Saturday, 23 July 2016

in search of triumphant escape

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.]

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