Love, identity and other small matters: a work-in-progress Edinburgh fringe post
It's that line from Utah Phillips X all over again: I'm here to change the world, and if I am not, I am probably wasting my time.
Luther and Bockelson want to change the world – or at least, change the terms and conditions of the world in which a theatre audience meet. Reformation 9 (Forest Fringe) opens with their manifesto, read by Forest co-director Andy Field with drollness and an undernote of diffidence; point 9, on paper, contains the single word “[silence]”, but it isn't silent, because in that time Andy scans the audience, a gesture of inclusion made abrasive by a single arched eyebrow, which taunts: “I know you. I know what you're capable of.” What L&B invite us to be capable of is intimated in point 7, which declares: “Time for a party. Time for a riot. Time to sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution. Time to kiss like strangers in the aisles of the theatres of our great European capitals.” Andy leaves, the show begins. And this is what happens.
I'm thinking about what it means to ruin live art by not doing what it tells you to do.
I'm thinking about how uncomfortable I've always felt at parties. It's one of the many things I hate about myself: my inability to sustain the performance of self that parties require.
I'm thinking about purpose and aimlessness, how they're enacted, and how they're recognised.
I'm thinking about riots. Whether, across time, every riot has essentially looked the same. And involved the same kinds of people. Followed the same set of prompts, impulses, rules. And where the timid sit in relation to that.
I'm thinking about permissions X
I'm thinking about houses of cards. Their fragility. How they function metaphorically. The patience required to build them and how easily they fall down.
I'm thinking about the hardwired conservatism of Matt Trueman (a thinking more affectionate than that sounds), and #riotcleanup, and the complexity of community impulses that neuter a state of revolution.
I'm going to stop saying what I thought about because L&B uber-fan Megan Vaughan has a habit of militantly policing any writing on Reformation 9, and I'm quite scared of her when she's angry. But a couple of hours after the show, I had a conversation with Andy Field about it, who caught me by surprise by articulating, almost telepathically, the struggles I'd had with it. I don't want him to incur the wrath of Vaughan either, so won't attempt to transcribe the conversation; instead I'll republish a chunk of something Andy wrote three years ago, which I've been quoting from ever since (I'm sure he's sick of me doing this, but it was and remains hugely influential on me, which in no way conveys the unquenchable fierceness of the flame this writing ignited in me). X:
Theatre is where we go to know what our hopes and fears and fantasies would feel like
If they were made of real bodies and real spaces
Freud described dreams in a similar way to this
As a way of thinking through doing
Dreams are never dreamlike when we are experiencing them
They are visceral and real
… [They] are ideas running
through our heads
In the shape of real bodies that we can see
Bodies we fight or fuck
People we talk to
Or imagine we are talking to
But it’s all just us
Painting an imaginary world
With things we’ve learnt from the real one
And the most exciting thing about this whole process
Is that once they have been dreamt
These wild experiments
These immersive environments
These chaotic unfiltered ideas
They can’t be undreamt
… An idea you dream
Is something you’ve learnt by the time you wake up in the morning
… You don’t need to believe
As Freud did
That dreams are the expression of some unconscious longing
To know that they are important
To me they are important
Because they are dangerous and exciting
Because they are full of ideas that we are having before we know what to do with them
We are thinking in ways that are undisciplined and chaotic
Messy, full of flaws and longings
We are being changed in ways we can’t control
… Is performance like this?
Could it be?
Could theatre be a place in which ideas
Are made out of bodies
Moving around each other
In which we think not by listening
But by doing
Figuring out a way of living
In the shapes that form in the space between us
Out of chaos
A theatre that is actually, properly dream like
Because it feels like a real life
That we might be living
Luther and Bockelson paint an imaginary world with things learned from the real one: chaos, noise, mess. A lot of people I saw it with had a fucking great night for precisely that reason: they were living in a place of play and possibility. Which leaves the longing part to me, for what that imaginary space would look like if L&B painted it with dream selves – different selves, braver selves – instead.
(Mostly written on the train home from Edinburgh, 19/8/15)
Igor Urzelai and Moreno Salinas want to change the world. They say as much in the blurb for their show Idiot-Syncrasy (Summerhall), the opening sentences of which are note-perfect: “We started with wanting to change the world with a performance. We felt like idiots.” Because how can an hour-long duet have that much of an effect? It's so limited in its scope, so small in its reach. And yet, it's the limitations I&M place upon themselves that make Idiot-Syncrasy feel so enormous, make it reach to the heart of what it is to dedicate oneself to what seems an impossible cause. They would fit right in to the roll-call of modern Don Quijotes in Emma Frankland and Keir Cooper's punk adaptation of the novel: tilting at windmills, I&M make us see the world differently, make us want to move in it differently, in a way that brings joy.
After feeling like idiots, what I&M started to do was jump. Bounce. In the show the movement begins after 10 minutes of singing what sounds like (but might not be – I don't have the programme to hand) a Sardinian anthem of independence and defiance. The same lines over and over, with shifting emphasis, gently at first, but with increasing emotional commitment, leavened with fleeting smiles. Almost imperceptibly, they start to rise on their heels, to bob up and down, the same movement over and over, and this, too, is with shifting emphasis, gently at first, but with increasing emotional commitment, leavened with fleeting smiles. It's funny and it's silly and then they bounce backstage and bring out shot glasses and whiskey, enough to go round the entire audience, and the terms and conditions of the room in which we meet them have changed. They are doing this ridiculous thing, creating this nonsensical scenario, for us. They are pushing themselves to a physical limit, for us. Strangers, people they've never met. And when we walk out of this room, what will we do, what will we push ourselves to do, what will we gift, to the strangers outside? What will we commit to?
The more they bounced, the more fascinated I became by the tension in I&M's legs, the swell of muscles and hardening of tendons down their calves. It starts to look punishing, and that's when the tenor shifts, and instead of bouncing at a measured distance from each other, they begin to bounce together, to circle each other as though stripping the willow, and then to hold each other close, intimately, lovingly, creating a support for each other. This is how it works: we commit to the impossible, the nonsensical, the life of our dreams – and then we make a go of it, together. We imagine a life. And then we live it.
A few days after I see Idiot-Syncrasy, the press officer at Summerhall tells me that people have started bouncing out of the auditorium at the end.
(Mostly written in time stolen from family, sitting in a window seat gazing eastwards over a rooftop at Peak District hills, sun slowly setting, 21/8/15)
Ego. Definitely something around ego. And that thing about being a renewer of hearts from the Elsa Maxwell party book.
And somewhere in here how I finally cracked going to the Fringe, not managing the sleep deprivation when I go out of control with teen regression, but the emotional bit, the overwhelmed bit: it takes is having someone by me, ready to catch me should I fall.
Like that of her contemporaries in the conceptual-art world, Ono’s early work was all about blurring the line between art and everyday life. Every image is a painting; every sound is a song. More than the work of anybody she actually hung out with, Ono’s early art reminds me of Yves Klein, the impish French artist whose first piece was — in his imagination — to sign his name in the sky. It’s true that some of Ono’s ideas inspired George Maciunas to start Fluxus, but she never felt entirely included in this — or any — group. Accordingly, there’s a loneliness to the pieces from early in the period covered by the MoMA show: One subtitled Painting for Cowards instructs the artist performing the work to cut a hole in a canvas and shake people’s hands through it.
I see in Ono a locus of possibility. I see a woman throwing blood.
Ono’s art came alive when it broke out beyond the avant-garde, because her mission was to awaken the artist in everybody — not just those who were cool enough
Her meditative instruction pieces feel perfectly aligned with our mania for so-called mindfulness. Her work is being lauded by people correcting a history of female erasure — looking anew at the Doris Days instead of the Rock Hudsons. Many of Grapefruit’s pieces have a sub-140-character brevity. They feel, now, like the 1960s version of a tweet.
“Last year,” Ono wrote in 1968, “I said I’d like to make a ‘smile film,’ which included a smiling face snap of every single human being in the world. But that had obvious technical difficulties and was very likely that the plan would have remained as one of my beautiful never-nevers.” Back then, the idea sounded like a whimsical lark; today, in the age of the selfie, it sounds almost banal in its achievability. Maybe she’s not a radical — or a martyr — anymore. Maybe we’re just beginning to inhabit the world that Yoko Ono always imagined.
18 May 2015 New York magazine
[Added 23/8/2015. Not sure where this is going yet]
The revolution at the heart of Portraits in Motion (Summerhall) is quiet: so quiet it could pass by unnoticed. There's too much else to tease out of the photographs stitched together into flipbooks: minute shifts in their subjects' expressions, dancing across the projection screen with such animation that for a moment each person seems to be actually present in the room. Volker Gerling took these photos on a sequence of walks across Germany and its neighbours; the subjects are people he encounters on his travels, who take the time to stop and thumb through his books and then agree to be photographed too.
Gerling packs no money when he goes on these travels: only essentials for the journey. He relies on the kindness of strangers and interest in his art to barter his way and ensure his survival. In other words, he's created his own economy; one that allows him to live outwith capitalism's rules. One of the people asks Gerling: did you go to university? I thought so, he laughs at the affirmative reply: only someone who went to university would do something so stupid. But Gerling's life isn't stupid: he just refuses to follow the terms and conditions of the society in which he lives.
In doing so, he creates a new relationship not only with money but time. A photograph freezes time into a single instant; Gerling's flipbooks – constructed from 36 photographs taken in rapid succession over 12 seconds – requires more time in the making and so allows more insight into the personality of the subjects. We see emotions flitter across their faces, laughter and embarrassment, love and a variety of desires, the play of memory responding to place, the blossoming of truth in their features. The movements of one subject inspire another; the plump gawkishness of youth gives way to the hollow cheeks and hunched shoulders of age. And Gerling's own relationship with time shifts: he moves to the rhythm of his own pulse, his own feet, the natural rhythms so destructively disrupted by the demands of finance. And sure, he can do this because he has the privileges of the white male and a benign family whom he thanks in the credits for enabling him to go on these journeys. It's an individual's revolution, not a communal one: the hope for me lies in the outright refusal to perform what's expected. But he slows time in the theatre space too, flipping through each book not once or twice but three times, forcing us to slow our pace. After all, what else are we going to do? Just rush out and consume, more and more.
(Mostly written on the train home from Edinburgh, 19/8/15)
Portraits in Motion makes a fascinating counterpoint to Jamie Wood's O No! (Assembly Roxy) – but the train is in London, so I'll come back to how and why.
Because the thing is, if every sentence doesn't have or at least reach for the same beauty, the tidal swell, the precise cadence of perfection, as Neil Bartlett's writing in Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall, I am probably wasting my time.
I Am Not Myself These Days is what might have happened to Bartlett's Boy if he hadn't found the bar, found O, found himself and courage and love. Boy is 19 and searching, he wears himself out walking for hours and hours around London, looking at his reflection in shop windows and through them to the wares within, not finding what he needs until he reaches the unmarked door that leads down to The Bar. There he slowly falls into the arms of O, short for Older (all the men have nicknames, plainly descriptive or plucked from movies), and together they embody the love affair of the century. It's just as well I didn't slip the book into the suitcase before coming to Edinburgh or I would now spend hours a) rereading the entire thing and/or b) typing out lengthy, scintillating quotations, because The Bar is my kind of utopia: a place apart, a society bound together by its own truth and its own rules, unconcerned by the pettiness and ugliness of the world surrounding it, except to record and mourn those occasions when violence encroaches, on the streets beyond, in a knife across a cheek, a punch or a taunt. It's a bar for men, gay men, queers and queens, who transform daily existence into a sequence of rituals, not all of them gentle; and it's run, presided over, by a creature of such extravagant theatricality that she inspires worship in every last man of them. This creature is Madame, later Mother; she has raven hair and a wardrobe of backless dresses intricately sewn with white sequins, each one exactly the same as the last, except in its modelling to the body shape she was, is or will be. Madame is rigorous and perspicacious and exquisite. She is also, now, the person I most want to be.
In I Am Not Myself These Days (Pleasance Courtyard), actor Tom Stuart plays Josh, a former high-school bassoon player so consumed by the terror of being gay and not fitting in that he effectively combusts, and from his ashes is born Aqua Disiac, a sequinned blonde-wigged queen, who prowls the Chinese restaurant scene of downtown Manhattan, searching for courage and love. She finds it in Jack, a crack addict and escort/rent boy/hooker, who loves Aqua for Josh's softness in the few minutes before his body wakes, before the tension of deep-set fear makes every muscle clench until only the slow drip of alcohol through his veins makes it possible for him to function. It's this vulnerability that makes Aqua such a gorgeous narrator – that and her breasts, half-orbs like snow-globes in which tiny goldfish burble and swim. I used to think I wanted breasts that could independently and simultaneously twirl tassles in opposite directions (hello, Immodesty Blaise); now I want fairground aquariums. Such is the trick drag plays on cis women, making them feel faintly deficient.
I had a few minutes of dissonance at the start of this show, realising that it was a play – which Stuart has also written, adapted from an autobiography of the same name – and not a confessional, like La JohnJoseph's absorbing (but earnest) Boy in a Dress or Le Gateau Chocolat's earnest and intermittently engaging Black. Although rooted in truth, it wasn't Stuart's lived truth; yet Stuart performs Aqua with so much heart that she soon emerges vivid from the sheen of virtuosity, tender as a new bruise, transparent as the bottles of vodka she nightly drowns in. I have all sorts of qualms about this show, from the sensation of voyeurism provoked by it being yet another story associating queer with wretchedness and drug abuse to its quest for “a career, sobriety and a boyfriend”, which read to me as a microcosm or metaphor for the general telescoping of gay liberation politics into the single issue of equal marriage (which, tangentially, reminded me of this fierce piece http://www.thenation.com/article/theres-reason-gay-marriage-winning-while-abortion-rights-are-losing/ published a few months ago, comparing a feminist argument for sexual freedom with a patriarchal tolerance for same-sex marriage). In the time it's taken me to put this paragraph together – two stints at 2am – I've had a top chat with X Ric Watts, a dedicated fan of Ru Paul's Drag Race, who shared my reservations to the point of not getting on with the show at all: he wanted genuine glamour, immaculate wig and make-up, an array of costume changes, less apology, less pandering to conservatism, something other than a clean-cut male actor playing at risk by putting on a frock. And I know exactly what he means, particularly when he says the romance of the story is entirely heteronormative – but it was that romance that snagged me, that made me care about Aqua and want to protect her. I know exactly the moment of being caught, too: Aqua has a cri de coeur early on, when Jack tells her conventionally not to drink so much, and she fumes at his normalcy, shouting to the morning sky, “I have a blonde helmet and a corset of armour to protect me from dull people.” If drag queens make cis women feel deficient, that's our own insecurity talking: really they show us the way out of our prisons.
There's another moment when Aqua, in a spasm of self-awareness, recognises that her office friends might “congratulate themselves that they count a drag queen among their acquaintance”. This show is a bit like that: it's a hetero-friendly vision of queer existence that primarily generates sympathy for the poor frightened boy beneath the sequins and glitter. Bartlett's Boy is so much less accommodating: as Aqua says of Jack's prostitution, Ready To Catch Him displays “a level of perversity beyond my expertise”. That's partly what makes the book so rapturously, headily, coruscatingly romantic: it is a love story that queers every stage of the relationship, celebrates the pleasure-pain of no-holds-barred sex, requires no conformity to climax in happy ever after. Whereas I Am Not Myself These Days uses queer as a path to a more enlightened and safe middle-class existence. And no, I didn't like that about it. But I did love Stuart's commitment, and vulnerability, the piquant soundtrack (particularly in the Aqua performances), the goldfish-globe breasts, and Aqua herself, in all her weakness. More, I suspect, than the real-life man who created her.
(Since hitting publish I've brushed my teeth and decided that it isn't fair to mention Ric and not the nine other people with whom I've had a conversation about I Am Not Myself These Days, none of whom shared his reservations. Of particular note: K, a gay man, who was really shaken by the scene in which Aqua is beaten up by a guy yelling "faggot", because that's a word he bandies about with his friends and has never experienced as a homophobic insult; P, a woman slightly older than me, who struggled to get past performance to authenticity; and A, a woman somewhat younger than me, who found the whole thing incredibly moving.)
(Mostly written in the wild-eyed solitude of the hours between 1am and 3.30am, when I know I should be sleeping but the words refuse to let me rest, 18/8/15.)
And the fact is I'm bored, so fucking bored of the conventions of theatre criticism: the codes of conduct, the elision of the critic's commercial function, the arguments over press nights and star ratings, the scrabble to get the words out fast, faster, fastest. Watching the fall-out of the Times reviewing the first preview of Hamlet reminded me: I don't want to follow prescribed conventions in writing about theatre. I not even sure I want to write about theatre. I want to sing the polyphony of revolution. With or without the kissing.
I wasn't going to do any reviewing while at the Edinburgh fringe – I'm only here for a few days – but writing about Wot? No Fish!! for Exeunt reminded me I do like doing this, just in my own way. And I haven't been here for a while, for reasons I'm still figuring out. This is a work-in-progress post that will change as I continue to rewrite above and extend below to flesh out thoughts on any of the following:
Jamie Wood's O No! (Assembly Roxy), which is a thing of such delight that my friend David and I were alternately in paroxysms of helpless laughter and gripping each other's arms to steady our giddy hearts.
Ellie Dubois' Ringside (Summerhall), a polished jewel of a show that made me feel tiny and awestruck.
Lost Dogs/Ben Duke's Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) (Summerhall), which says all the things about creating human beings in an imperfect world and broke me to smithereens.
Racheal Ofori's Portrait (Pleasance Dome), which delivers really smart, direct and accessible intersectional feminist discussion in a performance up there with Michaela Coel's in Chewing Gum Dreams.
Early Morning Opera's Abacus (Summerhall), which has something of Simon McBurney about it, and something else of Harry Giles, and is spectacularly foxing to boot.
Bridget Aphrodites' My Beautiful Black Dog (Underbelly, finished now), which was enjoyable for the first 40 minutes, then suddenly reached another plane of emotion entirely.
Panic Lab's R.I.O.T (Zoo Sanctuary), which was intermittently fun and knew where it needed to go in terms of feminist politics, but didn't get there. I kept thinking while watching: just three more turns on the sharpener, that's what this needs.
The Beanfield (Zoo Southside) by a bunch of fucking children from Warwick University who have no business whatsoever being so brilliant already. It embarrasses me that I'm old enough to be their collective mother.
This Is Not a Magic Show (Forest Fringe), which is quiet and unshowy and mind-boggling and a lovely construction of storytelling.
We May Have To Choose (Forest Fringe), a list of opinions rattled off by Emma Hall that is comic, graceful, discombobulating and smart.
Sue MacLaine's Can I Start Again Please? (Summerhall), which is constructed with such precision, such linguistic and metaphorical rigour, that I couldn't tell what had me in more of a tailspin, the intelligence or the violence of the subject matter.
Le Gateau Chocolat's Black (Assembly Hall), another depression show, this one with ganache-smooth singing.
It might not have anything about Jo Clifford's Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven (Summerhall at St Mark's Church), because I saw that last year, but I hope people are seeing it because it's exactly what church and religion and sacred should be.
It definitely won't have anything about Happy Birthday Without You (Roundabout at Summerhall) because I was stupid enough to miss the start time by two minutes and staff refused to let me in. I've been really struck this year by the military precision of every venue's timekeeping.I was furious with myself, but then I read Donald Barthelme's story Rebecca to my friend David at breakneck speed, and he read me Anthony Lane's review of 50 Shades of Grey with impeccable punctuation and emphasis, and the time didn't feel so wasted.
And it won't have anything on Sharron Devine's I Worried My Heart Wasn't Big Enough because I was so engrossed in conversation with Ellie Stamp about hysteria and definitions of abnormal mental health and selfies and comportment manuals and how people are taught to live by the rules and most especially describing to her in ridiculous detail the plot of Lolly Willowes that I didn't realise I had missed my time slot until it was 20 minutes too late. Apologies to Sharron for that.
I wasn't even going to come this year.
I try to leave but I never stray far.