Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Coney and documentation as storytelling: Scratch 2!

A quick introduction: This follows on from last month's initial scratch, which gives details about the project. In this second iteration, which is based on a work-in-progress performance of Early Days (of a Better Nation) that took place at King's College on October 19, I play around more with the kinds of written matter that's in Dacia's Mass Observation Archive (letters as well as diaries, basically), begin to respond to the materials given to participants at the beginning of the show, begin to register that the show happens in two time-frames, and begin to introduce real audience-members, people whom I observed during the performance and/or spoke to during the interval. 

As last time, I'm fascinated by the slippages between fact and fiction, and by the difference between creating character voices and attempting to capture a voice heard briefly during the show. There's another challenge, too: how not to give away too much for those who are going to see the show - some of this material was rewritten following feedback from Coney's producer, who felt I wasn't getting that quite right. Once again, anything rooted in my own response to Early Days is credited to a character whose name is an abbreviation of my own (luckily my full name has 22 letters to play with), and I'd be really interested in any feedback or responses.

Mass Observation Record
Writer: Maddy Costa
Observer Number: 114
Date: 19 October, 2044
Place: The Plains, Dacia

A great deal of optimistic prose will be written about this day: that it is the first in many people's living memory characterised by dialogue, not violence; by cooperation, not antagonism. Many people I spoke with – particularly from the Islands – feel it began with Dacia divided, and ended with the unity of a common vision. Taking an objective view, however, the day has been more complex than that idealised vision conveys.

I was impressed from the very beginning of the day by the spirit of curiosity that reigned over proceedings. People from each region of the country had been summoned to attend a national meeting in the City to discuss the pressing issue of the World Council, and its offer of military aid, and everyone I encountered was more interested to know not only what others thought, but more particularly what people from regions other than their own thought. We met in the ornate heart of Dacia's old Chapel – spared so far in all the violence, still sombre and stately, miraculous in its stillness and beauty – and although we entered as separate groups, quickly these merged to speak across boundary lines. The word trust hung in the air, tantalising all: could we begin to mend the broken trust between the people? To reject the World Council would require us to do so immediately. It would require us to rebuild leadership immediately.

And yet, I cannot help registering surprise at the decision that was taken: not only to reject the World Council, but to move forward as a country without a traditional leadership structure. Galvanised by Angela Clerkin, the charismatic former politician from the Islands, we are attempting a new political system, working cooperatively to the country's mutual benefit.

Undeniably, this is a remarkable turn of events: the hope it demonstrates was inconceivable even weeks ago. But I can already see flaws. Many Dacians felt uncomfortable with the speed with which the Islanders in particular pushed the general vote towards this national cooperative. Any attempt at dissent, or even mild questioning, was quickly shouted down by cheerful anarchists, desirous of absolute change. Other Observers, I know, will have been swept up in the mood of optimism, and will report quite differently. But from my standpoint, there is much to inspire ambivalence, perhaps even anxiety, in the happenings of the day.

Available within the Mass Observation Archive
Date: 19 October, 2044

Elena Zabeth, student, the Plains
I realised today how much I've changed. It's probably been happening for a long time. Storn taking control, and showing so little respect for anyone who didn't fit his impossibly narrow view of what a human should be and do, made me aware of my responsibility, as a citizen, towards the people with whom I live and form a country. I couldn't use words like that before, or think in that way. I learned that you can't just sit back and grumble when things happen in the state that you don't like: you have to fight against them, because otherwise, how does anything change? Not that I was brave enough to fight. I wrote, and tried to agitate through that writing. But today, at the general meeting, I found my voice. And not just with people I know: with strangers, and people from the Islands. I find Islanders so difficult: people in the Plains haven't exactly been on the front line during the way, but they've lived essentially in safety. So when they began talking about the offer from the World Council, which of course they oppose, I knew I had to step in. I asked them to see this from the perspective of City people. Their homes are being destroyed, people they know are being murdered. I made clear that I mostly agree with them – the terms being offered by the World Council, not least the lack of autonomy, are untenable – and I was playing devil's advocate (as I write this, I feel amazed – I've never taken that position, ever!). But there are people in this country who don't know who to trust: why should they trust us now? To my amazement, trust became the key word of the debate: the more we merged as a single group, getting closer to voting time, the more I heard others use it, saying things like: this is a time for trust. It was the most astonishing feeling, knowing I could make that kind of contribution. And I've realised, I feel hungry for that – not for power, but for the spoken dialogue that makes change. I'm excited for the future, and that's a big change, too.

Available within the Mass Observation Archive
Date: 19 October, 2045

Christine [surname unknown], lawyer, the Plains
I despair at the naivety of my countrypeople. I do. A year ago we voted, by an overwhelming majority, to reject the advances of the World Council, despite the risk this represented. As I said in that meeting, maintaining law and order is vital if we are to make progress; I could tell from the response of some of the younger Dacians that they thought me essentially conservative and reactionary, but they blinker themselves from the complexity of the situation. Our country has assets and infrastructure that need protecting; the steep rise of refugees in the Plains has put a considerable strain on resources; after a year of ruling ourselves cooperatively, the City is more damaged and fragile than ever. Without some form of security and policing, we are vulnerable: at risk of attack from fellow Dacians, and our neighbours.

Today, at the national meeting to distribute resources, I hoped other representatives from the country's three regions would at least recognise this. I tried to argue the case for a proper police force in the City, to bring stability, and in the Plains, to protect the heavy metal mines. The wealth, the very future of our nation is based in those mines: we have a duty to ensure their safe-keeping, for future generations. But as usual, self-interest in the guise of idealism prevailed. We found the money for vaccinations, for hospitals, for food, but not law and order. I come from a long line of anarchists and know that this kind of approach inevitably ends in danger, even failure. I feel a great disappointment in the country today, and an anxiety for the days ahead. The young believe the civil war is over, but I fear it has barely begun.

Available within the Mass Observation Archive

Letter to Mrs Madel, the Plains, dated October 2045

Hi Mum! Thanks for your postcard. I managed to pick up some medicine for Grandad. And I've got some good news: I was at the national meeting today, to distribute resources across the country, and we've found the money to build a hospital in the Plains! Such a relief! For a while it was terrifying – on entry we were each given an equal proportion of money, and I was adamant that I would put mine towards that hospital. But then I got chatting to a guy from the Islands, and before I knew it he grabbed my money and used it to secure a hospital … for the Islands! The <*^@~#%!!! I was so astonished I could barely speak – I was so relieved when other Plains people decided to put their money into a hospital rather than a police force. I know I KNOW you're constantly saying Law and Order are important too. But I really believe that, once people's needs are met, once they no longer need to fight and steal JUST TO GET FOOD, once the vaccination programme begins and people have access to medicines, I honestly believe the violence will calm down. Trust me, Mum, we're going to be fine. I need to go now but just wanted to send a quick note with the medicine. Give my love to Dad and Granny and Grandad. And love to you xx

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Got life, got music, got theatre

I am old now and so drunk on just two glasses of wine and in the past six days I’ve had the kids on half-term and moved back into my family home that doesn’t suit me and left London three times and right now I’m sitting on a single bed in a twin room in a B&B in Malvern with my head swimming and my heart racing because tonight in a stupidly big room with an audience of not enough people tonight at Malvern Theatres I saw Uninvited Guests’ new show This Last Tempest and my body isn’t big enough to contain it, I can’t hold all at once everything it made me think and feel. I am trembling, every inch of me vibrating, with how much I love this show. Two weeks ago I was in Bristol with the company because they’ve asked me to be a board member and anyone who thinks that in some way this invalidates my response to it can right this minute just fuck right off, another time I’ll have a more temperate and articulate argument but just now the idea that what a FAN thinks is somehow less trustworthy than what a “distanced” “dispassionate” observer thinks can take a flying fucking jump. Have you seen the Nick Cave film 20,000 Days onEarth? There’s a bit in that where Cave and Warren heart Ellis talk about Nina Simone, about the transformational power of live performance, that reminded me (partly because I’d been talking to Peter McMaster not long before seeing the film about whether or how art can transform those who encounter it) of a very specific night in an upstairs room of a pub in Camden watching Tortoise play, I guess in 1994, and knowing that I would never need to take drugs, because I would always have live music to recalibrate my body and take over my brain; tonight watching This Last Tempest I had a bit of that again, heart so swollen I could hardly breathe and blood flowing with the cadence of the stage. This Last Tempest begins where Shakespeare’s Tempest ends – there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go into too much detail because I know I’m seeing it again in Colchester on November 27 and by then already it will have changed/honed/found its rhythm, and because I want everyone to go in with the same not-knowing, to experience the same wonder/surprise, but also there’s a part of me that wants to sit up until 3am dissecting every moment of it one by one – it begins with Prospero leaving the island and Arial and Caliban needing to learn how to live for themselves; it begins with that same speech by Gonzalo X in which he envisages a non-hierarchical society that has no commerce or trade, no magistrates, no riches or poverty, no power to overthrow, a speech no teacher of mine ever adequately addressed; it begins with an awareness of climate change, our responsibility to change our intemperate behaviour, the (im)possibility of returning the earth to itself; it begins with the faltering attempts to love, to feel, of two creatures who have been shown scant love or compassion, the appropriation of others’ language to express those burgeoning emotions, the blossoming of empathy that comes with love; it begins with a longing for change, a desire to destroy and through that to create; it begins with the 2011 riots, with Crack Capitalism, with the fear of living in the end of times; it begins with sound, with frequencies just slightly beyond human hearing (how delicious to see this within a few days of Dickie Beau’s equally testing/enrapturing Camera Lucida), with an immense love of Nick Cave and My Bloody Valentine; it begins in my exploding fucking heart, and weeks of not really needing to write about theatre, and knowing this show is special because I couldn’t brush my teeth or sink into bed before vomiting words into a computer screen (honestly, if they’d set out to make a show that would be everything I love to distraction, they couldn’t have ticked more boxes). And there’s something so correct and pleasing and stupidly meta in the fact that this is me writing like Megan Vaughan writing like me, in response to Uninvited Guests reshaping Shakespeare to think about the weight of history – oh! I haven’t even mentioned the weight of history yet, the fear that however willingly we attempt to shape what could be, we will always be too scarred by what was – and the power of language to rule and ruin, divide and oppress.  And all the things it reminded me of: X and all the thinking I’ve been doing about class with/alongside Harry Giles (Shakespeare’s Miranda will weep for princes, but not the ordinary slaves), and the fact that from now until the end of the year women are effectively working for free because unequal fucking pay, and oh my god the whole sequence where gravity is destabilised, and somewhere at the heart of it, this song:

But now it’s 12.12am and my train leaves in exactly seven hours and there are still teeth to brush and pyjamas to pull on and a bed to climb into and I can’t write it all, all I can do now is marvel and shiver and wait for next time, impatiently and full of joy.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A scratch! Coney and documentation as storytelling

A quick introduction: I've been talking to Coney more or less since Dialogue began about "embedded" criticism, documentation of theatre, rethinking criticism - the whole Dialogue manifesto, basically - and last month co-director Annette Mees emailed me with an invitation: would I be interested in documenting in some way their new work, Early Days (of a Better Nation)? The invitation was an open one: come and play. As such, it was irresistible. 

Here's how Coney describe the show on their website: 

The war is over and the nation lies in ruins. You and your fellow survivors must build the beginnings of a new country. What are the rules you’re going to live by? And can you avoid the mistakes of the past?

What interests all of us is how to document the individual experiences of participants in the show - it's interactive - but also how to trace connections and bigger shapes in those responses: what difference age makes, for instance, or voting history. After the first day in the rehearsal room, I started thinking about the Mass Observation Archive, the Appendix to Orwell's 1984, shifts in journalism as a result of social media, and what a collection of personal writings from this fictional but plausible and not-unfamiliar nation in Europe might look like. I'm interested in how the documentation might slip between fact and fiction, in conveying truthfully how individual audience-members have acted within and responded to Early Days, but communicating that through storytelling. In how people who have attended the show might read the documentation differently from those who haven't.

What follows is a very first scratch at how some of these ideas might translate into words. It's based on that first day in the rehearsal room (6 October, 2014), with performers Milton Lopes, Michael Cusick and Angela Clerkin, director Annette Mees and writer Tom Bowtell. They were working on the opening dilemma of the show: whether or not to accept military aid from a UN-like organisation called the World Council for their ravaged country, Dacia. Anything in quotation marks (apart from the very last bit) is quoted verbatim from something spoken by the actors during an improvised debate driven by the key question: “Freedom vs Safety?” All character names use letters scrambled from my own. I have no idea if this works, if it gives away too much about the show, if it encourages audience-members to take sides before they've even walked into the performance space. Basically, it could all be a failure. But I've really enjoyed writing it, and that at least is something. 

In the spirit of scratch, all feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Collected within the Mass Observation Archive
Held in the Central Library of Dacia, The City
Date: 6 October, 2044

Nella Coats, shop-owner, The Islands
I'M SO ANGRY I CAN BARELY WRITE. The meeting happened today – the organisers managed to find a room in the old Town Hall, sparse and barely furnished but with four walls at least, the city is in ruins, I was horrified to see it – we crammed in, people from across the entire country, and I thought: now, at last, a chance for us to talk together, to remember who we are, the bonds of nationality and history that bind us. I really believe in this, I really believe in Angela when she says that we need to abandon the old ideas of “leaders” - so patrician – and create a new society, rooted in … I don't know: people. Each other! Sharing, looking out for each other. And I understand the city is broken and there are riots but there has always been a strain of selfishness there, of competition, that has made me glad to live elsewhere. And today that selfishness just took control of everything - Milton, the man who has returned to his homeland, war-wounded and attracting sympathy wherever he goes, he demanded that we accept the World Council's offer of military aid and WE SAID YES! We, we – not me, I didn't vote for this, I couldn't vote for soldiers on our streets, pointing guns in our faces. The short-sightedness is unbearable, it's infuriating! Can't they see that “military aid” becomes oppression, dictatorship, we will lose all our autonomy – and it doesn't stop the fighting, it doesn't stop people feeling frustrated at the lack of control over their own lives, it exacerbates that. I had to write this down – I'm in a makeshift bus, there are 20 of us crammed in here, travelling back to the Islands, and no one can talk to each other, everyone is too depressed, surely the wrong decision has been made. They'll see.

Len Stac, Mine-Owner, the Plains
A difficult but satisfying day. Pleased by the turn-out: representatives from the City, the Plains and the Islands, men and women, a mixed group, all clearly passionate about where the country was going. I thought Michael did well facilitating the debate – ultimately I'm glad he was chosen for the job and not me, I have too many interests of my own to consider. And yet, I was surprised by my own responses to the debate. I found Milton, the City representative, and Angela, whom I had encountered before through her writing about the Islands, equally persuasive, although arguing from opposite sides.

For Angela, to bring in the World Council's troops is to perpetuate the cycle of violence. She repeatedly said things like, “If I don't feel free, I don't feel safe”, and “You can't talk to someone who's pointing a gun at you”, and “I feel safer and freer when there's not a gun pointing at me”: all strong arguments against filling the streets with soldiers. But I sympathise with Milton when he says: “We need to have stability before we can be free.” Or: “People are getting killed and there's no one to protect them.” The City is in an appalling state: I felt intimidated just driving to the meeting. There was an extraordinary moment when Milton sat clicking his fingers, the sound was like the ricochet of gunshot, and sure enough, each click, he said, represented someone who had died while Angela was talking. I don't think we can argue with that.

I suppose what Angela never made clear is the lesson of history: the arrival of foreign troops in an unstable country generally causes a rise in instability and insurgency, not less. And while I agree with her that, as a country and a people, we need to take responsibility for our own behaviours and political relationships if we want to prevent another outbreak of war, I also believe Milton when he says that people in the city are starving and can't engage in rational conversation when they are struggling to survive. I'm glad Michael voted with Milton to accept the offer of aid and military support from the World Council. The next step is to create a strong democratic government to ensure that the return from occupation to independence happens smoothly.

Dan Mede, student, The City
Fuck fuck fuck: it's happened, they're bringing in the WC. I couldn't get into the meeting – the doors were barricaded – that says everything, right? I don't know what this means for us – OK it's been hard to get food but we've been living, WE'VE BEEN ALIVE – this stupid fucking country and its conservatism, that guy Milton getting the sympathy vote with his war wounds, I DON'T WANT TO LIVE IN A COUNTRY THAT BELIEVES IN MILITARY RULE we were fighting to change things to make the fighting for a future that's FAIR WHAT IS WRONG WITH THAT???

Mass Observation Record
Writer: Maddy Costa
Observer Number: 114
Date: 6 October, 2044
Place: The City, Dacia

I came here from the Plains by bus: a difficult but not unpleasant journey. The closer we came to the city, the more evident the signs of war. The Plains haven't been free of problems – the influx of refugees has put an appalling strain on our resources, and although we have space, it isn't infinite: shanty towns are growing up on the edges of villages, an uncomfortable situation for everyone – but the horrors of the city are of a different order entirely. Bricks and broken glass line every pavement, one city-dweller I spoke to told me that the streets are swept each morning to clear a path for pedestrians, but by night are filled with rampaging youths (her description) intent on destruction. The graffiti is lurid in colour and violent in expression: it's clear that people here have lost all sense of what they are fighting for. They are simply consumed by aggression.

At 2pm the meeting to discuss the offer from the World Council opened in a small side room in the former Town Hall. Armed guards stood at the door: a reflection of what might be to come, reassuring for many I'm sure. The meeting was ably facilitated by Michael, a journalist from the Plains: as the person (and the area) with the least extreme of viewpoints, it seems right that he should have held that central position. To his left stood Angela, a writer from the Islands; to his right, Milton, a former teacher turned revolution leader, who some say is responsible for the collapse of leadership after not stepping up to the task. Key arguments can be summarised as follows:

-         The violence needs to end, for the safety and security of the people – not just in the City, but across the Plains, too.
-         This is only possible if Dacia accepts the invitation from the World Council of military aid.
-         He understands the need for rational debate about the future direction of the country and its politics, but argues: “How can you talk if there's no one to protect your point of view.”
-         He is ready to listen to arguments for a new organisation of society and government when, and only when, “the problem is solved”: that is, the problem of violence on the City streets.

-         “Freedom or safety” isn't a choice for Angela: they are not mutually exclusive. Her sense of safety is contingent on her sense of freedom.
-         It is impossible to feel free with military troops patrolling the streets.
-         “By sharing resources, we could pacify the threat”, ie of violence. This way, foreign aid would not be required. She refers here to the wealth of resources in the Plains: I'm not sure how aware she is of the refugee problem there.
-         “The way forward is that we all talk.”

Given the polarised nature of the debate, Michael's vote became key: he occupies the middle ground. I believe he gave each argument due consideration before voting in favour of accepting aid from the World Council. Relief was palpable among the older generations of city-dwellers; among its youth, I feel less certain. Islanders by and large seemed unreconciled to the decision: their sense of autonomy is strong. The meeting disbanded with the sounds of relief and resentment in the air. I travelled back to the Plains clear on only one thing: the need to talk to every farmer, every miner, every refugee, even every child in my region, and encourage them to take part in the vital debate over the future of our country.

Before I left, I spoke to Nadia Otas, a City woman, who used to run a shop before the looting and violence made it impossible. Her response to the debate was highly emotional. I have attempted to record her words as accurately as possible.

"At last, at last: someone has listened. We need the World Council here, we need help. I feel so lucky to have been present at this meeting, Milton is such an inspiring speaker, he showed up the Islanders' idealism for what it is. Hollow promises! They have no solutions to the real concrete problems we're facing here. I don't feel frightened any more. I'll be able to find food for my children! We'll be a stable, normal country again. I'm so grateful."

Sunday, 14 September 2014

all the right moves, all the wrong words

Another year, another summer made fractious by the Edinburgh fringe. Even opening the programme this year made me feel queasy: I marked performances, turned the corners of its pages, feeling like I was wading through the Argos catalogue, consuming consuming consuming. And although I was careful and made sure I had lots of space for conversations and walking and a balanced diet of cake and fruit, and although I took almost no risks and so almost everything I saw felt meaningful, smart, exhilarating sometimes, nourishing other times, I still ended up glutted and sick. So since then I haven't been going to the theatre. I haven't even been able to look at theatre listings. Instead I've had stillness. Other doings and beings. And before I re-enter the fray – despite all misgivings, a sense of superfluity, and the fear that writing about theatre is no longer the thing I love – a celebration: of things I've been able to do because I haven't been witnessing in the dark...

1: Most of the recipes involve 150ml of double cream. Most of the recipes display an astonishing lack of concern about the environmental impact of eating so much meat. Most of the recipes involve tablespoons of chilli and ginger and spice concoctions that I haven't been able to use since starting to cook family meals five years ago. But Nigel Slater's Eat is the most inspiring, I-want-to-make-that-inhale-that-savour-that cookbook I've read in aeons. And not just because it's the only cookbook I've read in aeons. Snip-snap sentences. Unctuous language that sizzles and simmers and glistens on the page. The first thing I cooked from it was a chicken and farro recipe that I sold to the children as an Italian version of chocolate rice and they ate it and didn't whinge once. Result.

2: In my list of top 10 albums of all time and ever that is at least 500 albums long, Father John Misty's Fear Fun is, it's emerged, somewhere in the elastic top two. I keep posting Now I'm Learning To Love the War on here, but there's also this one

and this one

and this one

And still I'm startled by its country twang, but I grew up on Dolly and Willie and Kris, and took myself deeper backwoods, through the dark mysteries of the Appalachians, and country feels like home. In any case, it's not the style but the voice, so plangent, a deep seam of disappointment in which he mines still for hope:

Before the star of the morning comes looking for me
I would like to abuse my lungs
Smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved
Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood

I listen to that voice and I swoon.

3: I've been getting a lot of emailing done, sitting at the table beside my husband on the sofa watching TV, and I haven't quite followed The Honourable Woman but Orange Is the New Black has lesbian sex – romantic, playful, teasing, functional, aggressive, tender lesbian sex – and it's proving very distracting. I'm not always convinced by the glossiness of its surface, but there's enough feminist nous and queer abrasion beneath to make me want to down tools and just watch.

4a: I read Donald Barthelme's The School in an anthology of short stories 19 years ago and every synapse shivered. I ran off a dozen photocopies and used it as a secret handshake; last week I sent the link to Churlish Meg and realised I still think of it as a soul gift. Originally it was published in a collection called Amateurs, which I bought in the days of scouring secondhand bookshelves for Brautigan and Barthelme and names that don't begin with B, but only got around to reading in August; The School remains my favourite story ever written, and Rebecca might turn out to be the second.

4b: From the days when the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, those crumbling columns that puncture the sky as the children and I walk to and from school, still reconfigured the clouds with smoke; from the days of open racism and closed abortion and communities of women laughing in the soapsuds of laundries; from the days when warehouses weren't apartments for the wealthy but factories employing the poor; from that moment of transition, between the demolition of slums and the rise of estates, Nell Dunn's Up the Junction emerges so vivid, so raw, that reading it made me gasp. London has moved on from there but how far I'm not sure. The tale of the Tally Man captures an exploitation of poverty that abusively persists; the desperation of teenagers, for a fuck, for an approximation of freedom, that doesn't change. Dunn writes elliptically, mostly in dialogue, rough jottings scrawled on the hoof, in the dark; it's social realism, but compressed, made poetic, edited with lapidarian skill. Reading her and Barthelme has not only made me want to write again, but rethink how.

4c: Page after page of D.I.Y, the manual for theatre-makers edited by Robert Daniels, inspires and soothes with its generosity and common-sense. It's reminded me why I keep saying yes to theatre instead of doing the writing that requires me to sit on my own at a computer hour after hour. It's reminded me to listen to the Mountain Goats more. It's reminded me to treasure my shift away from being a “professional”, why it's important to keep struggling in the unknown. Above all, it's reminded me that:

We are humans. We have feelings, we have souls. Don't beat yourself up about your practice. Ever. It is the self-loathing and doubt that delays EVERYTHING. Imagine yourself as a baby, if you keep being mean to a baby, it will hate you and poop out all sorts of nonsense to punish you. Take care of yourself. Be kind. Give yourself time, chocolate, holidays and a fucking break. Negativity breeds contempt. Happy artists make good art.

Not for the first time this year, reading that makes me want to give Bryony Kimmings a great big kiss.

5: This doesn't count because we went in the daytime but the Doll Museum in Dunster is one of the strangest places I've ever been. Arguably I write about theatre now because of a B&B in Scarborough whose eerie parlour was crowded with dolls: tiny dolls, foreign dolls, dolls to my thighs that lined the stairs as if waiting to trip me up or push me down. The Doll Museum in Dunster was that room to a factor of three, all staring eyes and twisted limbs and fraying national costume. A repository of white colonial thinking on history, class and race. But at the same time, a really fun place to take my daughter. Weird.

6a: And OK, there were two nights at the theatre. The first was the Benedict Andrews/Gillian Anderson Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, which bored me to itchiness. I couldn't unthink the Secret Theatre's version: the musicality of its European accents; the sensual melt of ice-cream, the crack of watermelons, the ice spill of water; Leo Bill's humble, bumbling Mitch, with his bad jumpers and stuttering desire; the rejection of every lurid colour that Andrews and Anderson made garish again. The day after seeing it I hosted the Young Vic Two Boroughs Project Theatre Club on it with Lily Einhorn and we talked for well over an hour about how the play sits in Williams' oeuvre and how it relates to his biography; how the play isn't misogynist but an indictment, a really aggressive and scathing indictment, of patriarchal culture, not just the old patriarchy of America's old south but the bullying, entitled patriarchy of the emerging new south; women, age and feminism; how familiar aspects of the play felt to those of us in the group from ethnic backgrounds (including, on that particular night, Nigerian, Spanish, Indian and my own Cypriot); witnessed accounts of alcoholism, bipolar disorder, domestic violence; and on and on, a rich and involved and really smart discussion that was far more engrossing than the production itself.

6b: The second was Itai Erdal's How To Disappear Completely at BAC, seen on a night of such precarious, panic-streaked instability that even walking into the theatre was like punching myself in the brain. Oh well. Erdal is a lighting designer by training and his demeanour is scuffed and gauche, in a likeable way. He introduces his mother, his step-father, his furiously intelligent sister and gawky best friend, the way he might if we were sat around a pub table with him, making friends. One story, of an overexcited dugong, made me cry with laughter; but its overarching story just made me cry, because it traced his mother's demise, from cancer that spread through her body with relentless purpose, taking them all by surprise. Erdal speaks with the dangerous honesty of a child who hasn't yet learned to self-edit, the kind of honesty that provokes alternately alarm, disapproval and relief. And because he is a lighting designer, he makes us think about how stories are told in theatre, how emotions are manipulated through luminosity. I keep talking to people about this show, because its bravery startled me, and because its argument for assisted suicide has a clarity that makes it unimpeachable. But I also keep talking about it because Erdal's mother believed something about motherhood that I emphatically reject. She told both her children that it was vital for them to reproduce, because it's through their children that individual humans perpetuate their existence in the world. Such thinking is inimical to me, egotistical, and damaging in the ways intimated by Virginia Woolf, in a book I haven't read yet, quoted by Jacqueline Rose in a terrific essay on motherhood published in the LRB:

“In The Years, written on the eve of fascism, Virginia Woolf [comments] on the dire consequences of parental exclusivity, on the damage it does to the social fabric – which was on the point of being rent beyond repair – to think it right to put your child, your family, before everyone else. She is also suggesting that, while England takes pride in its difference from Nazi Germany, there might even so be a link between the overweening egoism of the bourgeois family and the autocracy of statehood.... At a family gathering in the mid-1930s … North, the now grown-up grandson of Colonel Pargiter, watches as people inquire after each other’s children:

My boy – my girl … they were saying. But they’re not interested in other people’s children, he observed. Only in their own; their own property; their own flesh and blood, which they would protect with the unsheathed claws of the primeval swamp, he thought … how then can we be civilised?”

Woolf, Rose concludes, is describing how “the intricacy and breadth of human possibility can be sidelined or quashed before it has even begun”. Yes, they're my children. But they are their own people. The least I can do is respect that. No, that's not true. The least I can do is not resent how, having made them, they eat up time and energy, leaving only scraps of both with which to make anything else.

7: Speaking of which:
A month of being home to tuck them in.
Reading bedtime stories.
Learning the times tables together.
(Never quite mastered the 7s or 9s).
Sitting at the computer with earphones on listening to Father John Misty so loudly that I can't hear their voices.
Talking about how I could be a better mother.
Her ideas include creative mealtimes inspired by typical menus in different historical periods, a designated painting space that doesn't always need tidying, and taking her to the theatre in the night-time.
A month of being present. And sometimes not coping with what that means.

8: Escaping not into the dark of the theatre but the light of the kitchen. One night I made chocolate cookies using an ounce of black treacle instead of golden syrup; they were fudgy, smoky, much more grown-up than I'd intended when adding most of a packet of white chocolate chips. Another night I made pastry with 20g cocoa, 100g flour, and 60g cold butter, rubbing them into crumbs as usual then blending in a tablespoon of golden syrup, pouring the crumbs into a loose-bottomed, buttered, 28cm tart tin and pressing them into the base and edges. That went into the fridge for 15 minutes then – covered with baking parchment and copper coins – into a preheated gas 4/180C oven for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile in a bowl 110g softened butter, 110g light muscovado, 110g ground almonds and one egg, beaten with a fork until amalgamated. Out comes the pastry, off come the coins and parchment; over the chocolate base four or so tablespoons of apricot jam, spread almost but not quite to the edges, and over that the frangipane mix, smoothing its surface to cover not blend with the jam. That baked in the same oven for about 35 minutes, so when it came out it was still squodgy; in retrospect, another 10 minutes wouldn't have hurt it. Still, the bitter crumble of the chocolate crust and sweet melt of fruit and frangipane was heavenly. And even better the next day.

9: The mother in the Dardennes brothers' film Two Days, One Night makes a tart, too, a really crisp-looking fruit tart that the family share after takeaway pizzas. And then she sobs that she's invisible, irrelevant, I can't remember the exact words but that's because approximations of them had been ringing through my head all that day. And the day before that. And before that. It's not an easy film to watch, and not just because she keeps having anxiety attacks and crying and snapping at her husband when he expresses concern at her taking Xanax. She spends a weekend traipsing around the houses and haunts of all her co-workers, trying to persuade them to take her back at the factory where they earn so little that many of these people need to take on secret second jobs to get by, trying to do this knowing that if they take her back they won't each get a thousand-euro bonus that might relieve the pressure in their own lives. Sometimes on train journeys through London's suburbs I feel stifled by the number of houses, people, stories in this city; Two Days, One Night enters those houses, talks to those people, listens to their stories, and sympathises. And even where it doesn't sympathise, it attempts to respect. This made it not an enjoyable film so much as a sternly moral film whose politics I share.

10: I'm speedwriting now because it's getting late. And because I'd like to write about Cate Le Bon and the gig at Koko (a stronger performance than the one I saw in February, but I missed being close to the stage), about the wild magic of her voice and the angular jolt of her guitar, and how she makes me wish I could sing, about standing on the balcony of Koko between two of my oldest friends, the same people I've been sharing angular jolting guitars and wild magic voices with for over 20 years now, and all the history between us, the honesty and safety, but I've been writing this listening obsessively to Perfume Genius, all three albums, and now his voice is all I know of music. He was a surprise guest at Koko and for those few minutes when he sang I thought I was levitating. I can't get a handle on his albums: they're so intimate, and yet something in them resists intimacy. I think it's a problem of timing: they'll make more sense alone in the dark. I should have been writing about the new one tonight instead of writing this. I should have been doing all sorts of things all day instead of writing this. Seduced by the wrong words again.