Saturday, 12 October 2013

Continuing the dialogue...

Well this is something I NEVER thought I'd say but comments have been turned off on something I've written for the Guardian and I'm really annoyed about it. For the past two days I've been having a lengthy – very lengthy – conversation below the line (a place I generally avoid) with Daniel York, about my review of his play The Fu Manchu Complex at Ovalhouse. It was my turn to respond – and I can't, because the tiny window of opportunity for comments has closed. Hence coming here.

This whole experience has been odd from start to finish. I wasn't supposed to see Daniel's play: I had tickets to see a scratch show by Make/Shift with Chris Brett Bailey as a kind of David Bowie mer-boy (how brilliant does that sound?) plus Clout's The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity at BAC, but had to cancel because Michael Billington was off sick and Lyn Gardner had to pick up his shows so I got one of hers. So already I was in the wrong place. And then the play was just not my cup of tea: a “cod-Edwardian schlock-horror farce burdened with cock jokes and schoolboy sniggering” is how I described it in the review. Politically, it was really interesting: a representation of Empire fears of (again, my review, paraphrasing from the play) “the Yellow Peril swarming from China, a pestilence of locusts that threatens western economic hegemony” that very clearly argued that the same fear exists now, both at a macro level, in wary media discussion around what will happen when China takes over America's role as the world's biggest superpower, and at a micro level, in the lack of opportunities for east-Asians in British theatre. But the framing, the farce, the innuendo, the silliness, all got in the way for me.

There are two things I regret about my review. One: the construction, “York could have written anything, and almost anything would be an improvement on this”. I knew when I was writing it I was being rude. It was a neatly turned sentence, and it made me think about Mark Kermode's brilliant piece in the Obs recently, about how negative reviews are the ones that get remembered, and how I don't really want to be one of those writers. I'd rather be earnest and sensitive and sympathetic and forgotten than flamboyantly rude and memorable. (OK, I'm lying: of course I want to be memorable. But also earnest, etc etc.) Two: mishearing “traumatic” for “dramatic” and using that as the starting point for an overly compacted sentence that clumsily tried to communicate that a) the theatrical form used by the play felt dated to me and b) includes the words “postmodern irony” which even as I wrote them I was thinking, really? Come on, me, you can do better than that.

It was that error around the word traumatic that prompted Daniel to respond in the comments box. And I'm REALLY glad he did. It hasn't been an easy conversation – how could it be, when I've criticised his work, in public? There's quite a lot of anger in his responses, of course there is. But I don't have to rise to that. Our interaction has very quickly become a Dialogue project for me. Is it possible for a critic to write a negative review, or articulate a negative opinion, and still be able to have a useful, non-antagonistic and non-hierarchical conversation with the people who made that work? In the critical culture that Jake and I propose, non-hierarchical is key: we want to create spaces in which critics, makers and audiences (and of course those three things overlap) meet and talk as equals. I've been thinking a lot this week about something I came across in Chris Goode's blog, “putting your armour down”: letting go of ego, letting go of all the status and authority and privilege you, consciously or unconsciously, arm yourself with in your interactions with the world. My two-star review, his retaliation: armour up. Everything I've written to him in comments boxes, I've tried really hard to put my armour down.

As it happens, my conversation with Daniel coincided with the publication on Rajni Shah's blog of a conversation between herself and Matt Trueman about her show Glorious, which Matt saw in London a couple of years ago and basically hated. It's discursive, thoughtful, respectful, and requires Matt to be very specific about how he watched that show, in London, and again several months later in Lancaster. I cherish that conversation, in the same way that I cherish this unexpected, spiralling splurge of a discussion I'm having with Daniel: because we're all rejecting the prevalent culture, in which critics and makers are in two separate camps and critics get to pass judgement and makers are just supposed to take it. Come on: everything about that construction is wrong. We're in this world together: let's be brave enough to talk to each other, to accept each other's criticism, to really talk about the world and how we see it. Isn't that why we make, go to, live through theatre? Because it illuminates and detonates and remakes the world?

The difficult thing about putting my armour down is being aware, constantly, of sounding really stupid in my replies to Daniel. I'm OK with that, I think. We're talking about complex stuff – race, racism, stereotype, re-enactment, cultural specificity – and coming at those issues from different ethnic backgrounds. The more we talk, the more I see the world through his eyes. Not his play, the world. And the more we talk, the more we're telling people who will never see Daniel's play about the issues he wanted to address on stage, and the experience of racism that prompted him to write it. 

Another Dialogue principle: a piece of theatre, and the review it inspires, are the beginning of a discussion. So here's our discussion so far:

DY, 11 Oct, 8.42am
I wouldn't normally do this but I have to correct Maddy right at the end there. The words "dashedly" and "dramatic" are never juxtaposed in this way at any point in my script. I believe the line Maddy's referring to is Dr. Petrie's "it’s so truly and appallingly and dashedly TRAUmatic that...it calls for sustenance" and there is no attempt at post-modernism here (though there is plenty elsewhere.

Far be it from me to criticise a critic but if you're going to quote a writer's lines at them I would've thought it good practice to make absolutely sure they're correct but then,like the rest of your review, it does rather seem that you were writing your own somewhat lurid version of my play as you went along.

MC, 11 Oct, 12.25pm
Hi Daniel - thank you so much for posting this comment, critics SHOULD be criticised, especially when we make mistakes. And I'm somewhat traumatised to admit that I've done wrong, for which a huge apology. Not for the first time, i wish scripts for new plays were made available to reviewers as a matter of course - it wouldn't cost anyone anything to email a copy of the text to the reviewer, right? And would certainly help avoid stupid mistakes like this one.

I'm interested that you think I've presented a lurid version of your play: isn't the intention that it's quite lurid? In terms of the production and design, in that it draws very vividly on stylised and melodramatic arts such as Hammer horror and burlesque; in terms of the writing, in that it's a pulp-fiction detective story? Don't worry if you haven't time or desire to respond, I'm just curious. All very best, and sincere apologies again for being a cloth-eared nitwit, Maddy

DY: 11 Oct, 2.44pm
Maddy. It IS intentionally lurid but I think you’ve chosen to focus on elements which you’ve blown completely out of proportion. The cock jokes. Only about five in the whole thing if memory serves. You may not like them but far better writers than myself have used them with far greater regularity. Shakespeare and Aristophanes to name but two. The whole of New Dr. Who (the biggest show on TV) is awash with smutty sex jokes. I don’t see you going after a multi-millionaire power-house like Steven Moffat. Instead you pick on little ethnics in pokey fringe theatres putting on their first play. I’m flattered you pay me the compliment of not patronising me but I don’t think you’ve looked terribly hard or been terribly objective.

You focus also on the opening song describing it as “too indignant for subtlety”. I don’t know how aware of this you are but the “Yellow Peril” press headlines of the period were if anything even less subtle and even a “great British writer” like Rudyard Kipling maintained that it was “right to kill the Chinaman”. The song structure is based on the overture from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, again set in “foggy old London”, where the cast sing deliberately lurid lyrics about a threat lurking in the capital. You can say it fails but I would’ve thought an experienced critic like yourself would’ve got the intention at least. Instead you seem to imply that I’ve strung these things together to try and get cheap laughs which is not what I’m about at all. Incidentally we did at one point consider putting quotes from the period (along with more recent ones like Jeremy Clarkson’s recent Morcambe Bay crack) on video during the transitions but we decided it would be patronising to the audience.
You also (like one or two others) mention “the Irish man ridiculed as a "potato-nosher clover-face". There is no Irish man in my play. There is a cockney manservant with an Irish surname who’s assumed by the representative of the establishment to be “Irish”. Every BAME actor (and indeed person) has had this experience. You are placed in a box marked “other” despite being ostensibly British. I’m not sure how you missed that.

And while you’re berating me for a lack of “subtlety” you rather undermine yourself with your own rather obvious “kung fu kick of ribaldry” swipe which strikes me as the worst kind of racial profiling.

I’m also a little taken aback that you choose to waste one entire paragraph on my bakcground arguing "for east Asian theatremakers to create opportunities for themselves" when you’re decrying “brevity” on Twitter. I honestly think you were reviewing me rather than my play and certainly not my director, my cast or my designer, none of whom merit even the briefest of mentions.

You decry the lack of “post modern irony” but when I have one character lamenting that once upon a time they were rounded out and three dimensional, another declaring that they were created from the “lurid imaginings of noble white master” and Fu Manchu him(her)self remarking that “every
conceivable cliche and trope” has been “catered for” I’m not sure how much more obvious I can be without being really unsubtle.

If I’m even more honest though I think you have entirely proved my point that elements of the establishment media seem to baulk strongly whenever East Asians attempt anything other than Suffering In China or being Swathed In Silk.

I’d be interested to see how you would ‘ve reacted if a black person had written the same play but I guess that’s hypothetical. Are you going to deny that the audience find it entertaining and, yes, thought provoking?

Only the other day Lyn Gardner was asking if theatre criticism is in crisis. I’d say yes IMHO.

PS I would’ve sent you the script if you’d asked.

MC: 11 Oct, 11.36pm
Hi Daniel – again, thanks for taking the time to comment, there is SO MUCH food for thought here...

So: theatre criticism in crisis. As is happens, I feel a lot of discomfort around this kind of review format. In fact, I almost never do it – Lyn was supposed to come to Fu Manchu, but Michael B was ill this week, so she had to take over his jobs and I took on one of hers. I feel odd about the spurious authority it imposes on the critic, the bluntness of the star rating. Last year I co-founded an organisation called Dialogue, essentially to question everything about how theatre criticism operates and begin to figure out whether we could create a parallel practice in which critics didn't write a judgement of a show but engaged in a dialogue about it, with the makers and with audiences. So yes, totally agree with you: there are people for whom the 300-word-plus-star-rating review works really well, but I think criticism can be much more than that.

I seem to be working backwards so: certainly, some people in the audience I was with found it entertaining; I wasn't with them long enough to find out if they found it thought-provoking. Yes, I think that question is hypothetical – but you saying that reminded me of Kwame Kwei-Armah (who I totally love) talking about how important it is to him to tell stories through his cultural lens. He argues constantly that by writing with cultural specificity, you create stories that have universal resonance.

This has been a useful thing to remember thinking about representation in Fu Manchu. By setting it in the era that you do, I feel like you see Chinese people not through your own cultural lens, but through the lens of the British empire. And I'm curious to know why you made that choice? Clearly I'm looking at this play through my own cultural lens: I'm a white woman, born in London, but with Cypriot parents; I've never experienced racism but my brother did whenever he got a suntan. So I'm coming from a particular perspective when I wonder what the value is to an audience to present to them Empire stereotypes of Chinese people – slanty eyes, slipperiness, exoticism – rather than reject that in favour of expressing your own cultural specificity, encouraging audiences to look through your cultural lens.

Agreed: who wants to see Suffering in China or Swathed in Silk again and again? But I spent a lot of time during the play wondering what kind of modern Chinese story you might have written, or is missing from our theatre. I noticed that you'd been part of the Royal Court Unheard Voices initiative and found that fascinating, because this is totally unlike anything I'd expect from a writer who'd been through the Royal Court. Which says a lot about expectations raised by the Royal Court, of course, but also is my way of saying I was really surprised by how old-fashioned this felt. I haven't seen a play like this for a really long time – which could be a good thing, of course – but what I really mean by that is that I spend a lot of time in fringe theatres, mostly seeing pretty experimental work. Or in the Royal Court, seeing pretty modern work. This play was neither of those things, and I wonder what direction you're heading in next?

One more thing on gaze/cultural specificity: I wonder if I emphasised the cock jokes – which in my head includes all sexual innuendo, although clearly that's a ridiculous shorthand, apologies – because I'm a woman and a feminist and generally oversensitive to such writing? To me, smut is easy comedy. But maybe that's being unfair. It's also really interesting that the flick-knife/kung fu kick metaphor communicates as racial profiling: again, is that about how you interpret that metaphorical construction from an easy-Asian perspective?

OK this is a lot of words so one last thing: thanks so much for the background info on the opening song – I love that it nods to Sweeney. I've seen Sweeney only once, about 14 years ago, hence not catching the reference. Again, it's so fascinating what this image of the “professional” or “experienced” critic suggests to people: a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of everything that ever got staged. Oh, which reminds me: your comment made me wonder whether any east-Asian critics have reviewed the play, and how they responded to it. And whether there even are any, because openings into criticism are narrow too. Another thing I argue through Dialogue is that theatre talks a lot about artist development – but critic development is massively important, too.

I've no idea if you'll have time, energy or appetite to respond to any of this; if not, I just want to say thank you for the conversation so far. This isn't a critical culture in which it's easy for makers and critics to talk together. I think it's vital that we do. And as I mentioned at the start, your comments have been really thought-provoking and usefully challenging. All very best, Maddy

MC: 11 Oct, 11.45pm
typo alert: easy-Asian!! Sorry, it's been a loooong day.

MC: 12 Oct, 8.18am
I woke up thinking: bloody hell, my reply to you makes it seem like I missed the point and completely misunderstood what you're doing. YES parallels between the weird representation of/anxiety surrounding the prospect of Chinese economic hegemony now/fear of Chinese as other then, desire to subjugate, impossibility of doing so. YES: parallels between that politics and politics within acting community. It's not that I didn't get it, the style ensures you get the substance very, very quickly. I'm asking whether there is something very slippery and difficult that happens between satire and re-enactment.

DY: 12 Oct, 9.58am
Maddy, the whole thing is a satire on the way the Western media views Chinese and other East Asian people which is stuck squarely in archaic Victoriana/Edwardiana. We are literally imprisoned in a bizarre period drama straight out of Sax Rohmer. Did you not see the “Chinese” episode of the multi-award winning Sherlock created by the multi-award winning Steven Moffatt (who perpetrates “smut” on a nuclear scale)? They updated the whole thing except the Chinese who were straight out of The Yellow Claw. They even put sinister flute music over shots of ordinary Chinese people shopping for groceries in Chinatown. Western media (and by that I mean TV and theatre primarily) is fixated on the idea that Chinese people are quaint little foreigners with strange accents. Ask any East Asian actor and their eyes will roll upwards at the mere mention of the words “Chinese accent”. And the “Chinese accent” wanted is usually more akin to the sound kids in the playground make when they’re taking the piss than any genuine recreation of someone speaking a foreign language.

So, you’re used to “experimental” or “modern” work. Rather a judgemental viewpoint I’d suggest, surely it’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it. Even then I have to ask: have you really seen lots of plays that have a Scottish housemaid played by a half-Chinese man with a beard in a white face mask delivering a monologue on colonialism? Another big theme in the play is the politics of period drama. I sometimes watch trailers on TV of all the series I will never appear in-Downton, Call The Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, Ripper Street-unless there’s one episode that requires a seedy opium dealer (though I’ll usually be considered not “Chinese” enough). Period drama is a staple of British culture. And we’re excluded from it. I have to ask again: how many English period dramas have you seen featuring an entirely East Asian cast? The play takes place inside Nayland Smith’s head which is trapped in a colonialist period-piece but it’s been invaded by East Asians and in fact he himself is ultimately an East Asian.

One of the things I found a little dismaying I have to say is that both yourself and Matt Trueman (the more established “professional” critics) were so quick to damn but seemed to have so little idea of the context or the iconography of the Fu Manchu character. I possibly haven’t made this clear enough but all the same it’s a little worrying that online blog reviewers seemed to have a far greater researched knowledge of this and therefore reviewed in a far more thoughtful way. Only last year The Times Literary Supplement posited that no other 20th Century literary villain lingers in the Western media consciousness like Fu Manchu. The idea that “orientals” (that word is always used in inverted commas) are sinister, cunning, mysterious and plain weird is deeply ingrained in Western media thought. You only have to look at the reaction to the Chinese swimmer Yi Shiwen’s gold medal performances last year at the Olympics (she was drugged/genetically modified) to get this. I even helpfully included some rather obvious lines about this but they obviously weren’t “post-modern” enough.

So I find this-“ I wonder what the value is to an audience to present to them Empire stereotypes of Chinese people – slanty eyes, slipperiness, exoticism – rather than reject that in favour of expressing your own cultural specificity, encouraging audiences to look through your cultural lens.”-baffling. They’re being “presented” as what they are: fictional creations and they’re being utterly rejected. There was originally a whole final scene where the actors came out of character and said this. We had a line where Fu Manchu actually said “You invented me”. But it just seemed way too crude and patronising so we cut it as we thought the audience was ahead of us and got this.
I can’t help wondering if we’ve done it a bit too well and that’s why you don’t get it. I’ve aped the style too well, the cast play it too well, Justin and Lily have nailed the world too well. We didn’t leave any “joins” so you don’t get the “experimentation”. CONT'D

Then there’s the implication that this stuff is “obvious” in some way. Is it? Really? If that’s the case why have you and your fellow critics not been saying anything every time a theatre company has rolled out a “yellowface” production in the last thirty years? Why was it left to us to do it last year? Do you know I had one goal during RSC Zhao-gate. It was to get every single mainstream reviewer to mention it in their reviews even if they then went on to say “but who cares about a bunch of upstart little yellow people who probably aren’t very good actors?” Because it had never been mentioned before. The arbiters of cultural taste, the custodians of theatrical excellence, the assessors of the performing arts all had a collective indifference to exclusion and blatant discrimination when it came to East Asians. How is it “obvious” when in 2013 Cameron Macintosh will not rule out casting a white man as The Engineer in Miss Saigon? And if it happens, guess what, it won’t be you lot leading the condemnation. It’ll be us again, putting our careers on the line, getting racially abused in comments forums and told to “shut up and stop whingeing”.

Smut. Again it’s a satire on the public school mentality which is obsessed with this stuff. I’m surprised though as a feminist you completely missed the meta-commentary of the Fah Lo Suee character who is a complete send-up of the whole “oriental dragon-lady” stereotype and an obvious indictment of the way East Asian women are fetishized in the West. “I am oriental damsel. Delicate, subservient and obediant. At the same time imminently untrustworthy, shallow and sly.” It’s open to criticism (like everything) but to accuse me of “presenting stereotypes” and not “rejecting” them is so wide of the mark it’s in another country frankly.

“Cultural lens”. Oh, I get it. Kwarme wrote Elmira’s Kitchen and you think I should write Chan’s Takeaway. Sorry, Maddy, not my world or my “lens”. This reminds me of a conversation at the Royal Court. I challenged Simon Godwin on why the Court never casts East Asian actors and he responded by saying “the Court would look to engage writers from those communities”. I came straight back with “But I’m not from a “community””. I’m half-Chinese. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, I can speak rudimentary Mandarin but my sensibilities are actually very British. I grew up with British TV, British theatre. But you won’t allow me to do that. I have to find my own “cultural lens”.

Maddy, I didn’t just come through the Royal Court Unheard Voices group. I was one of only two to be selected for the Studio group. Maybe the Court are more open-minded than you are. In fact one of the things I found a little unpleasant about your opening paragraph (and indeed Matt Trueman’s) is the way you somehow seem to imply that’s I’ve got a play on because I kicked up a fuss last year. Before any of this happened I’d written screenplays (one of them was fairly seriously considered by Film4) and actors like Frances Barber and Lauren Crace were happy to appear in my films for a (I regret to say) pittance. I never tried to sell this play on the back of what happened last year (though other, far less involved East Asians, did just that in the wake of it). It’s water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned and I’m more interested in the future.

Talking of Matt Trueman it’s astonishing how “indenti-kit” your reviews are. Both start with a bit about me (he calls me “vociferous”), both launch in early about “crude stereotypes” with absolutely no acknowledgement that they’re being subverted (they clearly are) and both feature a horribly crass “cultural reference” - for your “kung-fu kick of ribaldry” we get his “jokes so obvious they’re visible from the Great Wall Of China”. I have no idea what you mean by “easy-Asian” but I think it’s more than a little insulting. If Kwarme writes a play you don’t like are you going to make reference to his “African bogle dance of inanity”? Is Matt going to lament that his comedy is “so stark it can be glimpsed in the Matabele lands”? CONT'D

That’s exactly what I meant with my hypothetical question. It’s all very well thinking you’re “above” something, Maddy, but that sense of detached superiority has to be earned and in my extremely humble opinion you haven’t and it all comes across as a bit knee-jerk I’m afraid.
In answer to your question, no, there’s no East Asian theatre critic. I did get an email from a lady who has an online resource to encourage East Asian writers (Banana Writers) saying this “Each little line had a lot of thought in it - using words like "conkers" in a funny way. I also liked the deep meaning and the serious undertones of the play as a whole. How you covered important topics like colonialism and asked the question WHY people are so scared of the Chinese. You were daring enough to take it to where you as an East Asian writer wanted to go and I think the risk has paid off. I really see the difference between a Chinese (or half Chinese) writer's message on the stage compared with a Caucasian writer's message of how they think Chinese people feel in their hearts. It is a lot more meaningful and convinces me even more why we need more East Asian writers. “ Hi Ching, producer and curator of the S.E.A. Fest described it as a “landmark play”. Here’s what award-winning poet Stephanie Dogfoot thinks about it http://stephdogfoot.wordpress.com/ You can look also look at my Twitter feed and the @fmccomplex one to see what other East Asians think about it. You’ll also see that Lee Simpson of Improbable (“experimental” and “modern” enough for you?) completely gets it.
MC: 12 Oct, 9.30pm
Hi Daniel – once again, thanks so much for taking the time to respond so thoroughly. Since reading your comment, I've been feeling quite dismayed by the obtuse quality of my own – since before that, in fact, hence posting the additional comment this morning about re-enactment. Your response highlights something crucial: you mention a whole lot of things from popular culture – TV programmes, media coverage of the Olympics, Jeremy ugh ugh ugh Clarkson – and absolutely none of it is stuff I engage with. You've mentioned Steven Moffat twice now, and in a sense you're right, I wouldn't criticise him – because I don't even pay him the courtesy of watching his work. For all the attention I give him, he might as well not exist. All of those TV programmes you mention? Haven't watched any of them. (Incidentally, I LOVE the way you say “I watch trailers for” - ha!! So damning.) So when I suggest that this kind of representation is the Empire's cultural lens, in a sense what I'm failing to see is that it's not just then, it's also NOW.

In another sense, I'm not failing to see that at all – this is where the theatre parallel comes in, the “heaven forbid we let them play Shakespeare” (sorry, that's a vague attempt at quoting your first song). And I guess what I'm getting at is something to do with the terms of rejection. Your play re-enacts to subvert and reject – but what play would you write if you bypassed the re-enactment and went straight for the rejection?

Again, this is where my own very personal perspective comes into play. I do a lot of rejecting in my life: I don't click on Daily Mail links, I turn away from billboards with Clarkson's objectionable face on them, I avoid anything that has no place in the world I want to live in. I'm a ridiculous idealist who hopes that by starving these things of the oxygen of attention they will gradually wither up and die. You're doing something else – and again, there's something incredibly obtuse about my suggestion that you shouldn't. If you want to write a cod-Edwardian schlock-horror farce, of course you should write a cod-Edwardian schlock-horror farce! It's idiotic to imply you shouldn't do that! But I wonder what other east-Asian stories could be told from a place not of re-enacting stereotypes to reject them, but rejecting stereotypes outright to create something new. Does that make sense?

And I think (but correct me if I'm wrong) that's what you're arguing for, too, when you challenge Simon Godwin on the lack of east-Asian actors at the Royal Court. It's about not being limited to one story, one representation – whether or not you're smashing that representation. It's about being able to just be. And again, these things, Empire representation, the roots of racism, they mustn't be forgotten, it's not like we should sweep it all under the carpet and pretend it never happened: it happened, and it still colours our world in despicable ways. As I say, my parents are Cypriot, their country is still divided because of what the British did there. We have to address the legacy of Empire: condemn it, not celebrate it. On another note, I was thinking earlier today about Tarantino's Django, and its re-enactment of slavery stories, and also its subversion of slavery stories, and what an incredible challenge that film was, and also what an incredible film that was, I loved it to pieces. Art can do brilliant things in reminding us of how we got to where we are today, and where we can go next. And it's when you do this in your play, to go back to my initial review, that I see the glint of knife-sharp political commentary.

Which brings us to the ribaldry, and what I said earlier, style getting in the way of substance for me. As you rightly point out, that's a personal judgement. For a lot of people, the public school humour is going to be very funny. For me, it's just public school humour, in the realm of things I reject. OK, yes, you're sending it up by exposing its homoerotic undertones, but it's still public school humour. It's satire vs re-enactment all over again. (Re-reading this, I think: exposing homoerotic undertones? Because what, homoeroticism is inherently funny? There's something really wrong about that construction.)

Re Matt's review: yes, it IS interesting how similar they are. I actually read his review before writing mine, and was struck by how similarly we felt. I also re-read the news story about Zhao (which I didn't see), Lyn's two blogs on the need for east-Asian actors to write their own stories, plus reviews of all the shows I mentioned in the first para (of which I've only seen Chimerica, and was really troubled by its enactment, whether or not intentional, of white middle-class male privilege). I mentioned it all because it felt relevant that you were the only writer of all those who is British AND east-Asian – and yes, because this play ought to be a calling card. For a lot of people, the people who mention – including Hi Ching, who has now commented above, for which thank you very much – your play IS a calling card. It offers a distinct perspective. That's a brilliant thing, and context highlights that. At least, I hope it does.

Anyway, I'm trying to limit myself to a single comment box – although frankly, as a habitual overwriter, I salute you and your 2.5 boxes – so I'll stop there. Once again, I'd like to say how much I value this conversation. You wrote a play. I wrote a 300 word review. Between us, we've written a squillion words of comment. Theatre isn't just entertainment to me: it's my life. It gives me the opportunity to have conversations like this one, really knotty conversations in which I struggle to articulate myself, sometimes succeed, sometimes fail. And yes, it's a bit weird that we wouldn't have had this conversation if I'd laughed more at the public school humour. But I appreciate you taking that journey with me. All best, Maddy

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 Chris Goode's 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.