Friday, 18 May 2012

fanning the bonfire

None of this was supposed to happen.

I had an idea for what could happen. On Thursday May 10, the day after seeing Three Kingdoms, I sent an email to Andrew Haydon and Simon Stephens with a proposition:

Hi Andrew, hi Simon - i won't bother asking how you are bec frankly we're all in a 3 kingdoms place and such piffling questions seem irrelevant. Holy fucking christ i've had some intoxicating nights in the theatre but that was really something else. I want to propose something to the two of you: I really loved it, as I hope you can tell, but there is a bunch of stuff that I think is worth wrangling with and I would like to do that in company rather than on my own. Obviously there is a motive: the end point of this would be publication on Dialogue. The whole point of the site is to allow those dialogues to take place that aren't happening and this play, and particularly the critical reception of it, is perfectly situated to show what we can achieve with that. I've only read three reviews so far, partly bec I'm trying to preserve a little bit of my own headspace, but it strikes me that critical reception is falling into two camps: the mainstreams - and obviously things wld be quite different in that camp if Lyn had been allowed to review this - who just don't see the point, and the young bucks who absolutely see the point but, I would argue, are a little too ready to gloss over the stuff that's worth wrestling with in the desire to be supportive. In other words, I think we've got two entrenched camps standing off and to be perfectly honest I don't see what use that is to you, Simon, as the theatre-maker in the middle. That sounds like I've got all sorts of high-and-mighty ideas about critics and particularly myself as someone who wants to stand back a bit from this squaring up, but I don't - although if I do, i'll confess that I have been reading a book lately called Making Plays that was initially very annoying to me but has slowly pulled me in and given me lots to think about. It's a dialogue between these two seemingly patrician makers, the playwright Richard Nelson and the director David Jones - forgive me if I'm telling you a bunch of stuff you already know - that dissects every relationship in the making of new work. And there are about four really fascinating pages in it that deal with the role of critics: as people who can support new work, explain it, set up questions that fuel the writer in their continuing work, and so on and so on. So that's where I'm coming from too. … Simon: I totally appreciate that during the run this is the LAST conversation you might want to be having. Equally, I totally appreciate it's not a conversation you want to have at all. So please be honest about whether or not you'd like to take part. Haydon, you turn this down and the metaphorical wrestling [mooted on twitter] is going to become real.


They both agreed, so on Friday May 11, I sent them a second email. I'm going to edit it a bit, but only because it was 2000 words long, chunks of it were reused in the Guardian blog, and it was full of spelling mistakes:


Having agreed it's brilliant, let's start by having some fun with that. One of the things I've been thinking since I saw it is about the use of music in the show [the iPod shuffle of music and then film references I talk about in the Guardian]. … To me it makes it feel like a production that couldn't have been made at any other time than now, you know? Like in pop reviewing, the holy grail is the album that sounds totally of the moment, that couldn't have been made in the 50s or the 80s or whatever. … Maybe it's just that I haven't seen enough German/continental theatre, maybe they've been doing this there since year dot, but over here multi-textuality of that sort feels new, which says so much about how stuck in the past our theatre is. It also made me feel very exasperated with everyone who described the plot as “labyrinthine”. Haven't these people been to the cinema in the past 20 years? On the one hand, it did mean that there were occasions when I wasn't sure why I was seeing this on stage and not in a cinema. But my answer came every time something happened – the incredible leaps out of the window, that ASTOUNDING moment near the end when Ignatius realises whatsisname is the white bird and the three men fall oh so gracefully to the floor – that made it clear this story could ONLY happen on stage.

One of the things I'm confused about in the negative critical response is Michael Billington's enthusiastic review of Gross und Klein and the exhausted, disappointed dismay he projected about this. Both shows share a kind of hallucinogenic quality, both operate within a continental rather than British tradition, yet he loved the one and hated the other. I've been thinking about this particularly bec I spoke to someone at 3 kingdoms who really enjoyed it, but hated Gross und Klein. And I didn't understand that either. Except to think that it must be about connection: whether or not you feel connected to the characters. The central character in Gross und Klein feels really disconnected from society, she's stumbling around unable to get a footing anywhere. The irony is, we as an audience feel really connected to her, but we aren't in her world, we are outside peering in, just as she is outside all these other worlds peering in – at several points literally, through windows and doors and down telephone wires, startling people to such a degree that they can't bring themselves to form a relationship with her. I adored her but can see people finding her annoying. There's something similar happening with Ignatius in 3 Kingdoms: there's this almost estrangement from his wife who finds the idea that they might actually go to bed at the same time insane, there's his inability to communicate with any of the people he meets abroad, there's his feeling of isolation even from Charlie, who can communicate and only feeds him the edited lowlights of every conversation, there's the disconnect from nature and his true love of botany, all these things. Just as in the Strauss, this stuff is obfuscated, you kind of absorb it rather than comprehend it at face value, because it's put in there so subtly.

There's a question in all this for me about anticipating critical responses and the value of criticism. I think some of this thinking comes from a couple of tweets Simon sent out that really amused me: one was when you read Michael B's list of no-nos in theatre and said gleefully that 3 Kingdoms ticked a lot of the boxes, one was when you described the triumvirate of you, Sean H and Sebastian N as “three middle-aged men who want to be the Clash”... It makes me wonder how much you in the writing and Sebastian in the staging are deliberately goading a certain critical response... But the thing is, when you get the reaction you expect, what use is that to you? This is kind of what I'm saying when I suggest that the reviews I've read so far seem to represent two entrenched positions, and what's been happening is that critics are squaring up against each other rather than actually squaring up to the play/production. Because the other side of it is that you get Andrew and Daniel B Yates glossing over the women thing. So before I get to the women thing, a question: what is the value of criticism to a production like 3 Kingdoms? I mean, assuming that criticism has a value beyond getting a few more bums on seats. Simon, is there anything you feel you would like to discover about that play from what critics write about it above and beyond what you've discovered about it through Sebastian's staging? Is it impossible to discover anything from the critics because the writing and the staging are so symbiotic that we all echo Andrew in saying: we don't know what Simon's responsible for here and what Sebastian is?

And so, to the women question. The only way I can broach this is by describing my journey through it, by which I mean the Tassos Stevens journey of before/during/after. Before: I read X about the show being problematic as regards women, even misogynistic. So I felt very forewarned/forearmed going into the theatre. And perhaps if I wasn't wearing so much armour, I'd have reacted differently – certainly the female friend I went with was very distressed by what she instantly described as the misogynistic treatment of women when we talked about it in the interval – but during the whole of the first half ie up to interval point I didn't balk at all. I was so intoxicated by the whole thing that yes, of course I found the description of the woman's death sickening, and of course I thought the woman wearing a doe's head and all the connotations of that – fawn, easy prey, beautiful but dumb animal, at the mercy of men/hunters/wolves – disturbing, and of course I found Alexander's cunt this cunt that language reprehensible, but at the same time it was OK. It was – and I feel like I'm stabbing the sisterhood as I say this – what the story needed to get across how wrong and foul and fucking shit the treatment of women is. I even, God help me, almost found it sexy at times, just as Andrew says. In fact, the only moment when I got really genuinely upset about the staging in the moment of watching was when the Estonian guy chews the cucumber and then spits it over the woman in the green dress. That, to me, was the moment that was unnecessary, because by then we had established the place of women in this world, and this wasn't required to communicate that.

What happened after was a slow burn that grew from mulling over the one other bit of the show that made me cross. The other cross bit was the speech from the policeman to Ignatius, criticising his attitude to the Europeans, condemning him for finding them (I can't remember exactly so forgive my crappy paraphrase) sleazy and shady and etc etc. For me it was the moment when the play took a swerve into good old-fashioned British naturalism and I just got really angry about that, without quite being able to pinpoint why. Thinking it through on the way home, the conclusion I came to was this: that diatribe about Ignatius being anti-European didn't attack something I felt to be within that character, but something I felt to be imposed upon him. There was something Ignatius very clearly said he was disgusted by, early in proceedings, and that was the trafficking of women. Yet by the end, the trafficking of women wasn't the “issue” in the play. The “issues” were globalisation and the closed-mindedness of British men.

What troubles me about this is that if you subsume the trafficking of women in that way, it becomes a mere plot contrivance, a trigger for the action and nothing more. Basically, the play uses women to tell a story about men who use women to get rich. No, the one thing isn't as bad as the other – but it's coming from a dangerously similar masculine-dominant headspace. … [And] it is not OK that women, in not being presented as sex objects, are instead seen as silent does, cleaners and bodies functionally washing themselves from a bucket. That just denigrates the women still further. Basically, the question I ask myself is: how would this play read if the commodity being trafficked were drugs or weapons and not women? Because if you're only going to mention once, and in passing, that the trade of women is revolting, I'm not sure that's enough to justify everything else.


There was a bit more after that, but conversational mostly. I felt nervous sending it: it was direct, and it was chewy, and I thought it likely that both would back out. In the event, Simon decided that a lot of this stuff was too raw to talk about now, but that he would like to come back to it later, and we agreed this was a good thing. And I was going to leave it there. I actually wrote in another email to them that I'm not so egotistical that I felt the need to publish my ha'penny-worth on the show. But then a lot of things happened in very quick succession. There were lots of tweets about empty seats at the Lyric. There were lots of tweets about irrelevant/anachronistic writing about theatre on the Guardian blog site. Simon tweeted that he was considering moving to Berlin. Are you seeing a pattern yet?

I haven't been on Twitter very long and I find it dangerously seductive. Instead of paying attention to my kids as they whinge about who's the winner and having to eat rice instead of pasta for dinner, I can scan through Twitter and find grown-ups I love and admire talking about Einstein on the Beach, or form vs content, or the appointment of Vicki Featherstone to the Royal Court. Of course my phone is now glued to my palm. But it also frustrates me so much. I want the dialogue to be longer: bonfires, not the brief flare of matches.

And the dialogue around Three Kingdoms is longer, spanning blogs and days' worth of tweets, reaching across the country. It's thrilling. I'd love to collate all the material into something like Diana Damian's Post: Critical site, but this week, with five Guardian deadlines looming, I just don't have time, let alone the ability to do such a thing on the web (although I know a man who probably can: reason 258 to love Jake Orr). (BTW, anyone who has some time on their hands who fancies doing the collating, please please let me know on twitter: you will earn my undying respect and a large box of maltesers.) So I just end up doing the same thing as everyone else: blogging.

I'm not sure I respect my motives in blogging for the Guardian site: at root was a knowledge that far more people would read me there than here. But there were also more altruistic impulses: I wanted there to be something positive about Three Kingdoms published in the Guardian, I wanted the site to feel more alive to what's happening in theatre right now, and I wanted Simon Stephens to stop wanting to move to Berlin.

That makes me sound like a right fan-girl, and I am, but I'm also not. I haven't seen all of Simon's work, but I've seen a fair bit, and often found myself wrestling with it. Motortown was my first and in my memory the irritation grew from a feeling of not being told anything I didn't already know, and as it happens wrapped up in that was a frustration with the portrayal of violence towards women, the way it was so clinical and inevitable. Punk Rock was thrilling to watch, Sarah Frankcom's direction and the performances were electrifying, but at the end I felt the investigation that had taken place into why children take guns and shoot other children was glib. Pornography completely, without question, blew my mind: I watched the entire thing in a sharp intake of breath. Ubu was tricky and subtle and about halfway through I decided it was brilliant. And Wastwater I've struggled unsuccessfully with here before: like X, I'd love to see Wastwater directed by Nubling and Three Kingdoms by Katie Mitchell, to see how it affects my experience of both plays.

Simon is a writer who fascinates me, who challenges me, who increasingly makes me see new possibilities for how theatre can be. And now I follow him on twitter I've discovered we like a lot of the same music to boot. But what I come up against time and again in his work is the issue of connection that so troubled me when writing about Wastwater, and indeed troubled the friend who came with me to Three Kingdoms. She and I talked hard in the interval about how she didn't feel connected to the characters, and I knew what she was saying but in this case I just didn't mind. What's so difficult about Simon's best writing, I'm starting to think, is that it mostly operates below sea level: characters and themes raise their heads above the surface but the full body of them is shimmering underneath, always moving, difficult to spot. And maybe I've started thinking this because of the Making Plays book I mentioned in the email to Simon and Andrew: in it, Richard Nelson talks about writing so that only the tip of the iceberg is visible, and how easy it is for people to misread the tip as the whole thing, and thus criticise the play for a lack when the problem isn't the play or the production, it's the audience (by which he specifically means critics) mistaking a fraction for a whole. There's an incredibly moving passage when he talks about his 1986 play Principia, and thinking it might be the last play he wrote, because “I didn't think my work was making sense to a lot of people”. And then he read Michael Billington's review, which was very positive, and being overwhelmed with relief. “It wasn't satisfaction,” he says. “It wasn't like, 'Oh boy! I got a hit show.' It was, 'I'm not mad. And what I'm trying to do was understood and someone articulated this back to me, and I read it.'”

This feels especially pertinent because I think I do this with Simon's work – especially after reading Andrew Haydon's review of Wastwater, which not only excavated the entire fucking iceberg but examined every solidified water molecule compacted to make it. I did it again with Three Kingdoms: it wasn't revealed just at the end that it was about globalisation and the British male mindset, dummy, those things were present through the whole thing.

But then, this is my other problem with Simon's work. Like Andrew, my brain really snagged on X's distinction between theatre that (thinks it) shows things and theatre that (knows it) makes things: I haven't yet fully figured this one out, but I want to apply it here, because the issue I had with Motortown and Punk Rock, and that others have with Three Kingdoms, is that these plays show the world as it is, not how it could be. The thing is, I already know how the world is. I know horrific things happen in the name of war that warp people's brains, and that kids shoot each other, and that men commit horrific violence towards women, and that people are abused within the capitalist system. But what is changed by you showing me this? Another project upcoming for Dialogue – and if it weren't for thinking constantly about 3Ks I might have gotten on to it by now – is talking to Tim Crouch at length about The Author. Because this is exactly what The Author is about: OK, you're putting this stuff on the stage – what next?

The past 10 days have been so intense I feel like my brain is frying. I've now reached the point with Three Kingdoms where I no longer feel I can write about it with any confidence, because I've read so much of what others have written I'm no longer sure what thoughts are mine and what has been planted in my brain by other people. But then, it's been a bit like that from the start for me. Sitting in the auditorium, I had X's email about misogyny in my head, and a conversation I'd had with Lyn Gardner the day before in which she'd told me it's a play to watch in a different way, using your subconscious, and I was sitting next to a friend whose very body language screamed her discomfort and dislike of the show. Even the email reprinted above contains some thoughts soaked up from other people, yet it's now the closest I get to a personal response. Everything since then has been response to other people's responses.

And now there's Andrew's new post about misogyny to respond to. And quite honestly, I'm just not up to it: partly because my brain is exhausted and needs some rest, partly because in the next few days I'm writing about The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, Romeo and Juliet, Sigur Ros and Ragtime, and editing two interviews about Torch Song Trilogy, and I'm not going to be able to do that with 3Ks clogging up all headspace. What I can say immediately is that when I rewrote the original email to Andrew and Simon as a blog – and that was matter of expediency: I came home buzzing from Tenet (and how I wish I had found time this week to write about Tenet), spent two hours reading every review I could find of Three Kingdoms, and ended up writing it in the early hours of Tuesday morning, finally stumbling to bed at 4am – I didn't think about how differently my scrabbly thoughts would read in a mainstream context. Reading Andrew pick the blog apart sentence by sentence was bracing. I suspect he'd have done exactly the same thing if our discussion had all remained on email. But when I wrote the email, I thought I was just mouthing off a bunch of opinions to see what happened. As Andrew points out, on the Guardian it all looks like statements of fact. But this brings me full circle to the underlying question I have about newspaper criticism and indeed all criticism: the extent to which reviews are expressions of taste and opinion, masquerading as statements of fact.

I disagree with Andrew about one thing: that the word misogyny closes off discussion. Mostly I disagree because that hasn't happened. What has happened is a whole lot of passionate debate about a really important aspect of the play. What that word does do is make anyone who didn't find 3Ks misogynistic – and much as I would love to fudge this one, the fact remains that the friend I saw it with emphatically and repeatedly said she did, whereas I haven't used that word in reference to my own thoughts once – feel very uncomfortable. No, I'll rephrase that: it's made me personally feel not only uncomfortable but immoral for enjoying the play. Reading Sarah Punshon's incredibly moving blog, I found myself thinking: why didn't I react like this too? What is wrong with me? This isn't a moral judgment Sarah is making of me, just as my friend spent the interval marvelling that I didn't find the first half misogynistic but never once judged me or accused me of anything. It's the feminist in me demanding an account from myself.

The questions that all this discussion about Three Kingdoms has opened up are massive: they deal with form versus content, how we watch and how we write. I'm so excited that these debates are happening, but at the same time I feel sad. Because this isn't how I wanted to engage with Three Kingdoms myself. I wanted to discuss it with critics – and I chose Andrew because he is much better at understanding Simon's work than me – and most of all I wanted to discuss it with Simon himself. Dialogue is a massively important project for me: it's where I get to reinvent the hamster wheel on which I've been running for the past 15 years. At this moment in time, have no idea whether that dialogue with Simon will ever happen. I feel as though I've spent 10 days in a very noisy place, full of voices, but the one voice I really want to hear is silent.

Simon, if you're still listening, I'm still waiting patiently, with my ears open wide.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

accidental flares of love burst from the atmosphere

I came across Robert Holman a bit late in life, but I hope that's more to do with the neglect of his work by London theatres than a failure of curiosity on my part. Reading Lyn Gardner's interview with him for the Guardian in 2003, I knew instantly that he was a playwright I would cherish. And I do, but mostly in theory. I've still read only one play, because for reasons I find wholly inexplicable – the publishing strand of theatreland being in pernicious cahoots with the artistic-direction strand, I suppose – they haven't yet been collected, and anyway I prefer to encounter plays for the first time on stage. I fear my optimism may be in overdrive in applying this preference to Holman.

The one play I have read is Jonah and Otto, and that's only because for a brief period around leaving the Guardian desk job I contemplated working inside theatre rather than writing about it, and as an experiment became a reader for Soho. And oh, what a dispiriting experience this was. I read a lot of really bad plays, plays that stolidly constructed a world without curiosity or surprise. I diligently wrote reports that I hoped would be constructive, all the while doubting my own right to do so, and fearing that I would be breaking people's hearts. When I did hit upon something of promise, I knew it would never reach the stage, least of all untouched, but would get trapped in reading/workshop limbo, which teaches a playwright something, I'm sure, but not as much as an actual production. And then I was sent Jonah and Otto.

From the first page I could see the whole thing on stage, and at the same time it seemed to be physically impossible. There is so much magic and mystery in this play, so much that is elusive. And then there are lines in it that shoot so directly from the heart that I felt them like an arrow in mine. When Otto admits to Jonah: “Whenever I look at myself I get scared.” When Jonah, in the midst of a panic attack, says, with exquisite cadence: “I know I’m useless. I’m worthless. I’m very small.” I knew the director who took it on would be rare and brave and brilliant, and that what they would pluck from it would be the song of a phoenix. And I felt just as certain that I would never see it performed.

Here's the opening line from my report to Soho: “This is the kind of play that should be sent out to first-time playwrights to show them what it means to be ambitious.” Not my most elegant sentence, but I stand by the argument. It's not just that (on paper, at least) Holman tests to the limit his audience's ability or willingness to suspend disbelief. He painstakingly strips layer after layer from his characters until what we see is their essence, their very souls. And he does it so gently, so tenderly. Look, aspiring playwrights: this is how you reveal the innermost truth about characters. This is how you tell us about human relationships, society, the world.

My closing paragraph to Soho buried fury in melancholy: “I can see why his work is so rarely staged. Jonah and Otto doesn’t seem very Soho: in fact, it doesn’t seem to be any London theatre in particular. It exists in its own realm, outside of time and politics, concerned with our place in the world on a more metaphysical level.” This was 2006, when Lisa Goldman was in charge; now that Steve Marmion is running the show, I can see it fitting right in (and yes, damn it, that is a direct challenge). Eighteen months after I filed my report, the play was staged, in Manchester (Clare Lizzimore, I salute you), but because I was in the thick of mothering a small person I didn't even know about the production, let alone see it. In any case, I'd succumbed to pessimism well before then. You couldn't read a play like Jonah and Otto, know for a fact it wouldn't be staged in London, and carry on as if nothing had happened. I tried, but the whole enterprise seemed meaningless. A few weeks later, I walked away from Soho's literary department and never looked back.

When Making Noise Quietly was announced for Josie Rourke's first Donmar season, I felt a lot of slightly conflicting things simultaneously: excitement, obviously, and relief that the waiting was over, but apprehension, too, that I might be in for disappointment. Seven years is a long time to build up expectation. But how reassuring that it was Peter Gill directing: after The York Realist at the Royal Court in 2002, after Small Change at the Donmar in 2008, after soaking myself in Gill's plays in advance of doing a really rubbish interview with him for the Guardian (daunted by him, daunted by the Review space), I trusted that at the very least I would see Making Noise Quietly to its best possible advantage. Judging by Susannah Clapp's review, my trust proved true.

In my head, what makes Gill the perfect conduit for Holman is this: both are writers who create for the stage still pools of incredible depth, into which you can gaze and gaze without ever seeing the bottom, because down there are the very mysteries of life. They make people's behaviour look perfectly clear and comprehensible, rooted in culture and circumstance, but even as they trawl the mud of nature and nurture they allow us to feel that there is something unfathomable about their characters, something innate that guides them for good or ill but usually both intermingled. That something pulses not only in the words spoken but in the space between them, the nuances of glance and gesture. And Gill handles those nuances in Making Noise Quietly with the care of a lapidary. I loved the teasing sexual tension between solid, self-questioning Oliver and assured, eyelash-fluttering Eric in the first play: the moment when Eric puts a bag of cherries in the space between them and, holding eye contact the entire time, tears the bag so that its contents spill suggestively to the ground made me giggle and shiver. In the second, the tension lies in the unnavigable distance between hurt, bereaved mother May and Geoffrey, the man who comes to tell her more about her son than her son ever bothered to tell himself. Their two bodies were like magnets: they might so easily fuse, but facing the way they were all they could do was repel. And in the third play, the two adult characters, Helene and Alan, prowl around each other like wild animals assessing their opponents before coming to a grudging mutual acceptance; caught between them is a mere cub, Sam, whose alternately violent and loving behaviour shows the adults what they really are.

What Gill also captures beautifully (in his own plays and directing Holman) is the moment of self-discovery each character experiences, and the moments of discovering each character we experience watching them. In Making Noise Quietly, you can almost hear the crackle of electricity as a thought travels from a character's subconscious to the front of their mind. Always it's something devastating, but neither Holman nor Gill allows that thought or that discovery any crass emphasis: when Oliver realises he wants to enlist, or May confesses her hatred of her son, these things are spoken softly, and feel all the more seismic for it. The final play is the most troubling, because its questions about the future are so painful: what happens to that boy if he stays with Alan, risking his adopted father's volcanic temper? What happens if he doesn't, if, like Alan, he enters the care system and finds only violence, without love? Neither outcome is perfect or desirable. And this, too, is what makes Gill and Holman a perfect pairing: their ability to look at people's lives in all their smouldering complexity, and show what they live with day after day, in all its uneasiness.

I had so succeeded in managing expectations before seeing Making Noise Quietly that I was pretty much prepared to be slumped in disappointment afterwards; in the event, expectation was exceeded. Better still, I took a friend who doesn't see much theatre except with me, who watched the whole thing rapt, described the first play as like a long slow fuck, found the second desperately upsetting and was really challenged by the third. Holman is so much the playwright's playwright, we're in danger of forgetting that he communicates powerfully to a wider audience, too. If, that is, he's given the chance to.

Monday, 7 May 2012

there's dirt on my rose-tinted spectacles: three months with uninvited guests [aka vanity project 6]

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.

[A quick note: I give away a lot about Make Better Please in this, so if you want to go in knowing nothing you might want to come back here after the event. However, I saw four-fifths of Make Better on DVD before seeing it, and still found it immensely powerful, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything much.]

I felt a lovely serendipity at work in my first proper encounter with Uninvited Guests. I know the Guests have been around for donkeys but somehow they evaded even my peripheral vision, until Lyn Gardner's review of Love Letters Straight From Your Heart – but that was in August 2009, and I didn't get to see the show until February this year. The long wait proved fortuitous, because it pulled me from the midst of a total preoccupation with Chris Goode & Company. Specifically, I was tussling with CG&C's Open House (2011 edition), a piece that sought to eradicate the gap between performers and audiences, partly to share the making process, partly to unsettle the “staged” work by making it alive to chance and change. Uninvited Guests, I realised, share a belief in these objectives as fundamental principles, and I'm finding it fruitful to think about where the two companies coincide and diverge.

At that moment in time, the key difference was one of control versus chaos. Open House felt febrile; the work as shown to a paying audience had a structure of sorts, but nothing rigid enough to contain the impulsive energy of the performers, who pinged around the space like pinballs, bouncing off the audience and the walls. I say at that moment because since then I've seen CG&C's 9, which was as elegant, focused and taut as Open House was scattershot and messy. But 9 positions itself in relation to its audience more or less conventionally: we sit, we watch, actively absorbed but effectively passive (please note, that's a surface evaluation, to be cracked apart at a later date). Whereas in the two Guests shows, more so even than in Open House, audiences are participants: the show can't happen unless the people holding tickets in the room (re)make it.

Where the control comes with Love Letters and Make Better Please is in their meticulous construction. In each case, the Guests have built a very precise architecture, then invited audiences in to do the decorating. Some nights the walls will be splatted with red and black paint; some nights they'll be swathed in pastel-coloured silks. The emphasis is on the audience's particularity, the individual-to-group personality we impose on the building – and yet, there's no escaping the knowledge that the building itself, with its rigid walls and solid floors, doesn't change. It's the tension between that fixed core and the audience's mutability that makes these two pieces so fascinating.

For those who don't know, Love Letters works like this. Before the show, you email the Guests – anonymously, if you like – with the name of a pop song and a dedication to someone you love. On the night, Richard Dufty and Jess Hoffmann take turns to play our songs and read out our stories, delivering them with an evenness of tone that allows the words to carry their own weight, unencumbered by imposed emotion. There is an extraordinary, spirit-soaring interlude, in which Hoffmann recalls the exhilaration of first love by racing round the room chased by Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, and a surprising key change when Dufty performs a contorted dance for his partner. These palate-cleansing performances might show up the comparative banality of our dedications, but the contrast also makes us cherish the simple sincerity of each other's language, the directness of our expression.

It would be so easy to be cynical about this show. The language of love has been debased by overexposure, in literature and cinema and the very pop songs we dedicate to our beloveds. To talk of love is to trade in cliche. The Guests know this; they know, too, that there are no original love stories, only variations on timeless themes. The format of Love Letters is so glaring, I'm sure each show is compiled using a tick-box list. Story of first love? Check. Story of unrequited love? Check. A marriage, a death, a tribute to a mother or gay lover or best friend? Check, check and triple check. Even when I was writing my own tribute, I was aware of a certain hyperbolic contrivance in my storytelling: they'll definitely use this, I caught myself thinking, it's so emblematic of an archetype. When it did emerge, I had one of those weird out-of-body experiences: it was so perfect in terms of the narrative arc of the show, I felt completely detached from it, and hardly recognised it as a description of my own life.

What makes Love Letters so brilliant is that it doesn't try to evade or deny the cynicism these observations engender. Cynicism is acknowledged, accepted and ultimately, gloriously, transcended. Each tribute comes so much from the heart (even mine), it's as though we're collectively reclaiming the language of love, reminding ourselves of the truth, the shocking individuality (a brilliant phrase I've stolen from Doris Lessing), buried in every melancholy and ecstatic cliche. Love and heartbreak might be universal and timeless, but THIS love, THIS ache, THIS heartbreak, is unique.

The same awareness and defiance of cynicism is at work in Make Better Please, perhaps even more so, because the raw material is bigger and fiercer and less forgiving than love. This time our contribution begins when we enter the room. We sit in groups at round tables reading the day's newspapers, looking for stories that make us angry. It's all so civilised, so liberal-middle-class: there are comically huge pots of tea, generous supplies of biscuits, a general reluctance to engage with the Daily Mail. But then comes a shift in register: a Guest sits at each table, and as we swap headlines he or she asks, “What can we do about this? How can we change it?” It's not enough to be exasperated or riled; sinking into despondency certainly won't do. We need to act.

So Uninvited Guests do act. And just as in Love Letters, they work methodically, to a strict format. It's years since I've looked at Aristotle's Poetics but I have a feeling that this format, whether consciously or unconsciously, adheres to the ancient system of tragic plot, shifting from mimesis and anagnorisis to peripeteia and catharsis: imitation and identification to reversal and purification (and yes, I have just copied that out from Wiki). So in the first stage, Richard and Jess embody the public figures we revile: they are David Cameron crushing the poor, and James Cameron using his riches to mine asteroids, and a doctor in Britain carrying out genital mutilation on girls. We can ask them questions, upbraid them, hurl abuse: say everything directly that we can't say in real life, except on Comment Is Free, where there is always someone ready to tear us apart. This is intriguing in itself: the sense of relief in having free rein to be liberal and moral and self-righteous. Already, it's double-edged.

And then Richard and Jess make us identify with people we have encountered, will encounter, in the news: with the woman begging not to be killed as a gun is pointed at her neck, with the soldier with a sack over his head and his arms bound together, with the child cowering behind a tree as all around him people are massacred, with the serial killer wielding the gun. You've put down that newspaper, but can you really look away? What happens if you don't look away? Uncomfortable, isn't it? Desperate, isn't it? And yet the room is still so civilised, so liberal-middle-class. Outrage is not enough. Sitting back is not enough.

So Richard Dufty steps forwards. He strips to his underwear and he speaks in tongues. He absorbs all the wrong in the world, allows it to scratch at his veins and snap in his bones. He abjects himself before us, throws tea over himself, struts and crows like a chicken. For us. Do we want him to? He looks ridiculous. It's embarrassing to watch him, excruciating. And utterly, savagely compelling. That someone can expose himself to such a degree, shed every fibre of dignity, be so raw and abandoned and brave. For us. If he can do that, I thought as I watched him, I can do anything.

Here is another telling connection with Chris Goode: I felt that courage, that willingness to peel away every layer of self-protection, and say out loud everything that is big and frightening and fucked-up-weird, radiate from Chris in God/Head, too. It's more than coincidental to me that both shows found inspiration in Quaker meetings, both embrace quiet and stillness, and both build up to a dynamic ritual: Chris adopting the figure of a roisterous minister, preaching a joyful gospel of acceptance, of human fears, humiliations, sadness and fury; the Guests performing an exorcism, the “evil” that Richard has assimilated driven out of the room, out of our lives, by Jess the pagan punk priestess, a thrashing, stomping voodoo queen wielding, of all things, a fire extinguisher.

This is the point in Make Better where cynicism can really kick in. I find the ritual mesmerising, but then I have superstition encoded in my genes: invited to invoke a ghost of the recently deceased, I will without hesitation begin chanting Adrienne Rich's name under my breath, because she is my lodestar and has the power to change the world from beyond the grave. Not everyone shares these insanities. I'm also an idealist, a political romantic, and I know from interviewing Uninvited Guests how much the show is rooted in wistful memories of former idealism:

R: There's a nostalgia for the punky, idealistic energy of youth; we're referencing the village hall indie band or the punk band who really think –
J; “We can change the world!”
R: “We can get out of this village, we can conquer the world, we can make a difference.” That's why it's Make Better Please: it's us wanting to be like that again and to live that again. There's an element of doubt about it, or yearning.
J: Hope, maybe.
R: We're at a point in our lives where we've seen this political cycle go round and round a few times now. [In] student years, you thought maybe the world could be completely different, then you get a bit jaded. So it's a little bit of a political cry for help, as well as a confident [declaration of]: “We can change the world if we all get together and do something.”

I love Make Better Please because it comes from a place of jadedness and desperation, bludgeons its own cynicism, and finds a path back to idealism. I love its melancholy acceptance that, although everyone will make a journey through it, not everyone will reach the same destination alongside it. Most of all, I love Make Better because I believe in it. I believe in its ritual of purification, in its enacted triumph of hope, community, socialism, fairness, respect for humanity, over the degraded politics of selfishness, capitalism and inequality. I feel a genuine catharsis at the end, when I sit and listen to the people around me tell stories of generosity and kindness. I know, perfectly well, that when I walk out of the theatre the world around me won't be changed. But I feel encouraged and invigorated by the optimism of the piece, its untrammelled energy. This is what they can do. What can I do in return?

It's only as I write this now, a fortnight after seeing it, that I've realised something else crucial about Make Better. In the moment of watching, I felt the divide between this spectacle and what I see at gigs sharply: at gigs what I feel is escapism, at Make Better engagement. But when Richard talks about the punk bands who believed they could change the world, he could be describing the riot grrrls, who actually did. So Jess Hoffmann, fellow mum-of-two, fellow plate-spinner, fellow firebrand, this one's for you:

Before I go, a couple of scraggy thoughts. I'm finding it really weird how out-of-sync I am with Lyn Gardner at the moment. She's like my mentor and my favourite auntie and my fount of all wisdom, theatre or otherwise, rolled into one: that our views on things are not coinciding, over a sustained period, is genuinely disturbing to me. Knowing that new-best-friend Jake Orr felt unmoved by Make Better troubles me too. But that's the thing about work that is made by its audience and different every night: I haven't seen or felt the same show as them. I was, however, in the room in West Yorkshire Playhouse with Matt Trueman, and spent a lot of time wondering what he thought – or rather, fretting that he was sitting with his arms folded, stewing in scepticism. When I discovered how transfixed he'd been by it, I was so relieved: that he wasn't going to throw a cold, wet towel over my excitement and that I could still feel like we were on the same team.

The one other thing I haven't mentioned is that Love Letters wasn't strictly my first encounter with the Guests. In autumn 2010, as part of a piece I was writing about pervasive theatre, I saw Give Me Back My Broken Night, a collaboration between Paul Clarke (and possibly another Guest, I never found out) and Duncan Speakman that imagines a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future Soho, but filters that vision through a romantic-utopian lens. It was a gorgeous piece that haunts me still: every time I walk through Soho Square I remember standing outside the gates with Paul, describing to him the wonderland that I would build there, with oversized teapots (oh!) and follies and slides, and watching in wonder as my words became images on the iPad in his hands. So you see: for 18 months now, Uninvited Guests have been making me see the world differently, and making it better.

Last of all: a vanity. This is the original copy of my piece about them for G2: part of me really wants to rewrite it a third time, to bring back all the interview material I dimly remember cutting to fit the 800-word space, but if I do I'll never get back to CG&C and Robert Holman, so move on I must.


“We're always told that one of the essential qualities of theatre is its liveness, its immediacy,” says theatre-maker Richard Dufty. “It's not like a film that just rolls on, even if all the audience leaves. But most theatre, even experimental theatre, feels like it's following the script, following the score, regardless. It's not particularly contingent on an audience, and certainly not contingent on you as an individual within that audience.”

Dufty is one-third of Uninvited Guests, a theatre company based in London and Bristol that aims to put individual theatregoers at the heart of every show. In their touring production Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, audiences are invited to dedicate songs to people they adore, for Dufty and fellow Guest Jessica Hoffmann to read out during the course of the performance. And their newest piece, Make Better Please, begins with the audience reading the day's newspapers and plucking out the stories that make them angry or upset, which are then used as the source material for the rest of the evening.

“Rather than site-specific performance, what we're making is a kind of date-specific performance, with user-generated content,” says the third Guest, Paul Clarke. The result, says Dufty, is “a real sense of liveness, where the material is fresh each night”.

Since Clarke and Hoffmann formed the company in Bristol in 1998, Uninvited Guests have explored different methods of, as Clarke says, “democratising the authorship” of their shows. Earlier works borrowed techniques from documentary theatre, with the company interviewing people about, say, cinema (for their 2000 piece, Film), or representations of violence (2004's Schlock), and incorporating this text into the finished script. Dufty, who joined the company in 2000, says they had a tendency to treat this material ironically, “measuring ourselves against it with a sort of knowingness. But we got a bit bored with that, and got older, and wanted to try being more honest and direct.”

That's how they came to make Love Letters in 2006. The piece grew in part from the trio's experience of attending a number of weddings and being struck by the outpouring of emotion in the speeches. “We don't speak from the heart in that way in everyday life,” says Hoffmann – so they decided to create an opportunity for people to do so. The results are acutely moving, with audiences taking advantage of the promise of anonymity to write tributes to spouses and unrequited loves, best friends and beleaguered parents, that are often astonishingly candid.

But Love Letters also offers a cool critique of social experience, says Clarke. “It reflects on the way that we perform romance, the way that we return to songs in order to express our feelings, and the way that when we say the words, 'I love you', we're speaking words that we've heard thousands of times before in the movies. No matter how real the emotion is, it's still coming up against the representation that we've seen.”

Where Love Letters deals with the inner self, says Dufty, Make Better Please looks outward, at what audiences think about the world around them. More than that, says Clarke, the news is rewritten, “according to the people in the room, telling it in their own words, rather than the authoritative words of the newsreader or the politician”. But the show also challenges people to think about how they consume news: as Hoffmann puts it, over coffee on the weekend, as “entertainment, just stuff that you do”. Instead, audiences are invited to take responsibility for what they read, by imagining themselves into the stories they have selected, and taking part in a pagan ritual to exorcise bad news.

The hope, says Dufty, is that people will be inspired to “think about how they relate to the world, how you might make a difference”. He admits the show has its roots in nostalgia for the idealism of youth: the trio are now aged between 38 and 40, and feel “we've seen this political cycle go round a few times. So it's partly a cry for help. That's why it's Make Better Please: there's an element of yearning.”

It's clear that the Guests' own politics are left and liberal, so what happens if their audience is primarily Conservative? Dufty admits they don't know. “Hopefully it's enough of a vehicle that people will get the show that they want or need. But it's still to be tested. It's a show that will find itself on tour.” For Hoffmann, Make Better Please is a leap into the unknown made possible by a decade of learning to trust each other as performers. “Anything could happen,” she says, “but I think we're at a point where we can deal with that.”