Thursday, 14 March 2013

In the republic of happiness and the radiance of the imagination, except on the days when it's all just a tragic (sloppy usage) waste of time

I've been writing this for most of this year already, which is a ridiculous state of affairs. I've tried to abandon it but it keeps needling away at me, like the children when they want things. What does this post, this blog, want from me? At the moment, I think, it just wants me to remember that writing about theatre isn't a WHOLLY POINTLESS WASTE of fucking time and thought and passion and energy and TIME. I had quite the slump of faith following this year's Devoted and Disgruntled, irritated by the smallness of most people's concerns (mine included), disappointed by the lack of care across theatre, depressed by the wide-spread belief that Lyn Gardner single-handedly keeps the industry alive (I don't dispute that, but I'd like to raise the profile of the generation in her slipstream), flabbergasted that so many people are in thrall to the West End model of existence, despite the fact that it works in the West End for particular reasons that make it unsuitable elsewhere... 

Somewhere in the midst of that petulant sulk, I became haunted by this: 

It was David Peschek who persuaded me to give Father John Misty a listen (I approach Bella Union with caution), and for six months Fear Fun's lilting twists on country music cheered me whenever I put it on. But then Dorian Lynskey tweeted that “Now I'm Learning To Love the War contains one of the best arguments for creating art I've heard” (I paraphrase), and I realised that I'd hardly listened to the lyrics because I'd been too intoxicated by Tillman's voice. He doesn't sing so much as let sound waft from his body, the way fumes rise from a perfectly aged single malt. Now I've started paying attention, Fear Fun feels a lot more complicated, abrasive and brain-joltingly smart. Particularly the ethical argument underpinning Now I'm Learning To Love the War, directly linking the politics of oil to art/everyday existence X.

There is a fragility to Tillman's expression of internal conflict and attempt at consolation in this song that I find terribly moving. But what makes it so specifically acute is his recognition of the egoism involved in any act of creation:

Let's just call this what it is
The gentler side of mankind's death wish
When it's my time to go
Gonna leave behind things that won't decompose

I'll just call this what it is
My vanity gone wild with my crisis
One day this all will repeat
I sure hope they make something useful out of me

The desire to do something meaningful; the frustration of knowing that it's not so much one's own actions but their reception that counts; the desolation of insignificance; the abysmal conceit: all expressed in two succinct choruses. No wonder the song wouldn't leave me be.

That's where I was when I abandoned this again, to go to Bristol for In Between Time, four intoxicating days of impeccably curated performance and art and theatre and live art where I was the writer-in-residence who hardly wrote a thing, and when I did it was in the old mould, the broadsheet review (albeit longer). So that was another gloom of failure in which this didn't get written. A week later I snuck off to the cinema to see Django Unchained and OH THE RAPTURE of Quentin Tarantino, idiosyncratic and scurrilous; of fearlessness in storytelling, myth-stealing, narrative pace, characterisation, political attack: the kind of devil-may-care brashness that says yes, in this story of America in 1858 I will give my lead character a brushed suede jacket and round sunglasses that make him look like a character from Superfly, and yes, in this soundtrack homage to 1960s spaghetti westerns I will inject blasts of rap. Unfortunately, I've just wasted about 30 minutes failing to track down various tweets I vaguely recall reading, along the lines of: I wish more theatre were like this. Which made me think: theatre IS like this – maybe you're just watching the wrong theatre. Or watching it in the wrong way. I watched Django Unchained in a huge room in Brixton Ritzy with maybe 30 other people; in the theatre, that sort of low attendance would trouble me, but here I didn't care. There is such self-consciousness, such insecurity, such a need for validation in theatre; I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. Let's not waste time justifying ourselves: let's use it to be courageous, fierce, and brilliant.

None of which is what I set out to say here. This started life as a post about Martin Crimp and Polly Stenham and the London international mime festival, by way of Nick Cave, Patti Smith and chocolate cake. Now it's spiralled out of control, tugging me into its vortex. Why don't I just bin it? Why do I bother? My cynical side says I'm just suffocatingly beholden to the people who have given me free tickets for stuff. X Last night on the tube, after watching Laura Mugridge's Watery Journey of Nereus Pike, a joyful piece of romantic storytelling and child-like playing in which the audience get to participate in the most delightful of ways – for happy instance, using glowsticks to create the effect of bioluminscent fish in the depths of the ocean, to a pounding soundtrack that made me wish I'd not been scared to go to raves as a teenager – I finished reading John Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos, and had a little moment with this passage about poetry:

Poetry's impulse to use metaphor, to discover resemblance, is not to make comparisons (all comparisons are hierarchical) or to diminish the particularity of any event; it is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the indivisible totality of existence.

I'm no poet, but I recognise that impulse as my own. So hey ho, let's go:

In the republic...

Just as I'd decided not to bother writing about In the Republic of Happiness, I belatedly caught up with Dan Rebellato's astute account of it, and recalled that no one seems to have seen it in quite the way I did. So I came back to this, only to read, three days later, Catherine Love's meticulous review, which is not only formidably good but says almost everything I'd intended to say, only better. Since then, I've just been dithering. Still, mustn't succumb to wounded pride. Plus, there are at least three minute details in which I differ from Catherine. And I've done a lot of complaining on Deliq about the Royal Court: the least I can do in return for the tickets they give me is write about the shows I love.

And I did love the Crimp, passionately – the more so because I felt awful going in. The crowd in the bar and the auditorium seemed gallingly well-bred and I just didn't fit. I listened to Nick Cave's No More Shall We Part when the new one came out and was reminded by the line in Darker With the Day – “The streets groan with little Caesars, Napoleons and cunts” – of David P's work-of-genius Mojo review of the album: “There speaks a man who lives in west London.” THAT'S how it felt in the Royal Court: everyone around me privileged and proud. And then Martin Crimp took a skewer to them. Repeatedly.

So yes, this is a reductive reading, but I see the three republics of the title as family, celebrity and online. See is the key word there, not reading: the interpretation is primarily a response to Miriam Buether's set designs (which Andrew Haydon has dismissed as not her best, so that's another confidence-booster).

I saw Republic a few days after The Architects, and because thoughts on one show inevitably infect another, Family felt like another articulation of the argument I saw in Shunt's piece, interrogating what we think we're worth, what we think we deserve. There are two daughters in this family, both teenagers; Debbie is pregnant, and – to the fury of her sister Hazel – the parents have bought her a car and diamond earrings for Christmas. Does she need them? But of course: a pregnant woman needs to be reassured of her own value – and surely can't be expected to use public transport. (We're not told where they live, but the implication is that it's not a lack of buses that's the problem, but Debbie's inflated self-importance.) You'd assume from the gifts that the family is wealthy, but Crimp implies that they're struggling financially: Dad rations their use of electric bulbs, not because he's concerned about climate change, but to save money: “electricity's got so expensive”. This is partly why the grandmother's confession to a love of taxis (or, in another bit of David P brilliance, “slipping into something more comfortable”) has such a frisson about it: she keeps it a secret because the family can't afford it.

Remember the Squeezed Middle? This is them: not rich enough to feel comfortable, not poor enough to merit sympathy, grasping at luxuries they cannot afford. Priorities skewed, the parents are raising their daughters to be spoiled, demanding and self-regarding, care-less women for whom the height of ambition is to marry for money: “I'll make him pay for my meals/ I'll strut and fuck him in heels.” When Mum's errant brother Bob and his wife Madeleine materialise and begin puncturing the family's vanity and complacency, it's exhilarating – because every word feels like an assault on the audience, too, on their own nothing-is-too-good-for-my-children attitudes that keep inequality unchecked. No wonder the claret walls of the set cave in.

We shift to what looks like a bland grey TV studio, the highway to 21st-century celebrity. The particularity of this celebrity is two-fold: it's more intimately connected with the promise of money and luxury than the light-entertainment competitions of the past (or is that simplistically nostalgic?); it's also, with the dominance of trash media and its predatory impetus, more intimately connected with self-exposure. (I talk about this like I'm not part of the problem: recently I interviewed Rebecca Lenkiewicz knowing full well that the work itself – an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw which I didn't even make time to see – was a flimsy excuse to probe into a life that fascinates me. Fans of Crimp won't be surprised to hear that when I interviewed him for the National revival of Attempts, he was not only resistant to any questions about his family life but perplexed that I should even ask.)

Celebrity confession now happens in a context of increased awareness of pop psychology, a lucrative self-help industry, and the dominance of me journalism, in blogs and broadsheet media alike. This is the landscape of Crimp's second republic, and he dissects it with microscopic precision. Again, what makes this section so piercing is that every word feels as though it's addressed at you, yes you, sitting in the auditorium demanding space for your voice to be heard in the cacophony of the world. You with your mitherings about what-life-is and how-it-should-be, you convinced that you're different –

I am the one – yes – writing the script.
… Nobody looks like me. Nobody speaks the way I do now. Nobody can imitate this way of speaking.
No way.
No way can anyone speak like I do. I make myself what I am: I'm free – okay? – to invent myself as I go along.
… I've got my own voice: I don't repeat what other people say.

– and that what you say is worth hearing. As Sylvia Plath noted on twitter (ha!) while I was writing this: We all like to think we are important enough to need psychiatrists.

On the page, the final part opens with a quotation from Dante's Paradiso: “Thou are not upon earth, as thou believest” (thanks, google translate). For a lot of people, that encouraged an interpretation of the three republics as hell/purgatory/heaven; for me, it confirmed what I thought when watching it: that Miriam Buether situates Bob and Madeleine inside a computer. The backdrop – nine panes of glass opening out to a flat vague wash of green and blue – looks like a pun on Windows Vista. The gleaming white of the room is like the pearlescent white of an Apple laptop. The fetishism of thinness that you get in new-technology adverts: it's there in Madeleine's language when she describes the world she and Bob will inhabit as “Hard. Clear. Sharp. Clean” and “thin … as a pane of glass”.

Online, we transcend earth, and in doing so enter a realm where all the mess of human existence can be avoided if we wish. Mulling over the Crimp took me back to a TED talk by Sherry Turkle, in which she mourns the effect of social media on our ability to communicate with each other, to engage with argument or criticism, to respond to deep feeling. Or, as Bob sings in the 100% Happy song:

It's a new kind of world
and it doesn't come cheap
and you'll only survive
if you don't go deep

It made me think about the way I/we use twitter, the way I/we use blogs, our disorienting oscillations between snippish little aphorisms and monolithic monologues; the way both allow us to impose ourselves on people we've never met, even as we fail to talk meaningfully to friends we've known for years. A few days after I saw Republic the Suzanne Moore storm raged through social and traditional media and it felt like the new world in action: on the plus side, I learned that there is a generation of feminist thinking I want to catch up on, in which I'm cisgendered and there's a word (intersectionality) for that awareness you try to keep as a white western university-educated working middle-class heterosexual feminist, that individuals are oppressed in multiple ways – but for a couple of days I felt terrified by all the anger and emotion and verbal abuse and all but withdrew. It's the attraction to leadership in that world that Crimp interrogates, the inanity in the spaces between the intellectual arguments that he satirises. Click on my smiling face and you can install a version of this song/ that has no words at all.

I talked about that Sherry Turkle thesis with a friend after seeing David Parkin's Good Friday at BAC: she contested it, and told me about another TED talk, on choice and its concomitant regrets. In turn I told her about the quiver in the heart I felt reading this in Berger's And Our Faces:

… death was [once] thought of as the companion of life, as the precondition for that which came into Being from Non-being; one was not possible without the other. As a result, death was qualified by that which it could not destroy or by that which would return.
That life is brief was continually lamented. Time was death's agent and one of life's constituents. But the timeless – that which death could not destroy – was another. All cyclic views of time held these two constituents together: the wheel turning and the ground on which it turned.
The mainstream of modern thought has removed time from this unity and transformed it into a single, all-powerful and active force. In so doing it has transferred the spectral character of death to the notion of time itself. Time has become Death triumphant over all. …
Man now becomes condemned to time, which is no longer a condition of life and therefore something sacred, but the inhuman principle which spares nothing. Time becomes both a sentence and a punishment.

And yes, she and I are all about the big life crises, so we talk about this stuff anyway – but Parkin's show shifts the context, by saying one possible subtext out loud. Parkin barely discusses the roots of the depression that led him to attempt suicide in a lay-by in Croydon in 2009: little more specific than a brief reference to a broken heart. It's a smart move: without the imposition of personal biography, his experience communicates more widely. You think that sounds bland (and calculating), but in a moment of transition within the show, from the viscous murk of self-hatred to the tentative brightness of recovery, Parkin asks a question of the audience: who has, or knows someone, with depression? Almost all hands go up. I felt the same choke in my throat seeing them raised that I feel on train journeys through the outskirts of London, gazing through mud-splattered windows at the dense network of suburban streets, house after house after house: so many people, so many stories, not waving but drowning. Parkin doesn't tell us if what we drown in is affluenza or the inevitable by-product of capitalism or the anguish of souls wrenched from communion with the earth: he just clears the path to a place where we can think these things through ourselves.

Rather than causes, Good Friday is concerned with one individual effect. Essentially, it's a gig, in which Parkin performs beginning to end the concept album he wrote while teaching himself to play piano in the aftermath of the suicide attempt. It's is a funny little show, because for all its craft – the exquisite undertow of cello, the rhythmic tick of an antique clock, the allure of velvety shadows – it feels artless. It wasn't until Parkin contacted me on twitter that I realised he had experience as a theatre-maker (15 years with metro-boulot-dodo): he comes across like an earnest big kid, doing his best for his parents – although perhaps that's partly because his parents were watching the same night as me.

That gawkiness infuses his songwriting, too, which is why if Good Friday actually were an album, I don't think I'd like it much. Running through the decades, the mood it conveys has generally found me here:



and, dear god hold me and don't let go, here:

Although it did occur to me watching John Grant play Pale Green Ghosts live last night that he and Parkin share songwriting DNA (autobiography, lacerating honesty, colloquial turns of phrase), a connection most apparent in this song:

It wasn't the music but the performance of Good Friday that absorbed me: its careful expression of emotion, its solicitude towards the audience, its understated bravery. And one line in particular will stay with me, the way a paraphrased reflection of Jenny Diski's has stayed with me, that people who commit suicide are paradoxically consumed by hope, the hope that everything will be better on the other side of death. Parkin's was the sober observation that we all go out and do battle with the world – but people who are depressed come home and do battle with themselves.

...of happiness...

When I was a kid I thought I'd never grow out of going on the swings. See-saws, merry-go-rounds, even slides I could give or take, but not the swings. The discovery a few years ago that I'd grown out of them to such a degree that going on them gave me motion sickness was a melancholy one. And then the kids were born and pretty soon it seemed wrong to go on the swings, or roll down a grassy hill, or do any childish thing. Somehow, I let myself stop playing.

And then last autumn, in a moment of topsy-turvy, transcendental happiness, I reclaimed the playground. I would deliberately get to school too early so I could clamber with my son on the climbing frame and listen to him laugh as I swung with my feet stretched high and my head tipped low. Giddy times.

That was the rapture I felt watching Ockham's Razor's Not Until We Are Lost in the London international mime festival. The five performers scamper across the scaffolding set like an Enid Blyton gang, scrabbling up hills and swinging in caverns. The show is full of dares and double-dares: when one of them is unhappy, two others rally round, tipping her, swinging her, nudging her off balance, until her smile is no longer begrudging but wide and real. There's romance, too, particularly when the performance moves to a tall perspex box in which a man is trapped, and an impish, playful woman climbs up to lead him out. And so much beauty: in the opening scene, with a woman in the perspex box alone, surrounded by tissue paper, pulling it down around her like a bridal veil; in the use of a choir, a large group of local singers who emerge from the audience as though we too could fill our lungs and join in; and, throughout, the elegant glimmering sound of a harp.

It wasn't until I read the company's notes in the programme that I appreciated what a big thing it was for them that this show was promenade: I enjoyed the proximity to the performers, seeing the curl of their feet around scaffolding poles, the stretch of their muscles as they swung – but proximity is a habitual thing for me. It was a useful reminder of the importance of seeing things on the makers' terms, not only your own: a central tenet of the Dialogue project, and something I failed to honour in writing about our September residency at BAC, as pointed out by Caroline Williams (writer, director and illustrator of Puffball) when she emailed to say that I'd misapprehended a crucial aspect of her work. In the same 24-hour period as receiving that email I made this year's marmalade, which took several hours, required ignoring my son for most of a day and left one of the pans burned. It's now so solid you can't spread it. A day of flailing, in which once again it seemed necessary to reassess every single choice I make in my haphazard life. What made everything better that time was cake: specifically, making a decent chocolate porridge cake. The idea came from my son: he loves chocolate, he loves porridge, so in his imagination this is manna. For Ben:

Chocolate porridge cake

150g butter
50g dark chocolate
100g milk chocolate
3 eggs
150g light muscovado sugar
75g fine ground oatmeal
50g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1-2 tsp vanilla extract

Melt the butter and two chocolates; meanwhile beat the egg yolks with the sugar, then stir through the melted stuff. Add the rest of the ingredients – not the egg whites – and beat it all together. Then whisk the three egg whites until stiff and fold them through. Bake it in a square 20cm tin, lined, for about an hour at 180/gas 4. It comes out like a chocolate-flavoured parkin, chewy and slightly nutty.

I spend most of my life convinced I'm making the wrong decisions X. One of my favourite shows at In Between Time – that's a stupid construction, nearly everything I saw there was a favourite show – was Sylvia Rimat's If You Decide To Stay, because it recognised and took blessedly seriously this constant sense of dilemma. What intrigues Sylvia isn't just the why of choosing but the how: she talks to a neuroscientist about what happens in the brain during decision-making, a mathematician about probability, a therapist about the tangle of childhood experiences that might have influenced her path through life. There are moments of awe at the fathomless power of luck in people's lives (Sylvia wouldn't exist if her grandparents, as intended, had boarded a cruise ship that later sank); and moments of playfulness, when she attempts to disrupt the audience's own decision-making, or influence it through the power of suggestion. Watching it, I felt very moved by its attempt to see choice as cause for celebration rather than self-reproach and regret; later I appreciated something else, a subtle contribution to feminist argument in a note from the neuroscientist. Emotion and cognition, he said, are intimately entwined, so it doesn't make sense to talk about them in separate terms. We imagine that decisions are made in the cognitive part of the brain, but emotion is involved, too – and mood is integral to our ability to make good decisions. What interests me about this is the case it makes for instinct, emotional response, as a valid basis for decision-making: so often denigrated compared with the cool, rational reasoning prioritised in a patriarchal culture.

...and the radiance of the imagination

Since having kids, I've been consumed by the anxiety of choice: whatever I'm doing, I'm sure I should be doing something else. I want to give them everything money can't buy: stories and escapades and the wild beauty of autumn and spring. Instead I spend most of our time yelling at them to stop fighting, use a fork, get a tissue, go to the toilet, a tedium so unrelenting, demoralising and exhausting I haven't the energy for the fun stuff. This is partly what drew me into Polly Stenham's No Quarter: in the relationship between Robin and his mother Lily, Stenham depicts a different kind of motherhood, a romantic version in which childhood is an adventure. The argument that the mother's eccentricity damages the child, makes him incapable of functioning within society, is strong. And I understand why people would find Robin unbearable: “a pretentious, pompous, self-regarding, colossal prick”, to quote Dan Rebellato. Possibly I'd think Robin were all those things too, except that he was played by Tom Sturridge, and I'm not sure I could find anyone played by Tom Sturridge unbearable.

Truthfully, I've found it difficult to remember what I liked so much about No Quarter since reading Dan's review: he objects to it with irrefutable authority. I remember thinking that Stenham's writing was like a fireworks display: a plain black expanse disrupted, with variable frequency, by lines that glittered and sparked. I remember thinking that much of the political argument between Robin and his older brother Oliver felt schematic, but that the secrecy surrounding their mother's suicide, the assumptions cherished by each sibling, the complicated ethics, the impossible question of whether lies within a family protect or corrode, was more involving. That said, I remember being struck by one accusation Robin hurls at his brother: “It's a twisting irony that after so many years of people trying to ferret their way up the socio-economic scale, you would like nothing more than to slither all the way down it.” Around the same time as I saw No Quarter, Alex Andreou began an extraordinary conversation on twitter about poverty, and I felt ridiculous taking part in it because I was mostly protected from my parents' experience of poverty, and because even to talk about it makes me sound as though I'm engaging in that slithering Robin speaks of so scornfully. But just as the psychotherapist Sylvia Rimat interviewed argued that everything in Sylvia's life today can be traced back to a childhood experience, I'm sure my life has been shaped by my family's hand-to-mouth existence in a flat in Hackney with an electricity meter my parents occasionally couldn't feed, from which we were evicted when I was about nine; the brief period in which we were homeless and refused to stay in a Bayswater hotel, instead filling the crevices of my granny's flat; and the two years spent in short-term council accommodation. It made my already ambitious mother bloody-minded in her pursuit of middle-class security – and has given me a deference for that security that I can't control.

But there was something else I sympathised with in No Quarter, which I might have read differently or as negatively as Dan Reb were it not for the coincidence of finishing Patti Smith's Just Kids that week. I'd been working up to Just Kids for a while, wary of being disappointed out of my adulation of Patti Smith, reluctant because I have a reflex antipathy to the entire genre of autobiography – yes, I do wince at the irony. A fair bit of Just Kids confirmed that prejudice: much as I love Patti, I'm not that interested in her cheese-sandwich dinners, no matter how shrewdly she punctures the romantic-poetic image of poverty; similarly, there's a part of me that reads her encounters with this or that famous person as little more than name-dropping. But mostly it was everything I'd want a book by Patti Smith to be: electric with strength of character, inspiring in its politics, a manifesto for the life to which I aspire. The brief description of her relationship with Sam Shepard alone made it worth reading:

“I can't do this,” I said. “I don't know what to say.”
“Say anything,” he said. “You can't make a mistake when you improvise.”
“What if I mess it up? What if I screw up the rhythm?”
“You can't,” he said. “It's like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”

That, and a tiny phrase at the very beginning, where she describes her burgeoning appreciation of language, in the form of prayer, as: “my entrance into the radiance of the imagination”. Looking at the whole of that passage again in Just Kids, I realise how close it is to a note by Berger on language and poetry in And Our Faces: “One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or god. Yet its very openness can signify indifference. (The indifference of language is continually solicited and employed in bulletins, legal records, communiques, files.) Poetry addresses language in such a way as to close this indifference and incite a caring.”

Where Just Kids connects with No Quarter is in Patti's cogent argument for rejecting the conventional mores of society while embracing the social responsibility that makes art worthwhile. She waited until she was 28 to sign her record deal (offers before that “came, I felt, too easy”), because she wanted the music she made to be reverent and relevant. When the time eventually came to record Horses, she walked into the vocal booth thinking intently of:

The gratitude I had for rock and roll as it pulled me through a difficult adolescence. The joy I experienced when I danced. The moral power I gleaned in taking responsibility for one's actions.

Of her band, she says:

We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone.

Stenham's Robin is a musician, too, a pianist, but in rejecting conventional society he also rejects human responsibility. Oliver is a politician with an overweening appreciation of his own social engagement. Stenham – and I bet Dan Reb would scorn this – attempts to steer the middle path with No Quarter: celebrating the value of words, or art, for themselves while using them to articulate our shared responsibility for the planet and the future. Even if she didn't pull it off, that's what made me like it.

So this is now 5500 words long: anyone who has made it this far, I don't know whether to kiss you or pity you. This postscript is for David Peschek, who called me today and read me the introduction to a biography of Elizabeth Smart by Rosemary Sullivan, with emphasis on the lines, “she knew how the role assigned the mother emptied the writer's ego”, and: “she had a rage of will: she bashed on regardless”. That, too, is why I'm still here.

1 comment:

  1. (My response was too long for the box, so here is a link to it instead):