Flashback. A dreich night in January 2015, although it’s hard to tell if the drear is outside or in me. This is the ugliest hotel room I’ve ever been in. The furniture matches only in being tasteless; the art on the walls isn't worth a glance. There are people everywhere: sunk into camel-coloured leather sofas, upright at a glass dining table, perched against a lacquered cabinet, folded into the window frames. And still it doesn't feel crowded. A man walks amiably among us, tracksuit bottoms flapping around his bare ankles. His voice is the amber of single malt, lustrous with good breeding. At one point he stands right beside me and speaks as if I’m the only person here. I gaze into his flecked brown eyes and feel my insides burn. This isn’t what he said to me:
“I went to a play with a group of friends—a legendary actress in a great role. We stared at the stage. Moment after moment the character's downfall crept closer. Her childhood home would at last be sold, her beloved cherry trees chopped down. … She would be forced to live in an apartment in Paris, not on the estate she'd formerly owned. Her former serf would buy the estate. It was her old brother's sympathetic grief that finally coaxed tears from the large man in the heavy coat who sat beside me. But the problem was that somehow, suddenly, I was not myself. I was disconcerted. Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping?”
Flashback. November 2014. I’ve always hated The Cherry Orchard. That bloody awful production in Richmond or Wimbledon, all prim bustling dresses, beige suits and starched accents. This is something else. The stage is wide and gloomy, its walls the grey stain of condensation mould. Unwantedness seeps from the characters, too. When the Katie Mitchell/Simon Stephens take on The Cherry Orchard makes me weep, it isn't because the neglectful rich are losing their crumbling mansion and desiccated land, but because love is so cruelly absent: the word is spoken but the feeling isn't there. In this world, a mother mourns her dead son by abandoning her living, breathing daughters; men spurn affection that women struggle to give; caring for nature isn't nearly as important as the principle of owning it. In this world, generosity looks like thoughtless idiocy.
Together with brilliant Lily Einhorn, I hosted a Theatre Club on The Cherry Orchard for the Young Vic's Two Boroughs participation audience, most of whom found the coldness of the production really difficult: it disengaged them from the characters, whom they found self-centred and/or stupid, and stopped them sympathising. I understood what they meant: the characters weren't likeable. Even so, I'd had an electric evening with them. Especially listening to Peter: mocked as an eternal student, he gives two impassioned speeches, one about the responsibility of human beings to make change, the other about slavery, acute with truth and fearlessness, that made me want to leap out of my seat and punch the air:
“Your grandfather. And your great-grandfather. And generations and generations of your family before them. They actually thought that they owned real living human beings. They bought and sold them like cattle. And here, standing here, looking out at the cherry trees that were built on all that ownership, it's like I can hear the voices of all those humans, all those dead souls, that were owned and purchased and sold by your family. It's degraded all of you. You're not just in debt to the people you owe money to. You're in debt to all the dead that you've ever owned. If we're going to change our world then we need to atone for the things that have happened in our past. We need to suffer for it.”
That's how I want us to talk about the problem of capitalism and why we're really not living in a “post-racial” world. I think about how Selina Thompson described intersectional thinking to me as “a commitment to never being comfortable or relaxed, and always being aware of the discomfort of your own privilege”: that's how I understand that word “suffer”.
The theatre club group found the politics of the production difficult too, and we spent a long time prodding, digging, picking at loose threads, to reach an articulation of these misgivings. It was clear that the way the Ranevskaya household conducted themselves wasn't just unsustainable but inhumane. Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping? But the problem ran deeper than that. I've always taken the conventional line on The Cherry Orchard: first performed in 1904, it anticipated change that in hindsight is known to be the revolutions of 1905 and, more seismically, 1917. Stephens and Mitchell, we decided, really wanted to believe in social revolution, gave Peter firecracker speeches about human potential, but were undermined by the charisma and tenacity of the businessman, Alexander, a David Cameron lookalike who echoes Peter at his moment of greatest triumph, the buying of the orchard from right under the family's noses:
“If my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather could drag themselves out of their graves by their claws and see me here now. And see their little Alexander, who could barely even read and who they used to beat up and who used to run round here in the winter with no shoes on his feet, this same Alexander, has bought an estate, and not just any estate, the finest estate in the world! The estate where they were farmhands! They weren't even allowed in the kitchen.”
By the end of the Theatre Club discussion, the group felt relieved and resolved: Mitchell and Stephens wanted to ignite socialist fervour, but instead gave the devil, Alexander, all the best tunes, which made their version politically muddled and counter-productive. Done. But something about this jarred with me, nagged at me for weeks, until the fierce, piercing intelligence of the production finally hit me. The Cherry Orchard is a play anticipating social reorganisation: Chekhov didn't know what that would be, but conventional hindsight reads that as the advent of communism. But Mitchell and Stephens take the longer view, the full span of a century view, and read it as the advent of capitalism. I might be making this up, but I remember there being a moment in the production when the characters look through the window at the cherry orchard, and the window is at the edge of the stage: the auditorium is the orchard, and we, the audience, are the cherry trees, bought and sold, at the mercy of aristocratic whims and capitalist exploitation.
Alexander is the oppressed man who embraces corruption the moment opportunity arises: rather than seek to dismantle the power structures that exploited his family, he reinforces them. When he echoes Peter's language, it's in the way that neo-liberalism contains the word, the promise, of liberalism, the way capitalism tries to sell you self-determination and contentment. The violence of this production isn't in Alexander's inexorable destruction of the cherry orchard – the fucking trees were half-dead anyway – but his ability early in the play to present his corporate machinations as solicitude, an expression of love. He is every food manufacturer that has chopped down rainforests to replace them with beef farms because people have an insatiable desire for burgers and every energy company executive rubbing their hands at the prospect of mining the Arctic for oil because people need fossil fuels to achieve fulfilment.
Alexander is a force for one kind of change; in enacting it, he dismisses all others, the way capitalism makes imagining the apocalypse easier than imagining social reorganisation. “I know exactly the potential of the people around here,” he tells Peter. “They have the potential to lie. They have the potential to deceive. They have the potential to inveigle. They'll change nothing.” This is where we find ourselves, this production says. In a time when the wealthy and powerful treat “common” people with scorn. When even dedicated left-wingers encourage people to vote for strategy rather than what they believe in. What are we going to do about it? Matt Trueman, brilliantly, argues that Mitchell and Stephens present the minor character Charlotta as a beacon: uninhibited, impulsive, queer and quixotic, she articulates the necessity of constant regeneration. I think he's right. But I also think she's living solitary in the future and doesn't especially care who joins her there. There are many reasons to be wary of Peter: he's self-important, overly earnest, heartless even (his treatment of Anna, the poor woman who loves him, is appalling). No wonder Matt rejects him. But he's the only person on stage articulating the problem. That counts for a lot.
Or does it? What point is there in all those words? All these words? When and how do words become action? What action can they become? Harry Giles, who eschews party politics and instead campaigns at a grassroots level, is the source of all inspiration to me, but sometimes I struggle even to read his tweets, let alone follow his path. I want change and I want to enact change, but the energy of that wanting goes into finding the words, not pushing it through.
And then I'm sitting in a hotel room with a man with absorbing brown eyes, who's articulating the present problem with lacerating bluntness. When Wallace Shawn wrote The Fever, Thatcher was still prime minister and Reagan was handing over the presidency to Bush: these were the architects of our world, and the inequality his text describes has become more stark, more excruciating, more putrescent in their wake. Flashback: I'm sitting on the stage of the Olivier theatre, watching James Graham's This House, a play about the five years (1974-79) during which Labour dwindled and Thatcher rose to power. I'm squirming with discomfort, because I hate basically everyone and everything on stage, and then one politician says to another something along the lines of: under the Tories, life would be shit for some people; under Labour, life is shit for everybody. I still remember the audience's laughter at that “joke” as one of the ugliest sounds I've ever heard.
Watching The Fever was good for me, the way I'd like counselling to be good for me. It lifted all the anxiety, the self-reproach, the guilt, the discomfort, the desire, the confusion I feel being a middle-class white person working in the arts, with no financial worries apart from the principle of wanting to be paid, all the words that whirr in my brain on sunny days and sleepless nights, took all of that and put it in the mouth of someone else, so I could nod along and say: yes, that, that's how I feel, that's the rhythm of it, the sickly fevered pulse of it, the anger and sorrow and useless pity of it. If I had a problem with Robert Icke's production, it's that the Mayfair hotel room he picked was so large, so ostentatious, so beyond the means of the people in his audience, conceivably even the offensive man in a suit who sat opposite me with a smirk on his face that clearly said, “This isn't about me.” (This is the only point on which I even slightly disagree with Andrew Haydon's shrewd and searing review.) Shawn makes clear that if you can afford to buy a ticket to see The Fever, regardless of background or career or anything at all, you're implicated; the hotel room, by contrast, let the audience off the hook, let people listen to the text as a rant about the super-rich instead of a livid indictment of the entire system:
“Do you remember that day in school when you were playing with those three other children, and the teacher appeared in the room with four little cakes and gave all of the cakes, all four of the cakes, to that little boy called Arthur, and none to you or your two other friends? Well, at first all four of you were simply stunned. For that first moment, all four of you knew what had happened was unjust, insane. But then your friend Ella tried to make a little joke, and Arthur got furious and he hit Ella, and then he went into a corner and he ate all the cakes. It was an example of someone getting away with something.
And your life is another example. It's the life of someone who's gotten away with something.”
I feel that all the time. Writing about theatre. Living in a big house. Buying hot chocolate in a cafe for £2.90. That's partly to do with the constant nagging sensation that unlike my husband, who leaves the house at 8am and doesn't return until 6.58pm, I'm not doing a proper job, because art isn't truly valued in these structures and nor is domestic work, but it's something else, too, a getting away with something indefinable but immoral.
Flashback. Before buying the big house with my husband I lived in the sunniest of flats on the same road where Vincent Van Gogh was a lodger in 1873. At night I still return to that flat, wander through its odd-sized rooms with jewel-coloured walls, wishing I'd never left. It fit me, nourished me, gave me new ways to grow. Even so, now and then I'd walk past the crumbling Van Gogh house, with its peeling paint and overgrown weeds and apologetic windows, and wonder. What the hallway might murmur if I walked through the weather-warped door. What ghosts hid within the walls. What lightness of belonging it might let me feel.
Francesca Millican-Slater knows that feeling. Flashback: it's summer 2014 and she's giving the audience at Camden People's Theatre a slideshow tour of her flat in Birmingham. It is the ugliest flat I've ever seen. The former offices of a TV rental and repair business, it has teak wood panelling in the sitting room, walls an eye-popping tropical yellow, a ramp down to the bedroom, and a door that bolts only on the outside. She sleeps with a hammer beside her and listens to the flat creak and sigh. The sounds are whispers, laughter, conversation. This flat becomes her best friend.
Forensics of a Flat (and Other Stories) is a show about regeneration, the necessity of change, what's lost with it, what gained. Fran – I've only seen two shows by her, but feel like I know her – moved to Birmingham because, late in 2011, she realised she was tired of London: she'd fallen out of love with with the push of the crowds, the relentless tempo of living, even with crossing the river at night. London was in the midst of that pre-Olympics regeneration programme and she knew in a way that I somehow didn't that things were only going to get worse.
The Birmingham flat is so singular that Fran sets out to explore its history. She discovers that the shop sat in a terrace built at a time of considered social regeneration, on a patch of land shaped like a slab of meat. The idea was to create a community, with all the shops it needed close at hand, and its own theatre; in a story typical across the UK this later became a cinema, then a bingo hall, and was finally boarded up. Fran traces the different owners of the shop, remarkably few of them, grocers mostly, until she reaches her landlord, a scintillating character, all wide-boy swagger and petty-criminal charm. He has gathered his own community, of young men just like him, who gather for regular karaoke sessions in the rooms downstairs but otherwise leave Fran in peace.
She's good at this, Fran, finding a story and digging deep to its buried roots, making you care about something or someone forgotten and seemingly inconsequential. The other show I've seen by her, Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs, took the form of a quest: rummaging through a box of old postcards she encountered one addressed to Miss Gibbs in a flat in London, that said only, “Be careful.” Who, what, why, why, why? She showed it to a handwriting-reader, who guessed the writer was a man, looked up Miss Gibbs in the census and other official records, visited the address, and slowly discovered that the postcard was intended for a factory worker who in her life would have been utterly insignificant. There was something so poignant about the resurrection of this forgotten woman, the granting her of a status she could never have had in life. Remembering her, I wonder whether it's the lure of celebrity, artistic genius, the blue plaque imprinted with the name of Van Gogh, that attracted me to 87 Hackford Road, and nothing intrinsic to the house itself. How shallow that makes me feel.
I missed some of the detail of Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs in Forensics of a Flat. I wanted to know more about the other people who had lived there, and especially more about the local House of Wanton Women, a correctional institution for those uninhibited, impulsive, queer and quixotic creatures who needed to be restrained from indulging in sex, wine and cheese. But this wasn't a show about people so much as power. Who shapes a community? Who decides how people will live? Who controls resources? Who dictates fashions in entertainment, shopping, interior decor? When Fran moves into her flat, it's in a parlous state, but it has character, and she loves it. What value that love? To her landlord, nothing. He gives the flat a makeover in the end: rips out the panelling, sorts the windows, upgrades the electrics and paints the walls innocuous white. When she shows us estate agent images of the renovated flat, all its singularity is gone. In its place are uniformity and a substantial rent hike.
For as long as I lived on Hackford Road, I hoped that the Van Gogh house would go up for sale, not because I'd be able to buy it, just so I could step inside. When I do at last, in May 2014, it's not with an estate agent, but Artangel, who commissioned video artist Saskia Olde Wolbers to create Yes, These Eyes Are the Windows across its interior. I wish they'd asked Fran instead; I think she would have unearthed the stories I wanted to hear: less of the administrative to-and-fro of how the house was saved from demolition in the 1970s by a postman-turned-sleuth, more incidental details from the lives of the people who lived there after Van Gogh moved on. The people who installed the 1950s furniture that lingers in the bedroom, the people who put up the patterned wallpaper now torn and grey, the people who had to move out because they couldn't afford to fix the roof, so weak now that scaffolding poles grow like tree trunks from floor to floor, holding it up. The women who worked in the galley kitchen jutting into the garden, the children who learned here when the house was a makeshift school.
Wolbers knows she needs to convey the whispering of the walls. Sounds spill from cracks and crevices, climb the stairs, crawl around doors. Murmurs of romance, the girlish giggles of the landlady's daughter and the heavy longing of Van Gogh's unrequited love; the triumph of the postman's detective work; the heavy thump of officialism in letters from the council; the intrusion of journalists and idle chatter of local residents. I hear the hiss and roar of dust disturbed, the faint gurgle of tributary rivers, electric static and hum. I wanted to love what Wolbers had done. But something was missing. It was, I think, the voice of the house. The soundtrack clattered and buzzed within it without ever seeming to fit. It was a story imposed on the building, rather the story it wanted to tell.
Or maybe I was distracted by another whisper: the whisper of my own long-cherished wanting. Walking around the rooms of the Van Gogh house, I painted the walls in jewel-like colours, restored the splintered beams of the exposed attic, ripped up the linoleum, gave the kitchen more space. Why do people weep for houses? Because houses aren't your belongings: you belong to them. I've lived in 11 places over the years (not counting university rooms); two, maybe three, felt properly like home.
I arrived too early for Yes, These Eyes Are the Windows, so spent a bit of time wandering up Hackford Road, thinking about regeneration – the area has been considerably landscaped, it's full of benches and arty quotations embedded in the brickwork and pretty-pretty flowerbeds now – and the inexorable rise of London property prices. The people I bought my two-bed flat from had owned it for about three years and paid £95,000 for it. I bought it in 2000 for £205,000 and sold it in 2005 for £245,000. May 2014, a two-bed flat on Hackford Road, without a garden, was on the market for £450,000. Soon after this, I saw a house for sale around the corner from me, for £1,695,000. That's fully £1m more than a house on the same street cost nine years ago.
This is how diseased the London property market is, how poisoned by money. The house next door to mine is basically derelict. The window frames are rotten, the drains are cracked and pulling from the wall, buddleia grows from the roof. The inside is raw with disrepair. Even in that parlous state, it was sold last October for £850,000, allegedly to a married man who hoped, once it was renovated, to start a family there. Turns out his motivations for buying it were far more mercenary: weeks later, the house was back on the market, this time for £1m. Still in that parlous state. He was just a speculator, looking to make what for him is some spare change.
When I tell friends that story, their eyes pop: if that's worth a million, they cry, what must your house be worth? I turn the question back at them: what do you mean by worth? How is that defined? Who by? What value system do they operate by? What ethics are they using to shape this worth? What ethics are shaped by this worth? Is my house an investment, a commodity, or the place where I live? To what extent am I being objectified by a value system I can't control?
Flashback. I pretty much managed to avoid everything to do with Dapper Laughs, but now I'm watching Charlie Brooker's 2014 Screen Wipe and there's his stupid misogynist face and surprise, surprise, it turns out he works as an estate agent on my local high street, and all my worst fears are confirmed.
Flashback. To a time before I could understand why people might want to leave London.
Before that wet chilly night in late 2013 when I looked at the London skyline and felt crushed by the realisation that it belonged to an international city.
When I could stand in the middle of Hungerford bridge, gazing at clouds skimming the dome of St Paul's, and not want to be sick.
This city's grit is embedded in my skin. I used to find that romantic.
“The life I live is irredeemably corrupt. It has no justification. I keep thinking that there's this justification that I've written down somewhere, on some little piece of paper, but that it's sitting in the drawer of some desk in some room in some place I used to live. But in fact I'll never find that little piece of paper, because there isn't one, it doesn't exist.
“There's no piece of paper that justifies what the beggar has and what I have. Standing naked beside the beggar – there's no difference between her and me except a difference in luck. I don't actually deserve to have a thousand times more than the beggar has. I don't deserve to have two crusts of bread more.”