Wednesday, 7 September 2016

And here are my holiday snaps*

*title a wave hello to Selina Thompson, who sent me an email at exactly the moment I needed a voice from home brimming gossip and love and a knowledge of my other self

It turns out that a full-scale theatre detox – an entire month of seeing next to nothing – is simultaneously healthy prep for the annual Edinburgh fringe binge and a major mistake: within 24 hours of seeing work again my brain was fizzing from the excess of stimulation and I couldn't talk only gabble delirium. The thing that stood next to nothing was Hadestown, a show I've wanted to see for a good five years, ever since I interviewed Anais Mitchell and added her to my pantheon of living-by-their-own-truth role-model women. For the not yet obsessed: Mitchell is a folk singer who created a wonky, sawdust-strewn rewrite of Orpheus and Eurydice to be performed as a community opera with her neighbours in semi-rural Vermont; later she released the songs as an album featuring Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) (be still my heart); and now she's worked with the Team's director, Rachel Chavkin, to transform it into an off-Broadway musical. I love the Hadestown album to distraction. I paid $99 to see the production at the New York Theater Workshop, more than I've spent on a single piece of theatre in years. I went girded for disappointment. But oh. OH.

In an ideal world I'd have seen this with Vernon singing, or at the very least Taylor Mac, who joined Chavkin for R&D work on the show. But it didn't matter that this isn't an ideal world, because Hadestown is a thing of such perfection that it transcends its performers: lyrically, musically, but also narratively and politically. I say this with authority, having witnessed Martin Carthy sing the role of Hades for a gig performance at Union Chapel apparently drunk, missing his cues and forgetting the words. And anyway, Chavkin's performers were pretty much phenomenal. Plus, Mitchell herself worked with Chavkin (and dramaturg Ken Cerniglia) on the additional material, and her composer collaborator Michael Chorney is a vital presence in the theatre band, so hyper-sensitivity to stage change had its balms.

The bare bones of the story are this: Hadestown opens with pragmatic Eurydice grilling her poet-musician boyfriend about how exactly they might survive if they got married. He spins her a golden yarn about nature providing, as though they were hunter-gatherers in a time of Eden; but the fact is, they live in (Depression-era) America, where “times are hard and getting harder all the time”. When she hears the lonesome whistle of the underground train to Hadestown blow, she's lethally tempted: its tycoon despot offers work, money, warmth and security in place of harsh precarity. Orpheus, recognising that she's lost her soul (and, it's implied, her body) to capitalist exploitation, attempts to save her – but Hades, altogether too cognisant of the weakness of humans, inevitably thwarts them.

That's the skeleton: what makes Hadestown exquisite are the feathers and jewels with which Mitchell, Chorney and now Chavkin adorn it. In some ways that's the wrong metaphor, as attested by Chavkin's rough-hewn aesthetic: working with designer Rachel Huack, she stripped the theatre back to a wooden floor, installed a homestead amphitheatre of mismatched wooden chairs (a smart nod to the pioneers and Puritans of America's past, and its constitutional commitment to rugged individualism), and set the action in an open circle overshadowed by the gnarled branches of a single, wintry tree. The sparseness brightened the gleam of Mitchell's peripheral characters: bold and swaggering Persephone (exquisitely played by TEAM regular Amber Grey, crackling as she twisted her body into jagged origami); the glittering chorus of Fates, watchful, teasing, never judgemental; and Hermes, gossamer on record but in Chris Sullivan's performance stomping and robust, a railroad man with a touch of Charon in his crepuscular gaze. Like Chorney's orchestration, a tapestry of American sounds weaving jazz, country and more, Michael Krass's costumes criss-crossed the decades: 1950s bobby sox and dirndl for Eurydice, a 1930s embroidered slip for Persephone, patchwork silks and leathers for the Fates. Everything on stage felt thrown together yet intimately cohesive, simple in a way that belied its complexity.

For Orpheus, love is simple, and so is life; he's a sentimental romantic, but he's also, as Hermes so tenderly puts it, an artist who “sees the world as it could be, not how it is”. Mitchell and Chavkin are unsparing in puncturing that romanticism while committing absolutely to its promise: Hadestown really is hell, overheated, overlit, over-policed and over-provided, and while Mitchell had plenty of gated communities to draw on when she conceived the notion of a workforce committed to constructing the wall that separates its own wealth from its fear of the poverty and jealous need beyond, that imagery has all the more bite with Trump's Mexico manifesto (and, on our side, the appalling Calais action) poisoning the air. Any hint of a middle-class or left-wing sneer at the “stupid” working classes (the criticism levied as much at Brexit voters as Trump enthusiasts) who unthinkingly follow-the-leader is quashed by Mitchell's clear differentiation between people and structures. People are moulded by the context that contains them: Hades himself is built by the system he builds, his humanity and happiness compromised by it. In Eurydice's shoes, the Fates demand, what might we all do the same? When Orpheus looks back, Mitchell and Chavkin open the possibility that it's not an innate emotional weakness at fault but some trick of structural oppression that ensures even the most strenuous of opponents will ultimately be crushed. This is what makes Hadestown emotionally devastating: not the fact that Orpheus loses Eurydice, as the myth declares he must, but the deeper loss of the collective human soul to capitalist inequality, from which – no matter how hard we might try to stride into a different future – there seems to be no escape.

But there is. Orpheus is still singing, and dreaming of a better future. We know this, because Mitchell wrote Hadestown.

Laura Veirs shares the left-wing politics of Anais Mitchell, and her earnestness of expression, too; but whereas Mitchell's solo work is more straightforwardly me-and-my-guitar folk, Veirs' collaborations with producer Tucker Martine pack the musical references of Hadestown into erudite pop songs. It took me a while to click with her, but since 2010's July Flame I've been a devoted fan. We played Warp and Weft as we drove across Indiana, and it reminded me of listening to PJ Harvey's Let England Shake while driving through the Cotswolds, those placid rolling hills suddenly muddied and seething with the ghosts of dead soldiers, insurrectionists, men. Indiana is basically flat; I'd guess it's desolate in winter, but it's verdant in early August, field after field of thriving maize. Veirs' circumspect songs made that landscape churn with alarm at what America has become and what it's built on:

How can it be so cold out here in America
Everybody is packing heat in America
Training their barrels on the city streets in America

Every bad man finds his peace in America
In America

No shootings were reported while we were in the country, but I did read of the Black Lives Matter action shutting down the M4 back home and glowed with admiration and a sense of possibility. Ever since Theresa May glided into her premiership that's what I've wanted to do: just sit in the middle of roads, bringing cities to a standstill. Instead I sat in our hired car for hour upon hour, contemplating the spray contraption that looms over so many field, maybe distributing a fine mist of water but more likely showers of pesticide, noting how many billboards advertise litigation lawyers, wondering how houses that don't have garden fences around them can suggest so much hostility towards the unknown stranger. Laura Veirs sang and her words ploughed the land, churning to the surface its lack of care.

Later we played Anna Meredith's Varmints and I thought again that it's my favourite album released so far this year.

I'm honestly embarrassed by how much I love the National. Looking at them in the film of A Lot of Sorrow, installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was overwhelmed again by shame, that these middle-aged white guys, with their suits and wedding rings and thinning hair, are so capable of turning me to putty. And yes, I'm ashamed of my superficiality in judging them by appearance: me, a middle-aged white woman, with my own wedding ring, constantly reminded by the queer and feminist art with which I align myself of how essentially straight I am; ashamed, too, of the craven lingering adolescent desire to be different, other, strange. My embarrassment at loving the National is a nugget of a more general shame I feel just being me.

But maybe the National are embarrassed in a similar way; or rather, my feeling is that its members, especially Aaron and Bryce Dessner, use this middle-of-the-road rock behemoth to finance all the different, other, strange art they want to make. (Thus Orpheus entered Hadestown, proud even in his submission.) A Lot of Sorrow is a fascinating intersection of those two impulses: a continuous performance of the song Sorrow, from their 2010 album High Violet, over and over, non-stop, for six hours, in a white-walled room in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I saw at most 16 minutes of it on film, and not even consecutively, but it was enough to get my pulse racing at the intricacy of detail: the jitter of exhausted fingers, the crack of voice, the decision to switch to playing guitar with a violin bow, the pause to gather resources, the slipped note, the brow that furrows with effort, the snatched snacks for sustenance. Their bodies are entirely at the mercy of the song: it plays over them, through them, and so plays through me; for days after its words spill out of me unbidden, no matter that they're sunk in cliche.

Those few stolen minutes in front of it are every night I've huddled in the dark listening to the same song(s) over and over: listening to Cat Power so obsessively that the person I was staying with told me I'd ruined What Would the Community Think? for them forever, listening to Godspeed as though they could realign the stars, listening to Interpol's NYC, a song that haunted me this holiday (“got to be some more change in my life”), listening to that National album I was reviewing for the Guardian stupefied by how out of sorts it left me. On all those nights I was alone, but watching A Lot of Sorrow in Chicago I was with my son – my funny little boy who likes his music gentle and melancholy, has a penchant for Debussy, and was as mesmerised by the film as me. I twined my arms around him, grateful for this lifebuoy of love.

The friend we stayed with in Chicago is a fascinating combination of socially Democrat (that's how she votes, too) but economically Republican (a committed believer in success rewarding hard work, adherent to the American Dream). She's white Scottish, her husband black Chicagoan, and their political engagement – both donated to the Bernie Sanders campaign – gifted plenty of lively conversation in their house about disappointment in Obama's leadership, lack of belief in Sanders' revolutionary agenda, and the dire prospects of the upcoming election. The thing that took me by surprise was their admission that they get at least half of their political news from watching the plethora of satirical programmes that screen in the US. It's not a healthy state of affairs, they said, because what's needed is cultural balance, a space in which people can actually speak across the political divide, rather than hurling snark at each other. But the thing is, I can't remember the last time I engaged with any news-related programming on the BBC without wanting to punch people for allowing so much inanity so much airspace. If we're going to ape American programming, can we at least import the acute with the vapid.

We spent an evening watching John Oliver programmes, and one in particular landed a horrible punch. It's a programme about drones, in which Oliver shows a clip of a young teenager from Pakistan, talking about the sky: grey days are good, he says, because that's when his head feels clear of anxiety. Blue skies, by contrast, fill him with fear. And people wonder how Muslim children might become “radicalised”.

Peter McMaster's blog was my holiday firefly, bringing flashes of natural wonder to a fortnight of preying architecture and obsidious concrete. I harbour a deep and quiet love for Peter and his work, and the attempt at a different way of living, thinking, making art and opening up to the world represented by Gold Pieces: Outer Hebrides reminds me how much and why. The work takes the form of a two-week cycle tour, marking in gold leaf upon land's edge a line to which, at a conservative estimate, it's anticipated water will rise as human-accelerated climate change affects sea levels. The gold is ostentatious but the action anything but: it's a humble attempt to reckon with environmental destruction, a lament for what might soon not be, a movement towards a different sense of value. It's art made for no money or purpose other than to notice, to acknowledge, to witness – not what's before us, but what's unseen.

There's a beautiful thing Peggy Phelan says in her forward to the Tim Etchells book Certain Fragments, identifying “the essential nature of witnessing itself: to continue a conversation that without your intervention would cease”. Gold Pieces: Outer Hebrides continues a conversation between human and land, one Peter still dominates (painting rock with gold is “an unsympathetic defacing”), but in a way that's diametric to the domination humans generally exert, plundering earth's resources without care. His journey coincided exactly with mine to the US, a piquant synchronicity: while he cycled, camped, measured and gilded, I visited the Natural History museum in Manhattan, Prospect Park zoo and the aquarium in Chicago, and in each place fretted at the ethics of human-animal relations, the cruelty required to give children a glimpse of wild nature, and the extent to which cities diminish and even eliminate opportunity for children to commune with a greater outdoors.

Peter's blog posts continue another conversation: with the unseen audience. When Phelan writes of the witness, she's thinking of course of the audience, and I value that sentence so much for its suggestiveness regarding criticism or writing about theatre. To me it presents a set of open questions: is it enough to be a silent witness? Is documentation essential if the conversation is to continue? Is it possible to engage in the conversation as critic/critical writer/whatever without overbearing? I don't know. But there was a warmth for me in reading Peter's posts and recognising in the scenario an echo of when I first met him, at Battersea Arts Centre, when he was thinking similarly but in a different context about masculinity, privilege, and solitude, environment and the spiritual possibilities of a closer connection to nature. There is a longevity and depth to our conversation, but also a scarcity, privately as well as professionally: I rarely see him; I've seen much more of his work than I've written about. And so how might it register if I stopped being witness, if the conversation ceased? Would it matter?

It was such an unexpected gift, a few days after I got home from Chicago, to bump into Peter at Forest Fringe, where he was performing another variation on the Gold Piece strand, a one-on-one called CommitmentCards. The work is exquisite in its shape and generosity: Peter begins by offering tea, then asks what you're yet to say no to. Gently he guides the conversation to an invitation to commit to something, with him as witness. Work like this galvanises but also disquiets me: it's so open that it inspires openness, and how much must the artist then absorb of human anxiety or insecurity as participants unburden? Megan Vaughan, writing about her interaction with Commitment Cards, describes Peter as “a reassuring therapist”, and Peter himself says in his blog post about the evening that he's “not afraid of the idea of art-work being therapeutic” or “to embrace the sensation of therapeutic experience”. I worry because he doesn't have a therapist's training or safety mechanisms; that these things aren't required for one human to give their ear to another is a useful and inspiring thing to remember. As Peter says in the blog: “I was moved by witnessing someone open up for the benefit of both of us, for the creation of a bigger idea of self-expression and compassionate communication being allowed to exist in the world.”

I've participated in one other Gold Piece with Peter and cherish it precisely for its compassionate communication, achieved without speaking at all. Based on the Japanese practice of kintsugi, the root Gold Piece invites its participant to mend a piece of broken china, gluing the pieces together then painting the cracks with gold dust. As I did so, I felt Peter was silently forgiving me for every stupid or thoughtless or mistaken thing I'd ever done. Kintsugi is a philosophy as much as a practical art: it values the imperfect, honours its scars. There's another thing I want to write about it (especially since my brilliant friend Anna spotted a reference to kintsugi in Beyonce's Lemonade) so I'll shut up now, but this strand of Peter's work feels so important to have in the world – not just in spite of its minimal reach, but because of it.

The Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is so bizarre: a small-town museum in everything but pretensions, closer in spirit to those ramshackle rooms devoted to dolls (Dunster), shells (Margate) or fishing paraphernalia (Hastings) than the more grandiose cultural houses that its architecture evokes. I loved it, the more so for being ridiculous. Highlights: the Elvis display, which I wanted to bring home to my mum; the drawings by Jimi Hendrix; the absurd attempt to claim Cleveland as the epicentre of the pop universe; the fact that the area devoted to the history of hip-hop is only slightly bigger than the area devoted to outfits worn by Beyonce. Best of all are the listening booths that people – locals, I'm guessing – have claimed for karaoke, each one packed with friends singing at the tops of their voices, not caring for the lack of closed doors. I didn't buy any memorabilia because I'm going to make it instead: my own version of a dress worn by Wanda Jackson, with a panel of gold sequins down the front and red fringing down the sides, something to fill a dance floor with flames.

There are things generally known, at least by the people I surround myself with. It's known, for instance, that humans are humans, regardless of what country they're from or what colour skin they have. It's known that humans have affected and accelerated ecological devastation. It's known that story is vital to human culture and existence. Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind repeats these known things, but places them in a depth of field (as he puts it, scanning “millennia rather than centuries”) in ways that are surprising and transformative. I'm prone to hyperbole I know, nothing I say can be trusted, but I'm only two-fifths through and already I'm changed by it. Or rather, he's brought to light and forced me to acknowledge a whole lot of weak thinking in my brain and challenged it in necessary ways.

It's an incredibly depressing book, because page after page asserts the same argument: that it's actually impossible to change the culture in which we live, because the story of it is too tenacious, too embedded. In no way is he saying that we are by nature neo-liberal acolytes of the free market, but that all societies coalesce through story, and the stories that dominate now have been in place for thousands of years. This bit in particular is devastating: he's talking about how difficult it would be to shift inter-subjective imagined orders (the examples he gives are “the dollar, human rights and the United States of America”) because to do so would require “simultaneously chang[ing] the consciousness of billions of people”, and to do that would require creating “an alternative imagined order” even more powerful than the one you're attempting to change. And so, he concludes: “There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.” The book is full of statements like that and every one stings.

But. BUT. He's affirmed my belief in feminism as the story with the most potential to create change. His chapter on the patriarchal structure is brilliant, because it comes right out and says that its “universality and stability” is bewildering. He presents all the key arguments for masculine supremacy and steadfastly exposes them as arrant nonsense. There's a glorious butter-wouldn't-melt tone to this writing: a swallowed amusement that no one will admit that the real reason men dominate over women is that, in general, they are selfish shitbags who chanced to seize an opportunity for power and never let go. The feminist story struggles because it is disparate and scratchy with argument and riddled with its own damaging hierarchies, but there is hope in its tenacity, its adaptability, its ongoing refusals, its compassionate communication (such a useful phrase). It is the story in which I have most faith, and which gives me the most strength.

He's also made me feel better about the idea of living in a bubble. If the imagined order at the macro scale is so impossible to change, why not collectively imagine a new order on a micro scale and live within that instead? At some level that's the ultimate in white middle-class privilege, of course – the same line of argument that builds walls and gated communities – but I don't, I hope, mean it that way. My alternative world is populated by makers of story, theatre, art, music and more, by feminists and activists, by people who don't retreat from the bigger world but comment on it, rewrite it, work against it. Each fuelling the other, giving each other purpose and sustenance, and making life in that bigger system possible.

We went back, me and my funny little son, to A Lot of Sorrow, because – and, dozy as I am, I had to go to Chicago to find this out – the film was also screening in London over the summer, as part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition at the Barbican. And then I had to go back a third time, because there were chunks of the exhibition deemed unsuitable for children (translation: he missed out on seeing a hilarious film of a dog running round and round a swimming pool as a woman swam lengths because it was next to a video of a couple having sex), and because he was tired by the time we reached the Visitors room and two minutes in there was 58 not enough.

I realised something, watching A Lot of Sorrow that third time, laughing as Kjartansson brought out burgers to the band, ribs crushing and convulsing every time Matt Berninger rumbled the opening line. There's a National lyric that's key to the whole exhibition, but it's not from Sorrow, it's from Pink Rabbits, an absolute humdinger in a song full of them:

You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park
You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart

A television version of a person with a broken heart. Just writing it gives me shivers.

Kjartansson is fascinated by the interface of performance and personal, the effects of external culture on internal emotions, the ways in which people make stories which inform human behaviour, the Mobius strip of mirror and mirrored. In the accompanying text for the multi-video installation Scenes From Western Culture, he talks about the pervasiveness of certain atmospheres, certain settings and moods, wanting to jolt the brain into seeing them and maybe even resisting them. By using repetition, he invites audiences to look harder, give better attention: to seek out the difference between the television version and the person.

But it's the broken-hearted bit he's particularly incisive with. My son had zero tolerance for God, in which Kjartansson dresses up as a Rat Pack crooner and, accompanied by a cruise-liner swing band in a pink-satin room, warbles the words “sorrow conquers happiness” on repeat, and to be honest I didn't bother returning: the minute I saw felt off-kilter compared with the fine balancing act of A Lot of Sorrow and in particular The Visitors. There's such subtlety to the permutations of melancholy in both of those: the performers wallow in it, luxuriate in it, step away from it so easily that one person I know complained on twitter that he “smelt the faint whiff of vacuous”, saw only “irony on loop”; but there's also a fine and solicitous appreciation of how intense and real and consuming melancholy can be, how weird and jolting it is to feel like shit and yet sometimes be capable of laughing or noticing beauty, how excruciating it is to know somewhere deep down that the melancholy that is so overwhelming might also be something you're performing (a question Selina – waving hello again – asks of herself in Salt). Nothing about A Lot of Sorrow, or The Visitors, or Take Me Here by the Dishwasher felt ironic to me: there's a grain of playfulness in them, even in Dishwaster a dash of cheerful stupidity (in this one, Kjartansson has isolated three minutes of a soft-focus Mills & Boon movie romance, in which a woman in a pink maribou dressing gown has a tryst in the kitchen with a man in plumber's uniform, and projects it on a wall while young male musicians loll about the partially decorated gallery space strumming at guitars and droning the dialogue from the film on repeat). But the questions these works ask about how we see or feel or differentiate between the real, the imagined, the fantasised, the performed, and how our ability to do so is affected or conditioned by the art, film, theatre, music, TV and books we consume, are serious and rigorous and give Kjartansson's work its vitality.

Before I saw Search Party's Growing Old With You at Forest Fringe, Andy Field texted a warning: “your heart is going to BREAK”. I braced so strenuously that for most of it I was steel. But then Pete lay down on a table and Jodie began to cover his body in salt. And that was it. Snap.

Search Party are just about my favourite theatre-makers in Britain (inevitably that's a long list in which everyone is joint first). I love them for Save Me, the semaphore show, in which they stand at opposite ends of a public thoroughfare and communicate messages given by passers-by to each other; with patience and grace and infinite charm it makes visible the fragility of communication and the ways in which people speak their truest selves to strangers. I especially love them for My Son & Heir, the parenting show, in which they speak so honestly of the strains and anxieties and competitiveness and compromises and horrible absurdities of bringing up children that I wept almost non-stop through it. And now I love them for Growing Old With You, the all-of-our-lives show that they're going to make new versions of every 10 years. At Forest they performed the first instalment, and because it's already a few years old, it feels like an act of nostalgia as much as documentation and assessment. The scene in which Jodie covers Pete in salt felt, in the moment of watching, overwhelming in its romance and longing: for youth to be preserved, for the intensity and joy of falling in love and getting married to never be lost. But on reflection, its complexity is unfurling. I see the futility of that attempt to control time, and also the limitation of it: where's the room for growth or change? I see Pete lying still on the table like a corpse: that time is already gone, fleeting as the life of a butterfly, and nothing can ever bring it back. Above all, I see that while you can't argue with perfect being, maybe you can't live a full life either.

There's a great paragraph in a Guardian interview with Jenny Offill from last year in which she talks about her admiration for visual artists who “take an everyday thing and somehow make it, by accumulation, into something much bigger”, and in particular her delight that British reviewers of the book understood its humour, “all these moments which are really meant to be kind of a joke about what it’s like to be depressed”, which tells me she's probably a big fan of Kjartansson. I'm finding her novel Dept. of Speculation painful to read, because it's like she's poking needles into my brain. I had to put it down for two days after this line: “Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.” The paragraph in which the narrator, a woman of “crooked heart”, describes her happiest time as “a time you were all alone, in the country, with no one wanting a thing from you, not even love” made me choke. I feel exposed by it, the more so because I so desperately wish I were smart and brave and gifted enough to have written it and it's lacerating to reminded page after page that I'm not.

The thing is, I never make room for other kinds of writing in my life, because I'm always writing about what other people make. Holding up a mirror to the mirror, an endless loop, shoring fragments of feeling and experience against my ruins.

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