Monday, 21 July 2014

break on through to the other side

I no longer know where this one starts. It's restarting at 1am on 21 July 2014, with just three days of school left before the summer holidays. It started 10 days ago, although I didn't know how to start, and panic set in at the thought that everything I'd wanted to say had disappeared. It started three weeks before that, in the midst of work-related despair at the pointlessness of my existence. That was the week I finally read Nicholas Ridout's Theatre & Ethics and for a brief galvanising interlude felt there was some purpose to this stupid thing I keep doing. The book is 70 densely argued yet gently repetitive pages scanning history and philosophical argument that ends with the most concise and exacting manifesto for theatre criticism I think I've ever encountered. Theatre isn't at its most ethical, Ridout posits, when “what the work says or does matches our own sense of what we would like it to say or do, corresponds with our own sense of how we would like the world to be”. For theatre to be ethical, it “would have to confront its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical”. Such work requires “a labour of critical thought for its ethical potential to be realised”, requires a critic to approach it “with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront”. The way I read this, the theatre that's genuinely going to contribute to the shaping of a more humane, liveable, empathetic society is going to require the rigorous reading and storytelling of critics. So there's a reason to sit at the desk every not-so-spare hour of the day.

*

On Tuesday of that week, my friend Jake saw Christopher Brett Bailey's This Is How We Die and sent me a text assuring me I would fall apart watching it, in all the best ways. On Wednesday my twitter friend Megan saw This Is How We Die and tweeted to make sure I was going to see it because I would love it. On Thursday I saw This Is How We Die and spent the first 50 minutes wondering how I would confess to them both that it was good but not so blam-pow-whizz. And then The Thing happened and my whole body lurched and my insides felt bigger than my outsides, and I bought a ticket to see it again on Saturday, because this time – knowing what was coming – I could watch it with uncertainty. That sounds paradoxical, I know. It's that kind of show. (From here on, it's all spoilers. But the show is so full of ideas and images and language that I'll barely scrape the surface.)

It starts with Bailey sitting at a desk, a small table rather, small enough to make him look a little awkward and cramped. It starts with some methodical arranging of the script piled before him and the glass of water beside it, so that everything is positioned precisely so. It starts with a cheeky sort of hangdog half-smile, and then he leans into the microphone and it's like when a tap is broken and a fountain gushes out uncontrolled. Except every word is positioned precisely so. This opening speech – Beckett meets Burroughs – talks about masculinity and sex and violence and the seep of prison culture into everyday society, about apocalypse and living hell and the impossible weight of bringing children into this world, but most of all it talks about words, words as weapons, words that have lost all their meaning. How do we relate to each other in a world where language is abused and can't be trusted any more?

A line I've never forgotten, from the stapled pages of a typewritten book, hand-made by someone I loved long ago: “If you take a word out of context, what might it mean? (MEAN.)”

And then snap: This Is How We Die becomes a love story, a teen romance, the kind I grew up watching. Misfits against the world. Qui elevent leurs skinny fists comme antennas to heaven. In exquisite detail we follow the couple – Chris and a girl dressed all in black, immaculate beehive, a mouse, chain-smoking, where her mouth should be – to her parents' house for Sunday lunch. Her parents are grotesque, cartoon monsters, but she has described them to Chris with a surgical accuracy he almost can't fault. “God you are so literal,” he tells her admiringly. “I love that.”

She gives words meaning. She makes words mean.

Another shift: the girlfriend upbraids Chris for his carelessness with language. When you use language like that, she bristles, [you sound like] a misogynist. The accusation heralds an electrifying harangue from Chris, against the policing of thought through labels: that's racist, sexist, misogynist – not very humanist. Rewind to a line in the first section: PC has gone mad. Who's using these labels anyway? Are they really an expression of ethics? Of morality? Or just plain hypocrisy? Let's pause here and watch Panti Bliss speaking at the Abbey Theatre again, talking about oppression and self-hatred. This is the world Chris – or “Chris” – is wriggling within, in which the homophobic are victims of homophobia and white people get to tell people of colour what constitutes racism. It's enough to make your head spin.

Attack the -ism instead of the -ist, the girlfriend tells Chris. Not the individual but the concept. Smash the ideology. But it's hard when the words themselves are so unreliable, slipping and sliding against each other into contradiction. His only solace is to take everything she says at face value. Go fuck yourself, the girlfriend tells him. So he does. Literally.

It's important to know this about This Is How We Die: its thought, its politics, are fierce, incendiary, but it's also very funny in places, teasing as much as testing abuses of language. It's also, for a show so limited visually, just a man at a table speaking into a microphone, vivid to the point of lurid excess, as fascinating yet appalling in its colour as fresh vomit. The more disgusted Chris appears with language, the more he makes us hang on every word.

That was truer for me the second time I saw it than the first; in the road trip episode that comes next, I began to drift – to be honest, exactly as I would on a long car journey across flat plain lands, turning inwards, dreaming inconsequentially. Shaking that off in the second watch, I could appreciate its quiet reflection and troubled expression. Chris gazes out of the car window and thinks about America, and the arrogance of humans who think they know everything, about nature, and death, and what it is – oh god I love this line – to be “fucked up by static and watched over by satellites”. He knows he's repeating the moves, the poses, of a hundred indie movies, the barfly philosophy of almost every Beat or drugs book ever published, because culture, especially American culture, invades and absorbs us, and that's what teenagers do (I did, in the back seat of my auntie's car, driving through mountains in Greece, gazing up at a new angle on the stars, listening to the Swirlies and feeling nothing like my family, nothing like people at school). The lighting, positioned precisely so throughout, expands here into a long, thin sheet across the stage: it becomes widescreen cinematic, and so do the images conjured up by Chris' text.

This was also the point at which I began to marvel at how meticulous the piece is in construction and argument, and hear how words and lines repeat across the whole like musical refrains. The first episode begins with an excoriating delineation of masculinity; the “go fuck yourself” episode plays with notions of emasculation; the first line rages that “masculinity is measured in pussy”; on the road trip Chris muses on the triple meanings of the word pussy, its conflation with cowardice, and how impossible it is to square that with the bravery of vaginas. More than once, the couple raise their “fists at the sky or at God or maybe just the satellites”; on the road Chris is haunted by the reverberation of an A minor chord in the air; constantly he is drawn back to thinking about death and meaning and death and articulacy and death and fear and death.

Is it really about dying? I'm not sure. I think it's more about what it is to live without spirituality, on a planet so surrounded by satellites that it's no longer possible to trust our view of the stars, in which every mystery of the world can be crammed into a small metal box that fits in the palm of a hand, and we “cannot picture the future because we cannot imagine living through the present”. A sentiment that haunts me, from Kieran Hurley/AJ Taudevin's Chalk Farm (annoyingly, I can't quote the line accurately, because I haven't got the text to hand and, perhaps tellingly, no review I've encountered mentions it, despite it being, I think, the crux of the play): Why do we find it so much easier to imagine the end of the world, than more equal ways of living together? This Is How We Die is saturated in those visions of apocalypse. We are destroying each other with the stories we choose to create and share.

If I'm honest, though, I'm not sure how well I followed Chris' line of argument around climate change and environmental crisis. For instance, I can't quite tell if he's being sincere or sarcastic when he says (I think I got this down right): “I'm so glad there's no concrete proof that this planet is struggling to support the people alive on it.” It comes in between his descriptions of humans as an “arrogant hex of a species” who are “fixated on their own demise”, and before he suggests “maybe our species and our planet are in their infancy”. There's another echo here for me, of a brilliant children's book by Michael Foreman from 1972 called Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish, in which a single obnoxious businessman who represents the repugnant entirety of capitalist industry decides the planet he's covered with factories belching pollution is too ugly to bear, so he flies off in a rocket to search for a more beautiful place instead. Reaching a grey, rubbly star on which a single flower grows, he looks across space and sees a planet glowing sapphire and emerald in the distance: there, there is his paradise. Of course it's our Earth – but an Earth where dinosaurs have come back to life, broken up the roads, destroyed all the factories, and returned the land to verdancy. I think what Chris is saying is we have the potential to be that place of beauty again. But society has to change. Radically.

Again, even after a second watch there was something about the final episode that felt elusive. Chris transports us in a blink to a gladiatorial amphitheatre in which “we are humble, we are naked and unafraid”. (If all the stuff about looking up at the satellites longing for mystery hadn't already reminded me of Chris Goode's God/Head, this line definitely would have done it.) In this amphitheatre – and that “theatre” is part of what confuses me – the tongue is a blade in the mouth, a weapon, a whip, and again and again we – the we present in the arena, performing for a baying audience – “declare this language dead”. But if there is a death here, it is the ritualistic death of the phoenix, consumed by fire in order to live, brighter and better, again. Chris declares this language dead, and then – not alone, as part of a group, and that feels so crucial – he makes a new language. A language that rips through skin to pummel heart and gut, a language that bypasses meaning and goes straight for affect, a language that – like the language of Godspeed You Black Emperor – speaks plaintively, furiously, of everything that is fucked up in the world, but shimmers, always, with hope. A language made entirely of hope.

I keep describing This Is How We Die as episodic, but in the days and days it's taken me to write this I've realised it's more musical in structure than that makes it sound. Initially I thought it was symphonic, each episode or section a movement. But then I thought, no: it's like an album. Each episode is a song, and each song has its own mood and atmosphere and distinctive intensity, and the whole thing ends in extraordinary catharsis. And then I thought of albums like it, and I realised: Spiderland. Christopher Brett Bailey has made me theatre's Spiderland. And that, my friends, is how I die happy.





*

There's been some terrific writing inspired by This Is How We Die: by Megan Vaughan, who says of Bailey, “He’s the taste of cigarettes on a kiss”; by Catherine Love; and particularly by Andy Field, who does the inspired thing of sitting it side by side with Deborah Peason's The Future Show, to think about theatrical illusion, the visible script as accomplice, and the blissful release of nothingness. (I disagree with Andy on that final note: Debbie's release isn't blissful to me, and Chris' isn't into nothingness.) If This Is How We Die is Spiderland, The Future Show sits in the space between these two songs:




Which, because Deerhunter are genius at (well, everything, but in this particular instance) album sequencing, is the infinitesimal space between two tracks, which on vinyl is a silence full of texture, the barely audible static of natural electricity. A sentence that will mean nothing to an entire generation. (As an aside, one of these days I'll have to stop connecting everything I love to Deerhunter and actually write about why I love this fucking band so fucking much.) But it's also in the gap between two conjoined sentiments, the metal holding together two sides of a coin, between:

When you were young
you never knew which way you'd go
what was once grace, now undertows

and:

I don't want to get old
I don't want to get old
I don't want to get old, no

I first saw The Future Show in a diamantine 20-minute scratch showing in spring 2012; the next time I saw it, in summer 2013, it was more like an hour long, its basic premise, its single coruscating idea, unchanged but mined for everything it is worth. Debbie starts with her final breath in the performance, and the audience clapping; she describes leaving the space, chatting in the bar, going home, working the following day, the quiet rhythms of married life, maybe she gets a cat, maybe a parcel arrives when she's out, all those tiny inconsequential incidents that fill up time and make up a life, shaping her possible future with lapidarian skill, slowly, gently, inexorably as a tide, working her way to that final breath in the performance that, when it happens, is devastating. It is full of politics, yet what I remember of it, the residue of it that sits in my bones, is purely personal. It is so intimate that every word seems absolutely truthful, although a fiction, a projection, a fortune read from a palm. It is brave yet resigned, hopeful yet bleak; however we differ in our details, our endings are all the same. The best we can do? Measure each step, look straight ahead, and don't forget to breathe.



*

On the Friday night between my two run-ins with This Is How We Die I was at Ovalhouse again, for Greg Wohead's The Ted Bundy Project. A few months before its London run I had a lovely chat with Greg, who wanted to pick my brains about my different experiences of post-show gatherings, decompression spaces in which audiences could talk about and process difficult work. (In the end – at least, judging by the Ovalhouse run – Greg decided not to create such a space. Even so, I had another little moments of thinking, oh, maybe what I do isn't a total waste of time after all.) Sure enough, The Ted Bundy Project is hard to watch – how could a show about a serial killer not be? But nothing about it feels gratuitous, or anything less than painstakingly thoughtful. Unlike a really appalling quantity of culture, it isn't enthralled by violence, but nor does it condemn that fixation; it simply holds up a mirror and invites its audiences to see themselves. Whether or not you see that the reflection as ugly, distorted and brutalised is up to you.

It didn't occur to me, watching it, that people would find the structure of Greg's show, particularly his use of repetition, mystifying; it was a response I encountered at the Dialogue Theatre Club Jake Orr and I hosted directly afterwards. To me, every idea was expressed with subtlety but piercing clarity. This is what I saw:

A man, an all-American guy, medium build, winning smile, in a male equivalent of bridal white: pure, clean polo shirt and pristine tennis shorts. Doing a camp little dance to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the kind of dance that would endear him to the most conservative of mothers. A man who confesses to sitting in bed listening to the voice of a serial killer, over and over again; watching gory videos of murder, necrophilia, cannibalism online, and reaction videos made by people watching those same videos, a loop of hypnosis. We're intrigued, too, right? We're intrigued by all that material hidden there in the dark net, intrigued by the extremities of existence. Right?

A man, medium build, in pristine tennis whites, laying out the paraphernalia of Ted Bundy's first murder while Lou Reed drawls Walk on the Wild Side. I said hey honey, take a walk on the wild side. There's the sling Bundy wore to attract a woman's sympathy, the handcuffs he used to restrain her; a wig modelled on a victim's long brown hair, a handbag, some lipstick.

A man, winning smile, asking a member of the audience – also male – to join him on stage. He asks the second man to stand with a sheer stocking over his face, obscuring his features, his identity. This second man is standing in for Ted Bundy. Meanwhile, the first man, an all-American guy, in pristine tennis whites, puts on the wig, the handbag, the lipstick. And while Hall and Oates' Rich Girl plays, this young woman, a student, gazes at the face of the man who will turn out to be her murderer, her lower lip quivering with the beginning of sexual excitement. She is a rabbit in headlights, and she doesn't even know it. She is caught, and she doesn't know it. Because right now she is flattered, and attracted, and vaguely aware that she shouldn't be doing what she's doing. She's a rich girl, and she's gone too far, and watching her, Greg as her, with that song, so vindictive, my stomach clenched and I wanted to scream: no.

A man, medium build, in pristine tennis whites, standing with his head inside a sheer stocking, in the same place that his stand-in for Ted Bundy just stood. He repeats the opening section of the show. Whose voice is this now? Greg's? Or Bundy's?

A man, an all-American guy, winning smile, describing a murder fantasy he once indulged, of killing a teenage girl who filled him with jealousy, smashing her head until it turned into pulp.

A man, dancing to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the kind of dance that would endear him to the most conservative of mothers, while beside him on a plywood board is the opening scene of a video that can easily be located via Google, in which a man attacks another man with an icepick, before dismembering him, fucking the limbless torso, ripping out chunks of the corpse's flesh with his teeth, and inviting his dog to do the same. We know this because the man, this all-American guy with the winning smile, has described the video to us in detail. Even typing the words I can feel acid nausea sting in my throat.

And this is what I noticed:

Throughout, Greg is punctilious in naming Georgeann Hawkins, the murdered woman he chooses to represent all of Bundy's victims. In this, he distances himself from a voyeuristic tabloid culture that, for instance, no less consistently refers to Reeva Steenkamp as the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius. And demonstrates an awareness of and sympathy with the Everyday Sexism campaign.

An awareness of and sympathy with 1970s feminist thought – contemporaneous with the deaths of a still unknown number of women at the hands of Ted Bundy – particularly (to quote my new favourite feminist, Sarah Ditum) Andrea Dworkin's “disturbing insights into the way patriarchy distorts the act of sex into an act of violence by which men assert their possession of women”.

The bravery of Greg's willingness to identify himself with Ted Bundy. In that business with the stocking, Greg admits that his own charming surface might not be so different from Bundy's, that he could be just like Bundy, because he lives within a social system – a patriarchal system – that is inherently misogynistic, in which “rape culture” is actually a thing, and in which popular culture does everything it can to support that system by fixating on the violent deaths of women in TV and cinema and literature, filling music videos with semi-naked women, using female objectification as a marketing tool, representing rape as a woman's fault, using topless women to sell newspapers, and on and on and on.

How visceral the fear of rape is in me. It dates back to school days, when I was given my first rape alarm in sex education lessons, and read Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend, a book in which a woman “conquers her fear and transforms herself from victim to avenger”: far from empowering me, it introduced me to realms of sexual violence I hadn't by that point imagined for myself, and that frighten me still. There is an extraordinary blog post by the playwright Katherine Mitchell delineating how this fear, inculcated in young women from the earliest possible age, can affect how they comport themselves for the rest of their lives, how an accumulation of experience of everyday sexism can affect their confidence and their sense of even having a voice. I felt almost dizzy when I read that blog post, from gratitude that someone had articulated this filthy secret buried deep inside me. A few weeks before seeing Greg's show, I went to Soho Theatre for Adrienne Truscott's Asking For It – subtitled “A one-lady rape about comedy starring her pussy and little else” – and had a similar experience. Truscott spends most of the show's running time wearing a tight-fitting dress split to reveal her pubic hair; she starts it downing cans of G&T; she does headstands and projects the faces of sexist men on her torso, allowing them to print themselves on her body. She is the very definition of asking for it. And while she does all this she mercilessly satirises men who espouse misogyny, picking at every loose thread of anti-abortion arguments and sexist politics and representations of rape in popular culture until it feels as though the whole world has unravelled. Her strip-tease is so mocking it made me cry with laughter; her run through common rape-prevention tips – pointing out how they're essentially designed to stop women ever feeling at ease as they have fun – is so contemptuous that it made me laugh with crying. Around this time, I came across the list of 10 things men can do to prevent rape (“9. Carry a rape whistle. If you find that you are about to rape someone, blow the whistle until someone comes to stop you.”), and that, too, was a balm to my soul.

In The Ted Bundy Project, Greg Wohead accepts responsibility for that fear, that violence, that everyday sexism.

The Ted Bundy Project “confront[s] its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical. It … issue[s] a demand they [do] not know how to answer.” To skip a few pages back in Nicholas Ridout's Theatre & Ethics, it puts its audience “face to face with the other, in a recognition of our mutual vulnerability which encourages relationships based on openness, dialogue and a respect for difference”. I don't think for a moment Greg is asking his audience to respect Ted Bundy, or his actions. But he is asking that we empathise, with the man committing the violence, and the woman experiencing it. He is asking us to recognise, name and face up to this violence, so that, instead of allowing it to be perpetuated within a conspiracy of silence, we can work together – through openness and dialogue – to change the social systems in which it can flourish.

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.