Wednesday, 2 January 2013

some flotsam, some jetsam

If there were more time, I'd write...

about walking on Christmas day in an outskirt of Oxford, seeing fields flooded with rainwater, lapping with quiet tides, stealthily creeping over the path behind our backs; temporary lakes incongruously demarcated by twisted wire fences and the wooden posts of submerged stiles, across which a couple in a canoe calmly rowed, coaxing along a wooden picnic table that had overturned and floated away...

and seeing Orion through the windscreen of the car, pointing the way back to London; listening to Hadestown, marvelling again at its tenderness and anger; thinking lovingly of Little Bulb and the Orpheus show they're making; now and then catching the snuffling snores of the smallest and looking back to see the biggest gazing out of the window, beginning Motor Vehicle Sundown in her own time...

about seeing Elizabeth Price's The Woolworths Choir of 1979 for the first time knowing nothing about it, with a friend who remembered news of the fire from tiny childhood and my son who protested at the sharp jabs of the soundtrack's clicks and claps, not quite knowing what I was seeing but mesmerised, unable to leave; and returning a few weeks later, for a second watch alone and a third with both children, the kids this time as rapt as me, feeling as though I was inducting them into some mysterious cult, because when I watch those dancing girls (we are chorus, we are trefoil, we are quire – but it could read queer – WE KNOW) I swear they're communicating some dark secret truth about women and sex and the fire at the heart of the earth and the universe...

If I could only figure out how, I'd write about the Two Boroughs Theatre Club at the Young Vic, which I've been collaborating on since September and is my favourite interaction with theatre criticism: the Dialogue dream – of discussion that is accessible, respectful, informative, thorough, which opens up the work in unexpected ways – made real. I was disappointed when the club on The Changeling was cancelled last-minute (too close to Christmas): it was a mixed bag of a production and I was super-excited about thrashing it out with people who go to the theatre for... what? Different reasons, of course: because it's there, being given to them for free, and because they're curious, and because theatre gives them something visceral that the TV doesn't. Deliciously, many of the people I've met there are as addicted to theatre as I am: they're just more restrained when it comes to spouting off about it...

and Dialogue itself, and the weird, intense, brilliant week Jake Orr and I spent at the National Theatre Studio: weird because we were (unexpectedly) paid, and it's the first money we've made with this project, and there was something so pompously noble about doing it altruistically and for free; intense because we worked and talked and thought hard, weeks of activity crammed into five too-short days, interspersed with passionate conversations full of encouragement and enthusiasm for our argument (link coming with a record of all this); brilliant because we finally finished collating everything for the BAC project, which felt long overdue, but that was weird too, because I suddenly realised, with appalling intensity, that the writing I had done for it was somehow all wrong*, tonally all wrong, that I need to find the voice for Dialogue writing the same way I must continually, for each editor, find the voice for the Guardian, X the same way I occasionally find the voice for here...

[*since writing that I've read this in Dreamtigers by Borges, which more precisely articulates that feeling of wrongness:

As I sleep, some dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know I am dreaming. Then I think: this is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.

Oh, incompetence! Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for. The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.]

If I'd had more time a month ago, I'd have finished writing something I'd started on the Radar Platform on criticism at the Bush, an invigorating event in which Sean Holmes of the Lyric Hammersmith talked inspiringly about a realisation that struck him post-Three Kingdoms: that people are hungry for different theatre, theatre that challenges and surprises and even confuses them, and they don't really care what the reviews say, they will come if it's offered. But they're not being offered it because artistic directors are not being brave. I've thought about his speech a lot in the past few days, although for a disconnected reason: I've been kicking off about the Royal Court again (and, less venomously, the National, because of Curious Incident and The Effect), this time for not being bolder with main-space programming, locking writers of new work into the tiny upstairs space (and thus denying that space to others, with whom they might be taking a genuine risk), fuelling the accusations of elitism hurled at theatre by chasing the buzz of a sold-out show. Mostly I subscribe to the Andy Field argument against bigness, agreeing that the relentless quest for expansion in theatre replicates capitalism's drive for unlimited growth and all the hierarchies implicit in that – but the Court shows none of Andy's passion for or belief in the small, and in fact, with its hotline to the West End, follows precisely the trajectory that Andy rejects. Mostly I understand that some new plays are fragile, and some need time to find their feet, and some benefit from the proximity and concentration of the smaller space – but the Court rarely shows evidence of programming its upstairs room with those things in mind. Instead, it behaves cynically and without courage, and holds a position of such power and influence that it encourages others to do the same.

I'd have written, too, about how much I loved Ramin Gray's speech at the same event, which also lamented theatre's capitalist trajectory, and argued that mainstream (and particularly star-rated) criticism fuels it by writing about plays as commodities, hot news items, disposable entertainments, rather than nourishment for the soul. I'm of an age now, he said, where I'm not afraid to talk about spirituality out loud – and I felt my heart flip, because increasingly I want to talk about the “value” of theatre in spiritual terms but still find myself wary of the word. But it's there when I think about the difference between feeling and understanding a piece of theatre, an intellectual response and an emotional response – thinking sharpened that specific mid-November week by two shows.

One was Ramin's own production of Ivan Viripaev's Illusions, a crafty portrait of two marriages, and everything impossible to know within them, that made a couple of people who saw it the same night as me angry, because (they felt) no attempt had been made to solve the challenge of staging it as theatre. Sure enough, once the icy thrill of the first few pages of text abated, I momentarily wondered why I wasn't listening to Illusions on the radio – but figured that that way crossness lay, and basking in the twisty-turny stomach-churny feeling of it was going to give me more.

The other was Christopher Haydon's production of The Trojan Women, a show I'd invested lots in seeing (in that seeing it meant I never got to see Mike Bartlett's Medea or Stella Duffy's production of Ordinary Darkness, and almost missed out on Sight Is the Sense), but which, for reasons I found hard to fathom, barely moved me. There are all sorts of incidentals I want to blame: my own tiredness and the enormous efforts I had to make simply to stay awake; the woman directly opposite me actually sleeping through much of the show; the audience members to my right who looked bored; the students behind me whispering and rustling throughout – although that did inspire my very favourite moment, Dearbhla Molloy's Hecuba turning to them with finger to lips and twinkle in eye to shush them. But other people there the same night managed to filter those things out. And there was much I felt I couldn't blame: Caroline Bird's frequently clever translation; the incisive comedy; the fierce performances; the complex power politics between the three women and the men attempting to control them; the savage final moments when the baby is torn from the chorus; the video of the gods, which others felt was glib, but to me conveyed the terrible power beneath the gods' grotesque absurdity. At one point I had a thought that always irritates me when I hear it in my head: how differently would I be feeling if a woman had directed this? But that's poor thinking on my part. More useful to wonder if my problem was with the cerebral cool of the production. I left wondering why we do this: why we spend our nights in the theatre, in London a place of some privilege, distantly contemplating war and savagery and patriarchy's crushing of the human spirit, when these things are actually happening in the world and maybe we should be more actively participating to challenge them? Partly that thought came from a sense of guilt: much of that week was spent watching people on twitter raging about violence in Gaza (and, it feels slightly bathetic to add, about proposed cuts to the arts in Newcastle), and feeling pathetic and ineffectual for my failure to do anything, even just join the angry soundbite conversation. But guilt is a waste of emotion. And it wasn't really that: what I apprehended in The Trojan Women was the difference between a contemplation of war and savagery as an intellectual exercise, and feeling that savagery in your heart and bowels – spiritually, in a word. That's how Lucy Ellinson played the Chorus: watching her, I could feel not only the anger of her character but Lucy's own fury, the fury she had been expressing on twitter, about Gaza in particular, the fury of the powerless who know that to speak is to act is to move incrementally towards change. In Lucy's performance I could feel life and theatre and galvanised political action enmeshed. That was what I wanted from all of The Trojan Women. That is why we do this.

And now it's 2013, a year I saw in on Salisbury Crags, first at midnight, marvelling at the moonlight shadows (and yes, I did have the Mike Oldfield song in my head, certain it was by Fleetwood Mac), shivering with bliss at the sight of Orion and the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia beaming above and fireworks dancing across the horizon; and again later that afternoon, straggling behind the others with my smallest, marvelling at his strength and silliness and charm, not needing anyone else. This is the year he starts school, and I try not to wish away the months, but I'm so impatient, not just for writing or any of the other selfish pursuits (and the less time I spend sewing, the more sorry my wardrobe looks), but the changing-the-world, the small-scale stuff Josie Long challenged us all to do in Romance and Adventure, a bittersweet show with a trenchant heart that I just about caught at BAC, the lo-fi activism, or action, that demands a rethink of how you apportion your time.

Time time time. One of the most appealing conceits in all literature is the time turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that allows Hermione Granger to sit twice as many exams as anyone else. I'd use mine to live multiple lives. I'm no sci-fi reader and my knowledge of physics is less than rudimentary, but the notion of parallel universes has loomed large in my over-romantic imagination for decades. When I interviewed Nick Payne for G2, I wanted to play a game with him, where we told each other of the lives we live in parallel universes. Sitting down opposite this kindly regular guy in a grey suit with glasses, I chickened out: it felt too appallingly personal. I have so many, some more disturbing than others: the one where I'm a fashion designer and the one where I'm a painter and the one where I moved to New York at the age of 22; the one where I never married, the one where the love wasn't unrequited, the one where I'm divorced. The one where the car accident was fatal; the four where I simply gave up.
The basic laws of physics don't have a past and a present. Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules. It's symmetrical.
We have all the time we've always had.
You'll still have all our time.
There's not going to be any more or less of it.
What I realised watching Constellations for the second time – and it was so much better in the West End, the suicide strand less bludgeoning, the whole thing sharper and more electric – is that in all my parallel universes I do something else, and because of that I am someone else. The genius at the core of Constellations is that the opposite is true: whatever happens between those two characters, they are always the same characters, with the same jobs, the same awkwardnesses, the same bad jokes and propensity to embarrass themselves, fucking up in all the same ways. Payne is entirely unsentimental: there is nowhere perfect. Mistakes and sorrow are everywhere, and every life ends in death. I love him for that.

In the past few weeks I've felt as though I've given myself a magic gift of extra time, simply by abandoning Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea on page 152 (of seemingly millions) and reading other books instead. The Sea, the Sea is clearly brilliant: the writing mimics the sea itself, its inexorability, its inscrutability, its scintillating beauty. But oh god is the book's narrator annoying. A theatre director renowned for his productions of Shakespeare, a former actor, an incorrigible, self-obsessed womaniser, he made me think so acutely of Trevor Nunn (not that I've ever, you know, met Trevor Nunn) that a few pages were enough to make his company feel unbearable and by page 152 I was in despair. So I gave up. To cheer myself up, and because I'd recently come across the Brautigan Book Club, I read my first Richard Brautigan in maybe a decade, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, and it was gorgeous. It's told by a man who works in a library that doesn't lend books but receives them: the labours of love that people scrawl into notebooks and take to him with shyness, gratefulness and the subconscious knowledge that they are idiosyncratically articulating the soul of America. He lives there with Vida, who arrives with a rant against her own voluptuous body, and finds with him the possibility of self-acceptance. At first the book felt oddly written, because it apparently unfolds with all the banality of unedited everyday speech. And what's so brilliant about this is that when Vida realises she's pregnant, and has to travel across the Mexican border to Tijuana for an abortion, you implicitly understand that abortion is banal too, a difficult but necessary physical process, a right that shouldn't be demonised or criminalised. The book feels all the more potently political for its understatement.

After that, my first Elizabeth Taylor, At Mrs Lippincote's, which was subtle in different but also brilliant ways. It's a portrait of a marriage slowly dying of compromise, distraction and mutual disappointment, buffeted by the second world war, persisting through the resignation of the wife, a glorious, sparky, irreverent woman who loves the Brontes and refuses to conform to anyone's expectations, least of all her buttoned-up husband's. Her heart cools and she is tempted away but in the end she decides:

I never wanted to be a Madame Bovary. That way for ever – literature teaches us as much, if life doesn't – lies disillusion and destruction. I would rather be a good mother, a fairly good wife, and at peace.

Which seems as good a new year resolution as any. As for Taylor, I want to emulate her precision, her elegance, her emotional acuity, in the stories I keep saying I'll write, when there is more time...

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