The word 'free-lance', I used to think, had a romantic ring; but sadly discovered, when I tried to be one, that its practice has little freedom, and the lance is a sorry weapon to tilt at literary windmills.
[Colin MacInnes, City of Spades]
A common refrain you hear when it comes to poetry is, “That’s not work. Picking up the garbage is work!” The people who say this are usually also the people who think that poetry IS garbage, so I’m not sure what their problem is.
Feelings about the new freelance life: uncertain, laced with despondence.
Left shoulder: still broken.
Right wrist: repetitive strain injury.
Days until I turn 39: not enough.
I don't really know what I'm doing here.
Calvary is very uncertain about the “value” of art. It's fairly uncertain about the value of anything. Its characters grizzle and grouse, stew and steam, because the things that seemed most solid in Ireland – the sanctity of church and the wealth of state – have been exposed as sham, and now everything feels meaningless: marriage, money, faith, life itself. The chiselled cliffs of County Sligo loom in shot after shot, monolithic, enduring; the more I think about the film, the more they strike me as a colossal joke, mocking the inference that the country might just as well sink into the sea.
John Michael McDonagh has written/directed a furious piece of political and moral polemic, as red-raw and twisted as Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. You can get the basics from Peter Bradshaw's and Xan Brooks' reviews, but here they are quickly: it centres on a Good Man, a priest, given a week to live by an embittered parishioner. The Good Man does his best to countervail the sins of his local community – which run the gamut from adultery to murder, via arson, domestic violence, drugs and rape – attempting not to condemn but to illuminate the redemption he intuits (perhaps over-generously) they deep-down crave; and, while facing up to the prospect of his own imminent death, aids the convalescence of his suicidal daughter, ministers the accidental death of a tourist, and acquires a pistol for an elderly friend. Over the course of the film, his hope is chipped and battered, so much so that by the end you could argue he's given up. All of which is rich, knotty and absorbing, but the thing that made my head really buzz, the thought I vomited over my husband as we walked from the cinema, is its undertow commentary on art, particularly art's ability to address what I'm going to call, more for the ring of it than pinsharp meaning, impossible things.
It starts like this. The parishioner, encased in the shadows of the confessional, announces: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” And the priest, played with charcoal humour by Brendan Gleeson, responds: “Certainly a startling opening line.” We've barely begun and already McDonagh has communicated two things: 1) he's bloody pleased with himself; 2) if you're going to make art about something as painful, incomprehensible and repellent as child abuse, to aestheticise would be insulting. You have to do something else.
As a salvo, there's nothing subtle about it – but it serves useful notice that we're to think about what McDonagh is doing, and what our role is as audience. Which is something I'm more habituated to in theatre, but McDonagh is pretty merciless (and unsubtle again) in his dig at the tedium of theatre. That comes later, when the priest and his daughter walk arm-in-arm on a grassy cliff-top and she wonders what they'd say to each other if delivering the Third Act Emotional Revelation in “one of those bloody boring plays at the Abbey”. It's a cliche jibe, unfair but probably accurate; what they go on to say is sufficiently sentimental to expose McDonagh's underlying motive, making his own art look better by scorning another's.
He's kinder to literature: played by M Emmet Walsh, the character of the American author has a whiskey sour burnish and ornery snap. He's seen a lot of life and now he's torching the page with it; I wanted to read his books the same way I want to gobble every scrap published by BS Johnson. But it's telling that McDonagh emphasises the author's isolation, immured in a stone hut amid the crags of a cliff, accessible only by boat. Where's the collaboration, the compromise, required of film-making? Where's the direct engagement with difficult, weird, infuriating humanity?
As for visual art, well now. Dylan Moran, with exquisite butter-wouldn't-melt foppish insouciance, plays a very rich man dismissed on his first appearance as a “fucking prick”. He's one of those people who became staggeringly wealthy in the days before financial meltdown and now lives like royalty in a hollow mansion while his country rots. Whether he gives the church a donation of £10,000 or £100,000 is irrelevant to him, that's how much money he's got. He asks the priest to visit him, saying he's got a proposition to make – but the proposition appears to be simply that nothing has value. Least of all art.
There's an extraordinary piquancy to the specific piece of art McDonagh uses in this scene. Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors luxuriates in materialism while acknowledging its immateriality in the face of death. It's not a painting I'd thought much about until reading John Berger's Ways of Seeing: he interprets it not just “at the level of what it shows within its frame, but at the level of what it refers to outside it”. For Berger, the painting is typical of “a class who were convinced that the world was there to furnish their residency in it”. He writes:
The gaze of the ambassadors is both aloof and wary. They expect no reciprocity. They wish the image of their presence to impress others with their vigilance and their distance. The presence of kings and emperors had once impressed in a similar way, but their images had been comparatively impersonal. What is new and disconcerting here is the individualized presence which needs to suggest distance. Individualism finally posits equality. Yet equality must be made inconceivable. [Berger's italics]
That equality was made inconceivable through the institutionalised racism of colonialism, through monotheism, and imperialism, through the dehumanising processes of capitalism – the mechanics of which are among the objects represented with such painstaking verisimilitude in the painting. In a scene of breathtaking complexity, and not a little swagger, McDonagh shows that painting vandalised: at the time I recoiled from it, but now a bit of me cheers.
McDonagh does this throughout Calvary: shows you humanity at its worst, the more strongly to encourage you to seek for its best. What that undertow commentary on art pulls you towards is a belief in art's ability to inspire empathy. This is the argument for subsidy it's so difficult to communicate to a government and an ideology that denies empathy at every turn. Dylan Moran's character is a Tory monster, a caricature of heartless, get-the-best-and-fuck-the-rest capitalism. If you encountered him in a newspaper, you'd just think he's a scumbag. And yet, by the end of the film, you sympathise with him, because McDonagh shifts the mask of money just enough to show what's underneath: a lonely, lost, damaged individual, desperate to feel.
That sounds like apologism, but I think it's more complicated than that. Empathy demands that we see past surfaces to the human beneath. In a key line in the film, the priest rumbles that there's too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues – in particular, the virtue of forgiveness. It's a fraught moment, because this is a film triggered by an awareness of, and desire to face up to, institutionalised child abuse. Where and how are forgiveness possible for people damaged, haunted, by rape? But Calvary explores different frames of empathy, different kinds of understanding and forgiveness, and the darkness that falls when they are missing. It knows that, in the face of atrocity, art might be futile – but equally, it might be our best hope.
Maybe it's the moment that I'm in – fragile, adrift, London a cold sea, so many sharks – but everything has been reading as an attempt to address impossible things. Or maybe that's all (good) theatre, right? The week that ended with Calvary started with Oh My Sweet Land at the Young Vic, which had an odd effect on me: the performer, Corinne Jaber, spends the show constructing kibbeh, one of many delicious but fiddly to construct fried things designed, as far as I can tell, to keep the women of the Mediterranean and Middle East in the kitchen and out of the way. For the character, they are grandmother, roots, the pull of homeland, and as I watched her I saw my grandmother teaching my mum to make flaounia, my mum showing me how to make bourekia, myself making and tweaking my aunt's recipe for baklava. Always through food that Cyprus claims me: scents and flavours of an ancestry I've resisted, a language I've never spoken, a culture I mostly abhor.
The character makes kibbeh to console and escape, to lose herself in the rhythms of pounding meat, squeezing bulgher, kneading and shaping, and this is the problem of the piece: it allows too much escape from its impossible-to-comprehend subject, the war in Syria. There are scenes that sear, of beatings, torture, the bleached bodies of children murdered with gas, casual destruction of lives and livelihoods, but the pain that drives the piece is a personal one, the heartache of a woman bereft when the love that flared between her and a refugee is extinguished. Focusing on romance diminishes the woman; Jaber's face, chiselled, proud, is too intelligent for that.
In between Calvary and Oh My Sweet Land was an odd double-bill at Soho Theatre, Captain Amazing and La Merda, neither of which gained from being thrust in such close proximity. Captain Amazing really is amazing: inventive, minutely detailed, small but swollen with heart and imagination. It jolts from cartoon fantasy to “real life”, from superheroes who complain about their laundry and argue with estate agents, to the drab existence of a man discovering a new capacity for emotion when he accidentally has a child, registering each handbreak-turn with little more than the barely perceptible swish of a cape and a twitch in a hangdog face. One of the many things I love about Alistair McDowall's script is his understanding of how hard it is to conjure up bedtime stories for children, how difficult to escape banality and create another world while struggling to explain the contradictions, unfairness and oddities of this one. And one of the many things I loved about Mark Weinman's unobtrusive performance is that I knew very quickly where the story was going, basically into my worst nightmare, but I wanted to travel there with him, no matter how painful it might be.
La Merda, thankfully, really isn't merda, but it is a hard, scratchy, angry piece, which scoured away the softness of Captain Amazing and demanded more of me than I was at that moment prepared to give. I couldn't tell if it was inspiring or intimidating: part of me wanted to punch the air, but another wanted to hide under the seats. Which is pretty much the split of emotion I felt reading Valerie Solanas' Scum Manifesto, with which Christian Ceresoli's text shares an intemperance of energy and expression, and at least the first bit of her rage to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex”. Silvia Gallerano, naked, voluptuous, although not in the 1950s pin-up way, her body undulating and drooping like softly moulded clay, mouth a red gash set rigid as she grows ever more hysterical, is riveting to watch, the self-hatred that cascades from her at once alarming in its extremity and recognisable in its banality. She made me want to be kinder to myself, especially to my thighs, and remember what a political act this can be.
Feelings about the new freelance life: curious, frightened, hopeful, confused.
Left shoulder: physio hurts.
Right wrist: needs a rest.
Days until I turn 39: even fewer.
Losing myself in the shaping of sentences and the scrabble for words.
Without knowing why.
I've been pulling at this question of how art addresses impossible things, although about as constructively as when I pull a soggy tissue to shreds, since seeing We Are Proud To Present at the Bush at the end of March. It really annoyed me; I always love co-hosting Dialogue Theatre Clubs but was particularly grateful to this one for helping me exorcise some of that nark. To give it the whole title, We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudewestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, asks what theatre can tell us about colonial genocide, what actors are doing when they represent such a thing, whose story is being told, what audiences are getting from it. I can see how Siobhan Murphy in Metro found it excoriating, but can also see how Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph found it excruciating. I was somewhere in the middle: occasionally entertained, mostly involved, increasingly irritated, ultimately unconvinced.
I think I might have liked it more if it were actually what it purports to be, a show created by a group of actors working together, struggling to transform research into movement, emotion, metaphor: that way, multiple moments in which the characters reveal themselves as egotistical, greedy for the limelight, and all too ready to re-enact colonialist or racist attitudes, might feel less like impositions of caricature. As far as I can tell, however, the whole thing was scripted by Jackie Sibblies Drury, as her final thesis on her graduate playwriting programme. I found this in the Washington Post when scouring interviews for clues of the play's genesis:
Is “We Are Proud to Present . . .” on some level a writer defending her turf? After all, part of it is poking fun at theater collectives trying to create work as a group.“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Drury laughs. “I hope so. That makes me feel like I have a lot more chutzpah than I really do.”
It's perfectly possible that Drury is being misquoted or misrepresented, that she doesn't really want to come across as a playwright mocking ensemble making processes. And I realise I'm overprecious when it comes to such processes. I've spent three years in rehearsal rooms with Chris Goode & Company, watching people be generous, silly, brave, rigorous, angry, thoughtful, weird; watching them try and fail and bruise and soar and slump and question and try some more. It's made me a better person. And I've carried with me this which Chris wrote on his blog in 2011:
I'm very proud of the shows and pieces I make but I wish more and more that audiences could see inside the rehearsal room. That's where theatre is most like itself: a liquid thing, restless, full of spontaneities and unexpected shifts. The room I like being in is calm and careful but alive with attentiveness, with smart people trying to speak each other's languages, tune in to each other's invitations, respond to each other's desires. Negotiating in a spirit of curious enquiry and the delight that comes from being kind together.
Over the past several months, I've become increasingly committed to spending, if not rehearsal-room time, at least performance-space time with the Lyric Hammersmith Secret Theatre ensemble. I've seen them experiment with old text and odd text, freighted text and weightless text; I've seen them come a cropper one minute and reap gold the next. And in Show 5, I saw them create (with director Sean Holmes and dramaturg Joel Horwood) a chaotic, joyful, puzzling piece that invites its audiences to think very hard, interpret, seek to comprehend – but also have a laugh, a sing, and a bloody good time. That paragraph from Chris is basically a review of the show.
It's the first Secret Theatre show I've wanted to see multiple times, because it's the first that I'm sure would be radically different every night. It starts with the name of someone in the ensemble being picked from a hat: whoever gets called becomes the protagonist. The next 75 or so minutes are constructed around sequences of activities: the protagonist embarks on an absurdist assault course (the show's title is A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts), wrestles their fears, negotiates confrontational conversations, serenades a member of the audience, leads the dance. The night I saw it, Billy Seymour was the star turn; about a third of the way through he barked at someone in the audience: “What do you think the show is about?” And when the audience member responded with a gurgle of confusion (pretty much the response I'd have made at that point in the show), Billy bounded across the room yelling: “Love! I think it's about love!”
We Are Proud invokes a rehearsal room in its staging; Show 5 (at the Lyric, at least – I don't know what they're planning for Edinburgh) is staged in the ensemble's actual rehearsal room, with audience chairs lining three walls and seating for the performers along the fourth. There's something so electric about this sharing of space: it's such a clear indication that we're all creating the show together. By far my favourite bit of We Are Proud was walking through another, more real rehearsal space between the entrance and the auditorium, drinking in the dense collection of research materials pinned along the walls while the cast played ball beside me. The Secret Theatre ensemble's pre-work is, to a degree, visible in their room, too: pinned up on the walls are A4 sheets of text and more prominent setlists giving each action a title (Fears, Clinic, I Just), which, once I made that connection, felt a wonderfully compact way of giving a baffled audience a modicum of security, a key to unlock at least part of the show. Afterwards I walked round and read all the small-print, too, the questions they set themselves, their goals for the piece. On the night I saw it, it mostly was about love, but even more it was about chaos: the chaos of existing. Trying to be faithful to someone and failing; staying hopeful in the face of cynicism; fighting despite the risk of defeat, clinging on, falling apart, finding order and togetherness in dance. (I was really taken by the dancing: the Actionettes have an early dance to the same song, and the Show 5 routine is much better than ours.) Somewhere in the small-print, there's a list of other things the show might be about: capitalism, violence, conservatism. Everything that militates against love.
Show 5 is structured as a series of loops, each one opening/closing with the same series of impossible acts. These actions are always the same; what changes is the lead performer's relationship with the ensemble. They watch from the sidelines, silent, expectant. They coach, shout, taunt, groan with disappointment at every failure. And then they help. They make the impossible possible. At which point, my adoring heart just about burst.
We Are Proud moves in cycles, too – but there the cycles always hit the same brick wall, follow the same line of argument, move inexorably to a re-enactment of violence, as though nothing else were possible. With UKIP dominating British media, nothing else is. But I didn't trust the writing in We Are Proud, and because of that, I didn't trust the scenario, didn't trust its depiction of racism, didn't trust the production's motives in turning the video camera on the few people of colour in the audience, and didn't trust the degrading climax at all.
There's a question that keeps arising around pay.
How much is my time worth?
What is my value?
(Thank you Mary, Kevin, Lily, for help steering through this.)
Feelings about the new freelance life: I want to trust in fate or stars or the goodness of people. I want not to be anxious. I don't want to be envious of other people getting opportunities I've already had. I want to reach for the impossible, the absurd, otherness, change. I want to be ready for anything.
Left shoulder: hurts in a dull, tedious way. I'm scared. And I miss dancing.
Right wrist: gnarled gnawing ow ow ow.
Days until I turn 39: just don't even.
“The English theatre has a wonderful ability to encourage you to collude with your own disappearance.” Six years since Peter Gill said this to me. I've never forgotten it.
I don't want to value myself in the language of market economy. I want a new language for what I (could) do. And a new way of doing it: not alone, but together.
I think I was particularly disappointed by We Are Proud because when I saw it I was lost in the blizzard of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, one of the most dazzling, if discombobulating, books I've ever read. It calls itself a novel, and it is, in that it has a defined setting and storyline, a central character who falls in love with another character, whose affair is thwarted by a bunch of ancillary characters, in a fashion as much akin to detective fiction as romance – but it's interrupted by excerpts from 10 other novels (definitely not short stories), each with a defined setting, style, storyline and host of characters, each a struggle to begin, but slowly absorbing me, until it was cut off exasperatingly at a crucial twist in its plot, leaving me longing to know more. It was exhausting, it was exhilarating. And those feelings, that experience of reading, are central to the novel itself, because the main character and his inamorata are readers – you, now, reading, and your other. What it is to read, what constitutes a novel, what the relationship is between the author, text and reader, notions of deception and complicity, are the energy fuelling the story. All expressed with such irrepressible and profound love of words, their relationship to each other, the games they play, that no matter how frustrated I felt one, two, three nights, guaranteed I'd be in raptures the next. It made me long to see a piece of theatre that addresses its own medium and that reciprocal relationship with its audience with as much love and scintillating intelligence, not even realising that in Andy Smith's performances of Commonwealth and All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, I already had.
I saw them in a double bill at Camden People's Theatre, a few days before We Are Proud and a few months after seeing a film of Tim Crouch performing Commonwealth in last summer's Royal Court Surprise series. Tim brought mordancy and a glint of aggression to the show; I preferred Andy's gentler, less teasing presence. Commonwealth and All That Is Solid do something similar: think out loud about theatre, and capitalism, and the things we make together, as individuals, in small groups of people, and as a society, and the things we could make, if we stopped more, thought more, questioned more. They posit theatre as “an act of potential”. Theatre as a place of hope, of imagining and rehearsing change. Andy says all this so directly that a part of me quivers at how likely he is to attract huffed Daily Mail left-wing-propaganda-get-a-megaphone-and-stand-on-a-street-corner-why-don't-you responses, but a) I have no problem with direct-address anti-capitalism and b) the tingling sense of possibility Andy's words communicate lies as much in his muted performance of them. I've never before sat in a theatre and been so overwhelmed by the thought that I Could Do This. I could get a bunch of people together, give them something to eat, somewhere to sit, and at some point in the evening stand up and begin. It makes me realise how impossibly other so much theatre presents itself as: impressing audiences with its vigilance and distance, rendering equality inconceivable. In the spaces of Commonwealth and All That Is Solid, Andy could be replaced with anyone in the room, and the work would be as effective, possibly more so. And that's a profoundly radical gesture.
Something in the marketing for Werner Schwab's Dead at Last, No More Air made me think it might be a neat counterpoint to Andy's work: confrontational, vituperative, furious with theatre for inspiring not change but polite indifference. I wanted to love it, or at the very least get into a mud pit and wrestle with it. Instead, I dutifully watched the first quarter, trying to figure out why everyone stood declaiming, why no one seemed to understand what they were saying, or if they did why they interpreted everything so literally, why the whole thing seemed so embarrassed and clumsy; spent the next quarter persuading myself that almost nothing would have looked good after what I'd seen the night before, Ivo van Hove's trenchant and astonishingly well-acted A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, reminding myself that this is the fringe and they probably hadn't had enough rehearsal time, fantasy casting the Secret Theatre ensemble in the roles, and wishing Sean Holmes had been brave enough to tackle this instead of Woyzeck; and spent the final half pretending to make copious notes to write an erudite review but actually taking the opportunity to get some work done. I was obnoxious. But fuck it: from what Andrew Haydon says about Schwab, maybe so was he.
I've been trying to read the text, seeking out the punk-rock and the Einsturzende Neubauten and the young and drunk and rumbustious in it, but can't find it in the laboured superfluity of language on the page, either. It reminds me of trying to read Ubu Roi and thinking it was pants. That was after seeing a production at the Young Vic that had Ubu and his wife like grotesque dolls in a too-small toy palace, leering and cackling while a lugubrious foley puppeteer enacted grisly deaths using graters, whisks, rolling pins and vegetables: I remember it still, maybe 15 years later, as one of the most stomach-churning, thrilling pieces of theatre I've seen.
Dead at Last had a decent stage concept: most of the air in the space was pressed out by a pile of black inflatable mattresses (so much hot air), as imposing and comical as the balloons in Martin Creed's Half the air in a given space; at the end, with the death of the theatre director, they all deflate. But a single concept doesn't make theatre. Or militate against verbiage.
I shouldn't be doing this.
I shouldn't be doing this.
I shouldn't be doing this.