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.

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