer and a mixing desk to trigger her meticulous score and backdrop images, multiplying distractions. The sound design alone is extraordinary: a fascinating mixture of abstract and representational, the snarl of fox folding into the crackle of paper and the creak of wooden beams, the mulch of leaves, the static stab of memory, and always the electric buzz of atoms vibrating in the air. And the film – by Will Duke, incorporating images from the Beaford Old Archive – is gorgeous: sharp blue skies, wide expanses of land, intricately detailed photographs of plants, spider webs, rocks, the veins on hands, looked at with the curious intensity of a child. In Poole, it was too much: as when watching opera, I couldn't simultaneously take in the words, the visuals and the audio. (How brilliant that Wilson is working on an opera next: she's perfect for it.)
My second go was at the Lakeside in Colchester, with a bigger and more engaged audience, mostly comprising students, whose thrillingly mixed response I'm going to write about on the Fuel/New Theatre in YourNeighbourhood blog if I EVER get this stupid post finished. Their focus improved mine – but also I was better placed to focus: having already seen the visuals, I could hear the words more clearly. I even took notes, but I've since lost the scrap of paper they're written on: apologies to Melanie if I'm misquoting. I was particularly struck by the theory of photography: Vivian takes photographs to hear voices better, which seems so contrary, but then it's clear, later in the piece, that she's forcibly being silenced when her camera is removed from her. Vivian takes photographs to make those voices audible to a wider world: to bring women out of isolated communities and ensure that their existence is at the very least recorded (you only need to read the first paragraph of this report, by Unicef, to recognise how important that is). Photography here potentially stands in for all art: certainly I understood it as representing Wilson's own task in making Landscape II, her sense of duty towards other women, towards all humanity, when creating theatre. What is the difference between reading about Mina, the woman in the Middle East, in a newspaper, and encountering her in the theatre? How much more does her story resonate? What possibilities are created for feeling a sense of connection with her?
What Wilson does, with the delicacy of a spider spinning its web, is draw the lines of connection between Mina, Vivian, Vivian's great-great-grandmother Beatrice – and from them to herself and her audience. In one of the diary-letters, Vivian discovers an instruction from Beatrice's mother: the time Beatrice is spending in North Devon is her last moment of self-determination before she is to take up her role as a woman, as a wife and mother. A century later, Mina tells Vivian that she must have children, because children bring a woman her truest happiness, her truest role in life, and her truest hope for the future. Mina and Beatrice occupy the same cultural space in which women's lives are circumscribed and defined by their genetic procreativity. Vivian occupies a new cultural space, in which women have the freedom to choose non-gendered creativity instead. If Vivian falters when asked whether women have equality in her country, it's because she is aware how much work there is left to do, not least in questioning what we mean by equality and what value judgments are being utilised to measure that equality. Photography, art, theatre create spaces in which to ask those questions.
I took lots of forgotten notes about solitude, too: what it means to be alone, to isolate oneself. Beatrice's retreat from family, expectations, responsibilities, to the isolation of the moors is a gift; for Vivian, it's an escape from failure. Beatrice becomes an adventurer, an explorer of nature, takes long wild walks, scratches her initials into a wooden beam of the house – a modest mark to make on the world, but a mark none the less. Vivian timidly follows in her footsteps, spending long hours gazing out to sea, feeling rootless and lost. But it's through communing with the ghost of Beatrice, facing up to her memories of Mina, and nursing a wounded fox – the animal symbol of her wounded self – that Vivian finds equilibrium again, and finds her way back to the world. I completely missed the first time around the import of the final letter Vivian reads, an invitation to take on a new job. Her receptiveness to it is our signal that she has healed.
DavidGreig's The Events follows a similar trauma-to-healing trajectory. The woman, Claire, is a victim, and her victim-hood isolates her from society as effectively as if she had been the perpetrator of violence. It estranges her from her girlfriend, makes her bullying and impatient, prevents her relating to people, makes her contemplate suicide and murder. Her soul has left her: she felt it fly away, when a gun was pointed at herself and another woman and they were asked to choose who should be shot. More prosaically, she has lost all connection with the world.
Matt Trueman's review – so rigorous and penetrating I had to read it twice to comprehend it – has rendered most other commentary superfluous, even if you don't agree with his argument (I agree with 92% of it). But what's a blog for if not indulging superfluities. Like Matt, I'm caught by the conflict of art and violence in The Events, and to the possibility that the perpetrator of violence, The Boy, represents a majority view. I'd assumed he's quite young, but that's because I'm rubbish at history:
By the time he was my age Jesus had founded a world religion.
By the time he was my age Bob Geldof had saved Africa.
By the time he was my age Gavrilo Princip had fired the shot that started world war one.
If I'm going to make a mark on the world I have to do it now.
The only means I have are art or violence.
And I was never any good at drawing.
Princip was almost 20, Jesus was (probably) late-20s, Geldof at the time of Band Aid was 33, Live Aid 34. So let's say The Boy is 34. January 5, 2010, age 34, I woke up at 7am to the shattering realisation that everything I'd wanted to do for the past 10 years (minimum) still hadn't been done. The writing. The making. The staking a meaningful place in the world. What's interesting about The Boy – and this is particularly because Rudi Dharmalingam's performance is astonishing, casual yet hypnotic – is that he represents anything you might want to throw at him: he is every white supremacist who espouses fascism and every Islamist who follows al-Qaida/equivalent supremacist organisations, he is the Boston bombers and the killers of Lee Rigby and the men firing guns in a shopping mall in Kenya, he is the people who pick up rifles and shoot children, co-workers, strangers, in schools and workplaces and public spaces across the world. Within the specific world of the play he is, for Claire, The Boy's father, the politician whose ideology he shared, the journalist who popularised him, plus her psychiatrist, her partner, a man who stops her throwing herself off a cliff – Dharmalingam plays them all, modulating his voice and gestures minutely each time. The Boy is Everyman – Everyhuman. And that includes, potentially, us.
On the one hand, that's about art. I defy anyone who makes art in any capacity to say that they're not trying to leave a mark on the world. We're so embarrassed by ambition, by ego, most of all by the fear of being caught out, that we pull a curtain of self-deprecation over everything we do – but the ambition and ego are there all the same. The arrogance and self-belief, that others, even one other person, should pay attention to the things we write or make or draw or dance. It's a wonder more art doesn't get called self-indulgent.
On the other, that's about violence. The first time he speaks, The Boy tells a story about an “aboriginal boy” seeing three ships approach his land from England, carrying “class and religion and disease and a multitude of other instruments of objectification and violence, all of which are about to be unleashed upon his people”. The Boy thinks the people on the ships should all be killed. Claire sees the positive side: isn't it just possible, she muses, that the aboriginal boy might think, “Thank fuck something interesting has finally happened round here.” Well, yes, that's possible. But who is more persuasive in their thinking: Claire? Or The Boy?
Greig underscores the terrifying notion that we all carry The Boy – or at least, an incomprehensible “thing of darkness” – within us when Claire uses exactly the same words at the end of The Events to address the audience as she used to greet The Boy at the beginning, to welcome him to the community choir that she runs in her tiny parish church in a nowhere corner of Scotland, and invite him to join in. It wasn't until talking to the as ever brilliant Young Vic/TwoBoroughs Theatre Club discussion group that I was able to articulate the levels of fiction and reality I'd seen in The Events. Claire and The Boy occupy a fictional space; the community choir sharing the stage with them are the mirror of the audience in the real world; in the bridging space between are the stage manager and the repetiteur. Claire's healing journey takes her from a place of isolation within the fictional space – at the beginning she stands on the side, truculent and cold, separated from the choir and from the audience, unable to make eye contact with anyone – across the bridge into the real world that we occupy with the choir, a gap now closed by their movement forward until they might shake hands with the front row. What heals her is the understanding that she will never comprehend violence in other people – but she can reject it within herself. To act with compassion is the best we can do.
I saw The Events twice, too: in Edinburgh with (I think) the Soweto Melodic Voices choir (the Soweto bit of that is right, even if nothing else is) and at the Young Vic with the Greenwich Soul Choir. I preferred it the first time, for the simple reason that the choir all had black skin and different accents to the actors; in London most of them were white and talked as though presenting the Today programme. It makes a difference to the play's advocacy of multiculturalism, of multiple tribes living side by side, when Dharmalingam isn't the darkest-skinned person on stage. Both times, I felt invigorated by the argument, excited, alarmed, impressed – but it wasn't until the very last moments that something emotional in me moved. “And we're all here,” the choir sing, locking eyes with their audience, “we're all in here.” I know it's not real, the togetherness: it's transitory, a fiction almost. But I believe in its potential – to articulate hard truths, create the possibility of change, to heal. And I find that tremblingly beautiful.
“It's weirdly passive to commit gentrification, even though the consequence is brutal. It feels safe to be like others, and frightening to be one's self – because that requires knowing what one's true self is – and not in a New Agey sense where anything one “feels” (a euphemism for wants) is right. But in a truthful sense, to see one's dark side and conflicts and in that way, realise one's self as human. Not as an excuse to not change, but as a starting point for change.”
Sarah Shulman, The Gentrification of the Mind, p177-8