Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Edinburgh 2012, day one: Inheritance Blues, Luminous Tales, Hunt and Darton, Strong Arm, Dead Memory House, Caesarean Section, Monkey Bars, Beats

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.

9.15pm, Tuesday Aug 14 It takes 20 minutes of staring at my higgledy-piggledy Edinburgh timetable to figure out a time to see Red Like My Room Used To Feel. I'm not sure the show itself lasts that long. Summerhall box office staff are blessedly patient.

9.45pm Amy Letmen, the Underbelly. We talk about Project 9, its vulnerability and sensitivity, the scariness and rawness of honesty. I feel as though Chris, in having someone reflect on his work in this way, is making something possible. Dialogue. Openness. Change, however subtle. Is everyone he works with as ready as he is? What can I do to reassure them?

10.20pm Even after all these years, I still miss the skate boys on Bristo Square.

10.30pm DugOut Theatre's Inheritance Blues, Bedlam Theatre. The girl sitting next to me assures me that, as long as I can commit to three full weeks, I'd easily get a job reviewing at the fringe. Manage not to giggle.

This was on my definitely see list, partly because good people (including magic Lucy Ellinson) recommended it, partly because it has a late start, and therefore doesn't clash with a million other shows, which is exceedingly smart. The show itself is pretty smart, too, a story about a band that shifts into a story about three brothers, reunited at their father's funeral. I'm not sure how keen I would be to see this group do a straighter show; as it is, the acting feels too straight, too male, too university, to me. And ordinarily I wouldn't feel much for the white-boy-blues of the band. But when the two strands mesh, something ignites. There's a terrific scene in which the band and the brothers re-enact the father's pre-marriage, life-changing trip to New Orleans, the young whippersnapper stumbling across ornery old blues men, earning his spurs in a saxophone battle with a jazz great who gives him his sax before croaking to death. The balance of irreverence, romance and pathos is delicious. And I loved the way a bash at the percussion could trigger a narrative freeze, allowing the storytellers to comment on proceedings, edit the language, reconsider how a line was spoken or received. Shifty are the workings of memory.

What resonated with me as I walked home, however, was the quiet thinking around inheritance in the piece. The three brothers are chalk, leather and cheese, one boarding school and university educated, one a grafter struggling to make progress as a chef, one a wide-boy with an eye for a get-rich-quick scheme. Who is most like the father? Who knows the truth about him, or about his troubled relationship with their mother? Is there a truth? Beneath the gig and the gags, Inheritance Blues communicates the frustrating mystery of parents, the impossibility of knowing or guessing. The eldest son believes he knows what his father would have wanted the boys to do with their inheritance, yet he couldn't be more wrong. Of course he couldn't: he's trying to live up to an idealised version of his father, to a correspondingly warped sense of his father's ideals. I've lost count of the number of mistakes I've made in my life by doing the same.

11.35am, Wednesday 15th Luminous Tales, Pleasance Below. There is a point, about 15 or 20 minutes in, not long after I'd been thinking smugly to myself how nice it is to have children who prefer theatre to cinema, when my smallest smally says, in his usual speaking voice, which seems to ricochet off every empty seat in the room to bounce on to the stage at agonising volume: “I'm bored.” It's what he said watching The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists on Monday, too. That was fine. This is excruciating.

I think, in the Polka in Wimbledon, our usual haunt, he might have started fidgeting at the same point, but would have been generally more absorbed. There are more children at the Polka, and we can sit snuggled together on the floor, and I can less self-consciously whisper encouragement in his ear. At the Pleasance we are stuck in raked seats that aren't even comfortable for grown-ups, adults outnumber children and the room is nowhere near full. Of course he's fed up: in no way does this event seem to be catered to him.

The show itself is slow but sweet: two earnest retellings of creation tales that explain the darkness and the waxing-waning moon, framed by the gently comic story of a bumbling woman who plots to eliminate night so that she can live always in brightness and day. There's a lovely, skilful display of shadow puppetry: to show a crow stealing a gleaming jewel of sunshine, or a little girl encountering the hares who live on the moon, or the woman making a casserole of stars. And Zannie Fraser is an amiable, gentle performer; both my littles giggled every time she sang her deluded ditty to the joys of fun and sun. But it was hard to shift the feeling that we were watching theatre-because-it's-good-for-you, not theatre-because-it-makes-your-heart-race.

Still, there was a moment to cherish early on, when the woman listed everything she hates about the dark, and top of the list was: “I don't like the shadows.” I gave my big smally, aged five, a squeeze: despite my best efforts, she is, like me, afraid of the dark, and what frightens her most are the shadows that form on her bedroom walls.

12.40pm On my way to the Hunt and Darton cafe, I stop off at Summerhall and attempt to buy a ticket for Flaneurs for Thursday 23, at a time when I'm travelling home. The Summerhall box office staff, who are blessedly patient, don't bat an eye as I faff and fumble.

1.15pm In accordance with the Fringe programme map and listings, I circumnavigate the St James centre looking for Hunt and Darton. I vaguely remember the address as St Mary's Walk, so when I pass St Mary's church, which is permanently tattooed in my memory with a great banner reading HOPE and makes me think of Godspeed You Black Emperor, I feel sure I'm on the right track. Seagulls circle overhead, and their cries sound like raucous laughter. I fail not to feel intimidated as I pass 20 builders on their lunch break. I look at the map again. Inside the St James centre? Maybe.

2.15pm By the power of Andrew Haydon and Hannah Silva, I discover that Hunt and Darton is on St Mary's Street, near the Pleasance. At the Traverse, I discover that I'm not seeing Daniel Kitson in 15 minutes, but a week from now. This is turning into a very bad day.

2.50pm From the moment I walk through the door at Hunt and Darton, I feel I've found my Edinburgh home. In front of me is a table piled with fondant fancies, Tunnocks tea cakes, slices of Battenburg: 1970s tea-party heaven. The two women waiting tables wear A-line dresses made of cheesecloth pineapple print, and have pineapple tops on their heads for hats. To the left of the room is a huge blackboard on which takings, profit, loss and other sundries are there for all to see. Behind the counter, a man lays a slice of meat, a hunk of Paxo's stuffing and a spoon of cranberry sauce between wonky doorstops of white bread. Later I see a man in a lycra monochrome body-suit sit at a table and read punters' tea-leaves. Almost no one looks like they've come here for the performance art; almost everyone looks blissfully bemused.

I'm here for Paper Stages. I could do almost anything on the list of 20 volunteering options, but quickly rule out: writing a review, because that feels like cheating; washing dishes, clearing tables, mopping the floor, or any menial tasks, because I'm on holiday thank you; scouting the local charity shops for china, because that would require leaving the building; and winking at passers by, because I could not keep that up for an hour. Out of making a Spotify playlist, carving a pineapple, teaching someone a new skill and making rice crispy cakes, I plump for the last, which also feels like cheating, but oh so restorative.

It doesn't take the requisite hour, so for my next task I write a quote for the day on the blackboard and sign it Miss Corvette. (Laugh and sing and dance and play and write and draw and make everything you do a small act of revolution, in case you're wondering.) Add good chats with BAC's David Jubb, CPT's Jenny Paton, and my husband all lonely in London, and the hour whizzes by. Walking to the Underbelly, I feel that curious invincibility of elation.

4.10pm Strong Arm, Underbelly. Felt honour-bound to see this, because Finlay Robertson saw God/Head when I did it with Chris Goode, and squawked with laughter when I talked about the waters of Louisville, Kentucky. I can feel Chris' influence in the writing, in its tautness, its unexpected swerves, its startling imagery. In the initial humbleness of Finlay's character, too. Roland Poland – think about the abbreviation – is haunted by playground taunts, by muscle memories of fat, and by the image of the buxom girl who sat next to him on the school bus, who would share her confidences but never her breasts, her lips. What starts out boyish, puppyish, gets leaner and more fiercely masculine by the minute: not for nothing does Roland's transformation start with the sight of a slavering staffy being trained to fight.

I wonder how I would feel about this piece if I hadn't had that chance encounter with Finlay. I don't know how much the testosterone, the abundance of wanking and spunk, would have repulsed me. I hope I would have felt the same reassurance from his performance, which has a softness that invites sympathy in equal measure with nauseous fascination, and makes the utterly insane – Roland's carefully detailed high-protein diet, for instance – sound almost reasonable. That split reaction is written into the piece: it's voiced by Cassie, the woman Roland briefly dates, when she tells him how frightened she is by him, and how much she cares for him, a scene I found acutely poignant. Perhaps my favourite thing about this show, though, is that Finlay spends all this time talking about a man obsessively building up his muscles, then strips off at the end to display his own flabby tummy and wobbly abs. The joy of the ordinary.

5.50pm My Flaneur ticket now clashes with Daniel Kitson, so I have to switch it to another day. The Summerhall box office staff – have I mentioned their blessed patience? – don't even flinch.

6pm The Dead Memory House, Summerhall. One that appealed from the Fringe programme. At first sight, it's exquisite: the door opens and we're ushered into a parlour and invited to make ourselves at home. The table is laid with wine and grapes; the sideboard and bookshelves are enticingly crammed with stuff: a row of blue Pelicans, delicate china thimbles, an array of jam jars stuffed with black-and-white photographs. I could spend an hour just looking at the set. I've forgotten now which character was which, so let's make it up: Bea, solicitous, old before her years, serves us cheesy snacks and party rings; Anna swigs wine and whines about the man who left her; Sylvia, slight as a ballerina, crawls beneath the clothes maiden, a shadow in her own life. They do some lovely things, these girls: swirling bits of dance, a sweet interactive game whereby we're invited to recall something (for my group, it was the first school dance), and later the performers read out memories collected in this and previous shows. But I can't help feeling that the company are borrowing tropes, not truly inhabiting them. This would feel less pronounced if the characterisation were stronger, if the women's desires – Bea for a child, Anna for a lover, Sylvia for womanhood – were not so limited, and the performances less heightened and hysterical.

6.45pm There are still tickets for Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide (also Summerhall). If it starts on time at 7pm, it will end at 7.50, giving me 25 minutes to get to the Traverse for Monkey Bars. Tight, but possible.

7.08pm Caesarean Section starts. My heart is racing with anxiety. Rain pounds relentlessly on the roof of the tent. In the darkened room, the sound of smashing glass. To the left, a man attacks a window with a hammer. To the right, a woman hurls wine glasses to the floor. Running the length the stage is a fault-line glittering with more glass. It feels dangerous and bloody and agonisingly tense. And beautiful. Just beautiful. My heart is racing. Exhilarated.

Image after image dances across the stage and I keep my eyes wide to drink them all in. Crimson wine spilling across a throat, staining a white shirt, gleaming in puddles on the floor. A dangled noose, a broken heart. A man and a woman kill each other with unkindness. A woman carries a bag of oranges; it splits and she plunges into despair. Glass showers over her face and sticks to her cheeks. Diamond tears. The fetish of pain. At a cinema we see people attempt suicide and survive and it's funny and it's awful and I laugh and cry. The indefatigable hope of the body when all hope of the mind has gone.

And through it all there is song, extraordinary liturgies, deep and strong and luminous. I know it's the women sitting with cello and violin on the stage who are singing, the men at the piano and percussion box and accordion, and yet the sound might be coming from somewhere else entirely, from the driving rain and the mud far below, from the lost souls who tried, who failed, who succeeded. It ends and I hurl myself into the rain, running to Monkey Bars, but also running for the relief, at this moment, of being alive.

8.20pm Monkey Bars, Traverse.

I didn't expect this fluttery feeling. I've been watching Monkey Bars rehearsals since day one; not every day, but enough to feel very connected to it. And maybe it's just that I'm nervous, but they look nervous to me, fiddling with their costumes, huddled protectively at the back of the stage. Sound nervous, too: there's a tremor in Gordon's voice, and Gwyneth is oh so quiet. Angela is more stern, her nostrils flare. I'm being mother duck-ish; I'm not even sure I can hear the show in this state. I scan the room, looking for Lyn Gardner. She's inscrutable as ever. AndrewHaydon sits almost opposite me. I see him throw his head back and laugh, when a woman is interviewed by three people about her favourite sweets, starts confident but soon flails; and when two politicians describe the one thing they would do if they could change the world. I think it's going to be OK. Some scenes are strong, stronger than they were at the run-through last week. Some scenes that soared a week ago barely even raise their wings. I catch an in-joke: Boz, attempting to flick cards into an ashtray, genuinely astonished when one almost gets in. I notice when Gordon forgets to form his fingers into a T, when the bubble machine fails to work, when Jacquetta sounds unnaturally girlish.Will anyone else notice?

I can't write more now, because I'm not finished with Monkey Bars yet, but something became very clear to me, watching rehearsals for this. The more the actors allowed themselves to simply be themselves on stage, the less they tried to impose artificial characters – even in the scenes where character types were implied, situations constructed – the more powerfully they communicated. Vulnerability and sensitivity, the scariness and rawness of honesty. I want you to hear this loud, world. We need more playtime to get to know people. But we can never get to know people if we are afraid to be open.

10pm Matt Trueman, Filmhouse Cafe. He buys me a salad. I don't want to tell him anything I think about Monkey Bars, but I'd love to hear what he made of it. He isn't sure it achieves anything more than what's written on the tin: it's just a bunch of grown-ups saying the words of children. I an't tell him, but I feel really deflated by this. I feel as though he's listened without hearing. We talk star ratings, report on other shows. I lift a piece of salad from my plate and beneath it is the corpse of a fly.

11pm Beats, Traverse. So this was the plan. I was going to hang around at the Traverse for maybe 30 minutes, give everyone from Monkey Bars a hug, then go home and get good sleep ready for Dialogue at St Stephen's the following morning. So this is what happened. Honour Bayes had a spare ticket for Beats. It doesn't finish until midnight. I already have a ticket for Tuesday 21. I have a crush on Kieran Hurley. I take the ticket.

I feel naughty just being here. So transgressive I don't even catch the implication of Kieran's description of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which bans gatherings in public places at which music is played wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats. Every member of the audience is effectively breaking the law.

I didn't do rave when I was younger. I was an indie kid, funny about the music (this is chronologically flawed but: yes to Little Fluffy Clouds, no to Born Slippy; yes to Primal Scream's volte face and afternoons with Come Together blaring out of the open window, no to the Shamen; yes to mad squonky melodic-in-surprising-places experimental stuff, Aphex basically; no to house, acid house, techno, anything with, you guessed it, a succession of repetitive beats); plus I'd already seen enough drugs go into my brother not to want to touch them. I remember the shiver that ran through me as I watched girls at school snap the chunky heels from their shoes to reveal bags of tiny white pills. Disappointment tinged with envy. I have no nostalgia for rave; it's a reminder of how desperately uncool I was. Am.

But this isn't just a story about a teenage rebellion, about Ecstasy or ecstasy, about illegal gatherings in muddy fields. It's a story about a mother not knowing how to communicate with her son, and a son desperate to share his fears about growing up but unable to find the words. It's a story about a middle-aged man burdened with disappointment, unable to free himself from the voice of recrimination – his father's – echoing like tinnitus between his ears. It's a story about the ways we choose to make societies, form communities, fight for what we believe in: at raves and on picket lines, in riots and the quiet of friendship. It's a story about how we damage people, with varying degrees of intention.

The storytelling itself is unexpectedly conventional: as soon as Kieran introduces little 15-year-old Johnno, you know what kind of night he's about to have; a few minutes later he introduces Johnno's mum, and you know what she's facing; a few minutes after that he introduces the policeman, and his meeting with Johnno is inexorable. Narrative like this skates perilously close to predictability and cliche; I knew lines were coming before Kieran spoke them. But I knew they were coming because the emotional truth of this piece is absolute. Each character is so fully formed, so precise, I half expected them to materialise on the stage, shove Kieran out of the way and take over. It's that good.

That conventionality is both unsettled and reinforced by the staging. Kieran starts by establishing the theatre space, introducing the DJ on stage with him, flagging up everything that's real in contrast to the unreal of the story. Of course it's unreal: in 1994, when it's set, Kieran would have been about nine years old. Yet when he takes his place behind a microphone at a wooden desk and the story begins, he looks as though he's standing trial, and you'd swear that everything he says is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God.

A little behind him, stage right, Johnny Whoop at the DJ booth soundtracks Johnno's bedroom, his earphones, his mum's radio, the policeman's radio, the car on the way to the rave, the rave itself, the comedown. Behind them both, projected on the back wall, a technicolour film of Johnno's estate, street lamps, ravers and protesters and police in riot gear, steel works being demolished and high streets in disarray. Our world falling apart and the dream world we escape into. The idealism that has failed, the cold hard facts of Tory Britain then and now.

You could read Beats as an indictment of a society and a politic that is repressive, that will crush every attempt to change the status quo. You could read it as a depressing acknowledgement of the inevitability of conservatism/Conservatism, of the ease with which we conform. You have to, because that's real.

But: doesn't mean nothing. That's what Johnno's friend tells him – I've forgotten exactly when, but I think it's at the rave, when little Johnno is blissed out on acid and wants to tell his friend that he has learned something about people and friendship and love. Doesn't mean nothing. Johnno repeats it again and again, driving home from the police station, his furious, silent, adoring mother unable to forgive him just yet. Doesn't mean nothing. Negative: doesn't mean anything. Or double negative. Doesn't mean nothing. Means something.

Double negative makes a positive. Out of the double-negative horror of obscene capitalism and Conservatives in power, what positive could we make? Kieran frames Beats with a line that sounds cheesy when he first says it, but that made my heart sing when he repeated it, through Johnno, at the end. No one has found a way to arrest your imagination yet. In Beats, he invites us to imagine a world, three worlds, the worlds of Johnno, his mum, and the policeman who beats him. He invites us to give that picture flesh, to really think ourselves into it. No one can arrest your imagination. And if you can imagine that world, what else could you imagine? A world unlike this one. Future positive. Here we go.


Friday, 3 August 2012

pretend you know the way out of the trap

Somewhere between reading A Doll's House in my late-teens, seeing Janet McTeer play Nora when I was 22, and the electric shock of the Young Vic production that's about to close, I took against Ibsen's heroine to such a degree that I went out of my way to avoid her. What I did see in the years between was two productions of Hedda Gabler that made me fidget with boredom: Richard Eyre's at the Almeida in 2005, which reviews said was brilliant but to me felt so agonisingly dreary even the wondrous Eve Best, playing Hedda, couldn't save it; and Lucy Kirkwood/Carrie Cracknell's modernised version at the Gate in 2008, which I wrote about with minimal enthusiasm. In my befuddled brain, Hedda and Nora became conflated: two silly, selfish women who might have been constrained by the absurd patriarchal edicts of their times, but made their bad deal worse through thoughtlessness and egoism. (You might well say the same of me when you read what follows.)

For the first 15 minutes or so of Cracknell's Young Vic Doll's House, Hattie Morahan's Nora was that appalling woman: a flirtatious ingenue, all wide eyes and self-indulgence. When she asks her old friend Kristine to tell her “all about yourself”, then proceeds to run her mouth off about imminent wealth and her adoring husband and lovely children, knowing full well that Kristine is a) desperately poor, b) widowed and c) has no children, she's so abysmally insensitive I wanted to shake her. But then something brilliant happened. She talked about her work. Two weeks after seeing it, I can't say if it was a subtle twist of Simon Stephens' translation, or a sly emphasis in Morahan's performance, but in that speech Nora transformed before my eyes, and I became gripped by her. In working, in sitting up all night copying, writing, focusing on words, Nora had begun – without even quite knowing it – to find herself. And from that moment, I knew: this would be a Nora in which I would see myself.

The circumstances, of course, of course, couldn't be more different. But I honestly think that a few years of co-habiting has brought new piquancy to A Doll's House, has made me appreciate it in ways I couldn't have at 19 or 22. I felt odd reading reviews of it when I got home: although they were brilliant and perspicacious, the production they described wasn't quite the one I saw. How could it be? What I saw was lived experience. What they saw was a house with weird windows where opaque walls should be and a woman who overdid it on the wide eyes and choked speech and fluttering hands. I know precisely when they registered those things, when those things became irritating and problematic: I registered them too. But I shrugged them off, hypnotised by the inside truth about the disillusionments and compromises, the hopes and nourishments, of long-term relationships.

What I particularly recognised was the exhausting, nerve-rattling struggle to keep up a facade. At a basic level, that's about how you look, the vexation of varicose veins and Frida Kahlo eyebrows and a persistent pot belly in an airbrushed age; but at a deeper level, it's about appearing to cope with several conflicting demands at once. Your partner wants one thing, many things, of you, while your children, if you've got them, want an/other/s (and for years after having kids, I felt like I was playing being a mum; it was such a relief when another mum said this to me, too). The house itself has expectations, that you cook and shop and tidy and generally maintain; the extended family needs attention, and so do friends; bills need paying, demanding that you work; never mind the real work, whatever it might be (in my case, writing), that gets pushed further and further off the agenda. A few days after seeing it, I was struck by the thought that I do Nora's tarantella all the time: my version is a wild dervish dance around the house, on the all too frequent evenings when I attempt to cook dinner, engage with the kids, do laundry, answer emails and wash all the plates I'm not maniacally spinning, so everything can be done before my husband gets home. Why should that be a consideration? You may well ask.

Nora embodies everything (middle-class, privileged) women (who are educated, resourceful, and should bloody well know better) will do for the sake of a quiet life. Secrets and silences, rolled eyes and bitten tongues. On the comic side, I look at the bags of sweets she hides and see the books I have squirrelled away in drawers and on unexpected shelves because I'm not supposed to be buying new books because I don't read them fast enough. Less amusing is the inevitability of feeling patronised/taken advantage of when you're the person who works from home in the gaps between childcare, even when those things aren't in any way intended. I really wish I'd bought Stephens' text because I recall him doing something else illuminating in the final scene, something infinitely more brilliant than what I've found in the fusty old OUP World's Classics text that's been gathering dust on the bookshelf. Nora is talking about opinions, and says something along the lines of: all Torvald's opinions are her own, because it has always been easier to adopt them than to formulate anything else, least of all anything contradictory. It's so much easier to shut up than to argue.

Marriage, though, has forced me to learn to use my voice. You can't survive it if you don't; you certainly can't teach kids how to deal with conflict, how to discuss or debate, how to express their emotions (as they get older, and spend most of their time arguing, this is becoming an ever more pressing concern). Nora leaves her marriage because she is horrifically disillusioned – but what the happily ever after never tells you is that marriage is a concatenation of tiny disillusionments and uncomfortable compromises, which slowly chip away at the marble edifice you created in your mind in that magical moment of saying yes until what's left isn't Rodin's Kiss (the thrill of adultery in perpetuity), but a misshapen lump, all jagged edges and awkward angles. Marriage means accepting – as Nora, understandably, isn't able to do – that there is a point beyond which people just don't change.

But it also means being brave enough to show someone else your absolute worst, and trust that they will accept it, and keep your secret safe, and gently encourage you to grow. It means knowing that the other person is worthy of that trust: patently, Torvald Helmer isn't. Instead that courage is present in A Doll's House in the meltingly beautiful scene in which Kristine offers herself to Krogstad. As played by Susannah Wise, Kristine here is tentative, pragmatic and loving all at once; she makes it clear that together, she and Krogstad can make each other better, stronger, happier. Listening to her, Nick Fletcher's Krogstad visibly began to glow.

A Doll's House is more than a play about marriage/long-term/co-habiting relationships, more than a play about women's ongoing struggle to assert themselves – Andrew Haydon's review brilliantly articulates how much more. Do I diminish it by identifying with it so strongly in gender- and feminist- (and, against all best efforts, heterosexual-) specific ways? Even asking the question feels like a devaluation of female experience, as though a work of art isn't big enough unless it speaks not primarily of women but of some predicament relevant to mankind. Two days after seeing A Doll's House, I had another theatrical self-confrontation, and that question of identification was raised even more pertinently. The show was Greyscale's Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, which writer/director Selma Dimitrijevic first staged in 2008 with women playing the characters, but which she presented at the oh-so-brilliant Almeida Festival two weeks ago with men taking the roles. This was shortly after the row sparked by Equity arguing for more roles for women, which made a chance experiment look more like a morally dubious choice. (To be fair, in the same festival, the TEAM's RoosevElvis had Teddy and Elvis played by women: a nice bit of gender rebalancing.)

I happened to see Gods Are Fallen not on the night when a real-life mother and daughter shared the stage with the male actors (Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull), but on the night when a (female) sign-language interpreter joined the action and a caption board hovered overhead. Ordinarily I avoid access nights because I find sign-language so exquisite I can't take my eyes off it; here, the integration of the interpreter made her infinitely less distracting. Which left plenty of space to notice how quick, how easy, it was to read the two men as women. They called each other Mum and Annie, and so that's who they were.

What Dimitrijevic conveys so exquisitely in this piece is the banal but acute combination of love and frustration that makes up mother-daughter relationships. As Mum and Annie paced across the stage and their conversation – about a bath, Annie's boyfriend, Mum's refusal to socialise with Annie's aunt, and a cup of tea – moved in decreasing and expanding circles, I thought of the conversations I'd had with my mum the previous week (four: she was more than usually homesick), how we had essentially talked about the same thing in each one, sometimes using the same words with different emphasis, sometimes developing the idea driving the conversation, sometimes retracting. It's what we do all the time. Each time Dimitrijevic restaged the scene, I recognised something else: an angry retort, a needling question, a thwarted expectation, a swallowed disappointment. And beneath it all that love, that helpless, burning love, of two people who expect more of each other, to whom they give more of themselves, than they would anyone else.

I identified with it so strongly that when the piece takes a 90-degree turn in the final section I was broken in three. In the discussion at the end, I wanted to tell everyone: that was me and my mum! That was us! Instead, I was startled to hear other people in the room voice that thought. Not women: men. One man after another confessed to feeling the same connection with the piece as I had – and they had felt it quite specifically because men were playing the women. If women had taken the roles, they speculated, they wouldn't have identified with it so directly.

This month has been so busy with work – setting up Dialogue projects, rooms, actual reviewing while Lyn Gardner, exciting exciting, polishes up an Olivia book – that I've slowly disintegrated. Sometimes I can't see theatre when I'm this tired and frazzled: I can't concentrate. This month, it's been a glorious escape from the churn of my brain – even if I have been meeting myself coming back. Shivering at non zero one's You'll See (Me Sailing in Antarctica) on the roof of the National Theatre, I discovered that my memory is even worse than I'd thought, that my dream for the future isn't of some great success for me or my kids but to have my parents move back to England, and that the image of my death I keep before me at all times is entirely unsentimental, in fact pretty gruesome. (Ah, bother: just discovered that Hal Hartley's Ambition has been removed from youtube so I can't link again. Sad.)

Back at the Almeida festival I watched Lost Dog's exquisite dance piece It Needs Horses with wide-eyed wonder laced with horror. It lasts just 20, maybe 25, minutes, but packs in so much – spoilers to come if you haven't seen it. It starts with a savage image of desperate hope and thwarted ambition, as two dilapidated burlesque clowns beg for our money, our attention, our permission even. As power shifts between the pair it develops into a fierce, hilarious, challenging satire of male-female relationships, particularly when the man attempts to turn the woman into a sexual object, and she takes charge of the situation, far outstripping (not quite literally) his paltry imagination and reducing him to the powerless object. It ends with what I read in retrospect as a condensed version of A Doll's House, in which the woman performs and performs, pacing like a horse around the dusty big-top floor, until she is so tired, so appalled by the meaninglessness of her endeavour, that she must stop and, effectively, slam the door. That moment when the woman steps out of the ring is electrifying. I watched her standing absolutely still, gazing out at the distant future, as though at the edge of the sea deciding whether to walk in and never look back, and her self-determination made me shiver head to foot.

In the middle of all this was a night of genuine escape: Atlas Sound at the Scala. I feel appallingly smug about having reviewed the first Atlas Sound album in a Christmas round-up of stuff the Guardian had missed, significantly less smug when I remind myself that I all I'd discovered was the singer from Deerhunter, a band I wasn't cool enough to have heard yet (and when I read that review, which is really quite rubbish). The gig was bonkers: in interviews, Bradford Cox comes across as imperious to the point of terrifying, but instead of being intimidating on stage he was hilarious, words erupting from him between songs in an absurdist stream of consciousness, until the point when he decided he'd talked too much and instead played a blues-rock tribute to a raccoon he once knew called Saxophone. But when he played songs from Parallax, looping his guitar and vocal until the sound cascaded and shimmered, time and air and bodies became molten. On the album he shows us pictures of the stars; playing live, he transports us to the milky way. I know that sounds corny, ridiculous even, but that's the thing about transcendence. Part of what you transcend is language itself.