Monday, 19 November 2012

saying things out loud in public

Note added 9 July 2021: following the discovery that, through all the years I was working with him, Chris Goode was consuming images of child abuse, I've returned to a self-evaluation process rethinking the work I did with him. That process began in 2018 and some of what it raised is detailed in this post from December that year, in which I acknowledge that I was complicit in some of the harms he caused, for instance by erasing the work of other women who worked with him, fuelling a cult of genius around him, and consistently asking people who criticised his work (particularly the sexually explicit work) to see it in softer ways. A second post is now in process in which I look in more detail at the ways in which Chris coerced and abused particularly young men who worked with him, using radical queer politics to conceal these harms and police reactions. I hope that any other writing about his work on this blog, including the post below, will be read with that information in mind.

Further note added 27 July 2021: that new post is now written and undergoing an extensive rewriting process as it's read and commented on by people who appear in it (that is, other people who worked with Chris in the seven years when I did). It could be up to a month before it's ready to share publicly, but I'm happy to share it privately in the meantime.

In two hours and 30 minutes I shall be Saying Things Out Loud in Public. Usually this makes me pretty nervous but a) I've had a fair bit of practice at it lately, what with Dialogue at Northern Stage/St Stephen's and at BAC and at the Risking Together conference at Parabola Arts and Chris Goode's The Field of Performance event mentioned in last post and last week at the post-show discussion on political theatre organised by Hannah Silva following her performance of Opposition at which Andy Field quoted Christian Slater's closing speech from Pump Up the Volume and I rediscovered the faded tattoo of those words on my heart and b) there is so much else to be properly nervous about right this minute that this, quite honestly, is small fry.

Also, I was at the Bush on Saturday night (my first visit! awful that it's taken me so long) and being in the room where I'm going to be doing the talking was curiously reassuring. It's not that big. And, oh blessed consolation prize, Kieran Hurley is performing Beats afterwards so even if I do come across as a total idiot, afterwards I'll be able to sit in the dark and listen to a gorgeous story of people making mistakes and carrying on, and that will make me feel much better. As will listening to Aphex's Alberto Balsam at high volume. Bliss.

Anyway, because I know the room isn't that big, and because I know Chris Goode won't be there (he's podcasting at Stoke Newington International Airport) and I talk about him in the speech and it feels odd to me that he won't know what I'm saying, here is the speech. The title of the event is How Is Critical Discourse Keeping Pace with Contemporary Theatre? and the title of my contribution is What Are We Afraid Of? which isn't the title I'd have chosen after writing it but is the title I felt compelled to give when asked to provide one in advance. There's a comment box at the end, or you could email me:

What are we afraid of?

Back in the dark ages I wrote photocopied fanzines, the last of which was a collaboration with a friend that could be read from the front or the back and, depending where you started, detailed things we hated – our bugbears – or things we loved – the bearhugs. I no longer recall which side theatre was on. One reader, who had changed his name by deed poll to Titus Toilet Seat [memory failure! Bughug co-writer tells me it was someone else with a more normal/less memorable name. Apologies to all concerned], told us that my friend's writing for it was all right, but mine made him want to string me up by a noose.

Now everything I write is published online, with a comment box beneath, in which readers can broadcast their irritation and belief in my irrelevance internationally. People who are really riled write entire blog posts excoriating my work sentence by sentence. Or maybe that's just Andrew Haydon. It's not easy to read these things. But I do. I breathe with them, absorb them, and carry on.

I realise this sounds like a crass way of saying that critics have to deal with criticism, too. But that's not quite my point. There is a criticism that increasingly I struggle to assimilate, and it's the commentary that comes pre-publication – during the process, if you like. I'm becoming the kind of abysmal egotist who considers the unsolicited intervention of editors, professional or otherwise, an affront. Woe betide anyone who glances at my computer when sentences are unfinished. Writing is precarious and a matter of taste. Once something is published, I'm happy to face all commentary. In the process, I like silence.

And this is the irony. Over the past few years of writing about theatre, I've drifted away from conventional criticism, the quick-fire review of a press night, and become much more interested in writing about process. Some people have been happy to open the doors of their rehearsal rooms to me. But more people haven't. They feel the process needs to be protected. I have a lot of respect and sympathy for that position.

But I also think those people believe that a theatre critic in their rehearsal room would be formulating judgment, in a way that an assistant director, or a dramaturg, or another playwright or performer or maker, wouldn't be. They believe that fear of that judgment would encourage the performers to make safe or conventional choices. Both of these things could be true. But I hope not of me.

If theatre-makers are afraid of a critic encroaching on their work, I'm no less afraid of affecting it, for good or ill. When I walk into a rehearsal room, I understand that my presence has an effect: I embody the audience to come. But beyond that, I want to influence the process as little as possible. I want to witness silently and unobtrusively. I want to think and I want to learn. And if I do say anything, I don't want to comment but to question, dig, understand.

Like many people who write about theatre, I have little experience of making it. I painted scenic backdrops for friends at university, and designed a set for an Edinburgh show which mostly involved running around charity shops and trying not to asphyxiate myself with fire-resistant spray, but none of that proved especially edifying. When I started going into grown-up rehearsal rooms, as research for Guardian features, I felt I was witnessing alchemy. No matter how much I learn about the nuts and bolts of making theatre, there is much that remains thrillingly elusive.

The mysterious processes of acting or devising, I can't articulate. The nuts and bolts, however, I can: not to create user manuals on the subjects of directing or designing but to contemplate the political implications of how theatre gets made. Ask people what a theatre critic should do and they will probably paraphrase Irving Wardle's bible on the matter: you should work out what the production is attempting, and assess how successfully it achieves that goal. But just as the means of production at Prada and Primark differ widely, so do the circumstances under which theatre is made. This is nothing to do with persistent, nonsensical binaries of “new work” and “new writing”: it's to do with opportunity. What compromises had to be struck with time or money or resources in the makers' journey towards their goal? What supported or thwarted their success? What had to be sacrificed or fought?

I'm interested, too, in thinking about the temporary communities that are forged through the making of theatre, the relationships between the people in the rehearsal space, and the projected and actual relationships between those people and the others who engage with their work in the performance space. How supportive or enabling are those relationships – and what are they supporting or enabling? Is this a genuine collaboration, a truly open participation, or a covert hierarchy? What difference does it make if the work purports to be nurturing, but the process isn't?

For the past 18 months I've been working with theatre-maker Chris Goode as he develops an argument for the rehearsal room as “a space in which we experiment with ways to live together”. Ways of generosity, of care; listening attentively to other voices; enabling the articulation of marginalised human experience. Ways of living denigrated in a competitive society driven by market forces. When Chris first invited me to be part of that space, he said it was because he wanted someone in the room who could be: “A cross between a dramaturg, an archivist, a documentary artist, an outreach officer, a brand manager and Jiminy Cricket... Not just an outside eye (and ear) but also a memory, a conscience, a nagging voice. A heart.” So that's a fair bit to live up to.

Writing about Chris' work is by far the most challenging thing I now do. Earlier this year, I put together an essay about the Chris Goode and Company show 9 that was one-part semi-conventional review, one-part investigation of the effect of Chris Goode and Co's flexible and organic working practice on the more conventional operations of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who co-produced it, and one-part contemplation of the role of the non-professional members of the community performing the work. It ran at approximately 10,000 words, four months after the two-night run had finished. Outside of academia – and truly, I'm no academic – I don't know where the home for such writing is.

It could be argued that no home exists because such writing is superfluous to requirements. But that smacks of a narrow appreciation of theatre criticism's role. I've been with the Guardian for 12 years and remain astounded that I have the opportunity to write not only for a national newspaper, but alongside Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner, both of whom make me look like an ignorant upstart. But as soon as I put a star rating on a Guardian review, I contribute to the commodification of theatre and the reduction of criticism to consumer guide. I need that consumer guide as much as the next cash-strapped, time-poor soul struggling to choose between a plethora of shows. But critics, or theatre-writers, as I prefer to call myself, can and must give more.

We are story-tellers, narrating our perception of theatre for the benefit of its makers and its myriad audiences, now and in the future. We are advocates, arguing for theatre's necessity to those who are suspicious of it or would dismiss its voice in society, reaching out to those who need it but have been misled into thinking that theatre is for a social or academic elite, even convincing funders to cough up some cash. We are ecologists, as Andrew Haydon usefully posits, identifying and elucidating evolutions in theatre, examining the veins carrying blood and oxygen to and from theatre, art, society, technology, politics. We are theatre's memory, conscience and nagging voice. Does it really make sense for us to be sitting on the outside, invited in only for press night?

And of course we can write and publish this stuff ourselves, on our blogs. But those are monologues. I'm interested in dialogue and the communities it can forge – which is why I'm perplexed that there's no Q&A time at this event. Earlier this year I set up a website called Dialogue with my friend Jake Orr, dubbing it “a collaborative playspace for people who make, watch and write about theatre”. We don't call it a playspace to be whimsical: unless you've never been a child, you know that people learn and share and communicate and laugh and fight and love and reveal their secrets best through play.

Dialogue shares a central tenet of its manifesto with a New York website called Culturebot, an ongoing inspiration for me and Jake, whose proposal for 21st-century theatre-writing is rooted in the idea of “critical horizontalism”. Rather than deliver a judgment on a production or performance, the critic offers a response that is “the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist”. Star ratings not included.

There is a strong argument against critical horizontalism: who can trust a critic who works alongside makers? The critic who observes rehearsals, Irving Wardle reasoned in that bible on the matter, becomes “the company's mascot... You make friends. You sympathise with their difficulties. … Having made the journey with them, you are only conscious of what they have achieved; and you want what they want – unconditional approval.” That makes two bibles I don't believe in. Friends, true friends, are not only sympathetic but understand the importance of honesty, no matter how difficult or painful.

I have my own advocate in this. A few weeks into Dialogue's existence, Chris Goode texted alerting me to a passage in a book he was reading. “Our relations with critics may be strained in a superficial sense,” it read, “but in a deeper one the relationship is absolutely necessary: like the fish in the ocean, we need one another's devouring talents to perpetuate the sea bed's existence. … The critic is part of the whole and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?

“The more the critic becomes an insider,” it continued, “the better.” As you can probably tell from those slips into the male pronoun, the book wasn't new. It was Peter Brook's The Empty Space, published in 1968. And there we were kidding ourselves we were so bloody forward-looking.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

searching for a hollow in the sand

The list of things that make me think I should Stop Writing Now is long and mutable, and it's a fairly safe bet that a new exhibition of oil paintings will shoot to the top. I started daubing in oils when I was about 15 and maybe the fumes infected my brain or the pigments poisoned my skin but I became hooked and have never kicked the addiction, despite all-but-quitting painting over a decade ago. A good exhibition is the glimpse of the bottle, the glint of the needle, that shatters a precarious resolve: I walk around in a paroxysm of envy and grass-is-greener confusion, wondering how, why, I let writing come to dominate my life, when paint was surely the partner for me.

I'm so accustomed to feeling this that the past three months have been perplexing: one exhibition after another has left me comparatively unmoved. It's partly to do with the oils I've been seeing: lots of the symbolist work at the Scottish National Gallery was minor league; I can't abide the prissy erotics and risible melodrama of the pre-Raphaelites; too much of the Munch was dispensable. But a few days ago I saw a small room of new work by a painter whose last show was an electric shock of unexpected self-recognition, and felt surprised again by my equanimity. The painter is Simon Ling, and I should declare an interest: I met Simon years ago at a lindy-hop class and although I hardly ever see him he lives in my heart because he's the only person with whom I dance and can feel even fractionally competent. His last show, in the main space at Greengrassi, startled me because it did exactly the things I dreamed of doing with paint: investigated the degrading effect of humans on nature, and nature's insidious revenge, in images of ragged wastelands and strangled forests and derelict buildings smothered in weeds, representing this collision realistically while calling sly, sensuous attention to the act of painting itself. The new show, also at Greengrassi, is much smaller, and there are three paintings in it that I love, of buildings around Old Street station, each one fascinating in its slipperiness. One building seems to stand askew, another to careen towards the edges of the canvas, while the third holds itself together at the edge of collapse. I think again about the abandoned painting of a crumbling building in Athens that I was supposed to give my dad for his 50th birthday: these, too, are things I dreamed of doing. But this time, it's OK that I'm not.

Painting is the one thing I don't allow myself to fudge: I'll make clothes and write and invent cake recipes and just muddle along, but if I can't be brilliant at painting I won't do it at all. Not even as a hobby: the phrase “Sunday painter”, for that matter the word “hobby”, makes me balk. Occasionally I've wondered if such fundamentalism isn't idiotic. But last year, reading an interview with John Berger in the Guardian, I received confirmation. “Painting is something that you need to do if not every day, then certainly most days,” Berger said. “It is almost like being a pianist, if you stop you lose something. The phrase 'Sunday painter' is not often a compliment.”

I've been thinking about Berger a lot this past fortnight, since X I had to confess, sotto voce, that Berger is one of far too many writers whose books I know I ought to have read by now but which I've been trying to absorb by osmosis, as though simply having them on the shelves were enough. Who knows, maybe it's worked: in an email conversation about Berger X, Rajni Shah wrote admiringly of the way that, in Berger's writing, “the space of language is not separate to the space of thinking is not separate to the space of eating and walking and falling and hesitating and implying”. Which is pretty much exactly what I'd like to be doing on Deliq.

At the same time, I've been thinking about painting, or rather, about writing-as-painting, slowly becoming conscious of a correspondence between how I used to paint and how I now write, at least for Deliq, at least about theatre, and vaguely wondering what that means. So I had something of a double-flip when I came across this passage in Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, the second essay in Berger's book The Shape of a Pocket (yes, I am actually reading him now):
The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter... When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance. …
The modern illusion concerning painting … is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.
And then this, from the fourth essay, Studio Talk:
...two words: FACE and PLACE.
… Whatever the painter is looking for, he's looking for its face. All the search and the losing and the re-finding is about that, isn't it? And 'its face' means what? He's looking for its return gaze and he's looking for its expression – a slight sign of its inner life.
… A place is more than an area. A place surrounds something. A place is the extension of a presence or the consequence of an action.
How does a painting become a place? … When a place is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature and art. It is like a hollow in the sand within which the frontier has been wiped out. The place of the painting begins in this hollow.
Forgive me if this sounds completely ridiculous, but everything Berger says here (and I realise there are lots of ellipses: they don't negate the recognition but further confirm it) chimes with me instinctively not as a painter but as a theatre-writer. What am I if not a receiver, struggling to give new form to that which I've received? What am I looking for if not the face, the inner life, of a piece? What is Dialogue, the website/proposal for a new approach to theatre-writing that I started this year with Jake Orr, if not an attempt to get close enough to theatre-makers for a collaboration to start? And what might become possible if I were entirely unafraid to leap into that hollow in the sand, where the frontier between life and theatre, me and the piece, has been wiped out?

I've been writing this in my parents' house in Cyprus, a portal to a parallel universe where all the paintings I did as a teenager hang on the walls and I'm confronted daily by the person I never became. Earlier today I went for a walk around their village and listened to Deerhunter and beamed at the mountains turning lilac in the sunset, dove-grey roads snaking across them, and photographed the small gnarled trunk of a tree, its sinuous limbs curved like the body of a woman, two snapped branches reaching out in supplication, and thought of Daphne escaping Apollo, and of coming back tomorrow to draw it. Last night I threw together a yoghurt cake by whisking three medium eggs with five tablespoons of honey, maybe 50ml of olive oil, 200g Greek yoghurt, three heaped spoons of plain flour, 125g ground almonds and a sprinkle of cinnamon, baked it for 40 minutes in a moderate oven, then glazed it with more honey, a spoonful of lemon juice, and nibbed almonds; it was good, something like a mild smooth cheesecake, but I wish I'd made the effort to bake it in a bain marie. Every evening I sit with my computer on my lap and half-despise, half-relish the impossible frustration of words, while my family play cards and drink and talk politics. And at the beach I read this, from another essay in The Shape of a Pocket, about Vincent van Gogh: “for him the act of drawing or painting was a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at”. And I shivered as the heat of the sun turned my skin indignant red and thought: yes, that is how I want to write about theatre, too.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Benedict Andrews: the (as it were) director's cut

It wasn't until I'd written it, rewritten it top-to-bottom, and addressed myriad editorial queries, that I knew how to write about Benedict Andrews for the Guardian. Unfortunately, the lightbulb switched on seven minutes into the afternoon school run on publication day, by which time another radical rewrite was out of the question. I know why he foxed me: we talked for 70 minutes, energetically and sometimes intensely, sitting on the set for his Young Vic Three Sisters – in both attempts at the piece, I noted that his is the first rehearsal room I've walked into where the actors work throughout on the actual set – which, I suspect, encouraged the conversation to sprawl across the room. Every attempt to squash it down to an 850-word print space felt doomed.

The thought I had on the school run was this: that I should have focused more on the vexed notion of “director's theatre”. One of the things I read about Andrews before interviewing him was a review of his eight-hour power through Shakespeare's Histories, The War of the Roses, by someone who clearly hates his work. At the Guardian's request, I quoted the following from it: “Benedict Andrews is my nightmare of what director’s theatre can come to.” (I haven't bothered linking to it because if you're going to read a review, it should be Alison Croggon's.) Another, more useful, quote came from Cate Blanchett, who was part of the Roses ensemble and collaborates with Andrews often: “His rehearsal rooms are muscular – brutal, even – but he loves being surprised.”

“I think what Cate was talking about, it's sort of a demand from the beginning,” says Andrews. “I'm wanting [the actors] to really go for it, and I don't have a blueprint – OK, I have a big blueprint, but I don't know what's going to happen. I'm wanting them to invent and me to invent, I'm dependent on them to feed me and me to feed them. That's a sort of tightrope act and a real dance; it's like a performance, very playful, very theatrical, but emotionally raw as well. I'm interested in something happening in the theatre, happen[ing] night after night. It's a construct and a game but something's got to take place.”

What I liked about this was its refutation of the criticism that the people responsible for “director's theatre” have a fixed idea about what their production will do and how it will play.

“I think that's bullshit,” Andrews shoots back. “I don't know any good director who works like that. If you love actors you want them to be liberated. It's really a dialogue at its best, and I'm reliant on people who are on their toes and inventive and playful. That's such a dangerous cliche, that this director's theatre is an imposition: people who are threatened by what they see read this in reverse. It's actually the opposite. I come into a rehearsal room with a series of givens: I guess that's part of the game, what you choose to put in. We make the rules that there are these things here, and if you come in here you have to tell the story with [them]. I don't ever put it on [the finished set] at the end, in the final week, because I don't believe that set design is decoration. Everything is absolutely fundamental and used and discovered in the room. The room has to earn its right to exist.”

This has been key to the development of his work, he says: the desire to “get rid of ornamentation and move towards something that's raw for the playing, but that has an argument about the world in it, [which] you watch being constructed. [It's saying,] this is a place for theatre, as opposed to saying: this is nice wallpaper and that's how the world is. That's a special thing that theatre allows us, which cinema or photography can't do: to watch a series of constructed instants and maybe think about how they're made.”

Now I've put all those quotes together, I realise a piece revolving around this material would have been doomed, too. The thoughts are too big, too vigorous. But without them, I couldn't talk effectively about his sense of the differences between British and German theatre. An obsessive reader of theatre magazines, he was aware of work happening in Germany long before he first visited the Schaubuhne in 2002. That association grew from two things: his first bash at staging Three Sisters, at the Sydney Opera House in 2001, and a production of Marius von Mayenburg's Fireface the same year. Mayenburg wasn't able to see his own play but did watch an early run-through of Three Sisters: he told Andrews that he'd never seen Chekhov like that before (more on this to come), and that the atmosphere in the company reminded him of the people he was working with in Germany.

Andrews directed his first production at the Schaubuhne, Sarah Kane's Cleansed, in 2004, and worked there regularly over the next six years. “It's a real baptism by fire, being at the Schaubuhne, because it was the greatest house for contemporary theatre in those times, maybe still now. I learned so much losing my language, when actors were speaking German and I didn't really understand it. And [Thomas] Ostermeier was inventing a lot in those years – still is, but I remember while I was there seeing the birth of several new ideas from him. So you have a very strong leader, and a very good ensemble attracted to that person, … [who] have an expectation that you will have ideas beyond the literal. [The actors are] very truthful, they can invent on basic naturalistic truth, but their job is also to invent metaphors simultaneously. I don't mean that as some sort of conceptual exercise: it's the visceral nature of theatre that they can invent and play on many levels at once.”

English actors – and he said this on the basis of a just a few days working with the Young Vic cast – by contrast demonstrate “a pragmatic, utilitarian literalness about things, which is a really great skill if you can use it as a springboard and not be bound by it. There's a facility with text and language that can be both a safety net, because they know how to make it sound, and a skill that suits a lot of the writing. I'm encouraging them to break through that into something raw and sometimes messier.”

It's this messiness, he argues, that separates German and British theatre. “I guess there's an assumption [in Germany] that a director's job is not necessarily to make something nice and well-made, which it is here. I'm all for well-made, well-crafted, but the expectation [here] in a way is: please don't go beyond that, because it's wrong somehow. Rather than letting it be a train crash but it's alive.” He points to Three Kingdoms, and the way it brought a “terribly revealing binary” to the surface. “In German theatre culture there are so many contrasting arguments about what theatre is. German theatre is many, many things: it's a hothouse; yes, some of it is excessively conceptual. [In England,] it's a shorthand people use to deride things that are different.

“The interesting thing [about Three Kingdoms], and why the controversy happened maybe, [is that] Simon Stephens writes well-made English plays, so you're seeing in English something that seemingly should be the well-made English play, done in the German way: done in a way which says, right, let's rip it up and start again. Over there, it's part of a very rich, dense theatre culture. I enjoyed Three Kingdoms very much, particularly as an experiment; … maybe in the end I saw a train crash, but I would rather see this train crash than something well-mannered and polite.”

I didn't talk about any of that in the Guardian because I still feel confused about my weird role in the discussions around Three Kingdoms. Nor did I manage to squeeze in the canny politics of David Lan bringing Andrews into the Young Vic. In May, Lan published – on Matt Trueman's Carousel of Fantasies – a speech about the need for young British directors to see German work, because: “when you do experience this theatre, you become a little bit more free as an artist, and consequently a little bit more capable of communicating through art the complexity of your own special and individual experience of living in the world”. But it's one thing to see that work in Berlin, quite another to see it and feel it and witness its effect on an audience in a London house.

I say this because nothing prepared me for Andrews' Three Sisters. I've seen two other shows by him this year, and they didn't persuade me that I would love his Chekhov, despite the fact that one of them, Gross und Klein, is among the best things I've seen this year. The production felt really clean, distilled to a series of vivid, precisely detailed vignettes through which Cate Blanchett's thrumming Lotte stumbled in search of human connection. Caligula, at ENO, felt as overwhelmingly busy as Gross und Klein was focused and pure: stadium seats thrusting across the stage, violence erupting from the aisle between them, symbols of pop-capitalist culture littering the space. I left it to Matt Trueman to synthesise it all for me, which he did, brilliantly.

My problem wasn't with Andrews, it was with Three Sisters. I'd seen it once before, when I had to review Katie Mitchell's National Theatre production, an excruciating experience because I found it paralysingly dull and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, could only assume it was my own ignorance and philistinism that made it so. (Funnily enough, I didn't say any of that in the review.) Having seen Andrews' version, I suspect the problem was more with Mitchell's decision to emphasise the listlessness of the siblings' existence: the trouble with such unvarying, torpid inaction is that it inspires very little sympathy. Then again, Lyn Gardner has suggested to me that Three Sisters doesn't make an impact on you until you've felt real disappointment in life: maybe I've finally got the experience I lacked in 2003.

I enjoyed talking to Andrews about the Mitchell production, not because he'd seen it, but because he'd seen her Seagull in Copenhagen and described it as “a Hammershoi painting”, a collection of “period pictures” whose purpose he understands but which are not sufficiently removed from what he dismisses as museum theatre for his taste (at least, that's how I interpret what he said; apologies to him if I've overstepped the mark). He has hated museum theatre ever since he was a teenager, when he saw a radical Lithuanian production of Uncle Vanya directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius at the Adelaide festival. “That was my exposure to what theatre should be and what Chekhov should be. When I started going to the state theatre [in Australia], I thought: what are these people doing? I felt like Konstantin in The Seagull: that they should be destroyed and start again.”

What he was seeing was “lace and high necks” and productions that were “about manners. I think the plays are about class, class is important and a dying class is important, a dying bourgeois who live in a bubble. [In Three Sisters] they talk about a storm coming that will wipe us all out: we now know what that storm was, and what perhaps in 25 years would happen to these children of the bourgeois.” The focus on manners, as opposed to class and class conflict, he argues, “is a big piece of bullshit to hide in. It's this big fantasy everybody has that [Chekhov's plays are] about repressed people being nice.”

From what I can gather, there was nothing nice about his 2001 production of Three Sisters. It was a breakthrough show for him, and sealed his reputation as difficult and divisive. “It was the first Chekhov I'd done, and the first time you meet it it's raw discovery. And I was a much younger director. I was blindly doing it and the production was a mess actually, probably in a good way. It threw so many things at it: the stage was covered in Star Wars toys, Irina was crying holding a Yoda doll, there was disco music playing. None of this to my mind was for provocation: it was alive for us, as a group making it. Now I look back and I think, there was probably some clutter in front of the heart of the play, but I wanted it to be wild and not genteel.”

He was 29 then; now he's 40: “I hope you do get wiser as you get older,” he laughs. “To come back knowing it but not trying to do the same production is very interesting: the thing reappears even more incandescent, even more truthful; the transparency and lightness of the thing becomes even more incredible; this perfect crystalline structure carries these complicated people in such terrible pain. I'm much more interested in people; I think that's something that happens as you get older in theatre. I was much more interested with form: form's [still] a very big question for me, but now all I really want to do is watch very good actors playing and being truthful.”

Honestly? Very good actors playing and being truthful is exactly what you see in the Young Vic production. There are all sorts of fascinating things happening in the staging: the elevation of the Prozorov family on stiff grey tables, a structure of class and cultural values that is slowly dismantled until the sisters must squarely face the realisation that they are nothing more than dust and earth; the huge box ceiling looming over them, like time itself; the choreography of the sisters, so close, so far apart; the psychological exactitude of the costumes; the time-blur of the music, quietly alerting us to the fact that Andrews has in mind our iPod generation who, like Chekhov's characters, surely – surely? – know that something has to give, that capitalism and the self-obsession, inequality, climate change, violence against human existence it entails can't be sustainable, but don't know when change will come or how it will manifest itself or what it might actually mean. But I didn't think about any of these things watching it; some of them, I wasn't even able to articulate fully until talking the production through at the Young Vic with people who participate in the theatre's Two Boroughs project. I didn't think because I was too busy feeling electrified by the performances. I went twice, certain that it couldn't be that alive, that exciting, the second time around: if anything, I heard it more clearly and felt it more acutely, because the characters – oh, the paradox – were saying those words for the very first time.

The odd thing is, so much of what they say is so clunky. Olga's opening speeches are functional, not realistic, and yet you hear them the way you hear a boring big sister (I say this as a boring big sister) banging on about stuff you already know. Irina is so painfully earnest, Vershinin weirdly stiff. And yet the actors make every word ring true. And then there's everything they don't say: the second time I went, I kept catching Masha mouthing along mockingly to her husband's Latin aphorisms; the moment when she almost remonstrates with her sisters but then sees Vershinin and is silently magnetised by his presence is thrilling. And then there's everything that gesture communicates: whenever Kulygin kisses Olga's forehead you know, just know, he has married the wrong sister.

Something else I didn't properly appreciate until talking this through with the Two Boroughs participants, and beginning to read an essay on Three Sisters that Andrews gave me at the end of the interview: whereas the Katie Mitchell production expressed the sisters' experience of time as a suffocating heaviness, Andrews understands that it's possible to know that you are wasting your life away yet feel enjoyment in the moment of doing so. The first two acts are time seemingly suspended, present fleeting pleasure buoyed between a halcyon past and a glowing future: in the last two acts, time collapses, so that past and future are equally irrelevant, and the present, without those consolations, feels unbearably bleak. This is how time drifts for all of us. The best anyone can do is get back up, face the music and dance.

I talked to Andrews quite a bit about the politics of his adaptation, because even on the page it blazed. He didn't talk about the play being “relevant” but live, alive, present. “There's all sorts of loaded words: if you hear the word decadent, our decadent culture, that echoes back through the failure, the so-called failure, of that type of communism. There are plenty of people now starting to say there might be another use of the word communism, to try and salvage that political system. [Tuzenbach says], maybe we're approaching some kind of zero point: that's deliberately from Living in the End Times by Zizek, that argument that there is a kind of collapse of all these possible systems.

“[Tuzenbach and Vershinin] are not actually giving political lectures, that's the interesting thing; they're kind of just bullshitting, talking around these themes to get at something else. But it's a big theme in the play and I want to make it charged still. We can share if we want to a sense of end times, or a sense that everything might suddenly collapse.

“Something is in the air for the people in this play: they're a terminal bourgeois, [their] world was about to explode, and here's this young bourgeois woman saying we have to work. That means a completely different thing for us now, in a post-industrial age, from what it would mean for her as the daughter of a general, who hasn't lifted a finger, with a maid doing things. Or the baron says [of his own privileged youth], I'd sit in front of the telly while someone took my shoes off. Sometimes I can see [the actors] try to process that on a class level [as in, relating it to the English aristocracy]: for me, it could just as easily be an Icelandic banker or someone who owns a supermarket chain or a new rich in Russia or Mexico. It [happens] here: you're busy, you have a nanny in the house looking after the kids. But people don't want to believe it exists here, or that our culture is based on a service industry. We want to believe we're all part of this iPod world: people do not want to believe that there is actually a huge class gap in society still.”

Museum or “genteel” Chekhov, he repeats, obfuscates these politics. “I'm not saying you have to do contemporary versions: a period version can make you think about this. But for me, so much effort goes into that as a smokescreen, to get away from these being real people, people who are in questions of being alive now, [who are] as blind and as confused as us about what to do. We're playing the play instant by instant, … and this is what leads to big questions: why are these women in the situation that they're in? Why are they so stranded in their lives? I think they become an exemplar of what's become a key condition for us, which is a kind of homesickness in our own lives, a radical homesickness wherever you are in the world.” Like the army, shipping out of the provincial town, he says, people now move wherever their job sends them, or wherever they can get the biggest pay packet – never mind the personal cost.

Andrews isn't someone who indulges in a lot of private talk, but this reference to homesickness makes me curious. I ask him where feels like home to him at the moment and there's a long pause. “There's sort of nowhere yet. Iceland is becoming that: I have an application in for an Icelandic residency status and I would set up there as a base. In a way I feel at home there because I'm there a lot and that's where Magga [his partner, Margrét Bjarnadóttir] is, but often when I'm there I'm also in anticipation of going somewhere else. But then of course my friends and family are in Australia. I put myself in the state of the characters in this play: I live in a perpetual state of homesickness for somewhere else. But then it's also very beautiful to be a stranger, in a way.”

I can't help cheering when he talks about building his career around Magga, turning down opportunities to run theatres in Australia so that he could live in Europe with her. It's not just about love, it's about work: “I've needed this other perspective in the world, I need to work with actors from different places and to work in different theatre contexts. I also think I'm keeping alive the possibility for writing. If I had [stayed in Australia] the last 10 years, I wouldn't be a theatre director any more. I think I would have shrivelled up and died.”

Talk of writing elicits another confession: as a teenager he wrote plays, but in his twenties he had a crisis of confidence and switched to poetry. “When I was a learning director I was consciously or unconsciously trapped by all the great writers that I was working with: Sarah Kane, Beckett, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Marius von Mayenburg. Sometimes they can make it almost impossible for you to write.” (Quick aside: I find it brilliant that he puts Sarah Kane first in that list. Just brilliant.)

“All the plays have been accidents,” he adds. “I didn't think that I was going to write theatre: I thought I would continue to try and develop writing poems and maybe write fiction.” The first play grew from a conversation he overheard in an airport in summer 2010; since then he's written three more, in feverish succession. “It's like a door opens in the brain, there's something going on in there, you start eavesdropping on these people and follow them. It's a very unusual situation because suddenly I have this clutch of plays but they're not performed. My great hope [is] that they will come into the world separate from me as a director. I could do good productions of some of them [but] they're not written for me to direct. [But] in Australia it's very difficult: people are intimidated by me as a director. When I give them to people, maybe this is their polite way of getting out of doing them, but there is the question: if you don't do it, who should?”

Andrews has done a production of one of them, Every Breath, and the reviews I've read for that are vitriolic. He doesn't expect people to find his plays easy: “They're not written as a well-structured well-made play – I think they're well-structured in terms of a rhythm, but they do strange things, maybe too strange, I don't know yet. I hope the plays end up having an argument or saying something or make a consolation with things happening. There's a kind of noise in them that maybe people find a bit scary.”

He has an English agent who has been sending the plays out; responses to the most recent, Gloria, mostly compare it to the David Lynch film Inland Empire, which I've been warned against seeing on the grounds that Twin Peaks gave me recurring nightmares for five years and this is infinitely worse. Both Gloria and Every Breath are set in gated communities, a trope he often uses as a director, too. “I'm quite interested in the closed-off community under surveillance as a sort of modern paradigm,” he admits. “But then there might be a whole other level underneath it, to do with my job [being] to sit and watch people, to be a voyeur all day of very private things. So these plays then end up being about [an] obsession with watching, an obsession with eyes.”

Very private things: that, too, is what you see in his Young Vic Three Sisters. Whether it's the queasy transformation of Natasha from bumbling provincial to strutting lady of the manor or the wry glance shared between servants, whether it's Andrey assimilating his shattered hopes with Ferapont precisely because the old man can't hear him or Masha howling like a savaged animal when Vershinin leaves, Andrews exposes everything that these characters try to hide, or try to ignore. In doing so, he makes you face up to yourself – and leaves you maybe just a little more accepting of that self than before.

Final note: there's a lot of great music in this production, but this song is very much the best...

Friday, 12 October 2012

scars make your body more interesting

“The potential for engagement is more exciting than the engagement itself.”

I shouldn't be so het up about those words. I wasn't part of the discussion; I don't know the context. They were quoted by Catherine Love in her record of BACDialogue and reading them felt like being bitten by a rottweiler. Partly I recoiled because they were said in a discussion about (but, Catherine assures me, weren't necessarily a response to) the Tino Sehgal show These Associations at Tate Modern. But they also sharpened into focus something I've been thinking about in a semi-conscious way for the past few weeks: about the audience's responsibility for their own engagement.

I'm a bit obsessed with the Sehgal. I've been twice and had incredible encounters with the performers both times. One man, talking about his fraught relationship with his mother, who died a few months ago, made me laugh so much tears spilled from my eyes. Another man's mother story gave me a model for living. There's a woman using the piece as an opportunity to gather advice on her recent decision to separate – she hopes temporarily – from her boyfriend of eight years; he is her ideal partner, and she adores him, but she isn't sure she knows who she is and would like some time alone to find out. Another woman told me about her partner's infidelity, and startled herself when she confessed to me – the first time she had articulated this aloud – that sometimes when she fucks him she feels like she's fucking her. In return, I was more honest with her about my own life than I've been with almost all of my friends.

The first time I went, I was puzzled by the terms of engagement: I hadn't read anything about the work, and had no idea that people would talk to me. I was with a friend; we planned to watch for ten minutes then have a squizz round the Tanks. An hour later, we had to wrench ourselves away. After the first person came to talk to us, about the benefits of downsizing in later life, we weren't sure whether to approach others or wait. We decided to wait, preferring the serendipity, and the elimination of the risk that we might judge people by their exterior. One man who spoke to us had spent time in Mao's China, where everyone wore a uniform and individuality had apparently been erased. Later he went to Japan and realised that he was looking at people's clothes, not their faces. In China, without individualised clothing to distract him, he had looked for character in people's features, in their eyes.

The second visit I was alone; I worried I would feel self-conscious, standing around waiting for people to approach me, but the piece itself works against that: they are all standing around, and even when they become absorbed in the task of electrifying the space, I can feel performers' eyes glancing at me, choosing the moment to come and speak. Yes, some of the conversations are more meaningful than others – but the best are shockingly illuminating, the way encounters with strangers can be. Again, an honesty is possible among strangers that somehow isn't in other conversation; mulling on the second visit, I remembered Uninvited Guests' Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, and how I felt able to tell a story in that room I hadn't told to anyone else, and so let someone out of my heart to whom I'd been struggling to say goodbye.

It also occurred to me that These Associations is actually a thrilling piece of theatre, recontextualised, and that its driving impulse is X making a space for people to present a brief self-portrait, and through that making an argument for listening to each other, being more generous towards each other, and finding the extraordinary within the everyday. The engagement here is exciting because people are exciting. Just the ways people exist and survive all the shit the world throws at them are exciting. If you make the time to see them that way.

The engagement question took me back to Carnesky's Tarot Drome, which I saw in the middle of September. I'd piled too much expectation on it – I'm still angry with myself for not seeing Carnesky's Ghost Train in the years of overwork and disenchantment – and half of it was disappointing: the wrestling match was too stagy and rowdy, and I'm too fussy about music to tolerate a band I don't like playing substandard glam-rock, even if they are accompanied by cape-swishing rollerderby queens.

The first segment, though, was mesmerising – and puzzling, because most of the people in the room with me seemed to be treating it as a diversion, a game. To explain: I have no truck with the tarot. I do have an aunt who reads the cards (and goes to church, and will read your future in the sludge that sinks through a cup of Greek coffee), and find her wide-reaching spirituality basically quite weird. I know it's hokum – but the world Carnesky created, of embodied tarot figures, drew me in until it became, however momentarily, a place of belief. Justice handed me a scroll, which read (something like) mercy is more important than justice. Death cracked through the tight skin that imprisoned her to emerge free. The High Priestess enveloped me in her silken wings then gave me a message; I didn't keep it, because the rational part of me knows it was about as meaningful as a fortune-cookie platitude, but in that moment, in that room, its fillip of encouragement, to embrace the possibilities of self-transformation, made me glow.

Time and again, I felt the room and the chatting of the audience melt away. When the Empress held my gaze as she filled my hands with earth and we spread its soft grains across her leg. When I asked Strength whether strength is something we can learn or must find within ourselves, and she pressed her head against mine, as though to impart some knowledge to me. When the Hermit used her shawl to enclose us in a tent and, in a delicious cockney accent, told me one of her old dad's favourite sayings: happiness isn't something we journey towards, but through. So simple, so easily forgotten.

It's nonsense, it's nothing, I know. But cynicism is so easy, isn't it? Allowing yourself to be transported, to exist spiritually, just for a night, to look people deep in the eyes and hold their hands and allow messages to pass on an electric current from brain to brain, to do all that fearlessly, or at least, without fear of embarrassment: isn't that harder? And could that willingness be what makes the encounter live up to its potential?

I talked about some of this with Peter McMaster when we worked together during Dialogue's September residency at BAC. Peter was there for two weeks making a scratch of a new show, Yeti; neither of us knew what would happen if I spent a bit of time in his rehearsal room, but we figured we might as well give it a go. For an hour a day for four days, we sat together and talked: about questions emerging from the making of Yeti, and Peter's itchy feelings around “being an artist”, and what it is to be a solo performer exploring solitude, and ideas of masculinity, and entitlement, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and the loveliness and naivety of the Neil Young song Heart of Gold. I asked more questions, and told him about shows I'd seen that responded to his thinking in some way. Carnesky came up because we were talking about connection with an audience; previously, Peter said, critics have written that his work is naval-gazing – and he was grateful for that jolt, because it made him think much harder about his relationship with the people watching.

How does I become we? This question haunted almost every conversation we had. For Peter, it had a couple of specific applications: in personal terms, how does the self-absorbed I that is the adolescent open up to the world outside, to accept the influence and difference of a lover, and to become a useful member of society? And, as a theatre-maker, particularly the maker of a solo show concerned with investigating solitude as an idea, how does the I in the centre of the room become we with the people watching? In his second scratch of Yeti, he found one answer: squatting on his haunches, naked to the waist, he began moving within the circle contained by the audience's chairs, gently brushing the legs of each person as he passed them. I didn't know until later that it wasn't premeditated: he touched the first person by accident and carried it on. In the room, it was a moment of shivery connection, the touch of skin on skin a ritual of communion.

“How does I become we?” became a pressing question for me too, particularly in relation to the writing I've been doing on here. Because it's all about bloody me. If you read what I wrote the day after that scratch, about Motor Vehicle Sundown, you won't find out an awful lot about Andy Field's piece, but you will learn quite a bit about my warped relationship with driving. I don't know what I'm doing on here – it's all an experiment, a reaching towards, to what I don't know – but I guess at root I'm asking something of anyone reading too: that you bring something of yourself to this engagement.

I was accused of falling in love with Peter but I didn't, not in that way – and thank goodness, because I'm not sure I could have had the conversations with him that I did if a crush had been in the room. But I did fall in love with his striving towards betterness, with his search for meaning, with his reaching for generosity, most of all with his readiness not to be cynical. The first three scratches of Yeti that I saw, Peter began by explaining something of the show: that he was alone, and thinking about solitude. The last one opened differently: tonight, he told us, I am full of heart. The joy, the sheer human loveliness, of encountering someone willing to say that out loud.

“The potential for engagement is more exciting than the engagement itself.” Think that long enough and cynical is what you become. I know I was, maybe a decade ago, when it seemed nothing I saw in a theatre was as good as I wanted it to be, and I stopped going. Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) I made an exception for, and kick myself now for being a bad audience member and not giving it full attention. Eno's writing in Thom Pain seems to bristle with cynicism, but that's because the character is so brokenly defensive: underneath it's as tender as a bruise.

I saw Thom Pain again in the searing new production at the Print Room, with John Light playing Thom with a perpetually insulted English accent, five days after seeing Oh, the Humanity at Soho, and was struck by the consonance between them. Like Thom, the sports coach in Behold the Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured reels from the loss of love; like Thom, he is negociating with fear, “the very thing that's kept us alive, the thing that says to us: Don't cross the street without looking both ways first; Don't speak your mind and certainly never your heart.” Fear, says Thom, can be defined as: “1. Any of the discrete parts of the face, as in the eyes or mouth, or eyes”, and sure enough, faces conceal nothing in Oh, the Humanity. “The human face,” says the airline worker in Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently, “is a cry for help.” The photographer and his assistant in The Bully Composition are fascinated by the silent betrayals in the audiences' faces: “Show us the national dilemma, in your faces. It's beautiful. Your anxieties, your agonies. … Show us you, trying to be better, mortally afraid.” That strange, glorious character, “the beauty of things”, in Oh, the Humanity itself, gazes out at the audience too, struck by their trust, their innocence. “Your faces. So fragile, so certain. The majesty.”

In the weeks between seeing Oh, the Humanity in London and Edinburgh, I took an unexpected swerve off-road, and whereas in Edinburgh I heard people desperate for love, in London I heard a terror of dying alone. Looking again at the text, I realise both interpretations are circumstantial: what radiates from the writing is hope and an astonishment at human resilience. Because disappointment strikes so early, doesn't it? Rewind to Thom Pain: “When did your childhood end? How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words? Isn't it wonderful how we never recover?” The man and woman struggling to film portraits of themselves for personal ads in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain, are accumulations of disappointment, and yet devastatingly hopeful, clinging to their images of future contentment. The sports coach, in the midst of the “punishing crushing nauseating sorrow” that floods from his sense of personal and professional failure, argues still: “I think I should be happy. I do. I think we should all be very terribly proud and happy, and happy and afraid, and afraid and thrilled, really thrilled to death at the upcoming year and all of the life it will naturally contain.” Eno's characters are hypnotised by the teeming excess of the world around them: one after another they list its plenitude with wonder and a note of horror. How does one define oneself, fix a place for oneself, in that confused morass? By settling down with someone else? Maybe. But the married couple in Oh, the Humanity feel no less alone than anyone else: the husband cries for help, tells his wife “I don't know who I am”, and all she says is, “There there.” They are two Is who have failed to become we. Maybe the best we can do is as Thom Pain says: “Just be yourself. Keep in mind how little time there is, how little time there always was. Then try to be brave. Try to be someone else. Someone better.”

Walking along the river to Tate Modern for my second run at Tino Sehgal, I read another Eno monologue, which I think holds a key to this little I know of his work. It's called Lady Grey (in ever-lower light), and (in the absence of any biographical information to contradict this thought) reads like notes in preparation for Thom Pain. It is a direct address to an audience, a story of a broken child, a cry of anguish, with Lady Grey stuttering at the moment of loss: “When the person who speaks to your soul doesn't talk to you any more.” Everything merges in this passage, detailing the child, Jennifer's show-and-tell experience at school:
And what have you brought in for us, today?, the teacher asks.
This, says Jennifer, holding nothing.

The children sit there, like you, and she takes off her black shoes. It was nice to be held, to not feel alone. She takes off her socks. The children, like you, say nothing. Like my weakling, the town crier, now departed. For my thing, I brought in this, she says, and takes off her dress, her underwear. She is naked before them. He said nice things, sometimes, when he spoke. I thought he was fewer people. This is my arms. This is from where I fell once. The teacher is slowly hyperventilating. These are my little feet, she says, pointing. This is for being a girl. I like running. A pet dog someone brought in barks. Hands slowly go up. Where did you get it, one boy asks. It's mine, she says. Can we touch it, a boy with asthma asks, breathing wonder. Jennifer stands still. He told me I was beautiful. I started thinking I was beautiful. Some of the children cried. I don't have anything. I have a house and some family and people I know and toys and I don't have anything. She stands there. I stand here. Naked and controlling the shaking. Trying to fall in love with breathing. Everyone looking and seeing.
Intentionally or otherwise, all of Eno's characters have a moment of becoming naked before our eyes. Often, it's excruciating, as when the airline spokeswoman speaks of her father's death, and says: “Countless nights beneath relatively fatherly men did nothing to lift the weight of that sad time.” But that nakedness is also glimpsed in the struggle for self-articulation: words are all we have to tell others about our true selves, and so often, words fail us. “We hear the word love a lot, throw it around,” says Thom Pain. “Less and less maybe but still a lot. The word love. We mean all sorts of things. I don't know. It's really... on this freezing... how anybody... or we were probably... damn it. He couldn't see the story through.” As much as it bolsters us, love scars.

It's in this idea of emotional nakedness that I've finally started figuring out what my problem might have been with getinthebackofthevan's Big Hits, which I saw at Soho with Andrew Haydon and Megan Vaughan, on the recommendation of Matt Trueman. The three of them cover the show, so I'll just say this one thing. Big Hits is a slow (irritatingly slow – 100 minutes of slow) journey towards nakedness, but a cynical one. Lucy McCormick wants to perform for us, so she sings Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and wonders what suffering she can experience to make her delivery more truthful, more affecting. She enacts domestic violence and exposes her breast. She simulates sex and slaps her own arse until it glows raw red. It is, as Matt says, “a roar of disgust at the world’s hollow frivolity”. I see that. But watching it, I felt nothing. And that's because, for all her willingness to be naked, right down to exposing her own anus, the one thing Lucy never shows us is her soul.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: the fanzine version

The Utopian dreams of social justice in which many contemporary socialists and anarchists indulge are, in spite of their impracticality and nonadaptation to present environmental conditions, analogous to the saint's belief in an existent kingdom of heaven. They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.
[William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, quoted by Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell]

I first found out on September 19. A new album from Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I hadn't thought about them for years, but you don't drown yourself in a band and live on unscathed. Like most fans, I hear the words “the car's on fire” and am submerged again: every note of The Dead Flag Blues seems to flood from somewhere within me. I am F#A#oo and Slow Riot For a New Zero Kanada, because those were my lost years, my years of struggling to figure out what to do with myself and leaving home and always the not knowing and a feeling of irrelevance. By the time they released Levez Vos Skinny Fists in 2000, stars had aligned: I had a good job, my own flat. But even in that daffodil-yellow bedroom, there would be days when I returned to Godspeed inexorably, with a darkness of heart that needed hope. Always hope.

And now I write about music as part of my work and here was this offer: to interview Godspeed, the only mainstream-press interview for 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!. On September 20, to get us started, I sat down to write some questions, and couldn't do it. I listened to F#A# and Slow Riot and was dragged back in time: to the night at All Tomorrow's Parties when I was actually in the same room as them, willing myself to overcome all shyness and just say hello, but failing; to the strange weeks when a shadowy stranger with electric hair haunted my dreams; to the NME interviews with them that I read even though I'm sure I'd stopped buying it by then. Too much memory, too much weird obsession. So I didn't write questions. I wrote a love letter. The middle of it went like this:

this afternoon when I got the call from the guardian about doing this with you I was really excited, but now I just feel tongue-tied. It's not that i'm worried about coming across all fan-girl – that is inevitable – more that you belong to another time in my life, almost, and encountering you again is making me encounter that person again... maybe...
so tonight I have mostly been listening again to f#a# and slow riot and trying to remember the rooms in which I used to listen to them, except somehow I can't, because mostly I would listen with the lights out, and maybe it's useful to know that I have always been afraid of the dark, yet with this music I could be in the dark and feel safe. And i've been rediscovering actually how bleak some of that music sounds, something i'd forgotten in the passage of time. And how beautiful and resilient and gentle and sad some of it is. And how angry and militant and desperate for change. And how it is all of these things within single pieces of music, swelling and subsiding, one thought scratching away at another. And thinking that maybe these contradictions are not solely a condition of being a collective, but reflect internal contradiction within individuals, a living within paradox, so that life is one long argument with the self. Maybe.
There's a reason I haven't listened to these records in a long time. Six years ago I married, I have two kids now. It's not that music no longer defines and maps my existence, it absolutely does, but the existence has changed. Or rather, the external conditions of it have. As it happens, this is a week of confusion and possibly transition, a week of – as a theatre-maker i've just been working with beautifully phrased it – living in the space between the failure and the recovery. I'm not sure why i'm telling you that, except it seems to me something of what godspeed do exists in that space too. I live in this incredibly conventional, societally, space, and constantly pull against it, look for ways to subvert it. Not surprisingly, the possibilities of subversion feel a lot narrower when you have kids, because you spend a lot of time scared that whatever you do will fuck up their lives. And I think i'm telling you that because I was one of those people – i'm sure there were heaps of us, and i'm sure, ok no I assume, and assumptions are dangerous I know, that we kind of fucking annoyed you – people who existed within privilege of whatever description, who found the framing of godspeed desperately romantic. By framing I mean the hotel2tango and the rejection of capitalism/consumerism/media/everything I enjoyed or at least took advantage of without proper question. I bet I thought I was questioning it. I know I wasn't when I look back, because I wasn't doing any of the things I do now.
Is it useful to tell you what I do now? Apart from writing for the guardian about music, I write about theatre, for the guardian too, but mostly in my own blog, where I think about theatre as a place where we create the world we want to live in. although I don't make theatre myself, i'm part of a community of makers who operate to greater or lesser extent outside the mainstream, quiet subversives who know they can't make A Difference on a grand scale, but also know that they can radically affect people individually and find achievement and meaning in that. One of them wrote a poem for a thing i'm working on that ended with the words:
political theatre never really changed anything
but we still breathe together
and that's been very much in my head tonight as i've been reading through old interviews with you and listening to the albums and rewinding time by a decade, back to a time when – is it just me? Has my memory warped? - when we had no fucking idea how bad things would get. But maybe it was always this bad? I grew up under thatcher but had no real sense of politics then. Even now, I'm never sure I know the difference (in me, I mean) between revolutionary fervour and sheer naivety.
And maybe this is why I feel tongue-tied. I'm not the same person I was 10 years ago. But also I am. And maybe the individuals who now make up godspeed are and aren't, and maybe it makes no difference, because maybe godspeed has its own identity, a morass of contradictions sure but an identity none the less, one that whatever particular group of people you are now has decided to step back into, for whatever reason.

There's another bit, but that will come later; and there was an attempt at actual questions, but – as I said to them – everything I tried to ask felt so prosaic, so cheap. Sunday 23, I tried again. The letter I wrote was a mess, inchoate and overexcitable, because I was listening to 'Allelujah! for the first, second and third times, and it was brilliant, vivid and furious and alive, and because my own life was in brittle confusion that very night and here, once again, was the soundtrack. I knew it was a big ask: 3000 words across two letters for them to untangle and respond to. Even so, I was disappointed when the call came a couple of days later, to say that they were busy rehearsing for their tour, and could they have a more conventional list of questions. This is what I sent:

To me, Godspeed is more than just a band, it's an idea. Is that true for you? What if you don't all agree with the idea?

Who are Godspeed now? Who has stayed, who has left, who has joined, and why have they joined?

More metaphorically, who are Godspeed now: in what ways have the people in the band from the beginning changed in the time of hiatus?

What is it that makes this a Godspeed album, as opposed to any of the other bands you've been involved in since Yanqui? Is it just a matter or personnel, or attitude?

Does political music change anything? Do you want it to?

And is that intention for change external, or internal: a changing of hearts, not of social structures?

Do you still think in terms of, to quote Efrim, “a meaningful dialogue about how people cope”?

To what extent does Montreal/its politics make you the people you are and the band you are?

Do you have narratives in your heads for your music? How problematic is it if people listening hear a different narrative?

What was the process for making this album? How was it similar/different to how earlier albums were made? How Yanqui was made?

What prompted you to make a new album after all this time?

Was there a time when you stopped appreciating the opportunity to communicate with people through music? Earlier interviews suggest it's something you've had misgivings around; is that a misreading, and if not, do you still feel that?

As a member of a dance group – 10 women, democratically run – I know full well how hard it is to agree on anything. How does Godspeed operate as a community?

Do people like me just take you too seriously?


I wrote them hurriedly, in a fit of pique, and the answers that came a few days later betray hints of frustration at having to talk to another clueless music journalist. It's what I deserved, although I didn't think that straight away. Instead, I got snagged on a line, about life on tour: “[we] got heartbroken out there the way only true believers can.” That's what I thought had happened to me. I had met my heroes, albeit only on email, and been let down. I felt like the enemy in the equation, and sent another letter, asking, among other things, whether it's inconceivable to them that someone who writes about music as part of their living could also be a kid in the front row. To which I've had no response. Again, deservedly.

It wasn't until I started writing the piece for the Guardian that I began to appreciate properly the answers they had sent me. The poetry. The honesty. The quiet moments of personal revelation. I had felt too shy to ask anything private; in any case, the collective face acts against that. And so I didn't notice at first the intimacy of the response. Editing these streams of text down and chopping them around for a 1600-word feature felt like an act of craven appropriation. It's my job. But it felt wrong.

What follows is an attempt at the same Q&A that's been published on the Guardian, but with more of the thinking behind the questions. The fanzine version, if you like. It's pure vanity, of course: I wish I'd been more careful with the questions, and this allows me to rewrite them. Not a word, not a punctuation mark, in what Godspeed sent me has been changed.


The first set grew from the first letter: “maybe godspeed has its own identity, a morass of contradictions sure but an identity none the less, one that whatever particular group of people you are now has decided to step back into, for whatever reason.” I so wish I hadn't used the phrase “just a band”.

To me, Godspeed is more than just a band, it's an idea. Is that true for you? What if you don't all agree with the idea?
More metaphorically, who are Godspeed now: in what ways have the people in the band from the beginning changed in the time of hiatus?

we're a band. we're not "just a band", we're a band. us against the world, yeah? like so many other poor suckers before us. bands get chewed up in the gears before the rest of the world does. and then bands sing pretty songs while they they get chewed up that way.

the dull fact is, we spend most of our time engaged with the task at hand= rehearsing, writing, booking tours. we do our best to get along, to stay engaged with each other and with the shared labour. we feel like most of the stuff we have to muddle through is the same sort of stuff that countless other bands have to muddle through. nothing special, nothing interesting. it's just that we make decisions based on a particular stubborn calculus. it's just that there's a certain sort of ringing that we chase when we rattle our bones in our tiny practice-room. it's just that we like the sound of things a little out of tune. it's just that we know that music is just a thing that people make in between bigger struggles. and all along we've been tilting at windmills, worried that we're about to get bucked from the saddle.

we started making this noise together when we were young and broke- the only thing we knew for sure was that professional music-writers seemed hopelessly out of touch and nobody gave a shit about the shit we loved except for us. talking about punk-rock with freelancers, then as now, was like farting at a fundraiser, a thing that got you kicked out of the party.

we knew that there were other people out there who felt the same way, and we wanted to bypass what we saw as unnecessary hurdles, and find those people on our own. we were proud and shy motherfuckers, and we engaged with the world thusly. means we decided no singer no leader no interviews no press photos. we played sitting down and projected movies on top of us. no rock poses. we wrote songs as long or as short as we wanted. basement feedback recordings with cigarette butts stuffed in our ears. meanwhile our personal lives were a mess.

and so we hit the road as soon as we could. and got heartbroken out there the way only true believers can. you string a kite too long upon its string, sooner or later it ends up stranded on the moon.

whatever politics we had were born out of always being broke and living through a time when the dominant narrative was that everything was fine and always would be fine forever. clearly this was a lie. but clinton was president, the berlin wall was down, our economies were booming, and the internet was a shiny new thing that was going to liberate us all. the gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good. meanwhile so many of us were locked out staring at all that gold from the outside in.

so when we started earning rent from this racket, we felt a lot of internal pressure to stay true to our adolescent dissatisfactions (not adolescent like immature or naive, adolescent like terminally disenfranchised and pure). and so we made decisions that irritated a lot of people. we were barely articulate. we didn't deal with outsiders well. we were used to speaking with our own kind. we'd all of us spent our formative years outcast and a little lost. we had no religion to shout at the rafters but all of us all together all the time. and we shouted that religion at a time when that kind of earnest noise was tagged as earnest, naive and square. and we were earnest and naive and square. and still are.

a thing a lot of people got wrong about us- when we did it the first time, a whole lot of what we were about was joy. we tried to make heavy music, joyously. times were heavy but the party line was everything was okay. there were a lot of bands that reacted to that by making moaning 'heavy' music that rang false. we hated that music, we hated that privileging of individual angst, we wanted to make music like ornette's 'friends and neighbours', a joyous difficult noise that acknowledged the current predicament but dismissed it at the same time. a music about all of us together or not at all. we hated that we got characterized as a bummer thing. but we knew that was other people's baggage, for us every tune started with the blues but pointed to heaven near the end, because how could you find heaven without acknowledging the current blues, right?

but now we all live in harder times, now a whole lot of bands react to the current heaviness by privileging the party-times, like some weird scientology will to power bullshit, hit that hi-hat with a square's fist until we all make it to heaven until sunday morning's bringdown. self-conscious good-vibes like love-handles poking through some 22 year-old's american apparel t-shirt at some joint where you can only dance once you pay a ten dollar cover charge just to listen to some internet king's iPod.

and so now we thrum our joyous tension in opposition to all of that. things are not okay. music should be about things are not okay, or else shouldn't exist at all. the best songs ever are the songs that ride that line. we just try to get close to that perfection. us we drive all night just to get closer to that perfect joyous noise, just to kiss the hem of that garment. we love music we love people we love the noise we make.

Who are Godspeed now? Who has stayed, who has left, who has joined, and why have they joined?

godspeed's been the same lineup since 1954. small changes= cello norsola's no longer playing with us. and drummer bruce quit last year so's he could spend more time with his kid. timothy's the new second drummer. we are stoked.


The next batch came from the second letter, although Godspeed yoked them together in an unexpected way:

I looked up la loi 78 and fucking hell. And now i'm trying to read up about the plan nord and that's made me start looking at charest and i'm reading it all too quickly to take it in properly but it all... looks symptomatic of a lack of genuinely left politics in the 21st century, the apparent non-viability of opposition to capitalist systems... What is your alternative? For the past few months i've been reading a book called Crack Capitalism by John Holloway, have you come across it?... He gives me such faith in the small, seemingly insignificant acts of defiance. Everything about this album – the sleeves notes, the songs titles, every fucking note – feels like a massive act of defiance. That's become my alternative.
...This thought is not consecutive, or even a question exactly, but thinking about we drift like worried fire, something about that music... feels straightforwardly/conventionally joyful in a way I don't think i've heard from you before, it sounds to me – this is quite late on in the song now – as though a running away is happening from some malevolent force and in the moment of escape every bit of music just beams. All the more so because of the journey taken to get there, an apprehensive search that leads to a sharing, a communal place, some romance too... that's the question, isn't it: about the imposing of narrative, and the extent to which you have a narrative or maybe multiple narratives in your heads for these songs, and how much it troubles you when the narratives imposed don't match your own...?

and the narrative I keep coming back to is this one of the romantic outsiders/defiers, and how with you maybe it's purely a matter of geography, because montreal is canadian not american, and earlier I was reading something godspeed-related online, in pitchfork I think, making a deal out of you being non-american, and the way he did it really irritated me, yet I know i'm seduced by something within it, like it's a defiance to the american belief system that strangles us all that you had the bravery/temerity NOT EVEN TO BE FUCKING BORN THERE! HA! But again, I should be asking questions so: tell me how montreal makes you.

Does political music change anything? Do you want it to?
And is that intention for change external, or internal: a changing of hearts, not of social structures?
To what extent does Montreal/its politics make you the people you are and the band you are?
Do you have narratives in your heads for your music? How problematic is it if people listening hear a different narrative?

what's political music? all music is political, right? you either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls. it's what music (and culture) is for, right? to distract or confront, or both at the same time? so many of us know already that shit is fucked.

in a lot of crucial ways, its easier to find common cause than it was ten or twenty years ago. you talk to strangers in bars or on the street, and you realize that we're all up to our eyeballs in it, right? so that right now, there's more of us than ever. it's a true fact. everyday it gets a little harder to pretend that everything's okay. the rich keep getting more and we keep getting less. post 9/11 post 7/7 there's a police state that tightens more every day, and in our day-to-days, we're all witnesses to the demeaning outcomes of debauched governance= random traffic stops, collapsing infrastructure, corrupt bureaucrats and milk-fed police with their petty intrusions. our cities are broke, they lay patches on top of patches of concrete, our forests cut down and sold to make newspapers just to tell us about traffic that we get stuck in. you get a parking ticket and you waste a day in line. cop shoots kid, kid shoots kid, homeless man dies waiting to see a doctor, old men lay in hospital beds while a broken bureaucracy steals aways whats left of their dignity. folks flee to our shores, running from the messes we've made in their countries, and we treat them like thieves. mostly it feels like whatever you love is just going to get torn away. turn on the radio, and it's a fucking horrorshow, the things our governments do in our name, just to fatten themselves on our steady decline. meanwhile most of us are hammering away at a terrible self-alienation, mistreated, lied to and blamed. burning fields and a sky filled with drones. the fruit rots on the vine while millions starve.

so we're at a particular junction in history now where it's clear that something has to give- problem is that things could tip any which way. we're excited and terrified, we sit down and try to make a joyous noise. but fuck us, we make instrumental music, means that we have to work hard at creating a context that fucks with the document and points in the general direction of resistance and freedom. otherwise it's just pretty noise saddled to whatever horse comes along. a lot of the time alls we know is that we won't play the stupid game. someone tells us we're special we say "fuck no we aren't special". someone asks us what the thing we made means, we say figure it out for yourself, the clues are all there. we think that stubornness is a virtue. we know that this can be frustrating. it's fine. we don't think in terms of narrative so much. we try to play arrangements that are little out of our reach. we try to make sure the songs ring true or not at all.

montreal's a place that's always losing its charm. it's a corrupt city in a corrupt province, where somehow the light rings loudly anyhow. so many crazy plans hatched in spite of, so many minor miracles. the dust of this place is caked into our scalps and beneath our nails- there would be no band if it weren't for this lovely rotten town.

meantime this town exploded recently, but there's no victory yet. this province is still corrupt. this city is still corrupt, and our broken country earns its gold hauling dirty oil. the rich get richer from that, and the rest of us die slowly.

we're all of us born beneath the weight of piss-poor governance. it's a miracle that so many of us make it through our teens. politics is for politicians and all our politicians have the whiff of death to them, it's why they wear so much perfume and cologne, it's why they wear brightly coloured scarves and ties, just to distract from the pallor of their skin. so many of us just want to live away from that stench- we stagger towards the light awkwardly, astonished that so many of us are staggering together thusly, amen


Back to the second letter: ...the other really heart-crushingly obvious question: what prompted this? I want to think it's more than just “we got invited to do atp and then we did some gigs and then we just started playing together again”. I want to think it's more than “we learned how to be in the studio together again”. I want to think there was a burning in your hearts that hurt more and more with every passing day, with every dismal act in the world outside that made existence within mainstream society/culture that little bit less possible, that made the desire to reach out to a community of others, not just local but global, a challenge to the grim inhumanity of globalisation, that much more forceful and demanding. I want to think there was an imperative to make music, inchoate – because there are bits of mladic... that lurch almost clumsily, and I love that, it feels very deliberate to me, a chosen unmannered refusal to conform, even if it's to your own sense of rhythm – and furious music as a strike against, as the making of a crack, for us to listen to, to pick at and widen...

What was the process for making this album? How was it similar/different to how earlier albums were made? How Yanqui was made?
What prompted you to make a new album after all this time?

we got back together after ten years apart, re-learned the old songs, played a few joints. we weren't going to stay stuck on that retro circuit like sha-na-na at the windsor autoshow. so at some point we decided to record- it's what bands do. also, we felt like getting this shit down in case it disappeared again. we set up in montreal, rolled tape and hoped for the best. last time 'round that track, we argued like twin sisters, this time we just let it roll.


The next was an amalgam of thoughts from the first and second letters. From the first:
I go to edinburgh once a year for the theatre festival, and there's a church there that I can't walk past without quietly saluting godspeed. The reason is this: about a decade ago, they had a banner strung across the front of the church with just the single word HOPE printed on it, in huge black letters... The two words, godspeed and hope, have always been synonymous in my head. But I think my sense of hope has changed in that 10 years. I think before it was hope for me, for my future, for what I might achieve. Now i'm much more interested in what I can do for other people. Reading back on old interviews with you, the same altruism/idealism shines out – but with a corresponding anxiety that playing in a rock band is a pretty fucking pointless way to achieve it. I hope you don't feel that anxiety so much any more. But as someone who exists in a maelstrom of anxiety at almost any given time, part of me would be mildly astonished if you don't.
...Something I noted down from an interview dating from 2000, attributed to efrim: “All we want to do is to try and contribute to a meaningful dialogue. Ideally, there would be dialogues happening all over, about how people cope, about what we're doing with ourselves.”

From the second: Over the past 18 months, i've come to appreciate writing, having writing as a medium through which to engage people in a dialogue with me not about how the world is but how the world could be. I wonder if there was a moment when you didn't appreciate music in this way. And if maybe now you do.

Was there a time when you stopped appreciating the opportunity to communicate with people through music? Earlier interviews suggest it's something you've had misgivings around; is that a misreading, and if not, do you still feel that?

hell no, we never got tired of playing for folks, we always felt lucky that we could. it's just that rock-biz, then as now, is a miserable pigpen. pennies flushed, damaged ships a-sailing just to sink, while somewhere in the corner lazy demons chuckle and count their stacks. it's like watching millionaires piss on cherubs. the money-makers hate the fucking kids and treat them like chattel, milk them like cows, and lead them from waypoint to waypoint like frantic shoppers on dollar days. for the most part, you deal with privileged fools who are entirely insecure. they hate their jobs, love the money and want more. somehow a whole lot of starving heifers keep coming back to that trough for more. somewhere inside they know that the milk is poison but they can't stop drinking.

beating against that wall tires you out- at a certain point you gots to stop lest you break. also, while that battle's important (because all battles against this normalized decline are important), most of the world, justifiably, could give a fuck, there's more important work being done out there, greater class-injustices than music industry greed. and most of us in this broken world are barely getting by, so you dive into this horrid music business mess determined to do you your part to make it change, but then nothing changes. you have victories that feel enormous but mostly nobody notices but the kids in the front row. you worry over it until after a while you start feeling like the annoying friend who can't stop complaining about their ex. it gets so you don't want to think about that babylon system no more. so we stopped. and then we started again.

these days we're lucky old-timers, we throw our amps on stage, put our heads down and play. after this many years of saying no, those carpetbaggers don't bother with us much anymore. we work with people we trust and hope that they trust us in return. we don't fleece we don't slack we don't privilege our worries above the worries of the kids in the front row. we play to the kids in the front row because we used to be the kids in the front row. everything else is just static, everything else is just dancing specks of white and black skating on dead tv screens.


This is where I can really hear myself sulking, even if they can't. For a moment I was contorted by suspicion: that the whole “collective” thing is a lie. Hurt pride can be so stupid. As this open letter on the Godspeed website shows, they've faced this before. Maybe all music journalists are the fucking same after all. I later apologised.

As a member of a dance group – 10 women, democratically run – I know full well how hard it is to agree on anything. How does Godspeed operate as a community?

your car breaks and you take it to the garage, dirty room, 5 mechanics maybe, car keys hung on nails next to the front counter. two cars on lifts, one car in the corner, all the other cars parked in the back. everything and everybody is covered in grease, everyone's smoking like crazy. they have to fix twenty cars before 5 PM, or else the backlog will fucking break everybody's back until christmas. the parts suppliers roll in every half-hour or so, mostly bringing new brake pads and flex-hoses, but bumpers sometimes, oil-pans, headlight assemblies or timing belts.

in a good garage, the whole mess of it almost collapses all day long. dudes yell and argue, everything's going wrong and why are we doing this anyways. the hose won't fucking fit, or the screwdriver slips and you lose the hose-clamp somewhere beneath the undercarriage. the sun starts to set and the floor gets littered with burnt bulbs, spent gaskets, oil, and sweat, and brake fluid. someone's hungover, someone's heartbroken, someone couldn't sleep last night, someone feels unappreciated, but all that matters is making it through the pile, the labor is shared and there's a perfect broken poetry to the hammering and yelling, the whine of the air compressor kicking to life every 5 minutes or so.

it all seems impossible. but somehow we make it through the pile. the cars run again. the cars drive away. rough day but now it's done, and everything's fine everything's better than fine. tomorrow we'll do it all over again. you deal with the volvo, i'll deal with the toyota. heat and noise. all day everyday until it's quiet again. we fix cars until we die. we love fixing cars.


And in all my favourite bits of the interview – the kite stranded on the moon, the staggering together thusly amen, the dust of Montreal, we love music we love people we love the noise we make, the absurdly detailed love of fixing cars – this might actually be my favourite. It's simple. It's funny. It's true.

Do people like me just take you too seriously?



I've said it to them privately, but wanted to say it publicly, too. Thank you. Thank you for the communication, for the intensity of thought, for the trust. Thank you for being as earnest and naive and square with me as I feel always, and as I feel around you. I understand why they are wary of me: I represent what they reject. But my outsider heart loves them, and I hope they know that's true.