Friday, 25 November 2016

a love letter to Anna Meredith

Here are some things that the Anna Meredith gig at the Scala reminded me of:

I'm aged about 20 and I'm watching Tortoise play live in a drab room above a pub in the wastelands of Camden. I feel like I'm on ecstasy because I want to kiss everyone in the room, because they're playing Cornpone Brunch – a song that sounds so tempered on record, so constrained – and it's exploding, propelling, the four arms of the two drummers blurring, the rhythm taut but expanding, swelling, the melody so joyful, beaming, and I know, I know that it's impossible for my body to feel happier, more full and flushed with the sheer fucking rapture of being alive, than it does right now in this room. It is one of four times I see Tortoise play in the space of barely a week, and every single one of those shows triggers the same rush of euphoria.

It's 1996: another day, same era. The needle falls on Squarepusher's Port Rhombus EP. There's a bubble of melody like the glint of tropical fish just out of reach of the sun, and the febrile click of an electronic drum pattern that gets faster and faster until it jitters uncontrolled, multiplying, erupting, splintering, contracting into order then accelerating again. My heartbeat, seduced by the melancholy of the chords, responds to the drumbeat in kind; muscles glitch in rhythm. It's only three songs but the speed of it, the concentration of it, the sheer fucking energy of it, leave me winded.

Aphex Twin. I mean, there was a moment back there when it felt like Aphex Twin was basically god, right?

It's some time in 2008, and I'm working on a column called Readers Recommend for the Guardian. Each week I choose a topic and readers suggest songs related to it, and I choose two playlists, a top 10 which gets published in the paper, and a b-list, like a runners-up prize, for the following week's blog. By this point I know a few things about my taste in music that aren't going to change. I know, for instance, that although I loved Robert Plant's collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, Led Zeppelin are repellent. I know that death metal makes me nauseous. And I know prog rock – a phrase I use fairly loosely to describe any ponderous music, probably made in the 1970s, involving flutes and interminable guitar solos – is awful. I cannot abide guitar solos. Not even when Jimi is playing them.

I can't remember any more why it came up, but one week on Readers Recommend someone suggested the song In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. I listen to it. And I'm... transported. It's utterly compelling. Dramatic, rousing, delicate, taking all the time it needs to develop, to tell its story not just narratively but melodically. I'm listening to it again now for the first time in a few years, and sure, part of me wants to claim that I was under the influence of Grace Slick/Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, but another part of me is also thinking: swoon.

The thing about Tortoise, Sqaurepusher, Aphex and King Crimson (King fucking Crimson though), in case it's not already obvious, is: they're all men. And so the intoxication, the sheer fucking elation of the Anna Meredith gig has, somewhere in the mix, a profound gratitude and satisfaction at seeing a woman – a woman in her late-30s at that – in control of those rapid-fire drumbeats, those arcs of sound, those reins of contain and release. I felt a little sad that the song at the Scala that met with the quietest cheer was Last Rose, sung by Meredith in a voice high and light as a helium balloon: for sure it was restrained, a fragile tempered thing, but that's part of Meredith's skill, the complexity and integrity with which she balances turbulence and composure.

I first saw her in March this year, by accident really: I was looking for gig reviews to pitch to the Guardian, her name had come up when I was working on texts for the new website of the National Youth Orchestra, where she's much admired for her composition Body Parts – no instruments, music made from the slap of hands against faces, torsos, legs, hands, the click and thump of skin against muscle, flab, fabric, skin – and I figured it'd be interesting to see what a contemporary classical composer might be doing in a pop framework. At the ICA, Meredith and her band all wore black with gold accents – best was drummer Sam Wilson, with a huge gold-mirror dinosaur skeleton necklace from Tatty Divine – and played like they'd found the key to harnessing the electricity of the skies. Frantic, screeching riffs that I'd assumed were constructed on synthesisers turned out to be played on live cello, fingers swarming across strings like a colony of cockroaches confronted by lamplight. Wilson might have been both drummers from Tortoise synthesised into one. There was a tuba – a fucking tuba! sorry, I know, too much swearing – strident, resplendent, absurd in its enormity. And over at the side, behind a bank of keyboards dressed in tacky gold velvet, with drums and glockenspiel and occasionally wielding a clarinet, was Meredith, giggling with the fun of it all, thanking us profusely – I'm acting like it's a wedding, she said – bouncing about in a way I'll wager she never gets to do in the concert halls where her other compositions are performed. That was it for me: absolute, undying love. I went and bought the album from her at the merch stall and could barely even speak.

That gig was great: the Scala gig was even better. I stood almost at the front, hairs on both arms fizzing, ribcage ruptured by the weight of the bass, beaming and basking. Six months of playing together has made the band harder, faster, stronger: Meredith composes tight, so every track stays true to the recording, just with the voltage emphatically cranked. What's startling about the arrangements in the instrumentals – that is, the more vigorous and invigorating music – is how rhythmically unstable it is: she'll start in one tempo but will surreptitiously slip in another, forcing the rest of the instruments to adjust to the shift, and then she'll do it again, each time creating a lurch, a dissonance, but also the pleasure of pattern slipping into place, of a Rubik's cube suddenly resolving. And while in a, let's say, prog-ish setting her instruments might be given individual spotlight attention, here they are embedded in the unit; there's a lot of fiddly business on the guitar but it's always integral to the texture, the warp to the cellos' weft.

If I were trying really hard to be critical (ha!) I'd wonder if the exactitude of the playing might have a downside, a lack of improvisatory spontaneity, but Meredith is smarter than that, too: she knows just how to transform each each gig into a unique event. Her Scala show began with her and Wilson on stage, all but shrouded in darkness, and a second drummer similarly concealed ON THE BALCONY ABOVE THE AUDIENCE and I'm using capitals because in what, 25 years of dedication to live music I don't recall seeing the like: Meredith extracted a ticklish, skitterish drum track from her computer, which Wilson intermittently interrupted with a clatter on his drums, the light momentarily illuminating him then instantly flicking over to the second drummer (Chris Brice) who gave a clatter on his. And so it continued for a good five minutes, the three of them playing with dynamics, with anticipation and surprise, the whole thing fiendishly intricate, the flash and lunge of a sword fight translated into light and sound. (I discover later that this is one of Meredith's “contemporary classical” works, Brisk Widow: as if we didn't already know that the distinctions are arbitrary and pointless.) In the middle, Meredith did the same little advertisement for the merch stall that she gave at the ICA, only this time the band performed a faintly sleazy, 1970s cocktail lounge soundtrack behind it, gloopy as an orange lava lamp. And then at the end, they stomped their way through a raucous version of the Proclaimer's 500 Miles and it was like that moment late in a wedding party when the DJ drops something stupendously, ridiculously obvious and everyone loses their shit on the dancefloor, the Scala crowd yelling along with the chorus in a vocal equivalent of dads pogoing to Parklife.

At the ICA the ludicrous cover was a scuzzed mutation of Jennifer Rush's shoulder-padded time capsule The Power of Love. And this is the other genius thing about Meredith: how liberal she is in her love of music, the evident absence of snobbery in her tastes. She will flirt with bombast, embrace bad taste, risk embarrassment, because she knows that's all nonsense: what matters is how a song sounds and so makes a body feel. If it sounds bewilderingly like Queen, Dizzee Rascal, Metallica and the Field Mice all playing their way at once, but makes the heart pump undiluted bliss, where's the bad in that?

I'm doing it again, framing her within references to men. And at the risk of repetition, although fuck it, this one bears repeating: it means so, so much (to me, but also generally) that Meredith is a woman, in her late-30s, the time when women conventionally are being told to listen out for their biological clocks and get on with the business of making babies, casting off every possible shackle of expectation, labelling, convention, to play. That's what she's doing, not just playing music but playfulling music, so that it's as light and silly and borderline pompous as it is fierce, rigorous, punctilious. There's an interview with her in the Quietus where she talks sidelong about that spirit of play; I'm going to quote it in full because it's gorgeous:
[S]inging was a bit scary, and it's definitely a step on from anything I've ever done before. But there's a real accountability thing with this album. I wanted it to tie in with it feeling like I've done everything on it, and I also always want to push myself. I can't think of anything – in a musical sense – where I've ever said: "Oh no, that's too much for me." Or, "I can't do that, it's too scary." So even though I definitely do not have the best voice, it is my voice, and that's what this whole thing is about. It's honest. It's not very polished. But that's how I sing – like a squeaky five-year-old boy [laughs]. I've made that work for me. I've got loads of amazing singer mates that I could have used, but I wanted not to make it seem like anyone else. I really wanted to make it clear that there was no one else behind the record. There's not some dude behind the scenes who's actually doing all the stuff. This has, from start to finish, been my thing.

And when I've done everything, start to finish, I think it's important to point that out. Hopefully it's also a good role model for younger girls, to feel that they can do it. Whenever I'm teaching teenage girl composers, the one thing I always say is don't be too daunted by stuff you don't know how to do. Because, having dipped my toe into this whole world, I've realised that there are as many factions and preconceptions and problems and rules [in pop] as there are in classical music. Someone, somewhere will always tell you what they think you should be doing. But all you should really be doing is working out what you want to do, and what you can do for yourself.
You couldn't ask for a better guide to living than that.


Friday, 11 November 2016

into the shadows

It's two months now since I saw Belarus Free Theatre's Burning Doors, months foggy with autumnal despair, through which my mantra has been a single line of its text: You have nothing to lose but your fear. The show itself did make me afraid: afraid for the people whose stories it told, artist-activists who have experienced prison, who remain imprisoned, because they had the temerity to challenge their government. Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina is one of the performers, and that flesh-and-blood presence makes more tangible the distant bodies of Petr Pavlensky, whose actions of protest have included sewing his lips together and nailing his scrotum to the pavement in front of Lenin's mausoleum, and Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, deemed a terrorist by the Russian government and punished accordingly. The whole show strives to convey the physical stress experienced by those bodies; performers are pummelled, pulled into the air with rope, dragged back by cords, pushed under water, and those are just the images most immediate in my memory. I found the reviews on the negative side of the spectrum bizarre, because they all complained of a lack of articulacy in the choreography of the show, as though only text could communicate fury, disgust, or the attempt at human degradation practised by the Russian authorities; as though muscle and skin lack a language of their own.

By contrast it was the text segments of Burning Doors I struggled with most – no, wait, that's more emphatic than I mean it to be. Political fervour aside, the show was thrilling for its theatrical fluidity, shifting in approach and style to present each scene in the form most suited to its content. (Come to think of it, that fluidity, or flexibility, or responsiveness, is integral to its politics, too.) Sometimes the form was satirical, sometimes poetical; sometimes it was an on-stage interview, and sometimes it was wordless. The more abstract, the more lyrical, the more it asked of the imagination, the more it held me in thrall. The pause in which the audience could interview Maria was difficult, lacking in nuance, her English too mechanical to attempt more than the most cursory answers to thoughtful questions. And the satirical material was my least favourite, not least because the characters created to deliver it, two wealthy Russians with plenty of influence and almost no conscience, were so objectionable that I just wanted them out of the room. One of my favourite twitter acquaintances remarked after seeing the show that “British theatreland [was] schooled” by it, and I can see why: it's rare to see such multifaceted presentation from a British company, such disregard for stylistic cohesiveness. Burning Doors' variety made it singular and its singularity made it emphatic: do something, do anything, it cried from its core, but don't just sit there doing nothing. Take what you feel in this room and use it to fight for other humans.

A big question this year for me has been: what does it mean to fight? I fear I've already reached the point of diminishing repetition on this blog, circling the same arguments like a dog chasing its tail, but I keep working through the question because my answer is always changing. A few months ago, writing about Melanie Wilson's Opera for the Unknown Woman, I was on the side of “protest, collaborative reasoning and the occupation of space”, framing these as peaceable activities. Whereas Andrew Haydon, in his review, dismissed “peaceful protests” in favour of “armed revolution”, expressing this in part through an idiosyncratically pedantic (I say that with admiration!) unravelling of the title of Audre Lorde's essay The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House: “Look at anything that's been simply screwed together,” he remarked, “and you'll probably agree that using a screwdriver isn't the worst suggestion for taking it down. And so it may prove to be with neoliberalism and armed resistance.” His words have stuck with me, melding with the line from Burning Doors, “you have nothing to lose but your fear”, and with all the encouraging remarks of the female activists who tell their stories in the book Here We Stand, women who stood in front of buses, scaled buildings and lay in the path of bulldozers to force power to shift its position. All these things are a challenge and an incitement and entirely contrary to my generally acquiescent personality. I struggle to complain if my food is lukewarm at a restaurant: pit me against an irate (or frightened) policeman and absolutely I will crumble.

Two days after seeing Burning Doors, I started another book telling stories of activism, Canongate's updated imprint of Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark. I've needed these books so much this year: needed the reminders of continuum, of ongoing and accumulative struggle; needed the belligerence; needed the optimism. Solnit, too, is on the side of “protest, collaborative reasoning and the occupation of space” – but with a clear understanding that power, from whatever point on the political spectrum, will surge to crush these things, and so you have to be ready to fight, even if that's not what you're actively seeking. As I started writing this, I was reading a little of the Dakota access pipeline protests, of police in riot gear spraying mace and firing rubber bullets at anyone who had the temerity to stand up against the devastation of Sioux land and the shared environment being wreaked by an energy company working with the acquiescence of local and state government. “What was once the left is now so full of anomalies,” Solnit writes, that the old distinctions of left and right are worthless: better to “give up the dividing by which we conquer ourselves”, and work to create “coalitions … based on what wildly different groups have in common and differences can be set aside”.

Early in the book, Solnit shapes a suggestive metaphor, imagining “the world as a theatre”:
The acts of the powerful and the official occupy centre stage. The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on that stage. The limelights there are so bright that they blind you to the shadowy spaces around you, make it hard to meet the gaze of the other people in the seats, to see the way out of the audience, into the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work. A lot of the fate of the world is decided onstage, in the limelight, and the actors there will tell you that all of it is, that there is no other place.
Maybe it's impossible to work in relation to theatre and not take this literally. On the one hand I think of my work with Dialogue, and particularly of Theatre Club, where the invitation is very much for the audience to turn their gaze upon each other, to see the work through perspectives otherwise kept in the shadows, peripheral to artist intention or professional-critical response. On the other, I think back to what my friend Simon Bowes wrote me after reading John Berger's essay The Theatre of Indifference, his anxiety that “the experience of performing or of watching a performance is a way of divesting ourselves of real participation in politics by creating a simulation of it”. So much of my time is given to working out what theatre to see, booking tickets, travelling to and from the venue, writing about the work afterwards. Where else might that energy be directed?

The same passage about theatre from Hope in the Dark was quoted in a show I saw at the end of October, Accidental Collective's Here's Hoping: a show that keeps the lights on, mostly, and invites its audience not only to see each other but to imagine what might be in their minds. It's a show without solutions, only suggestions and questions: what are you hoping for? How similar or different might that be to what the others in this room are hoping for? And, in the undertow, how can we work with that, with each other? Although simple in construction, it's also a show of emotional complexity, dimming with Pablo Pakula's admissions of dejection that drifts into depression, seeking possibility in the stories of people who cope in the most extreme of circumstances, Daisy Orton describing a teenage boy in bomb-wrecked Aleppo building a model of his reconstructed city, or the orchestra in Leningrad who defied Hitler's siege to perform the premiere of Shostakovich's revitalising Seventh Symphony. In between, they ask the audience to picture hope – our group offered blue skies, woodland walks, mostly natural images – and for each response they placed a seed on the floor, promising in their programme note: “The seeds used in the show will be planted out in the world – as little surprises and defiant reminders.” What a gorgeous action. It reminded me of a children's book I read last month, Home by Jeannie Baker (originally published as Belonging): 20 or so illustrations looking out of the same window, the scene in each shifting incrementally from a distressed and obdurate cityscape, empty shops and graffiti on cracked concrete and cranes in the far distance, to a softer and more prosperous town, but one in which nature is paramount, those cracks in the concrete planted with trees and flowers, the scene growing more green than grey, until the final picture is one of lush verdancy, neighbourliness and play. Meanwhile the objects on the windowsill declare the passing of time: the occupier of the room grows from a little girl to a teenager, heads off to university, gets married, and then, in that final picture, we see her outside in the garden, holding her own swaddled baby. That's how long positive change can take.

Time preoccupies me, and the value of actions as small as planting a seed. There's a poem I know, via Andy Field, a nursery rhyme really, about a house in a street in Paris where a bird lives in a cage; the bird knocks its egg, which knocks its nest, which knocks over the cage, which tips over the table, the room, the house, and before you know it the whole of Paris has fallen down. Each action, however small, has a ripple effect, that maybe cannot be traced. And so, what are the small actions that each of us might take that could, eventually, bring the entire fucking Tory government down? Would we know our actions had contributed? Would that even matter?

I happened to read the edited highlights of Ed Vaizey's speech about left-wing bias in the arts (on which, Haydon is at his idiosyncratic which includes pedantic best, both in his response published in The Stage and, majestically, in a blog post titled The Death of the West) on the same day as seeing High Rise's Merryville at Camden People's Theatre. Merryville is pretty much the definition of what Vaizey thinks the Tory government and all who sail in her are up against, and makes very clear why massed establishment forces are doing their utmost to circumscribe and destabilise artists, whether by limiting funding (of course people making art ask for money: how else can they pay their fucking rent?) or curbing access to non-conventional art forms within the academy (see, for instance, the erosion of Dartington College's exploratory, speculative and indeterminate performance art/writing courses since it was swallowed up by Falmouth University, by more concrete and, crucially, money-spinning degrees in acting): art is, or at least can be, a space of dissent, and the likes of Vaizey want that space to be drained of sun and oxygen so all that lives there withers. So yes: Merryville is one of the most explicitly anti-Tory shows I've seen this year, and I loved it, LOVED IT, loved it so much that I want to relive it by describing it in minute detail, but also want to hold my tongue so that when it comes back – and it will, it must – I haven't spoiled all its surprises for people yet to see it.

It's set in 2020, which is already a poke in the ribs, because it's far enough away for it to be realistic that a fair amount more damage could have been inflicted on our already worn and torn society, but not so far that we couldn't do something about it, if only we get on with it quicksharp. The London it's set in is an exaggeration, but only just, of the one we live in now: most of the poor people have been evicted and rehoused in other cities (an unexpected by-product being that there's now a kicking grime scene in Norwich); supermarket food is no longer affordable; and – a step too far, this one, judging by the audience's gasps – Sadiq Khan has been caught in the war-on-terror crossfire. The MC/performers, Dominic Garfield's Dr Green Fingers and Gerel Falconer's Dustin Roads, cling to the city as their birthright and their beloved: the show takes place in the basement of Merryville, “the last 'affordable' housing block in London”, to which they've retreated to perform their grime gigs, having been slapped with a public disturbance order after getting on their soapboxes at Speaker's Corner. This show, in fact, is a grime gig, characters and narratives emerging more through rapid-fire tracks than the bits of chatter that connect them. Be still my joyful heart.

Joyful is the word for the whole show, really: for all that the London of Merryville is relentlessly grim, there is a brightness and bounce to Garfield and Falconer's performances, a buoyancy to their rapport with each other, that makes sharing a room with them a thing of laughter and pleasure. And yet, their lyrics are perspicacious enough, abrasive enough, that often what they say will provoke wincing: in my absolute favourite song, they offset a list of things going up – from rents and prices to fear and racism – with a concomitant list of things going down, whether maintenance grants or NHS provision or cultural diversity. It's brilliant because it's scathing of austerity politics and gentrification, but also because it's melodically flawless, a tune I can still hum a week after seeing the show.

So far, so strong, but the thing that makes Merryville transcenfuckingdentally exhilarating is a sudden schism between Garfield and Falconer, in which one takes arms and heads out on to the streets, while the other advocates writing, conversation, art, as the tools of a gentler revolution. As in Here's Hoping, I could hear in the flux of the text all the contradictory dialogue that otherwise pulses in my head. Like Falconer's Dustin Roads, writing is what I do, engaging with theatre is what I do, imagining another way of living and sharing those thoughts in public space is how I combat the reality of austerity Britain. Except it's not really combat, is it? It's too diffident, too feeble, too easy to ignore. I do it because I'm frightened to do anything else. Because, for all I keep writing about this, I haven't lost my fear.

Since August, I've thought often about the UK Black Lives Matter road shutdown, cherished the mental image I have of the M4 at a standstill (pretty easy to conjure up, to be honest, but so much more invigorating when it's not just humdrum traffic). It feels to me that this is the work that needs doing now: not writing, not making theatre, not waving baseball bats in people's faces either, but getting away from all our everyday motions, and joining in one protest after another after another, even if it's not a matter we “want” to protest about. The way Sisters Uncut have been joining library protests, embodying the “vital ways in which many different people work together to keep public services that benefit the majority”. The way Black Lives Matter went on to join forces with (white) environmental groups to shut down City airport, putting on the front line the bodies least vulnerable. The way Solnit describes environmental activists and ranchers bypassing their disagreements to collaborate in protecting the land they love (with the caveat that if all of those people are white and racism is among the disagreements they're bypassing, that's a problem). A constant state of shutdown, of filling streets with bodies, responding to the negatives of austerity, neoliberalism and inequality with another negative, a refusal to live any longer on those terms, a refusal to contribute to this society at all. Of course it's ridiculous, flamboyantly stupid in its idealism. But what does a double negative make if not a positive? And what is hope if not a flame of positive thinking amid the ashes of our dreams?

I wrote that paragraph sitting at a sturdy wooden table at Selina Thompson's house, while she – amazingly, with a generosity I don't deserve – cooked up mulled wine and a great dinner, told me about the book she's writing, and stitched a quilt of argument with me, patches of our reading lined up side by side, creating clash but also pattern. I love her because she challenges me: in response to some of the above, for instance, she imperceptibly raised her eyebrows and pointed out the importance of challenging friends and family and working closely with local community and existent grassroots groups; exposing, that is, the impulse towards grand performative gesture and replacing it with slow, patient, real actions. This acuity means I leave every exchange with her kicking myself, but also grateful, immensely grateful, for her patience in the face of my white-middle-class-ness, and the ways in which she enables me to sift my own language for wheat and chaff. Some of the chaff in Tuesday's conversation was the evident laxity with which I use the word “we”; some more in the inevitability with which I will air the melancholy of the privileged, the thin end of the wedge that thickened this week into Trump's imminent presidency. I write this with that vote cast, iron, inexorable. And once again, I'm torn: what is the point of all this theatre, all this writing, in the face of that violence? In making these products, might we, or “we”, be complicit in the inaction, the silence, the distraction that enforce Trump and white supremacy? And if we are, what are we going to do about it? Carry on? Or really change?

I have no ending for this, because I'm still afraid, and while the world keeps turning so does the internal debate, moving in eddies, unceasing. I'm aware, too, of attempting to hog a moment on stage, of limelight. And so to the shadows, to the others working there: to these words of Harry Giles, another set of complications, another way of unknowing and unbeing.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

dancing through the gloom

I'm writing this in recovery from falling off my bike, a spectacular vault across the handlebars that has left me with a split eyebrow, a swollen cheekbone, a bruised lip and grazed knee: looking, that is, how I've been feeling for weeks, beaten-up and blue. Work – commissioned, paid work – dried up some time in June, apart from a single precious long-term project (bless you, Unfolding Theatre) whose deadline isn't until February. [Correction added later: there was also this piece for the Orange Tree, a brief flashback to journalism days; and of course the week at the Edinburgh festival with The Sick of the Fringe. Apologies to both for forgetting.] And while I could have spent the beginning of the school year wisely, seizing the opportunity to stretch out as a writer, or return to abandoned pursuits, X or overhaul my web presence to accentuate my brand (puke), what I've actually done is spiral down into a salt-stained gloom. A sense of failure is dismally self-fulfilling: you think you're not good enough, so you don't even try, which proves you're not good enough, for anything. And the problem runs deeper than self-pity (in which I've been triumphant: no failure there): once again I'm suffocated by a sense of pointlessness. I've fought the urge to dump this in the bin with every word. And no, I don't know why I say any of this in public, except that other people's accounts of anxiety and self-loathing help me, often, and I saw Jamal Gerald perform FADoubleGOT this week and was touched by the invitation with which he begins: this is me telling my truth, and I hope it encourages you to tell yours.

So here is something true: magic Megan Vaughan getting a job at the Live Art Development Agency earlier this year gave me the courage, for the first time since attempting to shift how I write about theatre, to apply to take part in the Agency's DIY programme. I participated in two: the first left me a wreck; the second, unprofessional class, run by dancers Jamila Johnson-Small and Mira Kautto as their collaboration immigrants and animals, might prove the beginning of rehabilitation. Ordinarily I'd never have applied for a dance workshop – I've never been to any dance classes, and amid the panoply of failures it's a source of particular shame that every one of the dances I've choreographed for the Actionettes has been performed by the others under a kind of duress and quickly forgotten – but there was something about Jamila and Mira's invitation that told me this would be OK. “we want to share our practice which is basically fucking about for ages in a room, getting tired and calling it work. we think that dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”, all of which are things I do; “some dancing that is a gleeful waste of time, a resistance to capitalism and the development of cultural capital (or capital of any kind) or function or product; non-practical bodies dancing towards no particular purpose or end”, all of which I believe in profoundly.

There were five workshops and I was invited to two (not, sadly, the one that took place in the pre-Raphaelite room at Tate Britain where they danced to Kate Bush). In my first, Mira and Jamila shared the tasks and music that form the basis of their show Pony, and invited each of us to interpret them for ourselves; we ran through them once for practice, and then performed for each other in two groups, which might have been excruciating (the performance-for-critique aspect being what broke me in the other DIY), except that Mira and Jamila held the space so generously: there were no wrong answers, wrong movements, wrong versions, only ways of moving, each as radiant in possibility as the other. For the second, they invited us to dress in “formal attire, whatever that means for you”, and serenaded us with cheesy pop – the kind of songs played at a wedding or adolescent disco – with barely any instruction for how we might respond to them. That they didn't know the words a lot of the time, that their voices quavered on the high notes, that they giggled at themselves and the struggle of the song, all contributed to the atmosphere of permission. Did I pick up any new techniques or moves? No. Did I manage to slough off self-consciousness for a couple of hours? Absolutely, and that is precious – the more so because each room held a performer I look to with awe, Gillie Kleiman in the first, Laura Dannequin the second. When Gillie told me that she'd enjoyed dancing with me, I brushed it off, told her I'd just been doing nonsense; but inside I was so grateful, to her and to the opportunity, not only to think through dance but to remember that the hierarchies of art that feel so real are just another social construct designed to oppress and harm.

Here's something else true: when I watched Jerome Bel's Gala at Sadler's Wells, it felt like a continuation of unprofessional class, not just because I could imagine myself part of it but because Mira and Jamila could so easily have shaped that performance and stepped up to that stage. I arrived there a mess, limbs aching, blood seeping through the skin splints holding my eyebrow together, but I had an inkling that being there would make at least my insides better and it did. Gala is glorious. There's an acid-bath article about it on the New York site Culturebot by dancer/thinker Lily Kind that dismisses it as “cliche, gimmicky, dull, cowardly, and exploitative … presenting bodies traditionally underrepresented in dance and theater [but] presenting them as interchangeable, as check boxes for their particular brand of otherness instead of as their actual, unique, individual selves”. And there's a less furious but equally critical comment elsewhere by another American dancer, Gregory Holt, which describes it as “reactionary rather than transformative”, adding:

Bel created a sentimental mirror that affirmed our desire to be open to diversity without challenging the basis of access to the festival space, funding space, cosmopolitan art space he is working in. In this way, he narrowly exploited ‘diversity’ to cement his own cis-white-male voice without sharing in the political and artistic risks facing marginalized artists who are also trying to show their dances.

All of which I appreciate (it is, after all, Bel and not immigrants and animals behind this work), without emotionally agreeing. Such joy suffused me in the room that I spent half the show crying, helplessly, snottily, partly as a release (of the pain of the fall, of the pointlessness of being alive), but mostly at the ineffable beauty of humanity, the ways in which limbs can move, awkward yet proud. A joy so serious that the laughter in the room unsettled me, especially that directed at anyone whose gender expression wasn't binary; too often it sounded like the clanging, judgemental, ugly laughter of enforced marginalisation.

Admittedly it took me a while to warm to Gala: the opening slide show of differently shaped theatres and stages just bored me, as did the exhibition of ballet pirouettes and jetes. The switch came with the three-minute collective solo improvisation in silence; because this was the flashback to unprofessional class, and because within the muddle it was possible to see the dancers as individuals, each with their own quirks. This is what I loved about Gala: the ways in which it underlined the point that “dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”. In this it reminded me of another beloved work, Krissi Musiol's long-term project The Dance Collector, in which she visits public spaces – cafes, whenever I've encountered it – and chats to anyone she encounters there, asking them to give her a dance move which she can incorporate into a bigger choreography of place, to be performed in the same room a couple of hours later. Some people gift her stories of meeting their spouses in a dance hall in their youth, but far more give her the instant response, “oh no, I don't dance, I don't have anything”, and it's only through kind and patient conversation that Krissi will discover the movement they can give her, whether it's the dance of the football terraces when a goal is scored, the dance of wringing out the dishcloth when the kitchen is tidied, or the dance of reaching for an item on a high shelf in the supermarket.

I guess I trusted Gala in a way those American writers didn't; trusted that it gave its dancers the same freedoms – not just of movement but from criticism – that Jamila and Mira gave me. I trusted that the Company/Company section, in which one individual after another steps forward and leads the group in a dance of their own devising, really did feature solos of individual and idiosyncratic devising, from people who are specialists in their own way. I saw a specialist in being a little girl, tossing your long blonde hair around to Miley Cyrus; a specialist in adapting the movements of breakdancing to a body twisted by cerebral palsy; a specialist in juddering hands to the beats of techno; a specialist in – possibly my favourite – effervescent hula hooping. (That last performer, a black woman with amazing candy-pink braids, reminded me so much of Hot Brown Honey, the ways in which they are clearly virtuosic but wear that talent so lightly, at the same time scouring off cliches of beauty to present a more complicated feminine identity.) Behind each of these specialists, the rest of the group followed their leader with total commitment, no matter what flailing and floundering it produced. What Gala celebrates is unprofessionalism – or, as another writer online so insightfully put it, the true meaning of amateur, its etymology in the French and Latin for lover.

I love dancing, but I'd never call myself a dancer. I love painting but I've never let myself be a painter. I had a love-hate relationship with playing guitar that petered out and still aches with the pain of unrequitement; I love singing but rarely sing in public, only if I feel camouflaged. Introducing myself to a group of strangers recently, I noted aloud that I write, but always use the verb to describe that: not until I've published something of imaginative scope, of actual invention, of worth in the world, and ideally not as a vanity project but as sanctioned by a third party, could I call myself a writer. So much of my innate sense of failure lives in this lack of professionalism. Politically, I am part of the chorus fighting against this: the blog I kept as part of Fuel's New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project articulated a lot of that, and I read the most recent blog post on the 64 Million Artists site murmuring over and over, true, true, true. Jo Hunter (I'm assuming it's her) writes:

There is creativity happening everywhere in the UK. Yes there is inequality and poverty in this country when we use the measures of money or formal cultural provision. But there is richness too, in every place – musicians and writers and dreamers and cake bakers. So let’s start by celebrating what’s already there rather than panicking about what’s not. Let’s champion the brass bands and the grime artists and the felters and the am dram and the pumpkin carvers, alongside the professionals and the existing infrastructure.

I can cheer these things in other people. It's what I'm loving so much about the project I'm doing with Unfolding: that, too, is a celebration of unprofessionalism, of playing music “as a gleeful waste of time... towards no particular purpose or end”. I just can't find a way to celebrate or even accept them in myself. My salve this week has been to wonder if anyone can, whether the affirmation that makes it possible for others to work as artists comes not from within but without: from the partners they collaborate with, the community that surrounds them, the organisations that say yes, we want to work with you. In some ways I have those things, but four straight months of no commissioned paid work can very much make it feel otherwise. In that absence, it has been altogether too easy to turn inwards, to pummel myself from within. I've been telling myself since I was a teenager that I don't have anything perceptive to say about the human condition; two decades later that truth is so solid within me it's unbreakable. (Writing about theatre is the only way I've found to evade that, because it's the makers being perceptive, not me, but even that isn't working any more.) And as I mop up the orange gunge oozing from my knee, I wish I could as easily cure the infection in my soul.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

French connections (2): a return to the Travellings festival

Sometimes, life just throws you a gift. Sometimes that gift is a friend buying you cake and sometimes it's A PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL BUYING YOU A RETURN TICKET TO MARSEILLES FOR THE WEEKEND. No strings, no expectations. I looked really hard for the catch, double-checking the invitation email for the small print that said “oh and you have to write about us or we'll have the flight and hotel costs back”, but never found it. I don't have to be doing this. But I want to, because the Travellings festival does a lot of things I want all performance festivals to do, with heart, consideration and a genuine approach to experiment that takes failure in its stride.

This was my second year at Travellings and the two festivals were surprisingly unalike. Not in the basics: Travellings is curated by Lieux Publics, a long-standing French organisation that supports multi-disciplinary outdoor performance, and takes place within the same former industrial complex where Lieux Publics has its offices, which happens to squat across the road from a sprawling housing estate. And it coincides with an annual meeting of the In-Situ network, an EU-funded collaboration between 20+ arts festivals, each of whose artistic directors attends, bringing with them an artist or collective, someone whose work they want to share with the rest of the group. So Travellings has to perform multiple functions, creating space for the In-Situ network to conduct some business, but also creating an informal atmosphere of sharing and discussing performance, and doing this not in a closed way but opening out to a general public, not just the culture aficionados unfazed by the rickety journey from the centre of Marseilles, but also the people who live on the estate opposite, for whom performance – even outdoor performance – might be an elitist and inaccessible thing.

Where the two Travellings differed was in structure and atmosphere. Last year (which I wrote about here) there were panel discussions in the mornings, and the meetings between artists and artistic directors took place over lunch tables with a scrupulously organised seating rota, and the public programme of work was by artists unconnected to the In-Situ meeting, mostly “finished”, and stretched across two days. This year, the panel discussions were dumped and the lunches free-form, while the performance programme was condensed into a single four-hour period and entirely featured the artists engaged in the In-Situ meeting, presenting work in synopsis or various states of unreadiness, followed by a party shaped by local group Rara Woulib. Neither structure is perfect: what this year gained in informality, it lost in comprehensiveness; I had frustrations last year, I had different frustrations this year. But Lieux Publics' willingness to rethink and remodel is highly appealing.

My main problem this year was time. There were 17 works on offer, some durational, some with set start times, and lasting between 15 and 60 minutes. At the beginning of the day I was arrogantly declaring that I'd see all of them, but within a couple of hours queues were defeating me, overheated rooms repelling me, and motivation flagged. In the end I saw just over half the work, a result that made the competitive idiot in me balk.

Of what I did see, I'm going to focus on the most positive. Luke Jerram's Museum of the Moon is 100% brilliant. BRILLIANT. He has all sorts of different settings planned for it, and the one at Travellings was probably the simplest: the moon was suspended from the ceiling of a massive shed, deckchairs were arranged along one edge of the room, and in the background a soundtrack played, a tidal collage of static and recordings of the Apollo landings and classical music and more. The moon itself is just a gigantic beach ball, but over its surface is pasted, as declared on the project website, a “120dpi detailed NASA imagery of the lunar surface”. And it's illuminated all the way around: what you see on first entering the room is the far side of the moon, the bit usually hidden from earth. That's a thing of wonder in itself.

Looking at the near side, our side, I scanned the pock-marked surface for the faces so easy to project from earth, but its shadows denied anthropomorphism. Proximity afforded new ways of looking, of dreaming and reaching. I circled it, tracing patterns in its craters; lay directly below it and through the air molecules felt its weight. And then a lonely piano played and I wished there were someone I could dance with, or that the room might flood with old people, gliding the floor in a foxtrot while singing silvery tunes.

Jerram, it turns out, is the man who first started putting pianos in public places: in his version – commissioned as part of the Fierce Festival in Birmingham in 2008 – they're decorated by local community groups and bear the inscription Play Me, I'm Yours. He's based in Bristol (which means he also saw the Fake Moon that was suspended over College Green in 2013 as part of In Between Time; I loved that too, but it was piffle compared with this one), and initially trained in sculpture and performance art, but soon decided that he didn't want to make small-scale work that played to the curator and a handful of industry people. So this is what he makes now: not just big sculptures or big spectacles but big possibilities for gathering people into a fold. Works for me: Museum of the Moon is coming to the Norwich & Norfolk Festival in May 2017 and already I want to be there.

From seeing the moon to the feeling of walking on it: designed in collaboration with an architect, Intraverse takes an individual audience member up several flights of stairs before inviting them to buckle on a harness and abseil down again. That's already a massive spoiler so I'll avoid any others, but for me this was a profoundly philosophical work, one that invited participants to contemplate the leaps in life that seem too scary to undertake, and with that the possibility that the place they take you to could be as calm and safe and banal as the habitual already known. Which somehow went beyond how the makers – Vektor Normal and Balint Toth from Hungary – presented it, despite the multiple ways built in to subvert and play with perception.

Of the three games that make up You Are Not Alone, by Italian group Urban Games Factory, the one that articulated perception and snap judgements was by far the most fun and effective. To start, participants are split into two small groups and separated into different rooms. Round my table were four women (two French, one Bulgarian and me, aged roughly 30-50), and the first game required each of us to take turns posing a question, to be answered by the others. There were childish questions (how many brothers and sisters do I have? what's my favourite fruit?), personal questions (how many people have I slept with?) and personality questions (what's the first thing I'd do if I won the lottery?), and with each round we were able to shape our answers with a little more knowledge and consideration. The winner of each round was the person closest to the correct answer, and at the end the overall winner was given a box of biscuits. Really, what more do you want?

The rest of it was less developed; another game invited us to reflect on anger, friendship and happiness, while the third united both groups and sent us on a treasure hunt, which ended with us attempting to fly a banner reading “you are not alone” that proved to be too heavy for the balloons tied to it so had to be truncated to “you are not”. That's work in progress for you: risky.

Saffy Setohy and Bill Thompson's light and sound installation Light Field suffered from this fragility: most people I spoke to dismissed it as unformed, but they'd also spent only a minute or two in the room, when really it needed 10 or 15 minutes to get something out of it. It's still in flux, and I had a lovely chat with Saffy – a choreographer usually – about the various ways in which she's staged it so far and what might be the optimum setting for it, but in this iteration I loved the quiet rhythms of the movement, the ways in which humans gathered unselfconsciously in flocks, scattered and clustered again. The room is dark, but on the ground are a few wind-up torches; the invitation is to carry them around the space, whirring the handle to stir the atmosphere. I did this for a bit but then sat in the corner and watched as the lights brightened and dimmed, drifted and gathered. The simplicity of this unintentional, spontaneous choreography really appealed to me; and to another of the writers, Joris van den Boom, who stood against the wall and successfully startled another participant when they shone a torch into his face.

Even with all that goodness, my afternoon ended on a note of disgruntlement: I saw a couple of not great things, and missed the work everyone else said was super interesting, an installation/lecture by Collectief Walden, a company from the Netherlands comprising an actor, a philosopher, a dramaturg, and a biologist/musician, which is my new favourite model for what a performance ensemble might be. So I joined the “evening with” Rara Woulib in a discordant frame of mind. Based in Marseilles, Rara Woulib are an amorphous group of musician-performers who take their name from Haitian music and carnival traditions, essentially shaping the same in urban settings. I missed them in London in 2014 when they brought Deblozay to Greenwich; there's a glorious review of it by Matt Trueman, savouring its “power and excitement and possibility”. So grumpiness was also woven with expectation that at first wasn't met.

The “evening with” at Travellings was slow to start, slow to coalesce; slow to draw the network and festival public across the street to the Aygalades housing estate, slow to convey a sense of purpose in doing so. As its inhabitants looked down from balconies and windows, I felt an uncomfortable prickle, that we were invading their territory, unasked and unwanted, swarming their landscape with our puffed-up ideas about art. It's a discomfort Rara Woulib acknowledge, I think, and in other ways heighten: our journey took us into an unlit subway, crammed with people and noise, alarming to anyone who experiences even a mild claustrophobia or fear of the dark; walking through it was a kind of scouring, ready for anything that might come next.

What came next was anodyne: a gathering in a higgle of grass festooned with lights and dotted with ramshackle bars serving fruit cocktails. Here the real fun tried to begin, but its rhythm kept faltering; singers surged through the crowd, stamping and swirling and chanting, but then their voices fell silent and a vague sense of boredom returned. It wasn't until we were lured to another clearing, where a long wooden table was set up, laden with fruit and vast trays of sushi, which were carried out to the crowd, while a black woman dressed in a raggedy gown stamped along the table's length, incanting a story I couldn't understand literally but thrilled to emotionally, that something began to click into place. A sense of ritual. Of a different necessity. Of communing beyond self, beyond rationality, beyond purpose.

From here the performers – the women dressed now in white lacy frocks, a chirm of mismatch brides – led us along another path, flicker-lined by candles, snaking further into the Aygalades. As the growing crowd drifted in the wake of their distant music, I realised I'd been to another performance exactly like this in 2014: the Good Friday procession through my mum's village in Cyprus. It starts at the church, once night has fallen; led by priests and the epidaphion, a funeral coach decorated in flowers, bibles and pictures of Jesus, the entire village amasses to re-enact the journey to Christ's burial place. At least, that's the impetus; how it actually plays out is that a bulging line of families and friends gossip and chatter as they meander through their streets, occasionally being offered a splash of holy water and catching the call to chant Amen. The Rara Woulib procession followed these particulars until it reached another clearing, much bigger this time, edges glowing with more flaming torches, half the space set with benches and trestle tables, bowl-plates and cutlery and cauldrons of soup. In two of the corners industrial barbecues crackled, and at the centre, a band began to play. The ritual had reached its zenith in what was effectively an old-fashioned village wedding – and everyone was invited.

That everyone was now a huge number of people: all the festival-goers from earlier in the day, but also teenagers and families and elders of Aygalades, drawn in by the hubbub and now sitting down to eat together. It was gorgeous: a genuine moment of expansive community. And although as the evening progressed the architecture of the whole, the dramaturgy or arc of movement and energy, became more focused and impressive, essentially Rara Woulib's tools were the most basic: meat and bread and vegetable soup; rambunctious music; limitless generosity. The singers included not only members of the group but women from local choirs; the band featured men in costume alongside men in everyday wear, drawn from local bands. The sense of symbiosis was exquisite; so was the kindness of the gesture, the openness of the invitation.

It felt like a wedding; it felt like a village gathering; it also felt like a slap in the face of certain modes of thinking about culture. Earlier in the day, a Greek journalist also invited to Travellings had asked the staff of Lieux Publics: why here? Why not by the docks, somewhere central, where the people of Marseilles can more easily take part? It infuriated me, because this is exactly the value of holding the festival in and alongside Aygalades: the reminder that its inhabitants, too, are the people of Marseilles, easily forgotten or misrepresented or belittled, subject to prejudice and assumption. (To be fair, the Greek journalist appreciated all this later, too.) The evening reminded me of the writing, endlessly inspiring, of Francois Matarasso, a specialist in participatory and community arts, whose free-access books on amateur theatre and rural touring, among others, are luminous with curiosity and compassion. Working from the basic assertion that “everyone has the right to create art and to share the result, as well as enjoy and participate in the creations of others”, he draws a distinction between culture as “how we do what we have to do” – the example he gives is how we choose what to eat, how to prepare it and how to share it – and art as “how we do all the things we don’t have to do. How we sing, dance, play, tell stories, make things up, share dreams, frighten ourselves, arrange objects, make pictures, imagine and all the rest.” This felt so pertinent to this evening with Rara Woulib, where the tools of culture were used to make art – an art in which everyone could participate equally, whether by eating, dancing, or just sitting beneath the stars.

For most of our time in that great green square, Rara Woulib gave the evening to their audience. And then, in the final section, they took it back. The band stopped playing in concert formation and shifted to a new position, at the heart of the informal dance space. They began to sing a final song, a murmur at first, building in volume and urgency, until it seemed to play not from the strings of instruments but the sinews of the bodies held in thrall. A song so Dionysian that satyrs might have clattered among us, stamping out its beat. It grew and grew, surged and crested, and then subsided; softly they began to walk, still singing, shaping a path with their bodies, the audience walking between as their voices scattered like confetti a song of farewell. And so many people refused to leave, clinging to the spell, that eventually they just had to say out loud, goodbye, and still an old and toothless man turned his face to the strangers around him and danced. Power and excitement and possibility. Pleasure and joy and love.

In the midst of the party, I emailed my friend Leo, who also makes work from the tools of food, ritual and generosity, wanting to make him a part of it too. In the midst of the party, I laughed with an American called Jay, who told me he'd never wanted to get married, but now understood why people did. In the midst of the party, I drifted and danced alone and unlonely; I watched a child reach his fingers towards the flame of a torch, guarded by his mum, and cursed the British health and safety laws that would never let that pass; I jostled for ice-cream and was bitten three times by mosquitoes. In the midst of the party I knew I was at the heart of something perfect: a necessary antidote to the violence and inhumanity of socio-political machinations beyond this square of grass. And I was happy.

All images by and copyright Gregoire Edouard, and used with permission. (For a change.)

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

on a road to nowhere (come on inside)

Andrew Schneider's Youarenowhere is a sex and drugs show: euphoric, pulse-quickening, a thing of abandonment – not his, he's steely with self-control, but mine, of any other thought than what strange new joy is this, now this, now ////. A nerves responding from reflex not thought show, an eyes resisting the urge to blink show, a blissful transcendence of all knowing beyond the moment of its happening. It doesn't yield its pleasures instantly; there is a tantalising foreplay of strobe-effect action, Schneider flitting about the stage, body illuminated then plunged into ////////, no connection between these movements beyond their intended effect: the accumulative tingle of surprise and excitement. There is a lecture, of sorts, on quantum physics and perception, but Schneider speaks not only of but at the speed of a moving train: his words blur as they hurtle past, clarifying only when they're gone. I have a vague sense of irritation that all this energy is being expended to talk of un/likely im/possible love, but then something happens so unexpected, so astonishing, that all rational thought is consumed in jangling awe.

I don't know anything for true about drugs but I've had some sex and while each time it's basically the same there are nights that linger. Not all positive: there is the sex of feeling nothing, or feeling chafed, or torn, or used. But then there's the sex of feeling drunk when stone-cold sober, the sex of floating weightless, the sex of ////// /////// and enchanting strangeness and can this be forever please. Each time is individual, if not in essence different, and there's no guarantee of feeling the same thing twice.

Now here
Sometimes I think I'm addicted to theatre, sometimes it's just that I married it. Each time it's basically the same, and yet... Sometimes I try to feel the same thing twice, but seeing something a second time changes how I watch: the quality of attention might be more deliberate or more yielding, more focused or more forgiving. And inevitably that changes the feeling.

But theatre being ephemeral, one shot is usually what I get. And how much I remember of a work depends on its impact.

The impact of Robert Lepage's The Far Side of the Moon was seismic. I'm not sure I'd seen anything like it before: I was barely 26 and had been watching theatre seriously for less than five years. When I read Lyn Gardner's review of it from 2001 I'm aware I remember almost nothing she describes. Only the moment when the window of a washing machine door became the porthole of a rocket looking towards earth from space. ///////// //// ////.

What remains instead is the feeling of astonishment. “The entire evening is a marvel,” Lyn wrote, “like discovering that the party conjurer is actually a real magician.” That's what I remember: shiver after shiver as story and staging shifted and stirred. There was an esoteric quality to its sequence of wild coincidences and brain-sparking connections, but also an emotional tenderness. Most of all there was wonder. All the wonder of the universe, and of humanity, there on the stage, more vital and real than my own skin, which might as well have melted away.

I've seen other Lepage shows since, and mostly felt disappointed, no matter how adroit they were. Seeing Needles and Opium at the Barbican in June I felt more hopeful than usual, knowing it's an earlier work, and more rewarded: staged in a suspended, rotating cube, it had the flexibility of a gymnast, stretching and somersaulting as it moved between the story of a heart-broken actor holed up in a Paris hotel room, the same hotel room once inhabited by Miles Davis and his lover Juliette Greco; the story of that thwarted love, Juliette ravishing in period film clips, Miles played by a silent actor, who leans from the cube as defiant of custom and conventional gravity as the music he played; and the dry wit and playful texts of Jean Cocteau, spoken as his body floated among stars. But I never reached full hypnosis, and I wondered if maybe I've seen too much theatre now, and know too well of its tricks.

Sorry if I've said all this before, but every time I choose to go to the theatre, I'm choosing not to be with my kids: not to help them with homework or play games or run their bath or tuck them in for the night. Generally I'm quite scathing of the concept of family, at least extended family: if I wouldn't choose a person as my friend, why devote time to them because of an accident of birth? There's something in Slavoj Zizek's provocation regarding the violence of love – a text Schneider delivers in the early part of Youarenowhere, at speed again, choppily, constantly interrupted by static – that appeals to me in this regard. “Love, for me, is an extremely violent act,” he ruminates. “Love is not 'I love you all.' Love means I pick out something, and it’s, again, this structure of imbalance.” I'll happily reject that structure of imbalance when it comes to cousins, uncles, even // ///////. But I can't inflict that on my children.

Except by going to the theatre. Each time I go it is a specific rejection of their longings and demand: sometimes I leave with the seven-year-old shouting through the door for me to come back. What am I sloughing off each time I do this? What world or self am I trying to reach? What oblivion do I seek?

Now here
I left Youarenowhere thinking that it was like nothing I'd ever seen before with the possible exception of two things: The Far Side of the Moon, and a work-in-progress by Andy Field called, if my email headers can be trusted (um...), This Show Was Born at the End of the World, which played at Battersea Arts Centre for two nights in 2010. It started as a kind of game, a let's pretend we're sitting in a building called Battersea Arts Centre, and that we're an audience, and let's pretend the apocalypse has struck, but somewhere in the middle it made a couple of shifts, one of them physical, bringing two sets of audience together, the other mental, from (according to my email) “fantastical to real”. And this is the half I remember and cherish, because it was unwonted and beguiling, and that other audience was so near so far, and there was a moment – so simple, but I don't think I'd seen it before – when they were instructed to hold up their illuminated mobile phones to shape a new constellation. It flashed in my mind in the hours after seeing Youarenowhere like the face of a person I once met on holiday // ////// / //// //// ///, and it struck me again how bizarre it is, to feel so close to a thing so ephemeral, so intangible, that lives on only in the mind.

It's funny, reading back on the email conversation I had with Andy about that work, because one thing he specifically wanted to avoid in it was “a cheap bit of sleight of hand”, and in the aftermath of Youarenowhere, that's all I could think about: sleight of hand, the magic that Lyn named. Flash the lights and suddenly there's /// // Schneider; flash the lights and suddenly he's not talking but dancing – to Robyn, of all things, Call Your Girlfriend. Flash the lights and it's as though he's slashed a subtle knife through the technicolor curtain concealing the parallel universe from this one; flash the lights and we're teetering at the edge of / ///// ////. Every so often when I take the kids to the theatre there'll be a bit of stage business that they can't get their heads round and they'll say to me: how did that happen? And my reply is always: because theatre. It annoys the shit out of them. Youarenowhere was the first time in a long time that I couldn't get out of my seat at the end, because I was trying to figure out: how the fuck did he do that? WHAT JUST HAPPENED? And though to some extent I could work it out, for the most part the answer that contented my brain was: because theatre. Theatre made that happen.

Now here
There's no technical wizardry in Stacy Makishi's Vesper Time; at least, no technology beyond the humble projector screen and a pair of plastic boots. But I got the same buzz of bedazzlement from it as I did from Youarenowhere, because Makishi is expert in theatre's other wizardry: the ability to unite people, however temporarily, into an idea of community. She is stealthy in her movements: in a typical dramatic arc, she first introduces herself as Hawaiian, and then teaches us a few phrases from her homeland – aloha, obviously; ai-ya, “I belong” apparently (apologies to Stacy if I haven't used the same phonetic spelling) – and later happens to mention, in a self-deprecating way, how much she likes the Tracey Chapman song FastCar, and eventually persuades us to cast off inhibition and sing along with her the chorus: “I, I had a feeling that I belonged, I, I had a feeling I could be someone.” My god the abandonment of that moment in the room, the joy unleashed by it, the eye-watering hilarity of realising we'd been tricked, that the “I, I” of Chapman was the same “ai-ya” of Hawaiian phraseology, that she was making a point about human connection with equal parts pathos and bathos, that she had transformed the song into a mantra for lost souls everywhere, encouraging a sense of belonging by creating one for us.

I've been questioning lately this marriage to theatre, and whether it's time for a period of separation. I want my commitment to it to be more than addiction, or the quest for a certain kind of dazzle or buzz; I want to feel there's genuine purpose in writing about it, while being aware of the self-centredness of that desire. In another glorious rainbow of Vesper Time, Makishi talks about her father, who left the family when she was young, and a figure called (something like) Uncle John, who for a few years held that place surrogate; and how, as an adult, she wondered whether she should get in touch with Uncle John and let him know that she still thinks of him fondly and that he meant a great deal to her, but decided not to, because he wouldn't remember insignificant little her. And then it's too late, she hears that he died, and she realises her mistake: to tell him these things would have been an act of generosity, a communication not of her own importance but of his. And it seems to me that this might be the purpose of this writing: to tell the people who make this work, that makes me feel so much, torn sometimes, used sometimes, but also drunk or weightless or enchanted sometimes, tell them that they meant something to someone, and that matters, they matter.

/////'/ / /// / want to write, //// / //// ///'/ //// ///. //'/ // // //// /// other song that appears in Youarenowhere, Ricky Nelson's Lonesome Town, in particular this ache of a verse:

In the town of broken dreams
The streets are filled with regret
Maybe down in Lonesome Town
I can learn to forget

And I want to say something about /////// ///// // //////// ////: the place I go to forget. /// ////// /// //////: that oblivion I mentioned before. But it's a disjointed thought, not least in its relationship with the actual lyrics, too fanciful perfectly to fit. I've tried to delete it, believe me, but something is resistant. Maybe it's the memory of the show, an entity in its own right now, not wanting me to edit but striving to shape itself instead.

[Quick note of double thanks to Andrew Haydon, for including the Zizek video in his review of Youarenowhere as I had no idea myself where that text was from, and for the trick at the end of this review, which influenced me here.]

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Demolition plot (slight return)

Back when I was reading Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, there was a passage about the Zapatistas that shone so suggestive a light on Dead Centre's show Chekhov's First Play that it sparked me into writing about it (this is a postscript to that text). In a chapter on revolution, especially the social revolutions that have taken place in South America over the past few decades, Solnit talks about carnival and the idea of jubilee, a Biblical notion of social renewal whereby once every 50 years liberty from work, ownership and exploitation is proclaimed “throughout all the land” (now that's a religious tenet I can stand behind). It leads her to celebrating the Zapatistas, and to a discussion about their literary figurehead, Subcomandante Marcos. She reports how, in response to journalists' speculation as to his identity, Marcos wrote:

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian on the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany … a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the metro at 10pm, a celebrant of the zocalo, a campesino without land, an unemployed worker … and of course a Zapatista in the mountains of southeastern Mexico.” This gave rise to the carnivalesque slogan 'Todos somos Marcos' ('We are all Marcos')...

So much of Chekhov's First Play is concerned with the possibility of social revolution: of smashing down hierarchies and all the structures that (up)hold them, of replacing the cult and the claim of the individual with the selfless anonymity of the collective. When the wrecking ball falls, the stage picture shatters with carnival energy, and at the centre of that chaos is Platonov. Plucked from the audience, Platonov could be anybody – in the same way that Marcos could be anybody.

In his confusion, his hesitant movements, his inability to keep up with the action, the manifold ways in which he doesn't fit, Platonov radiates the imposed powerlessness of the outsider, no matter how much the characters on stage are magnetised by his presence. And again, that not-fitting makes him one with the ostracised whose identity Marcos so joyfully adopts, whose presence is a problem to authority, and yet who can, through persistence, through simply continuing to be, challenge their surroundings and even change the script. The slogan that Platonov inspires, the line that every character repeats in turn, is: “You made me nobody.” Once they've said that, they fall silent: the final vestige of hierarchy – language – demolished as surely as the country-house set.

That's pretty much what I intended to say when writing about Chekhov's First Play the first time, but it wasn't the only thing, and somehow in the (general indulgence of the) writing I forgot to say it at all. And I might have carried on forgetting, except that I'm now reading another Solnit book, Hope in the Dark, and again there's a bit of writing about the Zapatistas that reminded me of Dead Centre. There's a beautiful line, also quoting from Marcos, on facing the future with bravery and expectation of change: “With our struggle, we are reading the future which has already been sown yesterday, which is being cultivated today, and which can only be reaped if one fights, if, that is, one dreams.”

Solnit picks up on this because it supports her reasonable and reassuring thesis that political despair is a drain on human resources; that while fatigue is understandable, and temporary loss of faith a natural response to disappointment, the defeatism of long-term despair is unacceptable: “even an indulgence if you look at the power of being political as a privilege not granted to everyone”. Despair rejects the slow, patient and repetitive work required to bring about social change, and replaces it with inactivity and maudlin doom-mongering. It's necessary, she argues, to believe in other possibilities; even, quoting F Scott Fitzgerald, “to see things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise”.

This argument for an embrace of the unknown is exactly what she illuminates in Chekhov's First Play. Despair in the play is figured in the character of the “director”, who seems perky enough at first, but gradually reveals his self-doubt and crushing sense of failure. He shoots himself out of proceedings, only to return at the end, still “tormented, without anything to believe in”, but now aware of the need for hope: for “courage … to keep on living”. What might happen in the future he doesn't know: he just has to continue – and do so reaching outwards. When he speaks his final word, hello, he's no longer the “director” but a single being with Platonov, their identities merging just as “todos somos Marcos”.

Our relationship with the unknown was a central concern in another work by Dead Centre, Lippy – but there they undermined their own proposition, maintaining a sense of visual mystery in the staging while chipping away at narrative ambiguity in the text. Chekhov's First Play similarly (but with less self-contradiction) shapes its dream of the future even as it professes uncertainty: the other slogan repeated by each character in turn, just before the “You made me nobody” sequence, is: “Is this mine? I can't imagine owning anything.” This is the politics of anti-capitalism, of the Zapatistan maxim quoted by Solnit: “Todo para todos, nada para nosotros” – “everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves”. And the word “imagine” is crucial: it suggests not a physical shift, but a mental one, the same as Solnit advocates in her book. All the social and political transformations we've witnessed in the past century and that are yet to come have one thing in common, she says: “they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. … To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”

Dead Centre plucked Chekhov's First Play from the past, tore it and transformed it into a commitment to imaginative hope. No wonder I'm still thinking about it.