Tuesday, 27 August 2013

“How do you tell the truth about someone?”, aka how Stuart: A Life Backwards crept on to the stage

This is a good four weeks out of date, but then the kids' summer holiday in its entirety involves frantically chasing my tail. It was commissioned by and intended for publication in the Guardian's theatre pages, to coincide with Stuart: A Life Backwards opening at the Underbelly during the Edinburgh fringe, but then Will Adamsdale (who plays Alexander Masters in the production) did something to his back during rehearsals, and by the time the show was back on and the piece came back to me for rewrites I was on holiday and had forgotten to bring my computer (I felt its absence as melodramatically as if it were a lost limb). So I hit the spike. Usually I'd just throw the original version up here, but my editor called me out on a journalistic failure and further piqued my pride by wanting me to put the quote that I had at the end at the top. So I've half-rewritten it and now it's a jerky, jolty, funny little piece of perversely anti-commercial arts writing that would make everyone on the arts desk shake their heads in dismay. Exactly what having a blog is for, then.

I didn't get to see Stuart in Edinburgh but Lyn Gardner did and liked it very much. It's touring this autumn, to Watford and Sheffield – but if you haven't read the book yet, I recommend you do that first. I read it in a two-day blitz not quite in time for talking to Jack Thorne but before interviewing Alexander Masters; that was five weeks ago and I'm still nursing the wound.


Alexander Masters had already completed two degrees, in physics and maths, abandoned a PhD in the philosophy of quantum mechanics, and tentatively begun a career in journalism while working as an assistant in a hostel for homeless people, when he accidentally added biographer to his haphazard CV. His first subject was a violent, drug-addicted, spikily engaging homeless man called Stuart Shorter, whose chaotic existence seemed to defy all logical conventions of biographical writing. His second was a mathematical genius obsessed with bus timetables. He's now working on a third book, inspired by 147 diaries by an anonymous writer, which Masters found in a skip.

He's clearly quite a character, but one who prefers to maintain control over his own story. “I don't mind writing books about other people, but I don't want someone doing it to me,” he says. Which has been a bit of a problem, because his celebrated first book, Stuart: A Life Backwards, has been turned into a play and Masters is one of the lead characters. Speaking in the run-up to its debut at the Edinburgh fringe festival, he readily admits that: “The whole thing panics me.”

Stuart Shorter's story has already been dramatised once, but for TV: the film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, was screened in 2007 and Masters himself wrote the script. At the time, Masters harboured a quiet ambition to stage it, too, but was put off when people repeatedly assured him: “Oh no, you couldn't possibly turn this into a play.” Their problem, it seems, lay in the way the book zigzags through time, moving both forward through the story of Masters' unexpected friendship with the homeless man, and backwards through Shorter's prison spells and tumultuous teenage years to the childhood trauma that devastated his existence. Masters had already conquered this fragmented chronology in the book, and felt he knew exactly how stage it: by taking us inside Shorter's head. He came up with the idea of setting the story entirely in Shorter's poky rehabilitation council flat, animating the furniture in some way so that it would seem to speak to Stuart directly. “I got all carried away,” he says cheerfully. “But no one else was keen.”

One of the people who felt Stuart couldn't be staged was Jack Thorne, a writer who splits his time between TV (he's worked on episodes of Skins, wrote The Fades, and collaborated with Shane Meadows' on This Is England '86 and '88) and theatre (including a translation of Durenmatt's The Physicists, an adaptation of the vampire story Let the Right One In, and Mydidae, a two-hander set in a bathroom). Yet it's Thorne who has collaborated with director Mark Rosenblatt on the adaptation touring Britain this autumn. Thorne has loved the book passionately since he read it – in a pre-publication unproofed copy – in 2005, but believed its natural second home was on screen. “There's quite a lot of story to get through, and it's a lot easier to be faithful to the book when you're doing stuff for film,” he says. But when Rosenblatt – another long-term aficionado – invited him to write the play text, “I couldn't let anyone else do it: I had to have a pop.”

It's taken five years to get from that invitation to production. Partly the delay was down to money, says Thorne: unlike Masters, he has opted for a six-person cast, hard to finance in the current funding climate. But it also reflects Thorne's long quest to find a suitable structure for the play – a problem Masters himself experienced when writing the book. Masters devotes an entire chapter to confessing how worthy and tedious his first draft was: Shorter himself rubbished it, and advised Masters to write it backwards – contrary to the usual structure of biographies – to give it the pace and intrigue of a detective story.

What Thorne was resisting was the traditional arc of stage stories: conflict, dialogue, resolution. “I didn't want it to be too linear. There's a way of staging it that has Alexander not understanding Stuart in the first act – but actually, he likes Stuart from the beginning. It's not The Odd Couple: it's a love note to a very complicated man.”

Although he felt acutely the responsibility to honour the book, Thorne was reluctant to engage with Masters, or anyone else related to or acquainted with Shorter, while working on the adaptation. “I've written a couple of real people before and find it very, very difficult if I've met them,” he says. “I feel I can't tell their true story. It's quite hard to explain without sounding like an idiot, but I don't hear their voice more clearly, I hear their voice less clearly.” On Stuart as on previous TV biopics that he's written, Thorne relied on the people he was working with to liaise with the subjects of the story, while he absorbed himself in the parallel fiction that he was creating. “Mark was brilliant and totally understood my problem. He was talking to Alexander a lot, people were talking to Stuart's family. The fact that I didn't meet them makes me sound as if I didn't care, but it wasn't a matter of not caring, it was a matter of asking, how do I tell this story best? I personally would find it very difficult to write some of the very dark things involving Stuart's family having met them.” Eventually, this problem became key to the script he was writing: “It's what the play's all about: how do you tell the truth about someone? It's something I struggle with quite a lot.”

The trouble is, Thorne's solutions to the problem of truth-telling are so contrary to Masters', and the two men's modus operandi are so at variance, that initially there was some tension between them. “I was never quite sure what he didn't want to be led astray by,” Masters says tartly. “I didn't mind him not talking to me, but if you're going to write about someone like Stuart, you have to meet the people involved.” Masters admits he “kicked up a hell of a fuss” after reading a first draft, in which Thorne explicitly dealt with the childhood abuse that damaged Shorter's life, because: “You cannot write that sort of stuff without seeing the nearest person involved.” Thorne's willingness to address the issues that Masters raised, however, soon assuaged the biographer: “From being cross with him, I ended up having lots of respect for him.”

That respect is mutual: when Thorne talks about Masters, it's about the only time in our conversation when he doesn't nervously interject a rapid “d'you-know-what-I-mean” every few words. To Thorne, Masters is an outsider: someone who didn't settle well into social life at university, spent years searching for his place in the world, and feels a deep affinity with others who don't quite fit the profile of normal. And Thorne comes across as another outsider: friendly but shy; a jittery, self-deprecating speaker; a solitary soul in a garrulous profession. He finds attending rehearsals hellish. Although a committed member of the Labour party who once dreamed of becoming a politician, he is wary of speaking out, “wary of political acts. I'd love to be able to stand up and say: this is what I believe.” Previously, when he's written about politics, for instance in his play 2 May 1997, set on the night of Labour's first election win in almost two decades, he's done so – to quote Michael Billington – “obliquely”. Thorne is trying to change that, in that he's working on a big, more directly political piece, “but it's hard. You feel like you're embarrassing yourself.”

Ask Thorne what the point is of turning a story that is already a successful book and film into a play, and it's the politics he turns to. “By its nature, theatre is a discussion. There's a lot about Stuart that we don't understand: for me, there's a discussion there to be had.” Not only that, he says, but cuts to welfare benefits means that: “The number of homeless people has gone up and up and up. Shelters are closing. It's getting even more crucial to hear Stuart's story.”

Masters agrees, but also points to two specific themes in Shorter's life that have universal resonance: “Loss. The fear that you have not made your life into something that it could have been, that you have lost all your opportunities, that it has been a waste. And the sense of injustice that Stuart battled with, that affects so many people and so many situations.” This is what makes Stuart's story connect so powerfully with people, he thinks. “It isn't a book or a film or a play about a homeless person: it's about these themes that Stuart characterised to an extreme.”

Monday, 26 August 2013

the ones i just can't get out of my head

That, I eventually realised, was a holiday. Puzzling at first, but slowly the days of scrambling through fields and forests, overindulging in cake and ice-cream, climbing the turrets of tumbledown castles and gazing out to sea, quietened life's more complicated rhythms. For most of that time, and the days that followed, I was a writer of the No, all the words held in suspension (and if you don't know where that's stolen from please get a hold of Enrique Vila-Matas' Bartleby & Co double quick, because it's one of the most acute appraisals of what it is to write and not write that I've ever encountered). The rabble of plays that was crowding my brain – Circle Mirror and Prudencia Hart, Our Town and The Amen Corner, The Hush and Blackouts, the month I spent at BAC – slowly each one has slipped away, and I no longer quite remember what they wanted me to say. And then Edinburgh and days and days of theatre, and still the unexpected silence. I'm hoping it all comes back, just as I always hope that the friends I routinely neglect in this addiction to theatre will be there waiting for me when I eventually remember how empty life is without them.

In one of those rambles through fields and a forest, I worried that theatre is sapping my ability to function with people. There I was, alone but for the sheep, thinking about theatre as community as scrutinised in Tim Crouch/Andy Smith's what happens to the hope at the end of the evening X, contemplating the potential they recognise in gathering-as-participation, acknowledging all the while my own evident failure to participate in the conversations taking place among the big group of friends I'd left behind at the holiday house. It felt like a gross contradiction. The blame is misapplied, of course: I've always been insular, and undoubtedly it's simpler to think and feel amid the silence and absorption of strangers, before the representation of life, than in the rough-and-tumble of directly lived experience. But the stakes are higher now, with children, than ever. They are two people I cannot neglect.
Our Town, Thornton Wilder, Act 3. Emily has died in childbirth and wants one more glimpse of the life she has lost before settling into her death. She chooses to return to the day of her 12th birthday and, overcome by how young and healthy her family look, she says to her mother:
Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. … just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another.

And the beauty of this simple, ordinary day is so overwhelming that she begs the stage manager to take her back to her grave:
I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another.
I didn't realise. So all that was going on and we never noticed. …
Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realise you.
Do any human beings ever realise life while they live it? – every, every minute?

And the stage manager replies: No.
Our Town, which I saw at the King's Head in mid-July, felt like an affirmation and an admonition. Theatre at the height of summer makes no sense: there's something almost obscene about locking yourself in dark sweaty rooms when the evenings are so warm and the sun so inviting. It was a Friday night and I was alone, my husband at home bathing the kids, reading them their stories, covering their skinny bodies with loose sheets; later he might watch some television and drink a dram of whisky, while I wept at the sadness of this fictional woman's death, and her sudden appreciation of everything she no longer had, now and then glancing around the small, sticky room to see other middle-aged women red-cheeked and watery-eyed, sniffling into tissues, grateful that it wasn't just me. Go home, Thornton Wilder seemed to be saying: go home and kiss your kids and hold your husband and phone every single friend you failed to invite to come out with you tonight and tell them how much you love them.

But he doesn't say that until he's reminded you how to look at people, and really see them. See all their funny little routines, what they hide and what they reveal, how they stand up for some things and compromise in others. The request that the stage be as bare as possible, and that the cast mime their activities, is central to this: it requires those of us watching to focus not on objects but gestures, not on the trappings of existence but the sinews of being. And yes, sometimes you might be distracted by the clumsiness of a mime – but mostly the absence of decor opens up space for listening, really attentively, to every small and insignificant word that makes up the matter of life.

It's a play that needs a scrupulous production, but also a tender one; what the staging at the King's Head, by the company Savio(u)r, lacked in precision, it made up for in generosity and care. I loved that each actor used their natural accent, giving a hodgepodge musicality to the speech; some of the voices were flatter than others, but if you heard them as a choir – and that comparison is embedded in the play – the stronger performers carried the rest through. Strongest of all for me was Simon Dobson as the Stage Manager, wry and probing, positioning this tiny, ordinary town within a galaxy of planets and stars. He makes us hyper-aware of time, too: the time of the play, 1901, and the present moment in the theatre, a room full of people making their own slow journeys towards death.

According to the review of Our Town in the Independent, the play has been seen as conservative and glibly reassuring. I don't see it: for me it's an act of unsentimental radicalism and the Stage Manager is central to that. I have a Penguin edition of it published in 1962 with a thrillingly incisive introduction by Wilder in which he talks about how the Victorian middle-classes murdered the theatre; and what he particularly objected to in their devitalised bloodless excuse for drama, still dominant when he was writing in the 1930s and indeed now, was that: “You don't have to pay deeply from your heart's participation.” Our Town asks you to do just that.

I didn't connect Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation with Our Town on the night of watching it. In fact, because it's set in a drama class, I was so busy remembering all the adult learning courses I've taken (so far in Greek, pattern-cutting, various visual art practices and, my favourite, tap dancing) that I managed not to notice that the class was a metaphor for theatre as a whole, something that seemed painfully obvious as soon as I read Catherine Love's review. James MacDonald's sharp, clean production (mostly perfectly judged, apart from the excruciatingly long black-outs between scenes) was staged as part of the Royal Court's Theatre Local season, in a big functional room in a community centre in east London, with the lights kept up over the audience so that each one of us might have been part of the class. And that essentially is how I've always engaged with adult learning courses: I'm the person on the periphery, the loner who would rather read than come on a convivial tea break, who finds out more about my fellow learners' quirks and foibles by eavesdropping on conversations than initiating them. The experience was so familiar it gave me the giggles.

But Baker is doing much more than painting a deadpan portrait of the kind of oddballs who go to evening classes; like Wilder, she wants her audience to look at and listen to other people more attentively. She trains us by training her characters: sometimes in obvious ways, by having Marty, the class leader, frequently remind her students how important it is for them to look and listen carefully, but also in more subtle ways. In the first big speech of the play James stands before the rest of the group and tells them about Marty by pretending to be her. This exercise becomes one of the play's consistent strands, each character taking it in turn to talk about another, and with every iteration, our concentration is focused. We notice what the character speaking remembers and what they interpolate, how faithful they are to the character they're representing and where they allow themselves to intrude; above all, we're able to read details of the relationship between the speaker and their subject that haven't yet been articulated and want to remain secret.

The other consistent thread is a counting exercise in which all five characters lie on the floor and attempt to count to ten, one person speaking a number at a time. If two people speak at once, they have to start again. Week after week, they're rubbish at it, and Lauren, at 16 the youngest character, finds the whole experience infuriating. “What's the point?” she demands. Marty, a woman of new-age-hippy tendencies and frequently ruffled calm, tells her: “The point is being able to be totally present.” The professional actor in the class affirms that it makes you a better actor, but Marty isn't just talking about acting. I know from cutting down on twitter in the weeks following Our Town, and ignoring my emails as much as possible in the daytime, instead giving that attention to my kids, that Marty is talking about life itself.

This is where the exercise that gives the play its title becomes so important. It happens on stage only once: the group stand in a circle, someone begins moving and everyone else mirrors them, then the next person in the circle modifies or transforms the movement and everyone mirrors that. It took me whoosh back to the brilliant few weeks I spent last year participating in Matthias Sperling's Walking Piece at Siobhan Davies Dance, another of my life-enhancing capers, full of ridiculous movements and its own circle mirror transformation exercise, and the memory was so delightful I simply didn't notice that this single scene condensed into a few slivers of stage time an entire thesis on how theatre, by mirroring lives, and asking us to pay deeply from our heart's participation, has the potential slowly, accumulatively, subtly to transform us.

Be present. Totally present. David Greig's Prudencia Hart isn't: she's lost in the past, in the close reading of border ballads, and a feeling of intellectual superiority over her peers, the young woman who calls herself a post-post-structuralist, the peacock man who believes these ancient folk songs are irrelevant now, because the ballads of the 21st century are football chants and karaoke pop tracks. Yup, I thought, watching her, the prospect of having to work with those people would make my insides shrivel, too. But Prudencia feels superior to just about everybody: she

looked at the rest of the world as though it was quite absurd
She was above the common herd

and that's partly what makes The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart so brilliant: it is a very good thing that this scornful, self-contained woman is torn from her carapace and begins to embrace others as her equals. That, and the fact that it's written in verse. Narrative verse! And performed – in another Royal Court Theatre Local production – in the bar of the Welsh Centre, in a neglected bit of King's Cross, in a scuffed homely room that hasn't been refurbished since approximately 1978. I remember going to family weddings in rooms just like it; every crevice in this one was compacted with the dust of happy memories, laughter and song. And here we were gathered to make more.

Frequently, The Strange Undoing... terrified me, because – as in all the best folk songs – the devil walks abroad and I'm too superstitious not to be spooked, especially when Wils Wilson's production treats this notion of the devil with such respect, sending a dark dry shiver through the room at his first appearance. But oh how exhilarating to see Prudencia find a way to defeat him, with logic, intellectual rigour, honest feeling and a poet's craft, like this:
'It's interesting that folk representations of hell are often accompanied by the idea of the devil forming a powerful erotic attachment for his human captive. In this sense we might say that the topography of hell is also the topography of unrequited love.'

That's ridiculous. [Sorry to interrupt but no, it isn't.]

Is it?

We're in hell.
Love is impossible. …

Don't you see, your lonely discontent
Only exists because of your authorial intent,
Your determination to show love's impossibility.
But what happens if love's not impossible in poetry?
And so she makes him speak in the rhyme of the border ballads to which she devoted her life before the devil took her, and in doing so is able to find again that crack in time through which she fell, return to the pub where she refused to take part in something as inane as karaoke, step up to the microphone – become present – and sing one of the most perfect pop songs ever written:

I loved Prudencia Hart, her strange undoing and remaking, with an international passion. I loved the way the production took place within the audience, surrounding but also incorporating us, until it seemed to spring from our own desires; I loved its buoyancy and stillness, its humour and sauce; I loved the banshee wail that accompanied Prudencia Hart applying red lipstick (so similar to the war cry that opens this song); I loved how many other songs it reminded me of, folk songs that I know in early 20th-century American versions, because they travelled the Atlantic and across the land to the Appalachians, where they buried themselves in the ground and took root. Most of all, I loved that it was a living embodiment of John McGrath's A Good Night Out, breathing its arguments for a sensual political theatre that uses folk or vernacular or working-class forms and presents them in working-class contexts. And when I went home and started reading the text, I loved the production even more, because Greig has written it almost entirely without character demarcations, leaving everything for Wilson and her actor-singer-musician cast to play with and for. There is a long sequence, when Prudencia is trapped in hell, that came across quite humorously in the production, because a character denotes the passing years by tearing off pages on a calendar: 2013, 2214, 2525, 3535, 7510 (OK, OK, they're from the song, not the show). In the text, Greig ends each of those stage directions with the words

She is caught.

And with every repetition the simplicity and sad defeat of that short line devastates me.

The holiday is over now and so is this, because it's mostly been written on the train journey home from Edinburgh and there's an abundance of fringe plays to write about, not to mention all the work that I ignored while I was seeing six or seven shows a day. But first, a small thing: the further I get from Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica, the more it annoys me, with an equal and opposite passion to that inspired by Prudencia Hart. I didn't see it at the Almeida but in the West End, which is never a good idea: those big rooms and proscenium arches bother me as much as they did Wilder. I was irritated by pretty much everything: the fact that it was so knowingly televisual (if I wanted to watch an HBO drama I'd stay home and watch an HBO drama); that fact that it was so old-fashionedly theatrical; the similarity of the set, a gigantic revolving cube that pressed all the air out of the space, to that of Mike Bartlett's 13; the fact that, knowing there was a twist at the end, I'd guessed the twist by the time of the interval. But what really bugged me – and if you haven't seen it yet but plan to please LOOK AWAY NOW – was the tedious familiarity of the narrative. White middle-class guy goes on a romantic quest, and in doing so he carelessly ruins the lives of two Chinese men, one of whom lives in China, the other an immigrant in New York; he gets a woman pregnant yet won't have to face the responsibility of raising the child; and he destroys the cosy relationship between the newspaper that employed him and the politician who allows them access to stories (admittedly, that one's a good thing). And where does this trail of destruction lead him? To a relationship with a hand model and a high-profile exhibition in a commercial gallery that will earn him lots of money, with just the slightest twinge in his conscience to trouble his existence. Apologies for shouting but I HAVE NO INTEREST IN THIS NARRATIVE. I have no interest in the way it reflects and essentially reinforces the dominant narratives of patriarchal society. And maybe what irritates me most of all is that no one else seems to think it's even vaguely problematic.

Still, there's always this song to cheer me. God love Neko Case.