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.