Wednesday, 14 September 2016

on a road to nowhere (come on inside)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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