Saturday, 23 July 2016

in search of triumphant escape

Note added 9 July 2021: following the discovery that, through all the years I was working with him, Chris Goode was consuming images of child abuse, I've returned to a self-evaluation process rethinking the work I did with him. That process began in 2018 and some of what it raised is detailed in this post from December that year, in which I acknowledge that I was complicit in some of the harms he caused, for instance by erasing the work of other women who worked with him, fuelling a cult of genius around him, and consistently asking people who criticised his work (particularly the sexually explicit work) to see it in softer ways. A second post is now in process in which I look in more detail at the ways in which Chris coerced and abused particularly young men who worked with him, using radical queer politics to conceal these harms and police reactions. I hope that any other writing about his work on this blog, including the post below, will be read with that information in mind.

Further note added 27 July 2021: that new post is now written and undergoing an extensive rewriting process as it's read and commented on by people who appear in it (that is, other people who worked with Chris in the seven years when I did). It could be up to a month before it's ready to share publicly, but I'm happy to share it privately in the meantime.

At 6.07am on Friday 24 June, I was woken up by the words: “Oh fuck, Leave have won.”

At 8.55pm on Friday 24 June, I walked into the black-box theatre at the New Diorama for Coyote, a “semi-improvised mixtape” telling the “story so far” of Ponyboy Curtis.

I'm always on tenterhooks, seeing Ponyboy, but this time the stakes were impossibly high. I went to them in need of reassurance, consolation and hope. I went knowing that Andre Ponyboy, Portuguese and in London on a student visa, was already feeling that his future in the UK was threatened, and wanting to give him a hug to say: we'll fight to make this OK. I needed Ponyboy and Chris to make everything OK. I needed them to process the day or at least bear its weight; to recognise the terror and anger lodged in people's stomachs, articulate it, expunge it, transform it. I knew such expectations were unfair, but everything about the day was unfair: I needed them to rebalance it.

For most of Coyote, they did. And yet this performance – my fifth encounter with the group – suggested some limitations of Ponyboy as a project that either hadn't struck me before or that I'd brushed off unexamined. Ponyboy, like all Chris' work, is a haven for me, a refuge of idealism; but on a day when all ideals were shattered, the walls of its asylum became visible. That Coyote survived its setting at all, without crumpling into irrelevance, is testament to the conviction with which the group shape a queer, anti-capitalist, romantic space that diametrically opposes the demonising and exploitative politics espoused by, among others, the frontline of Leave campaigners. But something about the hard truth of the day, the ugliness of the divide slashed through the country, made romance insufficient.

Coyote began, as always, with naked bodies walking silently and carefully, tuning in to each other's frequencies. As a line of the introductory text said, on such a day, “what could they do but pay even closer attention to each other?”

I've always cherished those opening minutes of Ponyboy shows, not just for the attention each body gives to the other, the scanning and scoping, the pausing and reflecting, the communication of openness and vulnerability through pores and downy hair, but for the transition it allows me to make, slowing me down, encouraging me to listen not just with ears but eyes and even my own skin. More and more I recognise that the attention of those minutes is vital: the invite of it, the kindness, the alertness of the listening; and that it shouldn't be focused solely on those with whom we sympathise, but extended to those with whom we disagree. The referendum, scarred by the death of Jo Cox, demonstrated the extent to which civic and cultural attention, whether to racism or the crushing effects of austerity or the too-many communities demoralised by ongoing lack of opportunity, has lapsed or was always lacking.

And yet, in Coyote, the attention of those minutes felt wrong. In following pre-set patterns and established behaviours, in speaking of itself generally rather than the specific moment, it seemed languid, luxurious, indulgent. Not a solution, but part of the problem.

[I've been trying to write about this show in a single, coherent, linear essay, but it's just not happening. There's something pleasing about that, how strenuously Ponyboy resist normativity in narrative, and any response requires me to do the same.]

I'd seen Ponyboy play with violence in FCKSYSTMS, wrestling and grappling, laughing as they overpowered each other. In Coyote they stopped playing and shit got real. Of course it did. Maybe it felt that way because, as well as the exposure of the time, Ponyboy were contending with exposure of the space. When they've performed to a general public before, it's been at the Yard, where the audience are contained in rake seating and the demarcated playing space has lots of air around it. I've seen them in more intimate settings, but there it's just been just me or a small invited audience. This was different. Even with the seats pushed back, the theatre at the New Diorama is small and overheated; even with the audience crammed against the walls, the playing space is cramped. It's marked out by white tape, a thin line separating internal from an amophous external in which Ponyboys can be off instead of on - only here, the outside was almost eradicated. The tension of having no release or relief poured into the play-violence of Coyote and made it savage, while proximity made it more perilous. 

[As a sidenote: it's funny how we as audience stay in our places when watching Ponyboy, honouring the divide of that thin white line, even when almost sitting on it. On the recommendation of Simon Bowes, my Ponyboy sparring partner, I recently read an essay by John Berger on the "theatre of indifference", a social and cultural phenomenon whose "precondition is the failure of democracy", and results from "the inevitable divergence of personal fantasies when isolated from any effective social action". In his email mentioning it, Simon wondered whether "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". Watching Ponyboy, do we really create the queer sexual revolution, or only fantasise about it? But I'm jumping ahead of myself.]

All they were doing, of course, was inhabiting an age-old model of masculinity, fearlessness as a mask for fear, aggression exaggerated to extinguish any other emotion. The more they fought, the more their sweating bodies cried: see? See this? This is what it's like out there. This is the violence you live with and ignore, day after day. Look at it. Look at it. And now help us get rid of it.

The smell in the room changes when they fight. It becomes heavier, muggier; I know it's absurd but I always think it's the musk of testosterone. If only the tropes of masculinity attached to it could be washed off as easily as sweat.

The visitor
There's always been a visitor in Ponyboy shows. In At the Yard, it was a different person every night, reading out a letter they'd written, to men or boys, specific or generalised, real or imagined. In FCKSYSTMS it was a teenage white boy (Stan Smith): a totem of ultimate privilege, but one growing into a knowledge that this advantage is becoming necessarily precarious. Coyote's visitor looked back to Ponyboy's very first R&D in December 2014: to Chris' obsession with Nova, “someone from another village”, who appears in Peter Handke's play The Long Way Round to galvanise those around her with firebrand “words of resistance”. [Writing this, I think of what it means to be a fan, to have rare access to the object of obsession, to collect and collate facts, incidents, obscurities; b-sides, flexi-discs, bootleg live recordings. The mixtape analogy is perfect.]

During that R&D week Nova was played variously by the Ponyboys themselves, by Tilda Swinton in a swimming-with-dolphins recording set to electronic music I found offensive in its attempt at aura-manipulating psychedelic expansiveness, and by playwright Jo Clifford, who divested herself of jumper and bra to perform semi-naked and regal. In Coyote, she's played by Annie Siddons, who keeps all her clothes on and stays sat behind a desk, but loses no impact for it. I look up to Annie anyway, but those words combined with her strength of being set my pulse racing. It's a speech directed to a group of villagers, ignored and made-to-feel-inferior; a speech hymning nature, art, faith and revolution, and above all the promise of humanity committed to working with love. She is cosmic in scope – the line “a cry to the gods is form and form reveals the arcade in space” is exquisite – but also molecular, drawing attention to the “yellow-in-yellow amid yellow blossoms”. In total, the speech lasts a good 20 minutes; Chris slashed it in half, and I couldn't be sure what made the cut, but scanning my photocopy now my eyes catch on so many lines that speak to our tumultuous moment:

Nature can neither be a refuge nor an escape. It provides a model and a measure; but the measure must be taken each day anew.
Who says that failure is inevitable? Don't listen to the gasps of the dying: they lie.
Time is the vibration that helps you through the accursed century, and it is also the luminous tent of survival.
Nowhere in our human history is a consolation that holds water. The cries of horror will go on for ever.
Only love can enable you to see things as they are. You alone, my beloved, are real. Loving you, I awaken to myself.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, Nova's words were counteracted by a conversation I remembered having with Selina Thompson, a few days after the Orlando shootings, in which she briefly flashed with fury at the way the lives of queer and trans people of colour were as usual being erased, not just by the violence of one man wielding a gun, but by the use being made of their deaths to boost arguments for gun control and other white-liberal preoccupations. The white-gay-male-led campaign #loveiswinning in particular made her bristle: love, she fumed, isn't winning for black people. I also remembered Chris and Jonny Liron talking in the R&D rehearsal room about an uncomfortable prickle of right-wing fervour they apprehended in Nova's words, something – worryingly – I never felt I noticed. I might have missed it again in Coyote but for the music Chris used to underscore Annie's voice: a gentle, celestial twinkling that grew imperceptibly menacing with a sly change of key.

The visitor is a necessary figure in the Ponyboy space, which might otherwise feel hermetically secluded, as solipsistic as a teenage diary. And Nova is my favourite of all those I've encountered so far. It saddens me to say this – because I want not to be conditioned by heteronormative gender thinking, I want my brain to be less binary – but I know it's because she's a woman, unexceptional yet unconventional, speaking boldly, not to any gender but to everybody. It makes me happy, in a simplistic way, that the Ponyboys stop everything and sit, like acolytes, like children, while she holds forth. It makes me happier still, in a way that supports a recent insinuation that I'm as bad as Angela Leadsom and deserve a similar massacring, that it's Annie, a mother to teenagers, someone whose CV includes the career break taken when those children were small, whose current show is about her struggle to live in suburbia, who commands the room for this moment and illuminates a path that might save us. It's not that her words are uncomplicatedly hopeful – if anything, Nova says, “Hope is the wrong heartbeat.” It's her embrace of the difficulty that lies ahead that makes me cleave to her so.

When the Ponyboys howled in At the Yard, what they emitted was the sound of desperate hearts: a carmine sound aching with animal longing and thwarted desire, a yearning that might never end. There was looped projected film of a boy running and stumbling to throw himself into the arms of another, and on the stage there was running, stumbling, pounding and wanting, and falling to knees to emit that howl, head tipped back as though pleading with the moon.

When they howled in Coyote, what they emitted was the sound of desperate fury: disappointment, terror and rage. Maybe it was the proximity again, but I don't think so: the escalation of intensity was devastating. There were three in total, ending with Andre, whose howl was a severed artery, spraying blood.

You know what I said about Hakim Bey when writing about FCKSYSTMS? Forget it. Or rather: if the text of Wild Children shot an arrow over my head in that show, here it hit solid and true. Not even the word ontological could faze me: because how perfect is the phrase “natural ontological anarchists, angels of chaos”? Bey's vision is of children as “savage runaways or minor guerrillas” locking gaze with “artists, anarchists, perverts, heretics”, creating together a “means of triumphant escape” through “delirious and obsessive play”. Play in the quotidian sense, the play of my children, with lego and teddies, or football and sticks, is something I struggle with: it never feels to me a route to triumphant escape but tighter bondage. For all its imagination and make-believe scope, I'm yet to accept its invitation, or find a way through it, to shape for myself a different role. But when I'm with Ponyboy Curtis, I'm able to shed that. I realise this will contradict what I've said above about Annie Siddons (to be honest, almost everything I've written this year is sloppy with contradiction), but words like that allow me to forget I'm a mother, they entice me to contemplate radical play: the play of breaking rules and testing boundaries and doing all the things a mother says you never should. I've done a bit more reading about Bey since then and this blog in particular left me furtive and breathless. We are conditioned from birth to behave as we do: I know this because I've been mindlessly conditioning my own children. Ponyboy are the vanguard of a full-scale rethinking.

Smashing down proprieties around sex is one of their methods: instead of equal marriage, that solid cornerstone of capitalism, they offer the fluidity of polyamorism; instead of monogamy, the gifting body, generous with its pleasures and on display. The fashion-show parading of different masculine types is a long-standing Ponyboy trope that has never held much meaning for me, straight-laced as I am, and in Coyote I see it as another dip into irrelevance and indulgence: a moment in which the “semi-improvised” is overtaken by the “mixtape”, to the detriment of the whole. But the sex is of a different magnitude entirely. It is untrammelled, almost rapacious: body piles upon body, limbs so entwined they might be conjoined; tongues travel greedily from mouth to nipple to hardened cock; and because the room is so small, sometimes those bodies are only just beyond reach. But perhaps the most electrifying thing about it, on this day of all days, is the extent to which this vision of male lust defies the narrow-minded prejudice of Farage and his cronies. What emanates from those bodies, in their tantalising almost-fucking, is an emphatic and joyful fuck you.

Im/possible dreams
I've been pretty positive so far, right? As I left Coyote, that's how I was feeling: becalmed, held, relieved. In the New Diorama cafe I had three separate conversations with four of the Ponyboys that reassured me further. Nick and Griffyn gave me news about Paul, whose absence was a sadness if not quite a surprise (on the last day of FCKSYSTMS he wrote on twitter: “the thing imitating itself – performance of sincerity/committment seems to preclude understanding of the artist as critical or suspicious – might be because we think of critical/ironic 'distance' - and i'm interested in proximity – & also probs as a relatively young artist people are reluctant to point out weakness or horror in the thing i have committed to – + when one name dominates a work, & is publicly seen to promote a politics, there's an assumption that everyone in the work agrees?” So I'd guessed he was ready to leave). Andre admitted that he'd spent the day in fear of being attacked every time he opened his mouth, but we agreed that his howling had dislodged something, unchoked us. Craig, brilliantly, said that he'd had exactly the same problem with the opening section as me (arguably, it misfired through a lack of conviction). But then I had a conversation with another audience-member, and performance-maker, Ira Brand. It's niggled at me ever since.

Could women do this?” Ira wondered aloud. She's spent the past year playing (in a wild children way) with gender presentation, and now has as tangible a male identity as she has female, so I don't think she meant this in a straightforwardly cis- or white-feminist way. I talked meagrely of the experiment of CG&Co's Riot Act, a room of feminist expression crossing gender and sexuality, and Ira listened patiently before kindly pointing out I'd missed the point. She was thinking about the gaze, how it distorts female bodies/polices female sexuality, and how women using their bodies as tools for revolution would be received.

It's not often I feel I have a direct effect on CG&Co's movements, but the roots of Riot Act lie partly in something I wrote about the Ponyboy R&D, confessing that I'd find a room of naked women far more erotic than I do naked men. Whatever Riot Act achieved (and it was a difficult room, so ideas on that are mixed), it didn't do nakedness: there was a song about the injustice of men being able to walk the streets topless, and a comic strip about it too, but no undressed breasts hanging loose. The most triumphant expression of gaze-defying female presentation was Emma Frankland finally wearing the skirt she'd bought as a teenager, two decades before her transition.

Ira's comment made me re-see Ponyboy: for all its queerness, for all its transgression, it's the expression of a group of white males. They might be questioning their own privilege, but that they're able to gather at all is concomitant with that privilege. Even if they point to a queer romantic polymorphous future, arguably they do so for themselves first and everyone else second. I accept that I come at this through some problematically circumscribed thinking about binary gender, not to mention invisible exercise of privileges of my own. But still. On this awful day of turmoil, the promise of Ponyboy carried only so far.

[I love this song. Chris chose it as the closing of Coyote, and might have used it in another Ponyboy soundtrack, too. It hits a note of sincerity with such precision that its blandness, or sentimentality, is rendered inaudible. There is so much I don't write about when I write about Ponyboy, in particular the collage of materials Chris grafts to the group, the storytelling he does from his seat off-stage. Like Chris, I end with this song because it points forward. The youth are changing, changing. I don't know where Ponyboy Curtis will go next.]

Friday, 15 July 2016

Demolition plot (extended play)

There was a time when I wrote a diary. Not every day; intermittently, for about four years. I stopped when I realised that a) I was only writing it when I was miserable, b) I was repeating myself, c) writing it changed nothing.

There was a time when I thought Chekhov, if not the most boring playwright in the history of theatre, certainly in the top 10.

I'm sorry if you've read these things before here.

Remember that last sharp day of winter we had? At least, it was the last sharp day London had: Tuesday 26 April, 2016. I stood at the kitchen window and tried to work out if those slushy white flakes were hail or snow. A few days later I stood in the same place and realised I was looking at the first sharp day of spring: green leaves so defined against a bright blue sky they seemed extra-dimensional. And I had a thought I'd never had before: this means nothing to me. The spring, the brightness, the green, the blue. Time turning, age grinding, unremarkable repetition, and a slow, inexorable deadening.

This is the emotional voice in my head that listened to Chekhov's First Play and heard its echo.

But we won't start with either of those.

Let's start with Dominic Dromgoole.

In 2000 he published an “A-Z of contemporary playwrights”, The Full Room, written with such irascible passion that with every dip I come away scalded. On Phyllis Nagy: “I'm sure she's terrific, but for me it always sounds like someone being a writer, rather than someone writing about being.” On Lee Hall: “Somehow he manages to keep many thousands of hungry mouths happy with a few loaves of a talent.” That the witticisms emerge from a forensic scrutiny of the actual plays gives everything he writes an air of justice, despite his protestations in the introduction that he's not here to judge, and regardless of whether or not I agree. But if he's ruthless in exposing flaws or inconsistencies, he's also intemperate with admiration: in the heat and light of his praise, his subjects glow.

He also writes with a strong moral compass, whose true north is Chekhov. In the entry on Anthony Neilson, he notes approvingly: “As Chekhov could dream of a better world in time to come, without providing some glib programme of improvement, so Neilson looks four-square into the heart of our sexual darkness, and allows himself to dream of a better world.” And in the entry on Patrick Marber – “a brilliant boulevard entertainer” – he looks in vain for “a real wish for good. With a Chekhov, with a Brecht, with a Beckett,” he explains, “you see a brilliantly realised and brutally honest vision, behind which there hovers the ghost of a better, fairer, more beautiful world. With Marber … beyond what we see is a chaos filled with violence, sexual desire and sexual disgust, and endless mutual loathing.”

I think about this chapter on Marber a lot, in particular for what Dromgoole says in the final paragraph:

Chekhov wrote volumes of work, built schools, opened hospitals, interviewed ten thousand prisoners on Sakhalin island, kept his family, kept his patients alive, held hundreds as they died, spent fifteen years coughing his own life away, and still managed to keep hope in balance with despair, still managed to love life and its mad optimism.”

The leaves, drunk on chlorophyll, radiant and meaningless.


The “director” of Chekhov's First Play (warning: a frenzy of spoilers lies ahead) has read a biography of Chekhov; he knows these facts and knows that, by comparison, he himself is failing. I put “director” in quote marks to differentiate him from Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, who co-directed Dead Centre's production, not because they didn't genuinely read the biography, but because I left the Mayfest performance stupefied by an adolescent crush on Moukarzel, who also wrote the adaptation and plays the “director” on stage, that heard everything he said as soul-dredging confession. I need the quotation marks to remind me that this is a character, that the voice that is speaking is a performed voice, that when the “director” begins berating himself as “a fraud”, when he says “I don't know what I'm doing” or that “I haven't been feeling myself lately. And by lately, I mean ever”, what I'm hearing is a fabrication. Never mind if it's the words I hear in my head all the time.

But let's avoid that voice a little longer.

It's hard to avoid the “director's” voice in this production. Once he's delivered his pitch-perfect introduction – light as a meringue and yet ominous, not just because he wields a gun, but because he makes visible something I (and likely others in the room) had never contemplated before: the audience member's temporary legal ownership of their theatre seat, its status as “private property” – he retreats to the wings and talks around, across and over his actors, commenting on their performances, his own choices, the themes and subtexts of the play. Of course, some of his own text has a subtext: when he says, close to the beginning, “I love real life. The detail”, there is an underlying irony that is quickly exposed when he begins to berate the actors for moving in the wrong way and forgetting their lines, in other words being real people, but also an undertow of pathos whose emotional pull operates more slowly.

What he particularly wants to draw our attention to is the reflection – no, continuation – of Chekhov's world in our own. Some of that is to do with unchanging human nature: as he notes in his introduction, all Chekhov's plays “ask the big questions: who am I? What kind of a society do I want to live in? What do I want?” But some of it is to do with the ways in which Chekhov thought about “the kind of society” that surrounded him, his attitudes towards privilege and work, property and debt, social stagnation and the possibility or imminence of change. These attitudes, compassionate, socialist and challenging of orthodoxy, have a pliability that the best directors (and playwright-adapters) seize as gleefully as children do playdoh.

I didn't think any of this until I watched Benedict Andrews' production of Three Sisters (Young Vic, 2012): it spoke so precisely to the frustrations of my own life, and to the stuckness I've been able to name since reading the Ann Cvetkovich book on depression, that I heard more vividly the play's address to society at large. I felt the same wonder and excitement watching Katie Mitchell's production of The Cherry Orchard (Young Vic, 2014): as adapted by Simon Stephens, it wasn't a play about privileged (albeit poor) people for whom I felt no sympathy, but the complex relationship between class, capitalism and environmental devastation. Robert Icke's Uncle Vanya (Almeida, 2016) was the least convincing of the three, in that a lot of the staging choices were fucking annoying even if they did make intellectual sense, but as a portrait of people damaged by the basic condition of being alive, holding down the lid on their hopes, desires, frustrations and anger before inevitably boiling over, it was exemplary.

I'd seen all of these plays before, sometimes in pretty good productions, but my general idea of Chekhov was sealed early on by a Cherry Orchard played in a wealthy suburb of London, by actors with plummy accents wearing white lace and linen suits, that left me wanting to punch every person on stage, for their entitlement, apathy and mediocrity. This was the problem of Chekhov's First Play for me: when the curtain rises, it looks like just such a traditional, tedious production. And that's a lie. The directors, Kidd and Moukarzel, know that it's a lie: they know they're working within a “German theatre” aesthetic, but they pretend not to be for dramatic and comic effect. To be fair, it works: the jokes teasing conservative theatre, in which the “director” complains about the actors and lets slip the sexual shenanigans going on behind the scenes, easily win the laughs they chase. OK, I sound like a miserabilist. But Chekhov's First Play does something incredibly powerful politically, and for me that could have been more potent still if Dead Centre hadn't settled on the chocolate-box image of a sprawling country house as the site for that action: an image that distances more than it implicates.

In other ways, Chekhov's First Play is rigorous in implicating. It makes explicit reference to Ireland's recent history, first with jokes about its flaccid economy, but gradually becoming more serious about the spiritual effect of debt. (Something about the way it compacted gravity and sickly unease into comedy reminded me of John McDonagh's film Calvary.) It talks about the central character of Platonov as someone “over-educated but useless, unnecessary”, typical of a generation who have “let go of ideals”: people who know that there is social inequality, rising poverty, ecological catastrophe taking place, but are comfortable enough themselves never to do anything more serious to challenge it than mouthing off on social media. (I'm very much describing myself here.) It spends its entire first half insistently arguing that we can't wait for someone else to save us. And then. And then.

Two months on, I still feel giddy and breathless just thinking about it. Because the hinge point of Chekhov's First Play unleashed all my wildest fantasies of what I'd like to do in the political world. It drops a wrecking ball from the flies and proceeds to demolish everything: the physical set, but also the metaphysical structures that hold the characters – and us, the audience – in place. That wrecking ball smashes at property, at family, at propriety and expectation. When it falls, the women stop talking in a vaguely dissatisfied way about lacking a sense of purpose and start naming their specific hatred of “my marriage and capitalism and my student loan and how the modern consumer society separates us from ourselves … normality and monogamy and gender normative privilege”. Being idealistic about wanting these things to change isn't enough. You have to get out there and actively fight them. You have to live the difference you want to see.

To do that takes courage and verve. It takes a willingness to make mistakes, look awkward, feel out-of-step with everyone else. It takes quick thinking and attentive listening. And Chekhov's First Play shows us how. It pulls someone out of the audience, someone prepared enough in advance to be wearing a particular red denim jacket but no more, and gets them to play Platonov. I've since read the playtext (THANK YOU OBERON for replacing the copy I stupidly lost) and understand a lot more about what happened in this half of the production, but I'm going to be truthful about the experience of watching and say that there was much that I didn't hear or that didn't feel clear in this section. It didn't matter: chaos was part of the point, the necessary correlative of destruction.

Through most of this, the “director's” voice is absent: he's silent because he shot himself, unable to bear the disparity between what he wanted the production to be and what he had actually made. Implicit in his adaptation is a question – what does it take to be extraordinary, and actually change the world? – and a recognition that it's the wrong question, playing into patriarchal notions of singularity and genius. Far better to be a nobody: but a nobody genuinely dedicated to the cause of helping other nobodies, enabling them to escape the bonds that tie them, enabling them to cast off the pressures of keeping up with life as shaped by neoliberalism. Platonov is that nobody: he's just a stranger, plucked from the auditorium. It could have been any one of us. And because of that, it's all of us.

Such was my intense sense of identification with this Platonov that I felt quite upset when the staging required him to point a gun at his own head. It felt wrong, an unethical ask. Reading back over the text, I wonder what it means to have a character repeatedly described as useless and unnecessary, and then have him played by a member of the audience. I worry that if I pick at the wrong thread of Moukarzel's adaptation, the whole thing will unravel.

What holds it all together for me, allows me to live in its contradictions, is that voice, the “director's” voice, which is also Platonov's, and mine. That voice caught between idealism and pessimism, hope and depression, knowledge of the work that needs doing and terror of actually doing it. The “director” seems so confident when Chekhov's First Play starts, but it's all bluff. He lacks faith not only in himself but in theatre as a medium: “It's so aimless,” he mourns, as his characters sing People Ain't No Good in Russian. The song returns in the final scene, when the “director” returns, head bandaged, for a speech that devastated me:

This gun. At least let me explain one thing right. Chekhov's first play had a gun in it and his second, and all the rest had guns in them in one way or another, until in his last play … it was gone. It's like he got over it. He wrote away the gun.

He realised his characters have to do something even harder than dying. They have to go on living.”

I've lost count of the number of times I've thought those last two sentences in the past few years. The accuracy with which they echoed my inner voice – the inner voice that the “director” explicitly acknowledges in his opening speech – meant that the words that followed reduced me to a puddle. “I don't know who I am, what it is I want, why I'm alive. But I need to have courage,” his voice, my voice, said. “I wonder will this voice ever stop? … This commentary, commenting on everything. Will it ever go away?” Not just my inner voice but the voice I hear speaking to a counsellor, a weirdly out-of-body experience. “Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say...?” These are the questions that consume me at night, lying awake in my too-hard bed. And as I sat in my theatre seat – my own private property, which holds me in place, in which I always behave with absolute decorum, just as I do in the world outside – I knew exactly what was coming next, but still felt an intense sense of gratification when Platonov's final word is: hello.


For such a basic word, hello is really hard to say.

On Friday 1 July, I visited the South-East London Sisters Uncut occupation of a disused shop in Peckham. I'd planned to get there early and sit with my laptop, writing about the room, but also maybe writing this, or about Ria Hartley's work, or maybe about what it was to grow up in Thatcher's Britain as a way of reflecting on the terror and anxiety but also weird sense of euphoria I felt in the first week post-referendum, when it still seemed vaguely possible that there might be a left-wing resurgence (excuse me while I wring my hands with despair). Instead, I found all sorts of excuses to delay leaving home. There wasn't going to be wifi in the building. I had some scraps of food in the house that I ought to cook for my lunch. And so it was 1.30pm by the time I arrived, giving me barely an hour in the space before the school run.

The people on the door were immediately friendly but the usual shyness consumed me so I rejected the offer of a tour and had a look round on my own. The main room was welcoming, warm and light, despite having few windows and no carpet on the concrete floor. It was the warmth and light of generosity and political fervour. The occupation was staged to draw attention to the lack of provision for women living in Southwark who experience domestic violence, particularly black and minority ethnic women following austerity cuts. Along one wall was a huge banner bearing the group's slogan: how can she leave if there's nowhere to go? Along another, lively posters detailed previous Sisters Uncut actions, in photographs and clips from less than sympathetic media. There were sofas and a large children's play space with toys and a wendy house and drawing materials, and a stack of food with an invitation to all-comers to help themselves. Scattered around were copies of the excellently thoughtful safe space policy, and reminders that the space was open only to people who identify as female or non-binary. It was beautiful.

Looking around gave me the courage to go back to the people at the door and say hello. This is how I met Sita X. When a friend of Sita's arrived I continued the conversation with Becca, asking about how the occupation was going, and about Sisters Uncut generally. When I had to leave, I felt like an idiot: I hadn't had enough time. I wished I'd been there all day.

I asked Becca why Southwark in particular and she patiently told me about its appalling record of failing women who come to the council seeking help in escaping abuse situations. We talked about the council's bristly, patronising response to the occupation, that “statistics don't tell the whole story”, and the blog Sisters Uncut planned to publish in reply. I asked how they managed to get into the building, and Becca told me about laws related to squatting and the mechanics of the occupation, how everyone involved was taking time off from work or study to be there. I've always been terrified of this kind of direct action – and there was a moment when the Sisters gathered at the door, worried that an aggressive man might be seeking entry, that reminded me why – but talking to Becca and Sita, it felt possible. More than that: necessary.

I can't imagine not writing about theatre but nor can I carry on as I am, advocating in the abstract for social change without doing physical work to bring it about. In the time it's taken me to write this post, I've been reading Here We Stand, a glorious, invigorating book of interviews with and texts by female activists, that is nourishing me and encouraging me and giving me a way forward. There's one woman in particular, Mary Sharkey, that I'm clinging to because she was in her early 40s before she became politically active: what a relief to encounter her, and recognise that there's no point berating myself for wasting time and not doing this sooner (that voice again, commenting on everything) because – as she says in the final line of her interview – it's never too late to start. She has an excellent motto, too: “Behold the turtle, who makes progress when she sticks her neck out.” Perfect.

So I've been inhaling that, and also Kimya Dawson's album Thunder Thighs, which I deeply regret missing on first release, if only because it would have done me much good to hear her sing “now I'm 37 and I'm glad that I'm alive” when I was 37 and really not. There are so many best-friend songs on this album: Same Shit/Complicated, which trumps me for ultra-earnest expression; Utopian Futures, which to the letter describes the place I want to live; Zero or a Zillion, a piquant fuck you to the art accountants out there. But I think my favourite is Miami Advice, in particular the chorus that closes it:

You think I'm preaching to the choir
But I am not
I'm singing with the choir

This is such a key point made by the women of Here We Stand (a book, it's worth noting, that was recommended to me by Mary Paterson, with whom I've been working for a couple of years and in that time has taught me so much about collaboration and political engagement): the real goal isn't individual action but collective. “What we create are ripples,” says Liz Crow, “where the work of many peoples combines to make change.” And collectivity starts with saying hello.


Five years ago, I started writing a diary again. It's going OK: I'm doing better at turning to it in different moods, and trying hard not to repeat myself. I still know it doesn't change anything, not materially. But it does something my old diary never did. It says hello. I know this because you're reading it now.


Friday, 1 July 2016

not setting the world on fire but starting a flame in your heart

Note added 9 July 2021: following the discovery that, through all the years I was working with him, Chris Goode was consuming images of child abuse, I've returned to a self-evaluation process rethinking the work I did with him. That process began in 2018 and some of what it raised is detailed in this post from December that year, in which I acknowledge that I was complicit in some of the harms he caused, for instance by erasing the work of other women who worked with him, fuelling a cult of genius around him, and consistently asking people who criticised his work (particularly the sexually explicit work) to see it in softer ways. A second post is now in process in which I look in more detail at the ways in which Chris coerced and abused particularly young men who worked with him, using radical queer politics to conceal these harms and police reactions. I hope that any other writing about his work on this blog, including the post below, will be read with that information in mind.

Further note added 27 July 2021: that new post is now written and undergoing an extensive rewriting process as it's read and commented on by people who appear in it (that is, other people who worked with Chris in the seven years when I did). It could be up to a month before it's ready to share publicly, but I'm happy to share it privately in the meantime.

Previously on Maddy writes about Ponyboy Curtis: there was the R&D writing, the collective writing, and the heartbroken writing (links to all in that third one). This is dedicated to Simon Bowes, who was with me both nights at the Yard when I saw FCKSYSTMS, and said afterwards on twitter that it had left him "with a Hangover to be reckoned with", but is yet to write anything more.

1: Score
I sometimes get the impression that people think Chris tells me everything I need to know about his work. It's fair enough: I'm often in his rehearsal rooms, we chat now and then. But the truth is, I struggle to figure it all out as much as the next person. I haven't been behind-the-scenes with Ponyboy since the initial R&D in December 2014, so the stuff that's going on within that square of crumpled clothing is a series of riddles, enigmatic and mystifying. I have luminous moments in which an interpretation suggests itself to me, and befuddled moments when I haven't a clue.

In Chris' book A History of Airports, a collection of pre-Company texts for performance, there are two things that have long puzzled me: handprint/mouth configuration schematic (ON THE FLY), a “kind of textual archive” of a series of improvisations with Jonny Liron, and O Vienna (score for solo performance), which Chris says in his notes is “designed … to be interpreted (by a dancer, say) rather than read”. Handprint in particular is typographically exquisite; O Vienna flows like a poem; neither of them give me any indication whatsoever of how they might have looked, sounded or felt on stage. I don't know how to see them.

Watching FCKSYSTMS at the Yard, I suddenly understood those pages. Or rather, what I felt I was watching was a score activated, detonated even. I have no idea what that score would actually look like: angry scrawls in emerald ink, a collage of images and text ripped from financial pages and gay magazines, instructions on a set of postcards, Dennis Cooper's blog? It wouldn't look like this text, that's for sure.

Incidentally, I'm aware it's possible to read in the assumption that Chris tells me everything I need to know about his work the inference that I have meagre capacity to analyse it on my own. Like dedicating yourself to trying to understand the intricacies of thinking of another human being, in all their complexity and contradiction, not within the context of a romantic relationship or a therapy transaction, but as a basic function of being human, is too strange a pursuit to be believed.

2: Concerto
And if it's a score, what if it looks like music? What if each body is an instrument, with its own timbre and tonality, and Chris is, not composing exactly, but conducting an arrangement of tone clusters and sharps?

3: Text
I'm not even going to talk about the poem. I see FCKSYSTMS twice and it washes over me both times. It's the word ontological: by the third syllable I'm lost and I can't compute anything that's wrapped around it. In this room, it's the language of bodies that focuses me, not the system of communication already privileged.

4: Wrestling
Back in that original 2014 R&D, scant space was given to such banal expressions of testosterone-fuelled masculinity as grappling or wrestling. At the Yard that's prevalent; a fierce delight is taken in wrapping limbs around a torso and pulling it to the ground, in attempting to evade the touch of another, in hurling the body at walls and up scaffolding poles as though defying the building itself for its attempt to confine. When I see FCKSYSTMS on Thursday 2 June, I'm charged up and exhilarated by this; returning on Saturday 4 June it has me charged up but stressed out. There is a carelessness of bruises and the fragility of bones in the aggression directed against not just each other but themselves that alarms me. I'm not frightened by the slap of skin against concrete floor the way I would be watching an actual fight: it's the desire to care that's triggered, not fear. I want them to look after themselves. I want to look after them. But I also hear the echo in my mind of a paragraph from Men inthe Cities:

And there's an old black-and-white photo of some kind of scuffle between these smartly dressed men and then on top of that it says: 'You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.' Rufus looks at that one for a while and he thinks about what it says and in the end he thinks: not that intricate.”

(5: )
(And I miss Jonny. I'm sorry. He was only there for those first few days. But there's something about how he moves through a room, daring it, daring gravity even, to obstruct him, something about how he gives of himself without giving away, something in the cadence I've described elsewhere as charisma, whose absence I notice both nights at the Yard. It's not that the others don't have these things – Nick, boyish and sly, clambering along the edge of the balcony, reminds me of him – but those chimerical glimpses just make me more wistful for the dynamic shifts he might bring.)

6: Soft
Turning the volume up on aggression makes the softness speak louder, too. Those moments of caress, of kindness, of support. Of love. Not the love charged with sexual excitement – although it is that, too – but the love that's ready to tend the bruises and mop the blood and tie the bandage tight. The unconditional love of human beings that rely on each other to survive. That pulses more clearly in FCKSYSTMS than ever before.

The softness is also a softening of the boundaries of what's sexually permissible on stage. The touch reaches further, fondness becomes fondling, tongues explore nipples, hips and thighs. In that first week of June I was reading Viv Albertine's memoir Clothes Music Boys and fascinating at the contradiction between “how uptight I am about my body, bodily functions, smells and nudity” and her use of her body in public space to shock or unsettle. “Referencing sex,” she knows, “is an easy way to shock.” The bodies in Ponyboy are neither uptight (there's a glorious line in Chris' book The Forest and the Field, quoting Jonny, on whether it's “unseemly” for people to stare at his genitals: “If I'm going to go to the trouble of getting my cock out,” Jonny says, “the least you can do is look at it”) nor out to shock: they're simply taking pleasure in each other – or rather, finding pleasure in giving it.

There's another softness here: that of individual personality. There are three new Ponyboys in the room, making seven in total, and each Ponyboy does something distinct (Paul a furious, stuttering, splintered dance; Andre a tattoo of gate-marks above his pelvic bone; Craig a sequence of hand-gestures from the sidelines, instructing others to perform specific actions). And yet I'm aware of a struggle in my mind: to differentiate one from another, or to work out whether the shift in temperature in this room compared with previous performances results from the new personalities coming in or the development of Ponyboy Curtis' own personality as a hydra-headed individual becoming braver about love, touch and reach.

7: Work
As I write this I'm reading Nicholas Ridout's book Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, which is brilliant but also a brain-melting macrocosm of the word ontological. In his introduction he talks about Heinrich von Kleist's Uber das Marionettentheater, and in particular extrapolates from one of its passages the argument that “erotic exploitation is an inevitable part of the theatrical experience”. Theatre is the intersection of actor's work and audience's pleasure; as such, “sexual and economic exploitation are always on the scene”.

FCKSYSTEMS makes this explicit, while also questioning the assumption in the word exploitation. Just as there are sex workers (most likely white and in a position to choose other employment should they wish; the example I have specifically in mind is Amy Cade, who talks about this in Sister, her collaboration with her sister Rosana) who embrace the work as a fulfilment of their own desire, so Ponyboys don't kiss and hold and snog and thrust and wrap lips around another's erect cock because we've paid money to watch them but because they want to and they can. I don't watch porn and never have by choice because no one has ever persuaded me that it won't be degrading or objectifying, but I watch Ponyboy Curtis and pay money to do so because this isn't porn, it's an argument about society. Even so, I feel a shiver of discomfort about how my dedication to watching this group is perceived in the wider world. It's definitely exacerbated by the fact that I'm old enough to be their collective mother.

A few days after the show finishes at the Yard, Andre tweets the following: “The pursuit of sexual pleasure as a means of relatedness rather than procreation can be understood as a profoundly anti-capitalist act”. It's in quote marks but he doesn't say where he's quoting from. I'm excited by this as a proposition, but the more I contemplate it, the more it strikes me that this is a homo-centric aggrandising of a kind of sex that I, as a cis straight woman, can never access. All sex carries the possibility or threat of procreation for me. I also wonder if the person being quoted has ever asked a woman what sex as a defined means of procreation is actually like for her: in my experience it's pretty demoralising.

In the Thursday performance, one of the new Ponyboys – I don't know his name (status as Chris Goode know-it-all instantly downgraded to AA) – crouches on the floor and wanks. I don't see how this begins, I catch him in my peripheral vision at the moment that he sticks a finger up his anus while the other hand continues to pump. I've seen this before, on another concrete floor, in Jonny's bedsit: it happened during The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Belladonna, the final piece Chris and Jonny made together as the collaboration Action one19, I can't remember what Chris was doing but Jonny was wanking and it took him a really long time to come. My thought at the time was: my god, so much work. So much energy and effort required for a little spurt of sperm. I have the same thought watching the Ponyboy do it. The work you're putting into this. The work.

On Saturday night it doesn't happen and I wonder if I dreamed it.

8: Spectre
I'm fascinated by how much Griffyn and Paul's bodies are like that of my son Ben's. Ben is seven, wiry, bones protruding at shoulders and knees; he eats well but that's his physique, lean and taut. When he was a smaller child it terrified me how easily I could snap him; now he's almost too heavy to carry what awes me is his capacity for strength. Apparently little boys experience a surge of testosterone at just Ben's age: it makes them suddenly interested in fighting (check), wrestling (check), waving sticks around like swords (check), all things he didn't do much before now. I look at Griffyn and Paul's bodies and wonder how I would feel if Ben walked into the room, his tiny, fragile, powerful body naked and shining alongside theirs. If I would give permission for that. What I would be giving permission to. How that permission might be condemned or understood.

There's a bit of text towards the end of FCKSYSTEMS, co-written by Simon Stephens and teenager Stan Smith and performed by Stan (fully clothed) that, if I'm honest, repulses me with its aggression. I feel like I do when Ben is shouting at me because that's how he's learned to communicate from me and his dad: the last thing I need is an entitled little white boy telling me how superior he is. I have no idea if this is actually what that text is saying because in all honesty I don't hear it, not clearly, because the tone of it is white noise.

There is a huge conversation to be had about how boys become men. I have a little boy in my house becoming a man, a little white boy becoming a man in a world in which the damage wreaked across centuries and continents by white men is being condemned with a vociferousness and ferocity unprecedented, and I need a huge conversation about how to help him be the best man he can possibly be. Deep down I know the key to it is teaching him how not to be a man but a human. To be able to do so, there are ways in which I need to dismantle myself.

Ben, my little Ben, standing in front of the audience, his naked body speaking without words. I can't even begin to imagine.

From an email I sent to Chris, 2.05am, Friday 3 June:
i try (but often fail) to be v v cautious about what i write abt my kids, but i became really preoccupied at one point this evening with the similarity between paul's and griffyn's bodies and ben's, they're all three of them such strength and wiry, and i really wondered what work like this would look like if at some point a child appeared in it naked. i think it's part of my very deep regret about missing the charmatz that you saw, which i'm so burningly curious about, and also part of [a conversation I've had with a male director about his] fundamental fucking fury at safeguarding that happens in british theatre and how it basically casts any man working with young people in a kind of suspicion of paedophilia role.

From the email Chris sent back, 2.52am:
You're so right about the way that the child's body is so spectrally present & so frustratingly absent from Ponyboy. … The first few times [Stan] was in the room with us he was barefoot, of his own volition, I guess because everybody else was so it must have looked to him like a protocol. When we moved to the Yard he started wearing shoes for the speech and I was really sorry about the change in the image but it felt completely impossible in the context even to refer to it. Everything immediately becomes fetishistic and kind of incendiary. In the final third of the Charmatz piece when the kids start taking off some of their own clothes, apparently of their own will, I remember my heart thumping through it, like surely we were going to get busted or something. It really does feel like the untouchable third rail. I keep thinking about Terry Gross's interview of Sally Mann on Fresh Air last year. Here:

I won't say any more in case you get to hear it, but it's such a sad, strange conversation, about exactly the questions you're raising, and in particular what connotations and permissions go along with motherhood.

9: Weaklings
So there's the holding and the falling and the wrestling, there's the posing and the dancing and the snogging and (maybe) the wanking, and then, oh my, there's the gif sequence. Over a club beat punctuated with a voice intoning “move” – Chris would be able to tell you what the track is, I can't (downgraded further to AA-) – a series of gifs projects across the back wall and each of the Ponyboys enacts the movement within it. Words flash up on the back wall, too: “move”, “incite”, “agitate” (might have made that last one up, it's certainly what it made me want to do). I have a flashback to CG&Co's production of Weaklings, a homage to and documentary about Dennis Cooper's blog of the same name, which also used gifs and movements based on them, in honour of the storytelling Cooper has been doing with them; and in particular I recall something Chris' regular collaborator and lighting designer for that show, Katharine Williams, told him: that Weaklings looked beautiful, because he had a grown-up, experienced, careful team who could make it so, but what the spirit of the work really needed was a bunch of kids ready to fuck everything up. Watching FCKSYSTMS, I see what she means.

But this isn't just about aesthetics, it's about community. Much more than Weaklings, Ponyboy Curtis are an embodiment of Cooper's blog, particularly in its heyday (at least, as that has been described to me by Chris). They are a group apart, vital and challenging and obsessive, a secret world at the heart of this one, in which there are no boundaries, no respect for money as a pre-requisite for action or happiness, and no limits to what sex can be or do. They are a 2am world of hallucination and extremity; Weaklings looked at that, Ponyboy live it.

8: Hail the new puritans
I was eight or nine when director Charles Atlas, choreographer Michael Clark and designer Leigh Bowery released Hail the New Puritan, and about 39 when I finally saw it. It does something that feels both more familiar now and absolutely still strange: it's neither dance nor documentary nor fashion show nor punk, but it's somehow the best of all these and more. It's sexy and silly and noisy and pretty; to adopt a quote from Matt Trueman on Ponyboy, it's alluring and wreckless, full of ego, mischief and dicks. I think I catch a glimpse of it amid the film clips and images projected on the back wall during FCKSYSTEMS, and sure enough it's listed in the works quoted or borrowed from in the credits at the end. (Brief note: Ponyboy audiences, what the fuck are you doing leaving before the credits play out? This isn't the cinema, it's not a boring list of dolly grips and stunt doubles. Chris is giving you the materials he's used to make the show: are you not interested in that?)

Like I say, I was small when it was released, so I have no idea how it landed in the art world, whether a culture already convulsed by punk would have batted even an eyelash at it. Online I've found a review, dated 27 February 1987, published in the LA Times, which hails it as “ambitious” before unleashing a barrage of criticism at the “whimsical” and “puerile” choreography, “derivative” performances, and a flamboyance that “leaves the subculture it wants to celebrate looking recklessly, suicidally self-indulgent”. Between the lines I'm reading: I want this to be more straight. Hail the New Puritan is resolutely not straight: it's queer and queers every cultural form it touches. That is its act of resistance.

I see Ponyboy Curtis in just those terms. But I wonder whether the theatrical climate in which Chris is working is, if not more restrictive than the one in which Clark operated, then more resistant back. I wonder how far he can really push things. I wonder what boundaries will neither soften nor crack.

On the Saturday night, Stan appeared on stage for his speech, pulled out an aerosol can and a lighter and lit a flame. From what Craig told me afterwards, no one knew he was going to do this, he just hinted he had “something up his sleeve”. That proved to be almost literal when he misjudged the angle and set his arm on fire. But the accident made the action perfect: not just belligerent but vulnerable and idealistic. Would any theatre give advance permission for an action like that to happen on stage? I doubt it. And I wonder how that deference to fear and safety is circumscribing imagination.