I no longer know where this one starts. It's restarting at 1am on 21 July 2014, with just three days of school left before the summer holidays. It started 10 days ago, although I didn't know how to start, and panic set in at the thought that everything I'd wanted to say had disappeared. It started three weeks before that, in the midst of work-related despair at the pointlessness of my existence. That was the week I finally read Nicholas Ridout's Theatre & Ethics and for a brief galvanising interlude felt there was some purpose to this stupid thing I keep doing. The book is 70 densely argued yet gently repetitive pages scanning history and philosophical argument that ends with the most concise and exacting manifesto for theatre criticism I think I've ever encountered. Theatre isn't at its most ethical, Ridout posits, when “what the work says or does matches our own sense of what we would like it to say or do, corresponds with our own sense of how we would like the world to be”. For theatre to be ethical, it “would have to confront its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical”. Such work requires “a labour of critical thought for its ethical potential to be realised”, requires a critic to approach it “with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront”. The way I read this, the theatre that's genuinely going to contribute to the shaping of a more humane, liveable, empathetic society is going to require the rigorous reading and storytelling of critics. So there's a reason to sit at the desk every not-so-spare hour of the day.
On Tuesday of that week, my friend Jake saw Christopher Brett Bailey's This Is How We Die and sent me a text assuring me I would fall apart watching it, in all the best ways. On Wednesday my twitter friend Megan saw This Is How We Die and tweeted to make sure I was going to see it because I would love it. On Thursday I saw This Is How We Die and spent the first 50 minutes wondering how I would confess to them both that it was good but not so blam-pow-whizz. And then The Thing happened and my whole body lurched and my insides felt bigger than my outsides, and I bought a ticket to see it again on Saturday, because this time – knowing what was coming – I could watch it with uncertainty. That sounds paradoxical, I know. It's that kind of show. (From here on, it's all spoilers. But the show is so full of ideas and images and language that I'll barely scrape the surface.)
It starts with Bailey sitting at a desk, a small table rather, small enough to make him look a little awkward and cramped. It starts with some methodical arranging of the script piled before him and the glass of water beside it, so that everything is positioned precisely so. It starts with a cheeky sort of hangdog half-smile, and then he leans into the microphone and it's like when a tap is broken and a fountain gushes out uncontrolled. Except every word is positioned precisely so. This opening speech – Beckett meets Burroughs – talks about masculinity and sex and violence and the seep of prison culture into everyday society, about apocalypse and living hell and the impossible weight of bringing children into this world, but most of all it talks about words, words as weapons, words that have lost all their meaning. How do we relate to each other in a world where language is abused and can't be trusted any more?
A line I've never forgotten, from the stapled pages of a typewritten book, hand-made by someone I loved long ago: “If you take a word out of context, what might it mean? (MEAN.)”
And then snap: This Is How We Die becomes a love story, a teen romance, the kind I grew up watching. Misfits against the world. Qui elevent leurs skinny fists comme antennas to heaven. In exquisite detail we follow the couple – Chris and a girl dressed all in black, immaculate beehive, a mouse, chain-smoking, where her mouth should be – to her parents' house for Sunday lunch. Her parents are grotesque, cartoon monsters, but she has described them to Chris with a surgical accuracy he almost can't fault. “God you are so literal,” he tells her admiringly. “I love that.”
She gives words meaning. She makes words mean.
Another shift: the girlfriend upbraids Chris for his carelessness with language. When you use language like that, she bristles, [you sound like] a misogynist. The accusation heralds an electrifying harangue from Chris, against the policing of thought through labels: that's racist, sexist, misogynist – not very humanist. Rewind to a line in the first section: PC has gone mad. Who's using these labels anyway? Are they really an expression of ethics? Of morality? Or just plain hypocrisy? Let's pause here and watch Panti Bliss speaking at the Abbey Theatre again, talking about oppression and self-hatred. This is the world Chris – or “Chris” – is wriggling within, in which the homophobic are victims of homophobia and white people get to tell people of colour what constitutes racism. It's enough to make your head spin.
Attack the -ism instead of the -ist, the girlfriend tells Chris. Not the individual but the concept. Smash the ideology. But it's hard when the words themselves are so unreliable, slipping and sliding against each other into contradiction. His only solace is to take everything she says at face value. Go fuck yourself, the girlfriend tells him. So he does. Literally.
It's important to know this about This Is How We Die: its thought, its politics, are fierce, incendiary, but it's also very funny in places, teasing as much as testing abuses of language. It's also, for a show so limited visually, just a man at a table speaking into a microphone, vivid to the point of lurid excess, as fascinating yet appalling in its colour as fresh vomit. The more disgusted Chris appears with language, the more he makes us hang on every word.
That was truer for me the second time I saw it than the first; in the road trip episode that comes next, I began to drift – to be honest, exactly as I would on a long car journey across flat plain lands, turning inwards, dreaming inconsequentially. Shaking that off in the second watch, I could appreciate its quiet reflection and troubled expression. Chris gazes out of the car window and thinks about America, and the arrogance of humans who think they know everything, about nature, and death, and what it is – oh god I love this line – to be “fucked up by static and watched over by satellites”. He knows he's repeating the moves, the poses, of a hundred indie movies, the barfly philosophy of almost every Beat or drugs book ever published, because culture, especially American culture, invades and absorbs us, and that's what teenagers do (I did, in the back seat of my auntie's car, driving through mountains in Greece, gazing up at a new angle on the stars, listening to the Swirlies and feeling nothing like my family, nothing like people at school). The lighting, positioned precisely so throughout, expands here into a long, thin sheet across the stage: it becomes widescreen cinematic, and so do the images conjured up by Chris' text.
This was also the point at which I began to marvel at how meticulous the piece is in construction and argument, and hear how words and lines repeat across the whole like musical refrains. The first episode begins with an excoriating delineation of masculinity; the “go fuck yourself” episode plays with notions of emasculation; the first line rages that “masculinity is measured in pussy”; on the road trip Chris muses on the triple meanings of the word pussy, its conflation with cowardice, and how impossible it is to square that with the bravery of vaginas. More than once, the couple raise their “fists at the sky or at God or maybe just the satellites”; on the road Chris is haunted by the reverberation of an A minor chord in the air; constantly he is drawn back to thinking about death and meaning and death and articulacy and death and fear and death.
Is it really about dying? I'm not sure. I think it's more about what it is to live without spirituality, on a planet so surrounded by satellites that it's no longer possible to trust our view of the stars, in which every mystery of the world can be crammed into a small metal box that fits in the palm of a hand, and we “cannot picture the future because we cannot imagine living through the present”. A sentiment that haunts me, from Kieran Hurley/AJ Taudevin's Chalk Farm (annoyingly, I can't quote the line accurately, because I haven't got the text to hand and, perhaps tellingly, no review I've encountered mentions it, despite it being, I think, the crux of the play): Why do we find it so much easier to imagine the end of the world, than more equal ways of living together? This Is How We Die is saturated in those visions of apocalypse. We are destroying each other with the stories we choose to create and share.
If I'm honest, though, I'm not sure how well I followed Chris' line of argument around climate change and environmental crisis. For instance, I can't quite tell if he's being sincere or sarcastic when he says (I think I got this down right): “I'm so glad there's no concrete proof that this planet is struggling to support the people alive on it.” It comes in between his descriptions of humans as an “arrogant hex of a species” who are “fixated on their own demise”, and before he suggests “maybe our species and our planet are in their infancy”. There's another echo here for me, of a brilliant children's book by Michael Foreman from 1972 called Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish, in which a single obnoxious businessman who represents the repugnant entirety of capitalist industry decides the planet he's covered with factories belching pollution is too ugly to bear, so he flies off in a rocket to search for a more beautiful place instead. Reaching a grey, rubbly star on which a single flower grows, he looks across space and sees a planet glowing sapphire and emerald in the distance: there, there is his paradise. Of course it's our Earth – but an Earth where dinosaurs have come back to life, broken up the roads, destroyed all the factories, and returned the land to verdancy. I think what Chris is saying is we have the potential to be that place of beauty again. But society has to change. Radically.
Again, even after a second watch there was something about the final episode that felt elusive. Chris transports us in a blink to a gladiatorial amphitheatre in which “we are humble, we are naked and unafraid”. X In this amphitheatre – and that “theatre” is part of what confuses me – the tongue is a blade in the mouth, a weapon, a whip, and again and again we – the we present in the arena, performing for a baying audience – “declare this language dead”. But if there is a death here, it is the ritualistic death of the phoenix, consumed by fire in order to live, brighter and better, again. Chris declares this language dead, and then – not alone, as part of a group, and that feels so crucial – he makes a new language. A language that rips through skin to pummel heart and gut, a language that bypasses meaning and goes straight for affect, a language that – like the language of Godspeed You Black Emperor – speaks plaintively, furiously, of everything that is fucked up in the world, but shimmers, always, with hope. A language made entirely of hope.
I keep describing This Is How We Die as episodic, but in the days and days it's taken me to write this I've realised it's more musical in structure than that makes it sound. Initially I thought it was symphonic, each episode or section a movement. But then I thought, no: it's like an album. Each episode is a song, and each song has its own mood and atmosphere and distinctive intensity, and the whole thing ends in extraordinary catharsis. And then I thought of albums like it, and I realised: Spiderland. Christopher Brett Bailey has made me theatre's Spiderland. And that, my friends, is how I die happy.
There's been some terrific writing inspired by This Is How We Die: by Megan Vaughan, who says of Bailey, “He’s the taste of cigarettes on a kiss”; by Catherine Love; and particularly by Andy Field, who does the inspired thing of sitting it side by side with Deborah Peason's The Future Show, to think about theatrical illusion, the visible script as accomplice, and the blissful release of nothingness. (I disagree with Andy on that final note: Debbie's release isn't blissful to me, and Chris' isn't into nothingness.) If This Is How We Die is Spiderland, The Future Show sits in the space between these two songs:
Which, because Deerhunter are genius at (well, everything, but in this particular instance) album sequencing, is the infinitesimal space between two tracks, which on vinyl is a silence full of texture, the barely audible static of natural electricity. A sentence that will mean nothing to an entire generation. (As an aside, one of these days I'll have to stop connecting everything I love to Deerhunter and actually write about why I love this fucking band so fucking much.) But it's also in the gap between two conjoined sentiments, the metal holding together two sides of a coin, between:
When you were young
you never knew which way you'd go
what was once grace, now undertows
I don't want to get old
I don't want to get old
I don't want to get old, no
I first saw The Future Show in a diamantine 20-minute scratch showing in spring 2012; the next time I saw it, in summer 2013, it was more like an hour long, its basic premise, its single coruscating idea, unchanged but mined for everything it is worth. Debbie starts with her final breath in the performance, and the audience clapping; she describes leaving the space, chatting in the bar, going home, working the following day, the quiet rhythms of married life, maybe she gets a cat, maybe a parcel arrives when she's out, all those tiny inconsequential incidents that fill up time and make up a life, shaping her possible future with lapidarian skill, slowly, gently, inexorably as a tide, working her way to that final breath in the performance that, when it happens, is devastating. It is full of politics, yet what I remember of it, the residue of it that sits in my bones, is purely personal. It is so intimate that every word seems absolutely truthful, although a fiction, a projection, a fortune read from a palm. It is brave yet resigned, hopeful yet bleak; however we differ in our details, our endings are all the same. The best we can do? Measure each step, look straight ahead, and don't forget to breathe.
On the Friday night between my two run-ins with This Is How We Die I was at Ovalhouse again, for Greg Wohead's The Ted Bundy Project. A few months before its London run I had a lovely chat with Greg, who wanted to pick my brains about my different experiences of post-show gatherings, decompression spaces in which audiences could talk about and process difficult work. (In the end – at least, judging by the Ovalhouse run – Greg decided not to create such a space. Even so, I had another little moments of thinking, oh, maybe what I do isn't a total waste of time after all.) Sure enough, The Ted Bundy Project is hard to watch – how could a show about a serial killer not be? But nothing about it feels gratuitous, or anything less than painstakingly thoughtful. Unlike a really appalling quantity of culture, it isn't enthralled by violence, but nor does it condemn that fixation; it simply holds up a mirror and invites its audiences to see themselves. Whether or not you see that the reflection as ugly, distorted and brutalised is up to you.
It didn't occur to me, watching it, that people would find the structure of Greg's show, particularly his use of repetition, mystifying; it was a response I encountered at the Dialogue Theatre Club Jake Orr and I hosted directly afterwards. To me, every idea was expressed with subtlety but piercing clarity. This is what I saw:
A man, an all-American guy, medium build, winning smile, in a male equivalent of bridal white: pure, clean polo shirt and pristine tennis shorts. Doing a camp little dance to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the kind of dance that would endear him to the most conservative of mothers. A man who confesses to sitting in bed listening to the voice of a serial killer, over and over again; watching gory videos of murder, necrophilia, cannibalism online, and reaction videos made by people watching those same videos, a loop of hypnosis. We're intrigued, too, right? We're intrigued by all that material hidden there in the dark net, intrigued by the extremities of existence. Right?
A man, medium build, in pristine tennis whites, laying out the paraphernalia of Ted Bundy's first murder while Lou Reed drawls Walk on the Wild Side. I said hey honey, take a walk on the wild side. There's the sling Bundy wore to attract a woman's sympathy, the handcuffs he used to restrain her; a wig modelled on a victim's long brown hair, a handbag, some lipstick.
A man, winning smile, asking a member of the audience – also male – to join him on stage. He asks the second man to stand with a sheer stocking over his face, obscuring his features, his identity. This second man is standing in for Ted Bundy. Meanwhile, the first man, an all-American guy, in pristine tennis whites, puts on the wig, the handbag, the lipstick. And while Hall and Oates' Rich Girl plays, this young woman, a student, gazes at the face of the man who will turn out to be her murderer, her lower lip quivering with the beginning of sexual excitement. She is a rabbit in headlights, and she doesn't even know it. She is caught, and she doesn't know it. Because right now she is flattered, and attracted, and vaguely aware that she shouldn't be doing what she's doing. She's a rich girl, and she's gone too far, and watching her, Greg as her, with that song, so vindictive, my stomach clenched and I wanted to scream: no.
A man, medium build, in pristine tennis whites, standing with his head inside a sheer stocking, in the same place that his stand-in for Ted Bundy just stood. He repeats the opening section of the show. Whose voice is this now? Greg's? Or Bundy's?
A man, an all-American guy, winning smile, describing a murder fantasy he once indulged, of killing a teenage girl who filled him with jealousy, smashing her head until it turned into pulp.
A man, dancing to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the kind of dance that would endear him to the most conservative of mothers, while beside him on a plywood board is the opening scene of a video that can easily be located via Google, in which a man attacks another man with an icepick, before dismembering him, fucking the limbless torso, ripping out chunks of the corpse's flesh with his teeth, and inviting his dog to do the same. We know this because the man, this all-American guy with the winning smile, has described the video to us in detail. Even typing the words I can feel acid nausea sting in my throat.
And this is what I noticed:
Throughout, Greg is punctilious in naming Georgeann Hawkins, the murdered woman he chooses to represent all of Bundy's victims. In this, he distances himself from a voyeuristic tabloid culture that, for instance, no less consistently refers to Reeva Steenkamp as the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius. And demonstrates an awareness of and sympathy with the Everyday Sexism campaign.
An awareness of and sympathy with 1970s feminist thought – contemporaneous with the deaths of a still unknown number of women at the hands of Ted Bundy – particularly (to quote my new favourite feminist, Sarah Ditum) Andrea Dworkin's “disturbing insights into the way patriarchy distorts the act of sex into an act of violence by which men assert their possession of women”.
The bravery of Greg's willingness to identify himself with Ted Bundy. In that business with the stocking, Greg admits that his own charming surface might not be so different from Bundy's, that he could be just like Bundy, because he lives within a social system – a patriarchal system – that is inherently misogynistic, in which “rape culture” is actually a thing, and in which popular culture does everything it can to support that system by fixating on the violent deaths of women in TV and cinema and literature, filling music videos with semi-naked women, using female objectification as a marketing tool, representing rape as a woman's fault, using topless women to sell newspapers, and on and on and on.
How visceral the fear of rape is in me. It dates back to school days, when I was given my first rape alarm in sex education lessons, and read Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend, a book in which a woman “conquers her fear and transforms herself from victim to avenger”: far from empowering me, it introduced me to realms of sexual violence I hadn't by that point imagined for myself, and that frighten me still. There is an extraordinary blog post by the playwright Katherine Mitchell delineating how this fear, inculcated in young women from the earliest possible age, can affect how they comport themselves for the rest of their lives, how an accumulation of experience of everyday sexism can affect their confidence and their sense of even having a voice. I felt almost dizzy when I read that blog post, from gratitude that someone had articulated this filthy secret buried deep inside me. A few weeks before seeing Greg's show, I went to Soho Theatre for Adrienne Truscott's Asking For It – subtitled “A one-lady rape about comedy starring her pussy and little else” – and had a similar experience. Truscott spends most of the show's running time wearing a tight-fitting dress split to reveal her pubic hair; she starts it downing cans of G&T; she does headstands and projects the faces of sexist men on her torso, allowing them to print themselves on her body. She is the very definition of asking for it. And while she does all this she mercilessly satirises men who espouse misogyny, picking at every loose thread of anti-abortion arguments and sexist politics and representations of rape in popular culture until it feels as though the whole world has unravelled. Her strip-tease is so mocking it made me cry with laughter; her run through common rape-prevention tips – pointing out how they're essentially designed to stop women ever feeling at ease as they have fun – is so contemptuous that it made me laugh with crying. Around this time, I came across the list of 10 things men can do to prevent rape (“9. Carry a rape whistle. If you find that you are about to rape someone, blow the whistle until someone comes to stop you.”), and that, too, was a balm to my soul.
In The Ted Bundy Project, Greg Wohead accepts responsibility for that fear, that violence, that everyday sexism.
The Ted Bundy Project “confront[s] its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical. It … issue[s] a demand they [do] not know how to answer.” To skip a few pages back in Nicholas Ridout's Theatre & Ethics, it puts its audience “face to face with the other, in a recognition of our mutual vulnerability which encourages relationships based on openness, dialogue and a respect for difference”. I don't think for a moment Greg is asking his audience to respect Ted Bundy, or his actions. But he is asking that we empathise, with the man committing the violence, and the woman experiencing it. He is asking us to recognise, name and face up to this violence, so that, instead of allowing it to be perpetuated within a conspiracy of silence, we can work together – through openness and dialogue – to change the social systems in which it can flourish.