Friday, 18 July 2014

See my friends

Among all the other things – plotting out a Dialogue residency at Forest Fringe during the Edinburgh festival and a London event for November; catching up on a heap of writing for here (for reasons I can't possibly explain, this is one of four posts I'm compiling simultaneously); getting back into gear with Fuel's New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project – and with the children's summer holiday about to land on me like an upright piano from a fourth-floor window, I'm trying to write my entry for an anthology of essays on theatre criticism being curated and edited by the redoubtable Duska Radosavljevic. It's on what mostly gets called “embedded criticism”, although I hope by the end of it to have come up with an equally catchy and user-friendly alternative term (unlikely); it's been on the cards since well before last Christmas, which obviously means I did nothing for months, started panicking at the beginning of June, then at the start of July vomited out a rough sketch of the entire thing, with a rapidity that could only mean that it was compiling itself in my subconscious while I slept. No wonder I kept waking up feeling exhausted. It's the second thing I've written of late that's required me to think almost biographically about my (still stupefying) relationship to Chris Goode & Company (the first was for an American journal, to be published in December). For the Duska essay I'm also thinking through my various experiences of critic-as-almost-dramaturg or critic-as-outside-ear or just critic-as-fellow-traveller with Peter McMaster and Andy Field, wondering what, if anything, I bring to either of them at the periphery of a making process. Right now, having not seen either of them for weeks, I haven't a clue: in those bits of the text, in big letters, all I've written is “ask Peter?” and “ask Andy?”.

The fuzziness is partly in the blurring of work into friendship, especially with Peter, who very quickly became one of the people I love most in the world, one of the rare people to whom I can confess all the secret thoughts that prickle inside, malevolent genies kept tight-sealed in bottles because if I unleashed them they would wreak devastation. Peter makes it possible to talk about the difficult things, the dangerous things. What he does personally, he aims to do politically, and in doing so work towards a redefinition of masculinity. We've talked often and fruitfully about how important it is to him not to sit back and expect feminism to sort the world out, but to gather with men to dismantle the patriarchal conception of masculinity, strip it of aggression, lay down its arms. How important it is for men to gather and talk about the violence of masculinity and patriarchal expectation, the way riot grrrl created safe spaces for women to gather and talk about how that violence expresses itself against them, physically and psychologically. His report on the retreat he organised as part of LADA's DIY programme last year is a beautiful record of his attempt to build such a space, questioning, fragile and loving.

He made another of those spaces in Wuthering Heights, the all-male confabulation with Emily Bronte's novel that sent me reeling when I saw it in November last year. I saw it again in Bristol at this year's Mayfest, and am already lining up to see it again in Edinburgh, trying really hard not to feel embarrassed by the assumptions people, friends, might make about me seeing a show repeatedly in which this person I adore appears naked. I wrote a fair bit about WH last year, because I wanted to remember it, remember all its hurt and anger and hope, and seeing it again was discombobulating, because it wasn't quite what I'd remembered and I kept fretting that I'd misrepresented it. But no: that first bit of writing sketched where WH was. It's travelled somewhere else since then.

That's partly to do with a cast change: Thom Scullion, who represented Heathcliff in last year's WH, has been replaced by Gary Gardiner, whose height – he's much taller, which makes him seem more imposing – and wiry physique, plus the fact that he's already a father to three children, creates a completely different energy on stage. I missed Thom, his gentle demeanour, but I think the show is probably stronger with Gary. Or maybe that new strongness is coming from somewhere else. From inside Peter himself.

It turned out I saw WH on a difficult night: it was their first of three Mayfest performances, the lighting rig wasn't in place at the venue when they arrived, they finished teching about 20 minutes before they were supposed to start, and so didn't have a run-through, let alone proper time to prepare. Peter told me afterwards the show ran a good quarter-hour shorter than it was supposed to because they forgot to do a bunch of stuff. So the sense of it being less diffuse, more direct and focused and certain than it was in November, could be accidental and false. But I'm pretty sure there's been a shift in emphasis, from a group of men struggling within the imagery of Wuthering Heights to figure out who they are and might be, to a group of men retelling the story of Wuthering Heights, and in doing so more confidently confronting an old idea of masculinity with the possibility of a new.

That means some of the more personal material has been shed: notably the section in which they look into the future, some of them thinking about children and what it might be to become a father. Gone, too, is the long coughing fit that I read as an expectoration of masculinity's malignancy from within. There's a sharper sense now of the horse, played by Nick Anderson, not just framing the narrative but shaping it from his perspective, simultaneously communicating incomprehension of and subjection to the vicissitudes of men. I feel like they spent more time in character in Bristol, less time scratching against their own skins. It made the questions section – when Peter, still dressed as Cathy's maid Nelly, stands before Heathcliff and unleashes a torrent of questions about fear, sexuality, violence, desire, and more, that lacerates his throat as it scours the air – no less powerful but more bearable: in November it stabbed inwards, in May it felt thrown outwards.

The biggest change, though, is in the inclusion of an extraordinary scene in which Nelly grooms the horse while Heathcliff and Cathy engage in a battle of wills. Gary's Heathcliff, an iron coil of aggression, paces after Murray Wason's Cathy, round and round the space enclosed by the audience's seats, cajoling her, luring her, taunting her, berating her. Cathy refuses all of it. He grabs at her, Cathy resists, tugs at her, Cathy wriggles free. He tears at her dress but Cathy doesn't care. She keeps walking, walking away from him, Heathcliff following, fighting to impose his will, Cathy rejecting, fighting back, until eventually Cathy is naked and the two of them are wrestling and still, still, Cathy won't give in. Meanwhile Peter's Nelly sits on the arched back of Nick's horse, combing his hair and feeding him an apple with a love and solicitude that are heart-rending. The contrast, of demand and offer, of brutality and tenderness, was electric. Watching Heathcliff grapple with a resistant, naked Cathy, I realised I was impulsively holding my breath, and suddenly my head was filled with this song:


I can't breathe with you looking at me. It was weird, being flooded by that song at that moment, because for months and months now, the music of Deerhunter has been the safest place I know, the place I go when I feel most alone. There was an odd sort of loneliness in the WH room that night: the audience around me seemed resistant, and I felt my distance from them acutely. But it was also weird because that song is dedicated to Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr, better known as Matador musician Jay Reatard, who killed himself early in 2010. And it's a song about frustration, and furious isolation, and violent inner struggle, and what it is to be a man and live with the history and imagery of being a man. There's a beautiful bit of writing about it online, by Matthew Perpetua (such a great name):

I don’t like the word friend very much. Its meaning has been devalued by our culture... The classic values of friendship – of close friendship – are very important to me. I just wish we used better, more precise words to do justice to these kinds of relationships. … “Friend” is the word that rings out most in “He Would Have Laughed,” the final song on Deerhunter’s new album. “I know where my friends are now,” “Where did my friends go?,” “Where do your friends go?” These lines cut to the emotional core of the piece – loneliness, confusion, the self-defeating isolation of someone who keeps everyone at a distance. The song was written in memory of Jay Reatard, who was by most accounts a rather difficult and angry guy. I hear the song as being about the loss of a frustrating person, the kind who shuts you out, rejects your sentimentality, and behaves like an asshole. The kind of person you love and respect in spite of themselves, or how they treat you. I don’t hear judgment, or even grief in this music. All I hear is empathy and kindness.

He's kind of describing Heathcliff there, right? And those are the qualities that glow at the heart of Wuthering Heights: empathy and kindness.

Maybe it was the boldness of this scene, the clarity of its direction, that made me think the show is stronger now, and Peter stronger to have been able to make it. And this is what makes me excited about seeing WH again in Edinburgh: the idea that in the three months between, they might have found new ways to make it more impactful still.

*

This is the big change I've noticed in my theatre-going since beginning to take the process-not-product approach that I'm attempting to articulate in the Duska essay: I make the effort now to see work more than once, at multiple stages of development. I thought that was mostly commitment-related: of course I'd see a Chris Goode & Company show several times; working with Fuel hosting post-show Theatre Clubs as part of NTiYN, of course I'd see shows in many venues. (By the end of my stint with Glen Neath/David Rosenberg's Ring, I'd seen it – if you can call it that when a show is staged in the darkest, most Stygian, viscous-black dark possible in a theatre – four times. The first time, that dark made me unbalanced and nauseous; the fourth, giddy and gleeful.) But it's not just work: apparently this is now what I do for fun. My husband and children despair.

I wouldn't do it, I suppose, if returns diminished, but almost everything improves on further viewing. Admittedly, I think I concentrate harder if I make the decision to go back. But also, work grows. Clout's Various Lives of Infinite Nullity was blissful to see again: when they performed it in Edinburgh in 2013, it did a lot of smart and intriguing things creating purgatorial scenes in which green-skinned children scraped the blood off of corpses and gorged it spread on bread like jam, and people who had committed suicide gathered for a regular coffee morning, polite chit-chat gradually escalating into a competition over who had died most gruesomely, and for the most politically acute reason. But by the time I caught it again, at the Incoming festival in May 2014, what had been a sketch had transformed into a cohesive, starkly funny, profoundly disturbing show. The scenes were much the same, but sharper, fiercer, pushed as far as they could go; the children were genuinely intimidating, the suicides more strange and unsettling. The company were raising tricksome questions of what constitutes depravity, what constitutes sin, and who gets to decide the limits of acceptability; what freedoms might be found in death, and what impulse towards suicide crackles beneath the surface of everyday life. The point that western capitalism is killing people was made both more stridently and more subtly. But the company had also created new, more abstract material that had many in the audience (me included) jangling, it was so incomprehensible, extreme – and amusing. I've just read Matt Trueman's review of the Edinburgh show, which he enjoyed, but with reservations: “The problem is that their images remain just that: images. Too few translate into a visceral experience and spread the gnawing sensation they aim to convey into the stalls. In other words, Clout theatre describe a feeling without magicing it into existence. To do that, one needs still less literalism, to ramp up the inexplicable horror and detach from anything remotely rational.” That sense of the inexplicable and not remotely rational was exactly what I felt I was encountering in the Incoming performance. The company's work on the show still isn't done: they have another rehearsal week to play with it before a short run at BAC in the autumn. I'm really looking forward to seeing it again.

It's a constant nagging frustration that Jake and I haven't found time yet to document our residency at BAC's Scratch festival in June 2013, which is where I first encountered Clout: privately in rehearsal rooms and publicly in all-comers-welcome conversations in the cafe, we talked a lot during that month about the benefits and limitations of scratch and work-in-progress frameworks; the ways in which they benefit makers, but also entrench them within a limited and generalised offer; the ways in which makers successfully mould scratch to suit their own practice; and ideas makers have for how to make the system better, less of a showcase or a competition, less exploitative, less potentially damaging. For years, I didn't go to scratch showings, because I didn't understand my interaction with them: I still don't like feedback forms, and I was too shy to take up the invitation to talk to makers in the bar afterwards. I go now because I like to see work that is fragile and unformed: I'm constantly aware of my responsibility as an audience member (or audience practitioner, in the brilliant phrase coined by a lovely Canadian woman after she attended a panel where Andy Horwitz and I spoke about new forms of criticism, which I keep using in the hope it becomes common currency), the responsibility to be curious and attentive and responsive – but this feels weightier, or at least more material, in a scratch setting. In March 2013, at a panel event discussing scratch hosted by getinthebackofthevan, Mamoru Iriguchi spoke insightfully about what he gets out of such performances: he doesn't find feedback forms a helpful interaction either, but he does listen carefully to his audience while he's performing, notice where their attention lands and where it drifts, where they respond and how.

Where this becomes complicated is when a show travels from a scratch in a direction you, as loyal audience, weren't anticipating: when your ability to see what the show has become is impaired by the crowding of your sight with ghosts, of what the show used to or promised to be. This happened to me with Andy Field and Ira Brand's Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine, which I'm trying to write about in the Duska essay: that experience made me think a lot about trust in an “embedded”-or-whatever-we're-calling-it criticism relationship, what happens when “embedded” and dramaturgy blur, and where open-mindedness sits in critique. But this is material for the Duska essay, not here. I'm here because I've been wrestling with a single paragraph in it for two sodding days now, getting nowhere. Time to go back and see if it's finally written itself.

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