Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Errors big and small

Things that made me cry in the first three days of October:

The first and 11th rooms in the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern.
A kind email from Laura McDermott.
The final page of Jenny Offill's book 17 Things I'm Not Allowed To Do Any More.
Telling my beloved friend Mary about the final page of Jenny Offill's book 17 Things I'm Not Allowed To Do Any More.
Catching sight of the sea in the middle of the Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain.
An email I was sent in 2012.
My daughter complaining that school is a waste of time.
Talking through my work schedule with my mum.
The warmth of the autumn sun pouring through the window as I sat at the computer.
The final three minutes of text in This Is How We Die, just before the music kicks in.

I didn't cry in Dan Bye's new show Going Viral, which is just as well, because the plot of it hinges on a contagious outbreak of uncontrollable crying and I would have felt ridiculous and exposed – especially as it was performed in an intimate circle and I had no one to hide behind. But then, to cry would have been against the central premise of the piece: that I – like every other member of the audience – am the protagonist, a man in his 30s from the north of England, who found out some months before that a friend had died. Who hasn't since been able to cry. Or hasn't made the space and time in his life to cry, to grieve, to absorb the impact of that death. During the show, Dan wafts a freshly chopped onion beneath his nose (at least, he would have done in Margate, except he mislaid it, and I was glad), has someone tweeze hairs out of his arm, and chews a chunk of red chilli pepper, and each time pushes against any impulse to cry. Both the attempt and the repression disturb.

I've seen another show by Dan this year, also about someone grieving: Error 404, his children's show about a boy of maybe 10 years old whose best friend is killed in an accident. The boy's mother being a robot scientist, she builds him a replacement, plugging the friend's Facebook feed into the machine's hard-drive so that its store of anecdotes, experiences, likes and dislikes matches exactly the memories the boy has of his friend. And the question of how much children's lives are splayed out online, what that exposure might mean as they grow up, wasn't even at the forefront of the show: it had too much else going on for that. Its text was a bathe in elemental philosophy: for some questions, such as “what are feelings?” it posited a few possible answers, but mostly it left them open, to contemplate over the course of life. For instance (and I write this from the residue of memory, not the record of notes): does who we are define our actions, or do our actions define who we are? To what extent does a person's past cement their future? What does it mean to be human, and humane, and the opposite of those things? What do we mean by good and evil, and are these things inherent in a person's character, in the wiring of their brain? I'm not generally a reader of parenting manuals, but I do have one, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, and I return to it often, it's so full of wisdom, not just in terms of how to be a better parent but how to be a better person. One of its most useful tenets is to avoid labelling or entrenching a child by attaching adjectives to them, naming instead the behaviour: not “you're naughty” or “you're thoughtless” but “that behaviour was naughty” or “that action was thoughtless”. Telling someone they are stupid, or clumsy, or mean, trains the brain to believe it and act accordingly.

What made Error 404 even more special was that the whole show is a conversation with its audience, at least with its child audience. I saw it on an odd day, when there were barely eight of us in the room: my daughter, inclined to hold back, tried hiding behind another family but Dan found gentle ways of drawing her out. Inviting the children to shape story details – the games the boy plays with his friend, the names of characters, the particular “badness” of one of the adults – tells them it's “their” story; inviting them to address those philosophical questions as the plot unfolds tells them that we haven't gathered for adults to ponder big, tricky stuff above their heads, but that they, too, have the capacity for such thought and adults are interested in their perspective. Which again, isn't something children are told every day.

What they do have to deal with every day is how to interact with friends: how to cope with that person who's a bit annoying, how to navigate or settle argument, how to manage the instinct to compete. And this becomes the driving question of Error 404: is it better for the boy to be friends with a robot who is emotionally fixed or another child who challenges and disrupts, who surprises and cheers but also disappoints? Is it better to communicate through text (whether by phone, email, or social media) or in person, where words are more raw, and sentences more complicated, and feelings more vulnerable, and you have to really listen, and be present, and give attention? The gap between what I know to be the answer and how I actually behave gets bigger every year.

This thought carries through to Going Viral, when Dan/the character mentions how the news of his friend's death reached him: in a text message. I try to imagine the impulse of the person sending the text: the desire for speed of communication overriding or even erasing concern for how the person receiving it might feel. It reminded me of the gut-punch moment in I Wish I Was Lonely, when Hannah Jane Walker confessed telling her partner that she had miscarried their child in a text message; in retrospect she recognised it was callous, but at the time it was reflex, the medium she used automatically to share information with him. I'm writing this while also trying to put together some thoughts on how the internet and everything it makes possible has affected my relationship with time, and the day before seeing Going Viral I read two pieces that, I think, reflect directly the strand of thought Dan weaves in here. One is the speech by David Foster Wallace that calls on people to be less self-obsessed and more solicitous towards others; the second is a piece from the London Review of Books by Rebecca Solnit on how modern communications have changed human character. Both convey a fear that, as a species, we've forgotten how to care for each other. How to care about each other. We've lost track of our responsibility for each other's welfare. We struggle to see beyond the screens of our mobile phones. And of course it's possible to feel strong connections with people through social media – by the power of twitter, I know more about Megan Vaughan on any given day than anyone else of my acquaintance. But that anyone else includes two of my closest friends, both of whom are living with depression, and get scant support from me, because giving that support is a fuckload harder than flicking through my twitter feed. [Thinking back on this the day after publishing, I realise that even in saying this, I'm letting myself off the more difficult hook: of being truthful about how hard I'm finding it at the moment being with my kids. No matter that I love them: their noise, their demands, their exuberance, their sheer human presence, feel overwhelming, exhausting, suffocating. And that is the very worst thing.]

The virus at the heart of Going Viral could be the fanciful thing Dan describes – the contagion of crying – or it could be social media, which creates the impression of human contact even as it erodes it. Then again, the virus could be the hardening of humanity seen in a violent disregard for the plight of refugees, sometimes expressed as compassion fatigue, and/or the “viral” images (such as the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, face down in sand) that shock people back into outraged sympathy, however temporary; or it could be a pervasive feeling of negativity induced by late-capitalism and austerity and widening poverty; or the vile and violent hold that media narratives have over public imagination; or the failure of white middle-class Europeans to take responsibility for the ongoing aftershocks of colonialism. I'd love to say I had all these thoughts on my own, but I was having an odd night of riveted concentration interrupted by spasmodic droops, the result of chronic lack of sleep and incipient lurgy, and can't lay claim to anything with any confidence; instead, these are the things I remember from the audience discussion prompted by Going Viral. Unlike in Error 404, that discussion didn't happen within the show itself, although in its own way it's established as a space of dialogue, Dan beginning by asking us, “how are you?” and passing around a bottle of antibacterial hand gel – which brings the spectre not only of virus into the room, but bacteria, particularly those like MRSA resistant to antibiotics, and acknowledges the delicacy of the systems that keep us in health, and how our actions unbalance them, putting us at risk.

No: the real discussion happened afterwards, in the theatre club, hosted not by me but by an amazing woman called Anna, one of the new Margate volunteers in a national network Fuel are setting up as a legacy of the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood touring research project that I've been working on since 2013. I went along to give Anna moral support, which she didn't really need, because she was bloody brilliant. She got a room of 15 people talking with real consideration and sometimes acute honesty about how they responded to the show, what it raised for them, what it made them think. (She's also now written a lovely blog about the night for the NTiYN site I curate.) A couple of people related the show to their experiences of depression; one man said he now protects himself by paying no attention whatsoever to the media, describing the same bubble I've chosen to inhabit. I had to run for the London train while he was speaking, so never found out whether his argument that we shouldn't beat ourselves up for a failure of responsibility towards others was a reminder that we can work at a micro, local level to make people's lives better, and that is as worthwhile as bigger political actions, or a classic conservative argument for looking after you and yours first and leaving society whatever-that-is to take care of itself. But that uncertainty, too, is what I love about theatre club: that it holds conflicting viewpoints together, in a space that is open, generous, and considerate.

Andrew Latimer's exceptional review of Going Viral – so good that, on reading it, I had to stop myself deleting every word of this post, and would have were it not for the fact that this is what I've been doing while stealing time away from my children, and I've got to have something to show for it, however inadequate – addresses this question of space particularly well: Dan, he writes, “asks us to think deeply about the nature of space, not only how diseases or hysteria or empathy may travel through and across it … but how microcommunities reveal a tremendous amount about how we construct proximities, borders and emotional shields on one hand but compassion on the other”. Over the first few days of October, when the Chris Goode & Company Weaklings group was in Coventry and I had to be elsewhere, I thought a lot about the spaces Chris creates, the space of the DC's blog that inspired Weaklings (which gets more and more intriguing and welcoming the more I visit it), and particularly the space of Ponyboy Curtis, a thinking sharpened by something Craig Ponyboy said to me about the latter: that it's a space in which people can behave in ways that are dangerous, or unhinged, or extreme, and the compassionate thing is not to intervene, regulate, or attempt to restore a conventional notion of “normality”, but to allow that expression and hold it, so it's not neutralised yet safe for them. I relate this to people talking during theatre club about, for instance, experiences of depression, abuse, or alcoholism, and the response never being one of bland sympathy but careful – care-full – listening and acceptance.

I feel sad that I'm in the process of handing over theatre club in the NTiYN towns; but it's a useful, concrete sadness, unlike the vaguer melancholy that was triggering all those tears early in the month. The problem, I realised, was a lack of space in my life: space for thinking, resting, writing except to deadline. I've been forcing myself to sleep more, to write this despite a strangling feeling that my voice is completely off, to ignore twitter and add a few stitches to the dress I'm sewing instead. One of the best decisions I made this month was squeezing in the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern. It was extraordinary for being all space: her tight grids and scrupulous geometries create order so that your brain can pass beyond them, freer. The canvases in the first room are fairly large and very still: bands of soft pastel colour, washed into lambency, reverent as dawn, placid as the evening sun sinking into a calm inviting sea. Sure enough, the same palette coloured Margate that evening, more saturated but just as soothing. But maybe soothing is the wrong word: my chest felt choked in this exhibition, as though, in showing me stillness, meditation, transcendence, Martin's paintings reminded me how much weight presses on me elsewhere. The paintings in Room 11, a suite that Martin stated should always be exhibited together, drew you in with their simplicity and slight differences, invited you to seek out their infelicities and small errors, encouraged fortitude in the acceptance of human mistakes.

I started writing this on a train to Darlington for This Is How We Die at the Jabberwocky festival; it's since travelled with me to Coventry for Weaklings, to Birmingham for Fierce and particularly Selina Thompson's probing, fearless and vital Race Cards, and now it's on its way to Plymouth for Men in the Cities (revisited). In that 10 days I've also seen dreamthinkspeak's Absent, a show as insubstantial yet evocative and intricate in construction as a couture ballgown sewn in tulle; Igor and Moreno's A Room for All Our Tomorrows, by turns obstreperous, comical, tender and pensive, so rich in potential meaning that several distinct interpretations emerged during the theatre club I hosted after (my favourite was my friend Jake's, who read it as a portrait of the struggle for gay rights); Kandinsky's Dog Show, which gnawed at the bit of me that desperately wants to get a dog, but otherwise was completely delightful, a story about companionship and community and objectionable violence told through human and canine characters, all played to precision by the ensemble of four, plus song and noise and flashing lights and clarinet from onstage musician Zac Gvirtzman that was sometimes like Szechuan pepper and sometimes like caramel; and Eilidh MacAskill's Stud, which was basically one long dick gag but infinitely smarter than that makes it sound. I want to write so much more about them: need to, I suspect, to feel like I'm not just gobbling up other people's stuff but digesting it; to feel like I'm making something, whatever this is, of my own. (On that, since writing this I've also had a rare gig with my dance group, and there are some hilarious/excruciating pictures of me pulling shapes on this blog: for a retro 60s group, turns out we can have a lot of fun with indie classics.) Also in that 10 days, Matt Trueman wrote a column for What's On Stage wondering how criticism accounts for the shows that don't make much of an impact in the moment of seeing them but continue gnawing at you days and weeks and months later. It reminded me, in the midst of berating myself for failing to keep up with other theatre writers, that I'm trying to do something different to the prevalent culture of criticism; and that resistance, and isolationism, is the subject of Going Viral as well.

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