Friday, 11 November 2016

into the shadows

It's two months now since I saw Belarus Free Theatre's Burning Doors, months foggy with autumnal despair, through which my mantra has been a single line of its text: You have nothing to lose but your fear. The show itself did make me afraid: afraid for the people whose stories it told, artist-activists who have experienced prison, who remain imprisoned, because they had the temerity to challenge their government. Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina is one of the performers, and that flesh-and-blood presence makes more tangible the distant bodies of Petr Pavlensky, whose actions of protest have included sewing his lips together and nailing his scrotum to the pavement in front of Lenin's mausoleum, and Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov, deemed a terrorist by the Russian government and punished accordingly. The whole show strives to convey the physical stress experienced by those bodies; performers are pummelled, pulled into the air with rope, dragged back by cords, pushed under water, and those are just the images most immediate in my memory. I found the reviews on the negative side of the spectrum bizarre, because they all complained of a lack of articulacy in the choreography of the show, as though only text could communicate fury, disgust, or the attempt at human degradation practised by the Russian authorities; as though muscle and skin lack a language of their own.

By contrast it was the text segments of Burning Doors I struggled with most – no, wait, that's more emphatic than I mean it to be. Political fervour aside, the show was thrilling for its theatrical fluidity, shifting in approach and style to present each scene in the form most suited to its content. (Come to think of it, that fluidity, or flexibility, or responsiveness, is integral to its politics, too.) Sometimes the form was satirical, sometimes poetical; sometimes it was an on-stage interview, and sometimes it was wordless. The more abstract, the more lyrical, the more it asked of the imagination, the more it held me in thrall. The pause in which the audience could interview Maria was difficult, lacking in nuance, her English too mechanical to attempt more than the most cursory answers to thoughtful questions. And the satirical material was my least favourite, not least because the characters created to deliver it, two wealthy Russians with plenty of influence and almost no conscience, were so objectionable that I just wanted them out of the room. One of my favourite twitter acquaintances remarked after seeing the show that “British theatreland [was] schooled” by it, and I can see why: it's rare to see such multifaceted presentation from a British company, such disregard for stylistic cohesiveness. Burning Doors' variety made it singular and its singularity made it emphatic: do something, do anything, it cried from its core, but don't just sit there doing nothing. Take what you feel in this room and use it to fight for other humans.

A big question this year for me has been: what does it mean to fight? I fear I've already reached the point of diminishing repetition on this blog, circling the same arguments like a dog chasing its tail, but I keep working through the question because my answer is always changing. A few months ago, writing about Melanie Wilson's Opera for the Unknown Woman, I was on the side of “protest, collaborative reasoning and the occupation of space”, framing these as peaceable activities. Whereas Andrew Haydon, in his review, dismissed “peaceful protests” in favour of “armed revolution”, expressing this in part through an idiosyncratically pedantic (I say that with admiration!) unravelling of the title of Audre Lorde's essay The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House: “Look at anything that's been simply screwed together,” he remarked, “and you'll probably agree that using a screwdriver isn't the worst suggestion for taking it down. And so it may prove to be with neoliberalism and armed resistance.” His words have stuck with me, melding with the line from Burning Doors, “you have nothing to lose but your fear”, and with all the encouraging remarks of the female activists who tell their stories in the book Here We Stand, women who stood in front of buses, scaled buildings and lay in the path of bulldozers to force power to shift its position. All these things are a challenge and an incitement and entirely contrary to my generally acquiescent personality. I struggle to complain if my food is lukewarm at a restaurant: pit me against an irate (or frightened) policeman and absolutely I will crumble.

Two days after seeing Burning Doors, I started another book telling stories of activism, Canongate's updated imprint of Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark. I've needed these books so much this year: needed the reminders of continuum, of ongoing and accumulative struggle; needed the belligerence; needed the optimism. Solnit, too, is on the side of “protest, collaborative reasoning and the occupation of space” – but with a clear understanding that power, from whatever point on the political spectrum, will surge to crush these things, and so you have to be ready to fight, even if that's not what you're actively seeking. As I started writing this, I was reading a little of the Dakota access pipeline protests, of police in riot gear spraying mace and firing rubber bullets at anyone who had the temerity to stand up against the devastation of Sioux land and the shared environment being wreaked by an energy company working with the acquiescence of local and state government. “What was once the left is now so full of anomalies,” Solnit writes, that the old distinctions of left and right are worthless: better to “give up the dividing by which we conquer ourselves”, and work to create “coalitions … based on what wildly different groups have in common and differences can be set aside”.

Early in the book, Solnit shapes a suggestive metaphor, imagining “the world as a theatre”:
The acts of the powerful and the official occupy centre stage. The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on that stage. The limelights there are so bright that they blind you to the shadowy spaces around you, make it hard to meet the gaze of the other people in the seats, to see the way out of the audience, into the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work. A lot of the fate of the world is decided onstage, in the limelight, and the actors there will tell you that all of it is, that there is no other place.
Maybe it's impossible to work in relation to theatre and not take this literally. On the one hand I think of my work with Dialogue, and particularly of Theatre Club, where the invitation is very much for the audience to turn their gaze upon each other, to see the work through perspectives otherwise kept in the shadows, peripheral to artist intention or professional-critical response. On the other, I think back to what my friend Simon Bowes wrote me after reading John Berger's essay The Theatre of Indifference, his anxiety that “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”. So much of my time is given to working out what theatre to see, booking tickets, travelling to and from the venue, writing about the work afterwards. Where else might that energy be directed?

The same passage about theatre from Hope in the Dark was quoted in a show I saw at the end of October, Accidental Collective's Here's Hoping: a show that keeps the lights on, mostly, and invites its audience not only to see each other but to imagine what might be in their minds. It's a show without solutions, only suggestions and questions: what are you hoping for? How similar or different might that be to what the others in this room are hoping for? And, in the undertow, how can we work with that, with each other? Although simple in construction, it's also a show of emotional complexity, dimming with Pablo Pakula's admissions of dejection that drifts into depression, seeking possibility in the stories of people who cope in the most extreme of circumstances, Daisy Orton describing a teenage boy in bomb-wrecked Aleppo building a model of his reconstructed city, or the orchestra in Leningrad who defied Hitler's siege to perform the premiere of Shostakovich's revitalising Seventh Symphony. In between, they ask the audience to picture hope – our group offered blue skies, woodland walks, mostly natural images – and for each response they placed a seed on the floor, promising in their programme note: “The seeds used in the show will be planted out in the world – as little surprises and defiant reminders.” What a gorgeous action. It reminded me of a children's book I read last month, Home by Jeannie Baker (originally published as Belonging): 20 or so illustrations looking out of the same window, the scene in each shifting incrementally from a distressed and obdurate cityscape, empty shops and graffiti on cracked concrete and cranes in the far distance, to a softer and more prosperous town, but one in which nature is paramount, those cracks in the concrete planted with trees and flowers, the scene growing more green than grey, until the final picture is one of lush verdancy, neighbourliness and play. Meanwhile the objects on the windowsill declare the passing of time: the occupier of the room grows from a little girl to a teenager, heads off to university, gets married, and then, in that final picture, we see her outside in the garden, holding her own swaddled baby. That's how long positive change can take.

Time preoccupies me, and the value of actions as small as planting a seed. There's a poem I know, via Andy Field, a nursery rhyme really, about a house in a street in Paris where a bird lives in a cage; the bird knocks its egg, which knocks its nest, which knocks over the cage, which tips over the table, the room, the house, and before you know it the whole of Paris has fallen down. Each action, however small, has a ripple effect, that maybe cannot be traced. And so, what are the small actions that each of us might take that could, eventually, bring the entire fucking Tory government down? Would we know our actions had contributed? Would that even matter?

I happened to read the edited highlights of Ed Vaizey's speech about left-wing bias in the arts (on which, Haydon is at his idiosyncratic which includes pedantic best, both in his response published in The Stage and, majestically, in a blog post titled The Death of the West) on the same day as seeing High Rise's Merryville at Camden People's Theatre. Merryville is pretty much the definition of what Vaizey thinks the Tory government and all who sail in her are up against, and makes very clear why massed establishment forces are doing their utmost to circumscribe and destabilise artists, whether by limiting funding (of course people making art ask for money: how else can they pay their fucking rent?) or curbing access to non-conventional art forms within the academy (see, for instance, the erosion of Dartington College's exploratory, speculative and indeterminate performance art/writing courses since it was swallowed up by Falmouth University, by more concrete and, crucially, money-spinning degrees in acting): art is, or at least can be, a space of dissent, and the likes of Vaizey want that space to be drained of sun and oxygen so all that lives there withers. So yes: Merryville is one of the most explicitly anti-Tory shows I've seen this year, and I loved it, LOVED IT, loved it so much that I want to relive it by describing it in minute detail, but also want to hold my tongue so that when it comes back – and it will, it must – I haven't spoiled all its surprises for people yet to see it.

It's set in 2020, which is already a poke in the ribs, because it's far enough away for it to be realistic that a fair amount more damage could have been inflicted on our already worn and torn society, but not so far that we couldn't do something about it, if only we get on with it quicksharp. The London it's set in is an exaggeration, but only just, of the one we live in now: most of the poor people have been evicted and rehoused in other cities (an unexpected by-product being that there's now a kicking grime scene in Norwich); supermarket food is no longer affordable; and – a step too far, this one, judging by the audience's gasps – Sadiq Khan has been caught in the war-on-terror crossfire. The MC/performers, Dominic Garfield's Dr Green Fingers and Gerel Falconer's Dustin Roads, cling to the city as their birthright and their beloved: the show takes place in the basement of Merryville, “the last 'affordable' housing block in London”, to which they've retreated to perform their grime gigs, having been slapped with a public disturbance order after getting on their soapboxes at Speaker's Corner. This show, in fact, is a grime gig, characters and narratives emerging more through rapid-fire tracks than the bits of chatter that connect them. Be still my joyful heart.

Joyful is the word for the whole show, really: for all that the London of Merryville is relentlessly grim, there is a brightness and bounce to Garfield and Falconer's performances, a buoyancy to their rapport with each other, that makes sharing a room with them a thing of laughter and pleasure. And yet, their lyrics are perspicacious enough, abrasive enough, that often what they say will provoke wincing: in my absolute favourite song, they offset a list of things going up – from rents and prices to fear and racism – with a concomitant list of things going down, whether maintenance grants or NHS provision or cultural diversity. It's brilliant because it's scathing of austerity politics and gentrification, but also because it's melodically flawless, a tune I can still hum a week after seeing the show.

So far, so strong, but the thing that makes Merryville transcenfuckingdentally exhilarating is a sudden schism between Garfield and Falconer, in which one takes arms and heads out on to the streets, while the other advocates writing, conversation, art, as the tools of a gentler revolution. As in Here's Hoping, I could hear in the flux of the text all the contradictory dialogue that otherwise pulses in my head. Like Falconer's Dustin Roads, writing is what I do, engaging with theatre is what I do, imagining another way of living and sharing those thoughts in public space is how I combat the reality of austerity Britain. Except it's not really combat, is it? It's too diffident, too feeble, too easy to ignore. I do it because I'm frightened to do anything else. Because, for all I keep writing about this, I haven't lost my fear.

Since August, I've thought often about the UK Black Lives Matter road shutdown, cherished the mental image I have of the M4 at a standstill (pretty easy to conjure up, to be honest, but so much more invigorating when it's not just humdrum traffic). It feels to me that this is the work that needs doing now: not writing, not making theatre, not waving baseball bats in people's faces either, but getting away from all our everyday motions, and joining in one protest after another after another, even if it's not a matter we “want” to protest about. The way Sisters Uncut have been joining library protests, embodying the “vital ways in which many different people work together to keep public services that benefit the majority”. The way Black Lives Matter went on to join forces with (white) environmental groups to shut down City airport, putting on the front line the bodies least vulnerable. The way Solnit describes environmental activists and ranchers bypassing their disagreements to collaborate in protecting the land they love (with the caveat that if all of those people are white and racism is among the disagreements they're bypassing, that's a problem). A constant state of shutdown, of filling streets with bodies, responding to the negatives of austerity, neoliberalism and inequality with another negative, a refusal to live any longer on those terms, a refusal to contribute to this society at all. Of course it's ridiculous, flamboyantly stupid in its idealism. But what does a double negative make if not a positive? And what is hope if not a flame of positive thinking amid the ashes of our dreams?

I wrote that paragraph sitting at a sturdy wooden table at Selina Thompson's house, while she – amazingly, with a generosity I don't deserve – cooked up mulled wine and a great dinner, told me about the book she's writing, and stitched a quilt of argument with me, patches of our reading lined up side by side, creating clash but also pattern. I love her because she challenges me: in response to some of the above, for instance, she imperceptibly raised her eyebrows and pointed out the importance of challenging friends and family and working closely with local community and existent grassroots groups; exposing, that is, the impulse towards grand performative gesture and replacing it with slow, patient, real actions. This acuity means I leave every exchange with her kicking myself, but also grateful, immensely grateful, for her patience in the face of my white-middle-class-ness, and the ways in which she enables me to sift my own language for wheat and chaff. Some of the chaff in Tuesday's conversation was the evident laxity with which I use the word “we”; some more in the inevitability with which I will air the melancholy of the privileged, the thin end of the wedge that thickened this week into Trump's imminent presidency. I write this with that vote cast, iron, inexorable. And once again, I'm torn: what is the point of all this theatre, all this writing, in the face of that violence? In making these products, might we, or “we”, be complicit in the inaction, the silence, the distraction that enforce Trump and white supremacy? And if we are, what are we going to do about it? Carry on? Or really change?

I have no ending for this, because I'm still afraid, and while the world keeps turning so does the internal debate, moving in eddies, unceasing. I'm aware, too, of attempting to hog a moment on stage, of limelight. And so to the shadows, to the others working there: to these words of Harry Giles, another set of complications, another way of unknowing and unbeing.

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